NASA’s New “Fermi Guide” to Advanced Alien Life


Alien Technology


This past December 2018 an exciting event took place: NASA researcher Silvano Colombano, who works for the agency’s Ames Research Center in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, published a white paper that Enrico Fermi would have given a rave review titled “New Assumptions to Guide SETI Research.” In short, the document was a fresh look at the Fermi Paradox that attempts to answer the eternal human question: Are we alone? Where is evidence of another advanced civilization?

Colombano challenged the set of assumptions that currently guide SETI research and made recommendations for a new, more “aggressive” approach. Recent discoveries, he observed, from the Kepler Mission data have identified planetary system as old as 10.4 Gyr (a Gyr equal to one billion years) Kepler-10 and 11.2 Gyr, Kepler-444. Considering that the age of our solar system is about 4.5 Gyr, earth like planets could exist that are 6 billion years older than Earths.

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Technological development in our civilization started only about 10,000 years ago and has seen the rise of scientific methodologies only in the past 500 years, means that we can surmise that we might have a real problem in predicting technological evolution even for the next thousand years, let alone that of a civilization a million or more years older.

The core ideas of Columbano’s new SETI guide:

1. Interstellar travel is impossible or highly unlikely. Clearly distance and energy are insurmountable problems for the technologies we have available and our present understanding of physics. Still we are able to fathom possibilities of achieving much greater understanding and control of matter-energy and space-time. Even if the speed of light continues to be an unbreakable barrier, over spans of thousands of years civilizations could probably make interstellar journeys, depending on what assumptions we make about the forms of life that they will comprise (see below).

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2. Radio waves continue to be the major form of communication for thousands or millions of years. I suspect, he writes, that even if the radio medium continues to be used, the packing of information inside it would be so much greater that we would not be able to recognize any “structure” and would not be able to distinguish it from noise, unless a civilization would in fact decide to use it as a beacon. Even with that intention, that form of communication might quickly have become obsolete, and they might choose other types of beacons for civilizations that are closer in development to theirs. Whether and how civilizations would choose to communicate could also be a fertile field of technosociological study.

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3. Intelligent civilizations would be based on carbon life Given the fairly common presence of elements that might be involved in the origin of life throughout the universe, it is a reasonable assumption that life “as we know it” was at least a common starting point, but our form of life and intelligence, may just be a tiny first step in a continuing evolution that may well produce forms of intelligence that are far superior to ours and no longer based on carbon “machinery”. After a mere 50 years of computer evolution we are already talking about “super-intelligence” and we are quickly becoming symbiotic with computer power.

I don’t want to address here the issue of the survival of our species, he writes, or its future “role” within a continuing evolution of millions of years. He simply wants to point out the fact that the intelligence we might find and that might choose to find us (if it hasn’t already) might not be at all be produced by carbon based organisms like us. How might that change the above assumptions about interstellar travel? Our typical life-spans would no longer be a limitation (although even these could be dealt with multi-generational missions or suspended animation), and the size of the “explorer” might be that of an extremely tiny super-intelligent entity. And how might this change our assumptions about openness or desire to communicate with other civilizations?

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4. We have not been, and are not being… visited. It seems to me, Columbano observes,  that SETI has ignored (at least officially) the potential relevance of UFO phenomena for three reasons: 1) The assumption of extremely low likelihood of interstellar travel, 2) The very high likelihood of hoaxes, mistaken perceptions or even psychotic events in UFO phenomena, and 3) The general avoidance of the subject by the scientific community.

I think, he continued, the approach the scientific community could take, instead, is very similar to what SETI has done so far: find the signal in the noise. In the very large amount of “noise” in UFO reporting there may be “signals” however small, that indicate some phenomena that cannot be explained or denied. If we adopt a new set of assumptions about what forms of higher intelligence and technology we might find, some of those phenomena might fit specific hypotheses, and we could start some serious inquiry.

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Columbano points to new opportunities: The recent Kepler discoveries of Earth-like planets offer the opportunity to focus our attention on detecting signs of life and technology in specific planetary systems, but I feel we need to become more flexible in our assumptions. The reason is that, while it is still reasonable and conservative to assume that life is most likely to have originated in conditions similar to ours, the vast time differences in potential evolutions render the likelihood of “matching” technologies very slim.

In light of the challenges described above he proposes a more “aggressive” approach to future SETI exploration, in the following directions:

1. Engage physicists in what might be called “speculative physics”, still grounded in our most solid theories but with some willingness to stretch possibilities as to the nature of space-time and energy.

2. Engage technologists in futuristic exploration of how technology might evolve, especially with Artificial Intelligence, “Evolvable Robotic Systems” and symbiosis of biology with machines.

3. Engage sociologists in speculation about what kinds of societies we might expect from the above developments, and whether and how they might choose to communicate.

4. Consider the UFO phenomenon worthy of study in the context of a system with very low signal to noise ratio, but nevertheless with the possibility of challenging some of our assumptions and pointing to new possibilities for communication and discovery.

The Daily Galaxy via NASA 

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