Hans Moravec - A Caveat for SETI (from Mind children) SETI, an acronym for the Search for Extra

-Terrestrial Intelligence, is a field of study whose potential is so intellectually exciting that it proceeds steadily despite any hard evidence that its quarry exists. At its leading edge are impressive spectrum-analyzing receivers connected to radio telescopes that can tune in and examine millions of frequency channels at the same time. Systems able to do this and also look to thousands of distinct directions at once have already been proposed, all in an effort to find a needle in a haystack—an artificial message in a universe naturally noisy in radio frequencies. But if we managed to receive and decode such a message, should we act on its instructions? The discussion of this question usually centers on the intent of the senders. They may be benign and, like the Peace Corps, be doing well by doing good. They may be traders trying to open new markets, to much the same effect, at least until it comes time to negotiate the price. They may simply be looking for pen pals. They may have dark designs on the rest of the universe and be seeking to inexpensively eliminate some of the more gullible competition. Or, their motives may be totally incomprehensible. Simply examining the message is not enough; it is not, in general, possible to deduce the effect of complicated instructions without actually carrying them out. A message with nasty intent would surely be disguised, by master deceivers, to look benign. In Fred Hoyle and John Elliot's classic novel A for Andromeda and also in Carl Sagan's Contact, an interstellar message contains plans for a mysterious machine of unknown purpose. In both books the characters decide, after some debate, to go ahead with construction despite the risks. In Contact, a major argument is that the origin of the message, the star Vega, is so close to our solar system that the senders could rapidly arrive here physically, should their intentions be malign. Building the machine would be unlikely to make us any worse off in the long run. If the message were benign, however, it represents an opportunity not to be missed. This chapter's notion of an information parasite suggests greater caution, should SETI ever detect an artificial message. A rogue message from no one in particular to no one in particular (perhaps a corruption of some ancient legitimate interstellar telegram) could survive and thrive like a virus, using technological civilizations as hosts. It might be as simple as, "Now that you have received and decoded me, broadcast me

in at least ten thousand directions with ten million watts of power. Or else." It would be a cosmic chain letter and a cosmic joke, except to the message itself which, like any living creature, would be making a living by doing what it does. Since we cannot be sure the "or else" is not backed by real authors with a peculiar sense of right and wrong, we may decide to play safe and pass the message on as it requests. Perhaps we did not hear it very well; maybe it said a hundred million watts; maybe it mutated. Now envisage a universe populated by millions of such messages, evolving and competing for scarce, gullible civilizations. he survivability of such a message could be enhanced if it carried real information. Perhaps it would contain blueprints for a machine that promises to benefit its hosts. It would be only fair if part of the machine's action was to rebroadcast copies of the message itself, or to demand new information from its hosts to be added to the message to make it more attractive to future recipients. Like bees carrying pollen for the sake of flowers in return for nectar for themselves, the technological host civilizations would have a symbiotic relationship with such messages, which might be criss-crossing the galaxy trading in useful ideas. But the analogy suggests darker possibilities. Some carnivorous plants attract bees with nectar, only to trap them. The message may promise a benefit, but when the machine is built it may show no self restraint and fiendishly co-opt all of its host's resources in its message sending, leaving behind a dead husk of a civilization. It is not too hard to imagine how such a virulent form of a free-living message might gradually evolve from more benign forms. A "reproduction effort parameter" in the message (too subtle for the victims to catch and alter) may get garbled in transmission, with the higher settings resulting in more aggressive and successful variants. The Fermi paradox is an observation by the famous physicist Enrico Fermi, who created the first controlled atomic chain reaction under the auspices of the Manhattan Project, that if technological civilizations have even a slight probability of evolving, their presence should be visible throughout the universe. Our own history and prospects suggest that we will soon blossom into the universe ourselves, leaving it highly altered in our wake. In less than a million years we may have colonized the galaxy. Given the great age of the universe, a few civilizations that arose before us should have had plenty of time to alter many galaxies. The sky should be filled with the cosmic equivalent of

roaring traffic and flashing neon signs. But instead we perceive a great silence. There are several possible explanations. Evolutionary biologists make a plausible, though not watertight, argument which notes that at each stage of our evolution there were an immense number of evolutionary lines which did not head toward high technology, as compared with the single one that did. By this argument, we are the product of a sequence of very improbable accidents, a series unlikely to have been repeated in its entirety anywhere else. We may be the first and only technological civilization in the universe. But there are other explanations for the great silence. At the height of the cold war, a leading one was that high technology leads rapidly to self-destruction by nuclear holocaust or worse. But in every single case? Another possibility is that advanced civilizations inevitably evolve into forms that leave the physical universe untouched—perhaps they transmute into an invisible form or escape to somewhere more interesting. I discuss such a possibility in the next chapter. A frightening explanation is that the universe is prowled by stealthy wolves that prey on fledgling technological races. The only civilizations that survive long would be ones that avoid detection by staying very quiet. But wouldn't the wolves be more technically advanced than their prey, and if so what could they gain from their raids? Our autonomousmessage idea suggests an odd answer. The wolves may be simply helpless bits of data that, in the absence of civilizations, can only lie dormant in multimillion-year trips between galaxies or even inscribed on rocks. Only when a newly evolved, country bumpkin of a technological civilization stumbles and naively acts on one does its eons-old sophistication and ruthlessness, honed over the bodies of countless past victims, become apparent. Then it engineers a reproductive orgy that kills its host and propagates astronomical numbers of copies of itself into the universe, each capable only of waiting patiently for another victim to arise. It is a strategy already familiar to us on a small scale, for it is used by the viruses that plague biological organisms.