Is a More Advanced Civilization an Oxymoron?

Avi Loeb
4 min readNov 4


The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists shifts the Doomsday Clock to 90 seconds to midnight at a news conference in January 2023. From left, Siegfried Hecker, Daniel Holz, Sharon Squassoni, Mary Robinson and Elbegdorj Tsakhia (Photo credit: Patrick Semansky).

As a kid, I dreamed of sinking into a bathtub full of dark chocolate and consuming it. The dream lost its appeal when I realized that the experience would be harmful for my health. Indeed, what attracts us may harm us. Flies are attracted to lamps and find their death there. Our civilization is addicted to advances in technology, but Henry Thoreau raised the alarm: “Our inventions … distract our attention from serious things” and “Be wary of technology; it is often merely an improved means to an unimproved end.”

Thoreau was not aware of the existential risks from nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist organizations or artificial intelligence (AI) in the hands of toxic governments, but he knew how to extrapolate to where humanity is heading. The more we advance technologically, the closer we get to the risk of self-extinction because any irresponsible activity carries greater consequences. With the aid of advanced technologies, our future conflicts may not be zero-sum games over resources or territories, but instead could end as a negative-sum game where everyone loses.

If our doomsday clock is close to midnight, then we should not find neighbors that are far more advanced than we are. Is a more advanced civilization an oxymoron? Does the fact that we never reached our neighbors’ doorsteps mean that they would never reach our doorstep? This question was on my mind this Halloween as neighbors in customes were knocking on the front door of my home.

Since cosmic time is measured in billions of years, our existence could end as an insignificant blip in the history of the Universe. What will be the cosmic monuments we leave behind? At best, interstellar police officers might notice our space trash in the form of Voyager 1 & 2, Pioneer 10 & 11 and New Horizons once these spacecraft leave the Oort cloud into interstellar space in about ten thousand years. Within a billion years, Earth will become a lifeless desert as a result of the brightening of the Sun. When I visited my childhood home a few years ago, I realized that it represented not only a place but also a time. Astronauts will feel the same if they return to Earth in a billion years.

As tragic as a self-inflicted catastrophe might appear to us from up-close, it may not be of great significance in the cosmic scheme of things. While we focus our attention on our tiny planet, massive stars explode into their environments, supermassive black holes remove gas from their host galaxies in huge outflows, and the entire cosmos is diluted into nothingness as a result of its accelerated expansion. Surely there are bigger catastrophes all around us. How we misbehave on Earth might be of little interest to extraterrestrial astronomers, especially those closer to the center of the Milky-Way center. Out there, eruptions by the supermassive black hole SgrA* pose an existential risk, as I showed in a paper with my former postdoc John Forbes. Given what we know about the Universe, our current sense of self-importance should be diluted with a dose of realism.

To learn more about our likely technological future, we could take a census of other technological civilizations on exoplanets. Alternatively, we can check our solar system for any packages sent by a cosmic neighbor with words of wisdom on how to survive in the long-term future.

So far, we have not found ancient computer terminals in archaeological or geological surveys of Earth. Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAP) could potentially reveal technological packages that were manufactured by civilizations which preceded us. The first observatory of the Galileo Project is currently collecting all-sky data continuously in search of UAP. Our Galileo research team is using machine learning software to check if there is anything in the sky beyond familiar terrestrial objects like birds, balloons, drones or airplanes. We will report if we find anything.

Another approach would be to check whether intelligence emerged on Mars twice as fast as it did on Earth. In such a case, there might be prehistoric paintings on the walls of Martian lava tubes, where they were preserved from the harsh conditions on the surface after Mars lost its atmosphere and liquid water reservoirs two billion years ago.

The detection of techno-signatures can constrain the most unknown parameter L in the Drake equation, which is the average lifetime of a communicating civilization. For our civilization L is about a century so far, but given the looming existential threats in our future — it is unclear whether L would increase by much more than a factor of two.

Sometimes life is a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it is better to stay an optimist. Here’s hoping that before our doomsday clock reaches midnight — we will be inspired by news about a long-lasting civilization as our role model.


Credit: Chris Michel

Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.



Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Baird Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial” and "Interstellar".