The Search for Extraterrestrials May Inspire an Uplifting Future for Humanity
Our current scientific knowledge implies that advanced technological civilizations on Earth-like exoplanets might have produced artificial life or baby universes in their laboratories if their star formed billions of years before the Sun. As such, the most accomplished technological cultures in the Milky Way galaxy could harness awe-inspiring capabilities, on par with concepts of God in traditional religions.
Seeking evidence for an extraterrestrial civilization as a representation of a superhuman entity, could be the uplifting inspirational driver of humanity forward.
In contrast to eyewitness testimonies in traditional religions, the quest for reproducible data acquired by well-calibrated and controlled technological sensors, follows the agnostic pursuit of scientific evidence as a guide. The ritual that it cultivates involves the scientific method of gathering experimental data.
The rationale behind this search is that humanity launched 5 interstellar probes over the past 5 decades, and could launch billions of them within a century by allocating its military budgets to space exploration. The methodology being advocated is no different from the search for specific dark matter particles, which belong to the mainstream of scientific research and were supported in past decades by billions of dollars. Surprisingly, the search for analogs of ourselves is not funded even at a percent of that level. This must change given our new perspective on the existence of Earth-analogs.
The mission of finding technological footprints of a sentient partner from interstellar space inspires a quest for new knowledge by the humble belief that we might not be unique or privileged. This is the most politically-correct notion for humanity to adopt in its aspirations for interstellar space. It would be arrogant of us to think otherwise, given that there are billions of Earth-mass planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone and many of them could have become habitable for life-as-we-know-it billions of years before Earth. That this is common sense is apparent from a recent poll indicating that two thirds of Americans believe in extraterrestrial intelligence, more than the fraction that believes in God.
It would be prudent to expect a technological gap between what we possess and any extraterrestrial gadget that drifted near Earth from interstellar space. Our experience would resemble the encounter of a tribe of cave dwellers with GPT-4, trained on their language. Such an encounter would inspire awe, qualitatively similar to eyewitness testimonies on religious experiences.
Given that our technological advances evolve exponentially and that most stars formed billions of years before the Sun, our first encounter with a functioning interstellar probe near Earth will involve a gadget with technological features far more advanced than we possess because the senders reached us before we reached them. Think of the anticipated gap between GPT-4 and GPT-100. This encounter might appear miraculous to us, akin to the way the burning bush which was never consumed appeared to Moses in the biblical story.
The Galileo Project that I lead, searches for objects near Earth that may represent extraterrestrial technologies. The project’s research team released last week the first series of eight scientific papers, describing its first functioning observatory at Harvard University. This novel observatory surveys the entire sky at all times in the infrared, optical, radio and audio. Its data stream is analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI) software with machine-learning algorithms trained on human-made or natural terrestrial objects in order to figure out if there is anything unfamiliar out there.
If Moses had access to the infrared sensors of the Galileo Project, he could have inferred the effective temperature, distance and power output of the burning bush. The Galileo Project data could have advised Moses whether the burning bush is miraculous or a natural phenomenon. In the former case, he could have explored the possibility that the object may have been manufactured by an extraterrestrial technological civilization. Altogether, Moses would have documented facts that could have substantiated his sense of awe and informed his belief system better than his unaided eyewitness experience. The evidence could have been published in peer reviewed journals and would have attracted a big audience in today’s culture, given that more Americans believe in extraterrestrial intelligence than in God.
Experimental evidence holds the potential of fostering a unifying impact on society by bringing people together, in the spirit of religious cultures which blossomed before modern science emerged. This provides an uplifting twist to the conflict-inspired vision of President Ronald Reagan in his 1987 address to the United Nations: “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” As explained in a previous essay, my perspective is that an encounter with a more advanced civilization would only be to our benefit in engaging us with a future variant on Alan Turing’s imitation game of us reproducing their AI advances.
Altogether, the search for the products of advanced scientists in our cosmic neighborhood could serve as an inspiring force that will shape the future of humanity. My forthcoming book, Interstellar, to be published on August 29, 2023, describes the many benefits of that uplifting future.
This summer, I will lead a Galileo Project expedition to the Pacific Ocean in search for relics from the first known interstellar object, IM1, which appeared tougher than all 272 meteors in NASA’s CNEOS catalog. The retrieved IM1 relics will be studied by state-of-the-art instruments at Harvard University, with the goal of finding out whether IM1’s composition was natural or technological in origin.
Stay tuned: the latter possibility could usher the inspiring future that awaits us, where deep-rooted beliefs in an awe-inspiring superhuman entity will be substantiated by empirical evidence of the type that Moses would have benefitted from when leading his people to the promised land.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.