Watch the skies

The BBC World Service has an excellent documentary that visits the SETI Institute, a project that is scanning for skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the Drake equation, a mathematical formula that attempts to estimate the number of alien civilisations that exist in the universe.

On one hand, it’s quite charming (admittedly, in a slightly patronising way) to think of scientists earnestly looking for aliens from outer space, but on the other, it’s an interesting psychological problem that involves a guess about what other forms of intelligence might be like.

As artificial intelligence researchers will tell you, we tend to increasingly define intelligence to mean exactly and only what humans can do. When machines manage to equal a human cognitive ability, by playing chess for example, we just move the goal posts and suggest ‘real intelligence’ is whatever the computer can’t do yet – something called the AI effect.

The fact that the SETI project is looking for other ‘civilisations’ itself relies on assumptions that civilisation is a common result of intelligence. This raises the question of whether we would recognise alien intelligence if we met it. And perhaps, more importantly, would it recognise it in us?

The BBC documentary is an engaging look at the motivations and assumptions behind the SETI project as well as how they are implemented in the day-to-day running of the search.

However, because the BBC has yet to fully come to grips with intraterrestrial intelligence, the programme stream and podcast will disappear in a few weeks, so be quick.

Link to documentary on SETI and alien intelligence.

6 thoughts on “Watch the skies”

  1. It’s always puzzled me how we think we’ll recognise alien intelligence if we meet it. We’re not too quick to recognise intelligence in the other animals we share the planet with.

    Most of the techniques for communicating with aliens seem to rely on them having similar thought processes to ours, plus in many cases similar senses. I don’t know how the evidence stacks up to show the probability of this.

  2. I was fortunate enough to decide I should fall asleep to Radio 4 last night. Glad I did, because this program was brilliant, particularly the insight into why they bother looking at all. Yes, it may be almost futile, but it is noble and appropriate to say in the future that we were not ignorant of our neighbours.

  3. Nice little piece. Bit unfair to lay the blame on the BBC for the restrictions on iPlayer though, even if it was just a light gag.

    They’d love to be able to release everything for as long as is feasible. It’s all the various rights holders and the unions that represent them that need to be convinced that this is a good deal for them.

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