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.
Link to documentary on SETI and alien intelligence.