I like Elon Musk, I really do. I’m a fan of Solar City, Tesla, SpaceX and even the Hyperloop. However, Musk seems to have a new hobby which I am not a big fan of; giving people new things to be afraid of, almost out of thin air.
Even without Musk’s help people are really good at being afraid of things. A short list, in recent years includes gay people, people of color and Muslims. It includes diseases, wild animals (see ‘Shark Week’), science and technology (for example), crime (even though crime is generally down across North America) and terrorist attacks (even among people in quiet rural communities).
In December Elon Musk tried to add artificial intelligence (AI) to the list and now it’s aliens - the kind from space, illegal immigrants are already covered.
Since 1960s the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been listening to the skies, hoping to catch a hint of alien communication from somewhere. Now, some of the researchers there want to take the next step and start sending messages to likely “Earth-like” planets as they’re discovered.
Musk, along with several others, signed a letter warning of the dangers of contacting aliens.
“METI programs carry unknown and potentially enormous implications and consequences. We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment. We strongly encourage vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity. We also note the following: ETI’s reaction to a message from Earth cannot presently be known. We know nothing of ETI’s intentions and capabilities, and it is impossible to predict whether ETI will be benign or hostile,” reads the letter in part.
Again, after more than 50 years there is no sign yet that there are any aliens to talk to so this is purely a hypothetical question. However, even hypothetically, there is no reason for fear.
First of all, there is no reason at all for aliens to be hostile. People who are afraid of E.T. like to point to Earth's history and what tends to happen when a more advanced civilization meets a less advanced one. However, those examples aren't helpful in this case.
When Europeans enslaved Africa it was because they wanted cheap labor. When Europeans stole land from aboriginal people it was because they wanted land and resources but what would have happened if the Europeans hadn't wanted anything?
When we create a hypothetical alien civilization, that has the capacity to answer our message or perhaps even visit so they can be 'benign or hostile' we have to imagine that those aliens are a little more advanced than we are.
According to the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, over the next 20 years 47% of current American jobs will be automated. That means that robots will provide all of the cheap labor that anyone ever needs and they will do it without being paid, without needing time off, or meals, or benefits. With a little maintenance from time to time they'll work 24/7/365 without complaint. If we assume that our hypothetical aliens are as advanced as we are, they don't need slave labor.
If they are capable of space travel, they also don't need resources. We know that there are millions and millions of planets out there, most of them appear to be uninhabited and all of them are made of resources. According to NASA we could have all of the resources we could ever want or need without leaving our solar system. The estimated value of the resources in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is $100 billion for each and every one of the seven billion people currently living on Earth ($700,000,000,000,000,000,000 if you don't want to do the math). That number doesn't take into account any of the other planets, or their moons, or the much larger field of objects in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud (which dwarf the tiny asteroid belt).
Currently there are asteroid mining companies which haven't launched a ship yet but are making plans. It's worth noting that I don't think any of those plans involve sending human workers to do the mining.
How would those interactions between human cultures have gone if the more advanced culture didn't need anything that the other culture had? If Europeans had no need of cheap labor what would have happened with Africa? If Europeans hadn't needed land or resources what would have happened with aboriginal people?
I suppose that another important question is, would Europeans have gone exploring at all? Maybe that's why we haven't heard from E.T.
So, the question becomes: What would be the motive of our hypothetical aliens for being hostile?
As I see it their only reason for coming here would be pure curiosity, the same thing that motivates SETI researchers to send messages into space.
I suppose that it's possible that Musk is right and an advanced alien culture might travel light years across space and blow us up out of pure malice but that doesn't sound like a particularly advanced culture to me.
If they had said, we have to be careful visiting Europa because there could be big, nasty sharks in the water they might have a point. I have to believe however that any culture advanced enough to travel the stars in a reasonable amount of time is also advanced enough not to blow up other worlds just because they can.
We also have to ask, if we're that cynical about alien life, why are we exploring the stars at all? If we think that's the kind of culture we're likely to find we should stop exploring altogether, at least outside of our solar system.
The letter also says "we feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment."
Maybe working on international consensus should be Musk's new hobby if he needs one that badly. Off the top of my head I can't think of a single issue on which there is international consensus. There is no consensus at the moment on climate change, human rights, trade, drugs, endangered species, armed conflict, the arms trade, poverty etc., etc.
So Musk and the other signatories to the letter should get busy thinking of a way to get international consensus - on this or anything really, but there is absolutely no reason to take the fears expressed in the letter seriously at all.
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