Mar 13, 2010

Listening to the universe

A novel that had an important influence on me is An XT called Stanley. The key plot idea in An XT called Stanley is that a radio signal from another world is received and it allows people to make an artificial intelligence. Would it really be possible to understand a message from another world that explained how to make a computer that could think?

A similar story was A for Andromeda where the alien-inspired computer was able to make an artificial human that was a puppet for the alien-inspired computer that wanted to a) take over the world or b) save humanity from destroying itself...dunno which... guess this confusion is what is known as "mixed reviews"...I never read the novel or saw the TV show. In either case, I like the idea of a kind of boot-strapping of technologies that would essentially allow an alien mind to reach Earth by way of a radio signal. Could such an alien-designed/human-built computer easily create a synthetic human and use it as a kind of alien puppet?

When Carl Sagan wrote his novel Contact he used the idea of a radio telescope receiving instructions for how to build a complex machine. In that case, the machine was a device that allowed travel between the stars. It would sure simplify interstellar travel if you could just send out coded messages and have assorted intelligent beings pick up the signal and then build nodes for the galactic transport system.

But how would even a devilishly clever alien make sure that a tribe of primates on a distant world could understand the instructions for how to build an advanced hunk of technology? Imagine sending instructions for how to make an iPhone back to the year 1850. In the Movie Contact, the alien message is at first indecipherable but then it is realized that the data files must be assembled in a three dimensional pattern....and....magically all becomes clear.

A similar "first contact" story is Robert J. Sawyer's Factoring Humanity (I've never read it). If the aliens are so smart, why should they be satisfied to send us instructions for anything as mundane as an intelligent machine or a worm-hole generator? According to Kirkus Reviews, Sawyer's signal from ET has instructions that explain to humans how to slip into the "fourth dimension" where it is possible to magically "plug into humanity's collective unconscious, or overmind".

Arthur Clarke pointed out that advanced technologies can seem like magic. Maybe Hoyle's Law should be: "If received by radio telescope, any advanced technology can be magically understood".

If there were an extraterrestrial intelligence that wanted to establish communication with planets like Earth, would they be satisfied to simply send out radio messages? In The Start of Eternity, the alien Huaoshy have been around for about a billion years by the time when their spaceships finally reach Earth. The story is set in Isaac Asimov's fictional Foundation Universe where faster-than-light space travel is possible. The Huaoshy have an ancient legend about the time before they learned how to travel between the stars. In those ancient times, they sent messages into outer space with instructions for how to build high-tech devices.

In the case of "The Saga of Uvadekoto", the alien message does not arrive by anything as mundane as radio waves. There is an entire branch of physics (sedronic physics) that is unknown to our Earthly science. I felt the need to move beyond the standard model in order to make room for Asimov's plot elements: time travel, hyperspace jump drives and telepathy. As depicted in "The Saga of Uvadekoto", the recipients of the "sedronic signal" from the Huaoshy are not quite as primitive as we are. It is fun to imagine that, as proud as we are of our technology, we might even now be bathed in signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. We might lack the technology that is required to receive those messages. It might be the Huaoshy Law: beings that still only know about electromagnetism and not sedronics are unable to decode our messages anyhow, so we will only transmit sedronic signals." So here we sit, listening to the universe and puzzling over the silence of the radio bands.


  1. These educational/instructional messages make sense only when the gap between the technology required to receive them (A) and the technology they reveal (B) is narrow enough to guarantee (gradual) understanding of B in possession of A, but wide enough for B to carry great value compared to A.

    In case of your iPhone example, the gap is obviously too big. In 1850 they didn't even have transistors, which is a huge technology leap.

    In the movie "Back to the future 3", Doc Brown sends a blueprint of an integrated circuit back from 1985 to 1955, where he re-builds it using parts available that time. In 1955 we did have transistors, and the physical size of the circuit was not relevant to the story. (In reality, this might have worked, perhaps some problems with power consumption, response times and heat dissipation.)

    When the two conditions mentioned above are met, then and only then will be the message worth sending. If the creators of a "sedronic" message send their instructions accordingly, its contents would most likely be of no use to us 21th century earthlings anyway.

  2. Back to the Future was fun, but as I recall, working from maybe 1885 to 1895 "Doc" was able to magically turn a steam locomotive into a flying time machine. Oh, wins over believability. Similarly, as long as there is a fun "first contact" story to be had I'm not going to turn away. Maybe in the "real world" such a "contact by radio message" scenario would play out over the course of centuries (or thousands of years) during which the "primitive" recipient of a message might slowly came to understand it. In order to create good drama, the sci fi author probably has license to telescope the time dimension and allow a protagonist like Ellie Arroway to both discover the message from ET and benefit from any alien technology described in the message.

  3. "An XT Named Stanley" is one of the best Sci Fi books I have ever read. Convincing development of the AI character, as well as the nerdy scientist who arrives at the space colony to find both the stupendous scientific discovery as well as love. Biting and accurate descriptions of the politicians and scientific administrators who descend to capitalize on the AI and bend the story to their PR purposes. Honestly a great book