Are we alone in the universe?
I doubt it, but that’s not what I want to consider.
Just for the sake of this post, let’s imagine that extra-terrestrials have visited the Earth. In fact, let’s consider that they might show up here repeatedly, and have some interest in humans as a species. In which case, why would that be? What piques their curiosity?
Watching this discussion between the entirely respectable Lex Fridman, an AI researcher at MIT, and the equally not-cranky Harvard physicist Avi Loeb, who offers compelling arguments that an artificial alien object may recently have passed through our solar system, I came across a commonly held view: that humans would be, if placed in a galactic context, unremarkable and insignificant. Walk past an ant and you’re not going to pay it much attention, goes that line of thinking. And so if alien lifeforms were to observe us, they wouldn’t be impressed with what they found, considering how much more evolutionarily and technologically advanced they must be.
We might be a curiosity, at best. Hopefully the Greys are benevolent and won’t destroy or exploit us.
But then I got to thinking, what if the opposite is true?
This is a scenario I imagined:
Advanced intelligence is common, or at least not rare, across the galaxy, and in other galaxies too. But the norm, the absolute standard, includes two things:
Firstly, that the intelligence required to become an advanced level civilization is coupled, always, with peaceful, collective behaviour. Species that travel between stars and interact with one another are pacifist and enlightened. They don’t avoid conflict, they simply don’t have the capacity for it. Aggression was evolved out of them millennia ago, or was never there in the first place.
We’re dealing with ego-less entities, to whom the presence of self-regard and competition is… alien. And we’re the weird ones, on a cosmic scale, for being possessed by ego and self. Those features might be incomprehensible to extra-terrestrials. After all, how could one possibly comprehend ego having had no experience, perception or even description of it?
Secondly, civilizational progress is glacially slow. But, by contrast, humans are progressing extremely rapidly. Looking around at how our technologies have moved forward, we of course have nothing at all to compare with. But perhaps what we have achieved in the past thousand years took a hundred thousand years on other planets. And now we’re speeding up. What we have achieved in the past fifty years could have taken ten thousand years elsewhere.
Our unique, earthly characteristics–ego, selfishness, aggression, competition, hierarchy, greed–have allowed us to hyper-accelerate, and have juiced up our technological, scientific and engineering abilities.
Imagine that the ETs, representing several civilizations and many, many planets, have never come across societies like that. Their harmonious, flawlessly functioning galactic network looks at our planet, and what it sees is outside its own experiences and frames of reference:
A violent, heavily armed, chaotic species, acting–to them–illogically, recklessly, unpredictably, destructively, but at the same time making unprecedentedly rapid scientific progress.
And let’s consider that they recognise we’re on the edge–relatively, maybe within a few centuries–of a profound tipping point. Perhaps it comes through our growing understanding of computers, information storage and transfer, and artificial intelligence, but when we hit that point of advancement there’s no going back, and everything changes: we’ll have the capacity to leave the earth, to seek out their planets, and to manipulate the fabric of the universe.
How would they feel about that? Being a human here on planet Earth, my guess is that they’d be threatened and concerned, but that assumes that threatened and concerned are within their existential vocabulary. Maybe for them, such emotions are ancient residue, substance long lost in evolutionary history, and so their reaction, upon discovering our nature, is simply to observe and record.
Either way, in this scenario, it wouldn’t be us that should consider the possibility of alien hostility, but rather, the reverse.