DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Shall We Shout Into the Cosmos?

Organized by David Brin, Ph.D.

Should the endeavor called SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) augment and transform itself into something new? Should "Active SETI" depart from the traditional passive program -- patiently listening and sifting for signs of advanced civilizations -- and switch over to doing something new: Deliberately and vigorously transmitting into space, in order to draw attention our way?

The Crux: How SETI has veered in new directions.
The Issue At Hand: Should the debate be expanded?
A Closed Discussion Group: how to participate in this debate.
Background Materials: A growing library of essays and papers outlining positions in this complex subject.

THE CRUX: Plans are apparently afoot for certain groups, equipped with large radio telescopes, to engage in "Active SETI." This translates into a program aimed at broadcasting messages into the cosmos on humanity's behalf, with the intent of persistently and dramatically (by many orders of magnitude) increasing the observable brightness of Earth civilization. Some prefer METI -- or "Message to ETI" -- to mean the same thing.

This endeavor -- a dramatic departure from "passive SETI" or listening for signals from space -- is apparently planned by several groups worldwide. Take a few examples of this trend:

  • Internet classified ad site "Craig's List" has taken bids, offering to "beam your garage sale to ET." Yes, it was a stunt, but one pursued in earnest by the Deep Space Communications Network, a private organization near the Kennedy Space Center. DSCN has announced intention to market this kind of activity vigorously, beaming commercial, private and personal postings "trillions of miles into space, using redundant klystron transmitters and a satellite dish."

  • Another group offering to blare personal and commercial messages skyward is "Cosmic Connexion." They apparently intend to begin transmitting via an antenna at the French space agency: a precedent within the EU.

  • Far more serious is a Russian group of radio astronomers, led by Dr. Alexander Zaitsev. They claim to have already beamed forth a handful of interstellar messages, including pictorial and musical transmissions, from the Evpatoria radio telescope in the Ukraine. But these so far have been minor test blips. Their more ambitious intent is to create an eager and persistent program, vastly expanding Earth's visibility signature. Another group in Brazil claims to have sent forth some narrow casts.

  • Of greatest importance, the SETI Institute, based in California -- the field's acknowledged lead institution and operator of a dedicated SETI instrument, the Paul Allen Array -- has officially declared that it has no intention of engaging in "Active Seti." However, its leadership has expressed friendly support for these endeavors and -- more importantly -- has acted vigorously to block even mild efforts, through the International Academy of Astronautics, to ask that these groups meet international bodies first, presenting their plans and discussing repercussions, before acting unilaterally to make the Earth vastly more visible across the cosmos.

[image from LizaPhoenix.com]

THE ISSUE AT HAND: Should we blithely accept that Active Seti (or some variant) will take place simply as a peremptory act, on individual initiative or whim?

Not everyone considers this activity to be automatically benign. (See some links below.) Concerns range from worries about potential existential danger all the way to a desire for consensus about what should be said in such messages. Others simply hope for some exchange of views about the topic, before it begins. Is it unreasonable to ask that such a dramatic step be openly deliberated, addressing all concerns before the international scientific community?

So far, a small amount of discussion has taken place within a very narrow group of a dozen or so insiders, unbeknownst not only to the public, but to peers and even those who are funding the radio telescopes involved. Now -- frustrated by an incredibly insular attitude within this community, a few of us have decided to widen the circle a bit.

[image from "Those Eyes"]

A CLOSED DISCUSSION GROUP has been established, by invitation to high-level people in a number of fields, considerably more diverse than the narrow group who were involved till now. If you were invited, it is necessary to assertively join the group. It is opt-in, so that busy people will not be unduly bothered.

(If you were not invited, but feel qualified and have something to contribute, write to me at david.brin@gmail.com. Otherwise, you are welcome to form a separate group to consider these "cosmic" issues! Let the ideas percolate openly. It is time for humanity to get involved.)

We expect discussion to be interesting, on topics such as:

  • If broadcasting is such a good idea, why aren't other civilizations doing it?

  • If we attract hostile attention, what could "they" do to us, worst-case?

  • If broadcasting is potentially a bad idea, how can it be delayed long enough for further discussion?

  • What factors might be driving this change of emphasis, away from the long-term program of patient (and quiet) listening? Is the Seti community becoming frustrated?

  • Should this discussion be broadened to include mass media?

[image from Professional Communications blog]

BACKGROUND MATERIALS: We are compiling a growing library of essays and papers outlining positions in this complex subject.

  1. An editorial in the prestigious journal NATURE joined the call for wide-open and eclectic discussions of this issue. The Seti League (not to be confused with the Seti Institute) has kindly posted a brief pdf version.

  2. A more detailed description of the problem: "Should SETI Transmit?"

  3. "A Declaration Of Principles Concerning Activities Following The Detection Of Extraterrestrial Intelligence" -- also called the "First SETI Protocol" -- accepted by most of the radio astronomers, research groups and observatories capable of engaging in SETI research, and (sometimes informally) by many of their funders and supervising agencies. The First Protocol might be seen as an archetype of consensual and collegial self-policing by a scientific community, agreeing in advance to sensible standards of behavior, in case the Seti dream of contact ever does come true.

  4. The disputed "Second SETI Protocol dealing with Transmissions from Planet Earth."

  5. An appraisal of the commonly held assumption that alien technological species will automatically be altruistic.

  6. A discussion by a former senior US diplomat of some reasons to be concerned about prematurely attracting attention to our world.

  7. A collection of quotations and comments about the wisdom of broadcasting to the stars, written by great scientists, including many of the founders of SETI.

  8. The SETI League is the international grass-roots organization dedicated to privatizing the electromagnetic Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.

  9. The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the search for signs of ETIS in the radio spectrum. The "main" SETI outfit, they operate the Paul Allen Array.

  10. Invitation to ETI shows the view of one set of enthusiasts, who believe that ETIS may be closer than most think.

  11. THE GREAT SILENCE. A 1983 review article, now called a "classic"-- concerning the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life, including the possibility that such life might ever have visited Earth.