The SETI Institute: A nonprofit organization in Mountain View, CA

[Article by Michael Widman]

Seeking Intelligence

What is intelligence? Can it be found in space or fabricated on earth? Who should we ask? On Tuesday June 24, 1997, yours truly was questioning his own mental quality, beset by remorse having cast aside job security bringing wife and kids to the United States from Sweden for the sake of embarking a start-up venture. How smart was that? While I pondered the wisdom in pursuing a path with such uncertain prospects, weak from weeks of worries, I explored the premises around my new employer’s office at Landings Drive in Mountain View, California. That’s when I stumbled upon the entrance to the SETI Institute. I recalled possibly from the pages of a book, Contact, that SETI stands for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, and I had landed near its quarters. My spirit rose because here were clearly people who had climbed really far out on a limb.

Unbeknownst to me, half a dozen scientists were pondering a much bigger question: Was the signal they were watching with keen eyes on their computer screens behind that door at that very moment of extraterrestrial origin? I had no idea ET might be checking in behind that door. Not yet.

SETI Senior Astronomer, Doctor in astrophysics Seth Shostak, was there to watch the suspect signal. Much later he opens his book, Confessions of an Alien Hunter, by telling that he thought that day “might be the most important day in the history of Homo Sapiens.” All this excitement passed me by because I did not knock the door. It would have been fun. Talk about a road not taken.

Now I intended to repair that oversight.

And so, when fourteen years later an opportunity emerges to visit the SETI Institute and interview Seth Shostak for Synchronized Chaos Magazine, I decide to take a few days break from sitting home alone in my and my wife’s Santa Clara apartment writing a novel about ghosts and instead research the current search for extraterrestrial intelligence popping my head out the door as a seal that pops its head out of the polar ice to breathe.

Michael Widman may be reached at widmanm5@comcast.net.

On Tuesday August 23, 2011, at nine in the morning, I finally met with Seth Shostak in his office at the SETI Institute on Bernardo Avenue in Mountain View, California. We spoke for one hour about our desire to discover, the so far futile search for an alien radio signal, childhood interests, science fiction in movies, thinking machines, astronomy, Bok globules, and the risk-taking propensity of Americans.

The desire to discover can energize people to bring about technology that has a chance to change things forever, Seth Shostak says that Paul Allen, Microsoft’s cofounder, once expressed his motivation to donate to the SETI Institute. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has through grants totaling $25 million funded a radio telescope, a so called large number of small dishes array, which the SETI Institute and the University of California at Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Lab in a joint effort are building and operating at Hat Creek not far from Mount Lassen in Northern California. This radio telescope, called the Allen Telescope Array, can produce science not achievable with any other instrument, Dr. Shostak writes on the SETI Institute’s web-site. This example of technology that has a chance to change things forever does cutting-edge astronomical research at the same time as it searches for signals of intelligent, extraterrestrial origin.

So far, however, SETI has failed to find a signal that could be attributed to an alien transmitter.

“I consider not finding a signal a failure. Some say we shouldn’t use the word ‘fail,’ but I think we should do that, for we haven’t found any signal,” Dr. Shostak says.

Seth Shostak’s Curriculum Vitae, accessible on seti.org, lists B.A. physics, Princeton University, where he was awarded recognition as a University Scholar in 1961, and Ph.D. astrophysics, California Institute of Technology. What stoked his infatuation with astronomy?

“It seems childhood pastimes that arise between ages eight and eleven often grow into adult pursuits. I developed an interest in astronomy at age ten because my dad brought me to museums and planetariums, and our visits fascinated me. I read science fiction, and I loved to watch science fiction films. In fact, I made my own films when I was eleven, and I build a telescope. Many kids did those things, but my involvement became lasting,” Seth Shostak says.

A contraption, art or some tool of education, decorates a chest of drawers in Seth Shostak’s office. The device, raised on a cylindrical fundament looks a bit like an orrery, an apparatus for representing with movable balls the positions, motions, and phases of the bodies of the solar system, except that in my opinion it has too many bristles, arches, wires, and rods, but not enough spheres. I guess it is art.

Photographs cover the walls, even where there are bookshelves.

“I am very interested in photography,” Seth Shostak says sitting in front of me wearing a blue shirt. Blond with graying hair and friendly attentive eyes, he warms me up with telling stories.

“I advice Hollywood filmmakers already when they work at the script stage in matters of engineering and science. For example, I suggested science aspects on the film The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Seth Shostak says.

A visit on IMDb clears up that this is the movie with a giant one-eyed robot. It lets lose a swarm of microscopic robots that consume humanity and her constructions in a wave of destruction, that halts only in the last moment, and this because an alien sacrifices itself to save humanity finding it worth the pain of doing so, for humans, it concludes, are able to improve their behavior, evidence of which is presented in the shape of a mother’s self sacrifice.

This brings to mind a concept from Set Shostak’s book: Thinking machines.

“The aliens—at least, any we hear—will be machines. Can we expect any machines…to develop the complexity of interaction we find in the world of living things? The answer to this should be a yes,” Seth Shostak writes in Confessions of an Alien Hunter.

Why wait for aliens? Shouldn’t we build and send a spaceship ourselves, maybe not now, but later?

“Read my Op-Ed about it,” Set Shostak says.

I did. In an article, “Boldly Going Nowhere,” that appeared in the New York Times on April 13, 2009, Set Shostak suggests we should “fling data-collecting, robotic craft to the stars.” He argues that “robot probes don’t require life support systems, don’t get sick or claustrophobic and don’t insist on round-trip tickets.” But how could it be done? “A plausible solution would be to re-organize NASA’s development of nuclear-powered rockets, with the intention of building a craft able to send clusters of micro-bots into deep space at velocities of, say, one-tenth light speed,” Seth Shostak writes. There we have it, a suggestion of what to do next.

This is not a place to attempt an evaluation of the realism in such a thought, but rather to take the liberty to point out that it prompts a couple of fascinating aspects and extrapolations in this fiction writer’s brain.

To begin with, time of flight as a rule causes a lag that increases the difficulty robot operators face when they try to control their robots, as the robots reach further and further away from places where humans are. This is a problem because lag destroys the stability of any automatic control, and eventually the lag will grow so much that it causes a catastrophic loss. Therefore, the further away the robot, the greater the risk it suffers a collision, falls down a pit and becomes a part of geology, or does something else that ends its existence before the operator has a chance to intervene, for the message telling about trouble remains in transit. For a dilettante like me, it seems obvious that robots intended to travel into deep space must not be automats, but intelligent.

It is of course much easier to say the words ‘build smart robots,’ than it is to accomplish any such thing. Fortunately, while I immersed myself with all kinds of SETI related information, I came upon a radio show and podcast called Big Picture Science. Specifically, it was a program titled “Swarm in Here… or Is It Just Me?” that the SETI Institute sent on Monday 22 August 2011. The discussion between the show’s learned guests quickly purged my fantasies about robot intelligence, and this by demonstrating a totally different concept: Swarm intelligence.

One of the swarm show’s guests, Steve Strogatz, is an applied mathematician at Cornell University and the author of Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life. He observes that inanimate objects can synchronize, and that order seems to arise naturally. He made me wonder if perhaps life is a thermodynamic process that arises and persists because it produces entropy. Although organisms consume entropy locally, they may anyway produce even more entropy globally, for example, through body heat and the mess they make. Perhaps life can be seen as a naturally occurring refrigerator, which produces local order at the cost of greater global disorder.

Another guest, Ian Couzine, a biologist at Princeton University, adds that “simple local interactions…can create remarkable complexity.” I picture ants, which can create a complex colony, capable of solving problems, for example finding food, which single ants can not do efficiently on their own. A lonely ant is as good as lost, but an army of ants, that’s another story. They can cooperate to find the optimal route to any single source of food. Oh, my back itches when I think about it. What about the neurons in the human brain? One brain cell can not produce much thinking on its own, whereas a swarm of brain cells, a full-blown brain, can think. It doesn’t even have to be big. Do simple local algorithms performed by a system’s parts give rise to intelligent behavior in the swarm, and I hardly dare say it, to intelligence? If it is so, then intelligence could be built in a laboratory.

Big Picture Science does not answer such questions. Answers, we have to find individually. Instead, Big Picture Science illuminates the origins, the behavior, the future of life, and technology by connecting ideas, one must admit, in surprising and humorous ways. It began in 2002 as a radio show called Are We Alone? by Bill Oxley and Seth Shostak, who broadcast it from their living rooms in Sand Diego and Mountain View, California. Big Picture Science can be found on iTunes and other podcast sites. Prepare to think.

Could swarm intelligence solve the problem of controlling space robot operation over vast distances? What a challenge this question poses to engineers: Create a code that produces swarm intelligence, embed it in micro robots that can react to their environment following the code’s few simple rules without centralized control, and load a swarm of those critters onto a space ship. Send it off preferably near the speed of light to some interesting star with potential for great discoveries, where the clever swarm will form a collective Homunculus capable of producing the greatest discovery of all: Finding life elsewhere in the universe.

Clearly, there are issues with swarm intelligence that should be resolved before we send a beehive into space. For example, the code and the embodiment of it in micro robots may need to exploit some food web, provide for self replication and the survival of the fittest, and shape robot swarm psychology in ways that are expedient to humans, no small fields of inquiry.

But I get carried away and digress from SETI the aliens. Seth Shostak heads up the International Academy of Astronautics’ SETI Permanent Study Group, and as we speak, he is gearing up for the impending 62nd International Astronautics Congress, which will be held October 3 to 7 in Cape Town, South Africa. There, he will coordinate the 40th Symposium on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)—the Next Steps, but also present a paper titled “Seeking Intelligence Far Beyond Our Own.”

The day after the SETI related presentations a symposium on small satellite missions will discuss matters such as “Generic Technologies for Small/Micro Platforms” and “Nano/Pico Platforms.” The micro robots are already under consideration.

What, then, is the next step for SETI?

“I believe we should direct our search. We should look at non-earths instead of habitable planets. We should look near black holes. We should look at Bok globules, for they contain a good source of energy, a star, but they also provide a cold environment, which can serve as a heat sink for a very powerful transmitter,” Seth Shostak says.

The idea is that sentient aliens, being far more technologically advanced than us humans, may communicate from point to point with directed beams rather than broadcast, and their transmitter would need both a hefty power source, for example, a star, and a giant heat sink, capable of absorbing the transmitter’s waste heat. I believe that Bok globules could serve both functions, and sentient aliens should have discovered that cosmic circumstance, too.

On a side note: Bart J. Bok and Priscilla F. Bok were two astronomers, who among other accomplishments published a book titled The Milky Way, with editions in 1941, 1945, 1957, and 1974. I have had this book sitting on my bookshelf for thirty-five years, and it has been worth the effort. Among this work’s many beautiful pictures, all in black and white, one photograph taken from the Curtis-Schmidt telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory shows, the Boks’ text explains, “[s]mall globules of the Southern Milky Way,” little dark rounded specs that appear in front of a much wider bright nebulosity.

Bart and Priscilla Bok explain in The Milky Way, “[W]e observe numerous small dark spots seen projected against the bright background. These spots are seen in the same positions from night to night and from year to year and they must surely indicate the presence of small obscuring clouds. Some of these spots have a wind-blown, turbulent appearance, whereas others—generally referred to as globules—have a markedly round appearance” (175). Today we call these features Bok globules.

Seth Shostak says Bok globules are among the coldest objects in the universe. Thanks to their cooling processes, the small obscuring clouds can collapse and generate stars. Bok globules are too small and faint to be observed by the naked eye even on the star studded night sky in the Sierra, but they are much bigger than our solar system, a light year or so across. Perhaps, that’s where aliens are.

Researchers from the United States seem to dominate the search for those aliens. Why?

“Americans are willing to take risks. I think it’s so because Americans have frontier mentality. Only two-hundred years ago, this place was the frontier. But there are activities elsewhere, too, for example, in Italy, in South America, and in Asia,” Seth Shostak says. We are not alone.

The SETI Institute was founded in November 1984. Today it employs over 150 scientists, educators, and support staff. Seth Shostak says only half a dozen scientists at the SETI institute work on search for extraterrestrial intelligence, whereas fifty to sixty other scientists work on astrobiology, which do not necessarily bear on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence or take any cues from it.

The scope of the SETI Institute’s mission is much wider than the institute’s name suggests. The SETI Institute’s mission statement, available on seti.org, states that “The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.” That covers all alien life, intelligent or not.

I thank Seth Shostak for his effort to inform me and this magazine’s readers. He guides me to the institute’s entrance, to the other side of the door where my quest for intelligence began fourteen years ago. The road I did not take then has now completed a loop into the unknown.

We have not received any signal from ET yet, but nevertheless, all is far from quiet on the final frontier, and the SETI Institute is staying tuned.

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