Spring 2009 Issue


Betting on SETI Success

By Dr. H. Paul Shuch, N6TX

It may indeed look like a tissue box covered with aluminum foil, but the object Allen Tough is holding up, he assures us, is a
prototype interstellar robotic nano-probe.


If I were a betting man (I am) and had money to put down on the table (I don’t), I’d wager that our first encounter with alien intelligence will be via interstellar microwave contact. Perhaps that’s because of my ham radio background. It just stands to reason that photons are not only the fastest spaceship in the universe, but also the cheapest. Microwave photons (the substance of electromagnetic communications) are both massless and relatively energetic. They traverse the interstellar medium at the fastest speed that Einstein would allow, relatively unimpeded, while carrying information from point A to point B. For practical purposes, the power requirement for transiting the interstellar gulf can be measured in kilowatts.

Contrast this with interstellar flight, our most likely alternative search strategy. Fermions (the stuff of which we, and our machines, are made) have mass, and both Newton and Einstein agree that accelerating mass to great velocity requires great energy. Thus, sending a cosmic message in a physical bottle will require not kilowatts, but billions of Terawatts of energy. No advanced technology that I can imagine is capable of overcoming this barrier. As Mr. Scott (my favorite engineer) told Kirk in Star Trek, “Captain, I canna’ change the laws of nature.”

Allen Tough believes otherwise. You have met Prof. Tough previously in these columns. He’s the futurist from the University of Toronto who founded Invitation to ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence), the web-based project designed to stimulate dialog between us and our cosmic companions. Allen envisions an advanced nano-robotic technology that will permit low-cost, possibly self-replicating, autonomous interstellar probes. Based upon the undisputable fact that humanity is well on its way to developing such technology, Allen reasons that a more advanced civilization by now will have launched a fleet of such miniature robot probes, some of which may already have reached our solar system. It is with these probes, rather than their creators, that Allen is betting we will first communicate.

Allen Tough and I have long debated whether it is interstellar photons, or interstellar probes, that will give us our first taste of interstellar contact. Now comes Long Bets (www.longbets.org), the Arena for Accountable Predictions, a web-based wagering facility launched by the futures-oriented Long Now Foundation. The purpose of Long Bets is to improve long-term thinking. Long Bets is a public arena for enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake. The Long Now Foundation furnishes the continuity to see even the longest bets through to public resolution. Its website provides a forum for discussion about what may be learned from the bets and their eventual outcomes. Allen threw down the gauntlet at Long Bets, and I picked it up. His prediction: “Evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence within the solar system will be confirmed before evidence from several light-years away.”

Even though I personally disagree, there is some logic behind Allen’s prediction. Here is his rationale:

Most SETI scientists agree that any ETI we detect will likely be thousands or millions of years ahead of us (because our sun and our science are so young). Such an advanced society will likely have the capacity to build and launch cheap, smart autonomous probes to explore the galaxy. This statement is supported by our recent theoretical and engineering advances in robotics (Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec), molecular manufacturing (nanotechnology), and interstellar propulsion (beam propulsion and even more radical possibilities). Also, an advanced society will likely be motivated to send out exploratory probes, judging by our own society, which sends spacecraft to explore everything within reach.

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