METI INTERNATIONAL SPECIAL

Thursday, May 25, 2017, 9 AM to 4 PM

Organized by METI International

Chair: David Dunér, Lund University, Sweden


For almost 100 years electromagnetic radiation has leaked out from Earth to outer space. Our radio and TV programs have travelled almost 100 lightyears. We know that there are thousands of planets within a radius of 100 lightyears, and it is most likely that some of these are Earth-like. Perhaps some of them have evolved life. The question is then, if any of these planets harbors intelligent life with advanced technology, would they be able to detect us? Do they already know that we exist? Or, do we need to make ourselves heard? If the answer is that we are detectable, we need to reconsider the interstellar messaging enterprise. Is it too risky to voluntarily send out messages to other civilizations out there, or is it too late because they already know that we are here? This workshop organized by METI International will deal with these questions, whether we are detectable or not, and discuss various risk and cost-benefit analyses and precautionary principles in the human active search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Program

9.00 Introduction
Douglas Vakoch, METI International

Session 1: Detectability

9:10–9:45 How Detectable is Earth Life to Hypothetical Remote Observers?
James F. Kasting, Penn State University, USA

9:45–10:20 Eavesdropping on Howard Stern: Factors in the Detection and Interpretation of our Wireless Communications at Interstellar Distances
David Messerschmitt, University of California at Berkeley, USA

10:20–10:50 Coffee break

10:50–11:25 The Dangers in Doing SETI and in Not Doing METI
Alan Penny, University of St. Andrews, UK

11:25–12:00 The Interstellar Beacon: A Plan for Backing up Earth
William Kitchen, Interstellar Beacon.org, USA

12:00–1:30 Lunch

Session 2: Benefits and Risks

1:30–2:05 METI: Is an Asilomar Process Possible?
Steven J. Dick, Former NASA Chief Historian, USA

2:05–2:40 Active SETI or Cultural Imperialism?
John W. Traphagan, University of Texas at Austin, USA

2:40–3:15 METI and the Danger of Scientific Paternalism
Kelly Smith, Clemson University, USA

3:15–3:45 Coffee break

3:45–4:20 Hello Universe
Douglas Vakoch, METI International, USA

4:20–4:55 The Affect Heuristic and Judgments about Risks and Benefits Posed by METI and SETI
Adam Korbitz, CeleJure Consulting, USA

4:55–5.00 Conclusion

Abstracts

METI: Is an Asilomar Consultation Process Possible?
Steven J. Dick, Former NASA Chief Historian, USA

One of the major issues in Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) is the question of consultation. Both the proponents and opponents of METI agree that consultation should take place prior to the transmission of any message. The issue is at what level the consultation should take place: the United Nations, a lower-level international body such as the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), or among the practitioners and a Board of Advisors representing all sides in the debate. We argue that history indicates the latter is the most practical, in conjunction with an established body such as the IAF. A possible model is the often-cited “Asilomar process,” based on the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules held in Asilomar, 24–27 February 1975. This meeting was organized by biotechnology scientists who raised warnings about genetic engineering research and its danger to public health. The meeting concluded research should continue, but only under stringent guidelines.
The Asilomar meeting had the backing of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health, and was organized by highly regarded top-level scientists. While the regulation of biotechnology seemed an overwhelming task taken as a whole, in retrospect the organizers found the key to success was breaking the problem into its constituent parts: assigning risk estimates for specific types of experiments, with guidelines for each according to the degree of risk. Similar risk estimates could be assigned to certain kinds of METI experiments, where risk variables include signal strength of the transmitter, distance to target, number of planets in the target’s habitable zone, and whether those planets exhibit biosignatures. There are differences in scale between the biotechnology community in the mid-1970s and the SETI/METI community today: about 140 scientists, lawyers, journalists and government officials participated in the former, while the latter community numbers only a few dozen. But the potential for global risks and benefits are similar, thus driving the urgent need for some form of consultation.

Steven J. Dick is the former NASA Chief Historian. He served most recently as the 2014 Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. His latest books are Discovery and Classification in Astronomy and The Impact of Discovering Life Beyond Earth. Minor planet 6544 Stevendick is named in his honor.

How Detectable is Earth Life to Hypothetical Remote Observers?
James F. Kasting, Penn State University, USA

The question asked in the title is essentially the inverse of the question: How easy is it to detect life on planets around nearby stars? The answer, we think, is that it is not that difficult. Large space telescopes being studied by NASA today should be able to detect and spectroscopically characterize Earth-like planets out to a distance of ~10 pc, or roughly 30 light years. Either coronagraphs or starshades could be used to suppress the starlight and look for reflected light (or emitted infrared radiation) from associated planets. Given the high frequency of Earth-sized planets inferred from Kepler, this should include dozens of planets around relatively Sun-like (F-G-K) stars. The easiest biomarker to detect in Earth’s current atmosphere is O2, which has a strong absorption band at 0.76 μm. (Actually, the band is weak, but there is a lot of O2.) O2 by itself is not considered a definitive biosignature, as there are several ways of producing it abiotically. However, an alien race observing our atmosphere with their own space telescope would realize from its high O2 concentration and the presence of significant H2O vapor that our planet could support animal life, including intelligent life. If they were as curious as we are, this would likely prompt them to build a bigger telescope that could detect CH4, as well. Then, they would be fairly certain that life exists here on Earth. If they also built a big radio telescope and focused it on Earth, they might well be able to detect signs of intelligence. So, it seems likely that intelligent aliens within ~50 light years of us are already aware of our existence. Whether such beings exist, and if so, what should we do about it, are good topics for discussion.

James Kasting is an Evan Pugh Professor at Penn State University, where he holds joint appointments in the Departments of Geosciences and in Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. He earned an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and Physics from Harvard University in 1975 and a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Michigan in 1979. Prior to coming to Penn State in 1988, he spent 2 years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and 7 years in the Space Science Division at NASA Ames Research Center south of San Francisco. His research focuses on the evolution of planetary atmospheres and climates and on the question of whether life might exist on planets around other stars. In 2005–06, he co-chaired a NASA committee charged with designing a Terrestrial Planet Finder space telescope to look for other Earth-like planets. In 2016, he was awarded the Stanley Miller medal, otherwise known as the National Academy of Science award in Early Earth and Life Sciences.

The Interstellar Beacon: A Plan for Backing up Earth
William Kitchen, Interstellar Beacon.org, USA

Since the 1960s, humanity’s attempts to contact alien civilizations have been focused primarily on listening endeavors, such as SETI. However, the lack of signals may not mean that extraterrestrials aren’t there; they may be absent simply because we have not yet sufficiently announced our presence. Efforts towards broadcasting an interstellar signal are collectively known as METI: Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Attempts at METI have been minimal due to a combination of factors, including the latency of two-way communication, fear of contacting a malevolent civilization, and cost. We contend that two-way communication should not be the impetus for METI, but that the near-term risk of humanity’s demise provides a more pressing concern: we need to backup Earth. As the Interstellar Beacon organization, we propose to construct a high-powered laser that would begin broadcasting Earth’s message. We put forth the scientific and sociological case for a five-program message. The first program is an Interstellar Rosetta Stone, encapsulating language, communication and how to decode our message. The second is an Interstellar time capsule, detailing all natural and anthropological history known at present. The third is an Interstellar museum, containing the full suite of the art and science of humanity. The fourth is an Interstellar Noah’s Ark, containing the sequenced genomes of as many living creatures on Earth as possible. The fifth and final program is an Interstellar Human Nursery, with an instruction suite for recreating humans. We also refute the assumption that aliens would be hostile to us. If ET does detect our signals while humanity is still here, we would send the same message content. We will soon present a plan for a low-cost, high-powered METI option – the Interstellar Beacon – that can begin broadcasting as soon as technically feasible.

Bill Kitchen graduated with honors from the USAF Electronics School. Served the Air Force working with top-secret defense systems. Attended Temple College. First job: VP and Chief Engineer for Mayer Broadcasting. Owned and operated a broadcast engineering company. Built or acquired seven of his own radio stations. Later acquired a Television Technology Corporation in Boulder, Colorado which then developed the world’s first high power, solid-state FM transmitters and high-efficiency UHF Television transmitters. Mid-life career change led him to invent, patent and develop several innovative, successful concepts in the attractions industry (he has over 20 patents) including: 1. Skycoaster – Now featured in 100 plus theme parks worldwide.2. iFly – The premiere indoor skydiving wind tunnel. iFly has become known worldwide, and has locations in 35 cities, and on cruise ships. 3. Unicoaster –All the thrills of a looping, interactive roller coaster, featured in many locations. 4. Polercoaster: a massive, vertical rollercoaster with its track set on a tall observation tower. Upcoming Florida location will be the world’s tallest rollercoaster. Bill resides in Orlando, Florida. He is a Master Skydiver, an Airline Transport Pilot, an Air Force Veteran, and a lifetime member of the S.E.T.I. League (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).

The Affect Heuristic and Judgments about Risks and Benefits Posed by METI and SETI
Adam Korbitz, CeleJure Consulting, USA

The practice (or proposed practice) of Active SETI or METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has generated a vigorous and sometimes heated policy debate within the scientific community for many years. There have also been some negative reactions in the media toward the activities of those engaged in METI or proposing METI projects. The posture of the debate is particularly striking given the almost complete lack of scientific data regarding the existence, prevalence and nature of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Insights from the robust scientific fields of risk perception and risk communication have only recently been raised within the policy debate regarding the relative risks and merits of METI. Insights from the field of risk perception (such as omission bias, loss aversion, the availability heuristic, probability neglect, and the general human preference for voluntary over involuntary risks) may help those who have participated in either side of the debate over METI to better understand why the debate has taken on its current posture.
In particular, the affect heuristic may hold great promise for understanding why and how humans react to real or perceived threats posed by technological projects such as METI. Contrary to slower, analytic thinking processes that rely upon traditional scientific tools such as logic and reason, the affect heuristic exemplifies an emotional reaction to a given technology that can predict a person’s assessment as to that technology’s relative risks and benefits. In the context of METI, this connection between emotion and risk assessment – the affect heuristic – may be amenable to experimental measurement in subject populations.

Adam Korbitz, J.D., is a writer and retired attorney in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2012, he launched CeleJure Consulting, an independent, international academic practice with a focus on emerging issues in risk perception and communication, technology and science policy. Prior to that, he enjoyed a 20-year career practicing law and working in various positions related to politics and the development of public policy. Since 2008, he has written about the legal and public policy implications of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and other space law topics and has presented papers at various national and international symposia and conferences. He has been a member of both the Space Law Committee and the United Nations Law Committee of the American Branch of the International Law Association, and participated in NASA’s Astrobiology and Society Focus Group. He earned his B.A. in 1985 and his J.D. in 1993, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work regarding topics related to both passive and Active SETI, risk perception and metalaw has appeared in the journal Acta Astronautica and the volume Extraterrestrial Altruism: Evolution and Ethics in the Cosmos. He served as a trustee on METI International’s Board of Directors during its inaugural year from 2015–16 and currently serves on its Advisory Council.

Hello, Universe
Douglas Vakoch, METI International

After over a half century of the modern-day search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the nonprofit research and educational organization Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) was founded in 2015 to launch a sustained transmission project to nearby stars. Rather than needing to choose between searching for signals and sending intentional signals, METI emphasizes the importance of doing both, with its current observational programs focused on a search for brief laser pulses at observatories in Panama and the United States. Moreover, at METI we believe it is critical to place interstellar communication within the broader context of astrobiological research, including later terms of the Drake Equation that have been under researched in comparison to topics in exoplanet detection and habitability.

Eavesdropping on Howard Stern: Factors in the Detection and Interpretation of our Wireless Communications at Interstellar Distances
David Messerschmitt, University of California at Berkeley, USA

Communications and radar come to mind when we consider leakage radiation at radio wavelengths. Here we address specifically communications, such as broadcast radio, cross-country microwave, cellular, and WiFi. What determines whether other civilizations can identify the technological origin of our transmissions at radio wavelengths? What determines whether they can be interpreted to uncover some embedded information? Historically there have been two eras in wireless communications: what we call the “mud hut” and the “gleaming skyscraper” eras. The nature of transmitted signals in the two eras is described, resulting in very different challenges for a potential eavesdropper. Factors playing into their detection such as antenna collection area and background radiation are described. Estimates of their detectability are included.

David Messerschmitt is the Roger A. Strauch Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) at the University of California at Berkeley. The first ten years of his career was spent at Bell Laboratories, where he participated in the exploratory development of digital communications. At Berkeley he has done research in digital communications and audio and video encoding, and has served as the Chair of EECS and the Interim Dean of the School of Information. He is the co-author of five books, including Digital Communication (Kluwer Academic Publishers, Third Edition, 2004). His doctorate in Computer, Information, and Control Engineering is from the University of Michigan, and he is a Life Fellow of the IEEE, a Member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a recipient of the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal recognizing “exceptional contributions to the advancement of communication sciences and engineering”.

METI and the Danger of Scientific Paternalism
Kelly Smith, Clemson University, USA

The debate over whether to begin messaging extraterrestrials (active SETI or METI), as opposed to merely listening for their signals, has begun to heat up in recent years. Some, including the eminent Stephen Hawking, urge caution (Boyle 2016, Michaud 2005) while others argue we should forge ahead (Traphagan 2016, Vakoch 2016). Much of the debate has centered on estimates of the risk involved, but there is a real sense in which this misses the point. Even if we assume that the risks of messaging are extremely small, they certainly are not zero. And the outcome could literally not be worse: the extermination, not just of humankind, but of all life on Earth. Given these basic facts, scientific paternalism, no matter how well informed and intentioned, is inappropriate. There are two basic reasons for this. First, how large a risk of total annihilation it is “reasonable” to accept is not clear – and science cannot make it clear, since this is ultimately a judgment call that goes beyond the data. Second, just as we do not think it ethical for physicians to unilaterally decide which risks their patients should undertake, it would be immoral for scientists to decide unilaterally which risks humanity as a whole should undertake. The only way to justify METI, therefore, would be to secure something like the informed consent of humanity. While this is certainly a complex requirement, and doubtless could never be met perfectly, there is simply no ethical way to bypass it.

References:
Boyle, Alan (2016) “To Be or Not to Be Signaling the Aliens: That Is the Question for SETI,”NBC News, accessed online at http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/be-or-not-be-signaling-aliens-question-seti-n305546 February 6, 2017.
Michaud, Michael (2005) “Active SETI Is Not Scientific Research,” SETI League, accessed online at http://www.setileague.org/editor/actvseti.htm February 6, 2017.
Traphagan, John W. (2016) “Is Active SETI Really Dangerous?” Huffington Post, accessed online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-w-traphagan/is-active-seti-really-dan_b_9357618.html February 6, 2017.
Vakoch, Douglas A. “In Defense of METI,” Nature Physics 12 (2016): 890.

Kelly Smith is a philosopher of science also trained as an evolutionary biologist. He holds appointments in Philosophy & Religion as well as Biological Sciences at Clemson University. He is also a Lemon fellow of the Rutland Institute for Ethics and serves on the faculty of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. He believes deeply in the renaissance idea that humanities and the sciences have valuable insights to offer each other. His research is thus highly interdisciplinary, encompassing social and ethical issues surrounding the search for life on other planets, the scientific conception of life, the relation between science and religion, theoretical issues in biology and complexity, and bioethics.

Active SETI or Cultural Imperialism?
John W. Traphagan, University of Texas at Austin, USA

This paper explores the basic ethical question of whether or not we should attempt to contact extraterrestrial intelligence and a secondary question of how Western culture influences the notion that contact is to be sought out. I argue Western SETI scientists have been significantly influenced by a Star Trek imaginary that glorifies the notion of seeking out new civilizations and treats it as an inherent good. The question that rarely gets asked is, why is it good? Is there an inherent reason humans should try to contact other civilizations or is this a product of an extroverted Western civilization and, potentially, even a survival of a 19th Century imperialist mindset seeking to achieve gain through encounters with non-Western others? The paper will center on the problem of whether or not active SETI represents a non-ambiguous attempt to make contact or is an artifact of cultural imperialism directed at the stars.

John Traphagan is Professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in Social Anthropology, holds an MAR degree from Yale University in ethics, and a BA in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His postdoctoral research was conducted as a National Institute on Aging Postdoctoral Fellow at the Population Studies Center of the University of Michigan. Dr. Traphagan’s research interests center on the relationship between culture and science. His past work has focused largely on medical concepts and religion in Japan. Currently, his primary research focuses on the application of anthropological ideas within the field of astrobiology. Prof. Traphagan’s most recent books are Science, Culture, and the Search for Life on Other Worlds (Springer 2016) and Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Human Imagination: SETI at the Intersection of Science, Religion, and Culture (Springer 2014). Previous books include Rethinking Autonomy: A Critique of Principlism in Biomedical Ethics, (SUNY Press 2013), Taming Oblivion: Aging Bodies and the Fear of Senility in Japan (SUNY Press 2000) and The Practice of Concern: Ritual, Well-Being, and Aging in Rural Japan (Carolina Academic Press 2004).

The Dangers in Doing SETI and in Not Doing METI
Alan Penny, University of St. Andrews, UK

There is much debate on the dangers of trying to contact Extraterrestrial Intelligences (METI), based on the possibility that this might alert the fact of our existence to a possibly hostile ETI capable of destroying us. This is certainly a possibility, although it seems likely that any such ETI would already be aware of our existence. The argument goes that however small the possibility of harm, the potential damage is so existential that it should be avoided. I argue that this argument depends on the unknown nature of ETIs. It is also possible that our sending a signal might lead them to help us from destroying ourselves or to refrain from destroying us. And since we cannot estimate the likelihood of either (nasty or nice ETI) possibility, we have no rational grounds for choosing between sending and not sending. I further argue that similar considerations should apply to listening out for messages (SETI), but for some reason the anti-METI proponents do not thus propose banning SETI. The gulf between the pro and anti METI proponents is large, and I discuss a possible factor contributing to this.

Alan Penny is an Honorary Reader (Associate Professor) in the School of Physics and Astronomy in the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He is a Vice President of METI International and the Co-ordinator of the UK SETI Research Network. Previously, he has been Secretary of the European Astrobiology Network Association; member of the Science Team on the ESA study of the Darwin Space Telescope for detecting the oxygen sign of life in the atmosphere of extrasolar Earth-like planets; member of teams detecting extra-solar planets; and for many years an astronomer working on the age of the Universe from the stars in globular clusters.