Tag Archives: Aliens

Seeing ANYTHING Other Than Huge-Civ Is Bad News

The great filter is whatever obstacles prevent simple dead matter from evolving into a civilization big and visible on astronomical scales. The fact that we see nothing big and visible in a huge universe says this filter must be large, and a key question is the size of the future filter: how much have we passed and how much remains ahead of us?

I’ve suggested that evidence of life elsewhere below our level makes the past filter look smaller, and thus our future filter larger. From which you might conclude that evidence of a civilization above our level is good news. That seems to be what  says here at Vox:

If (and I must stress that this is a quite unlikely “if”) UFO sightings on earth are actually evidence that an advanced alien civilization has developed a system of long-distance probes that it is using to monitor or contact humanity, then that would be an immensely hopeful sign in Great Filter terms. It would mean that at least one civilization has far surpassed humanity without encountering any insurmountable hurdles preventing its survival. (more)

But I don’t think that’s right. This would move the filter more to above their level, but below the level of becoming big and visible, without changing the size of the total filter. Which implies a larger future filter for us. In addition, any UFO aliens are likely here to actively impose a filter on us, i.e., to stop us from getting big and visible (or “grabby“).

So if UFOs as aliens is not good news, what would be good news re our future filter? Aside from detailed engineering and social calculations showing that we are in fact very close to becoming irreversibly grabby, the only good news I can imagine is actual concrete evidence of big visible aliens civilizations out there. Maybe we’ve misread their signatures somehow.

Looking out further and in more detail at the universe and still finding it dead suggests the total filter is larger, which is bad news. And finding any evidence of anything other than death suggests the filter is smaller up to the level of that finding, but doesn’t revise our estimate of the total filter. Which is bad news re our future. Thus a perhaps surprising conclusion: finding anything other than a big visible civilization out there is bad news re our future prospects for becoming big and visible.

Remember also: the SIA indexical prior (IMHO the reasonable choice) favors larger future filters. Beware the future filter!

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The Coming Cosmic Control Conflict

We moderns like to join factions associated with ideologies, and many of our most inspiring stories are of great conflicts between ideologically-affiliated factions. We like such stories more when they have more morally-intense ideologies, bigger conflicts in space, time, and social scope, more impressive combatants, and more real and well-defined events.

At a cost in realism, science fiction and fantasy often turn up the other dials, making ideologies extreme, conflicts galaxy-wide, and giving combatants god-like powers. But for realism and definition, we tend to retreat to WWII, which ranks high on moral intensity, but less high on other criteria. Or more recent struggles for group respect. Our true stories of the largest scope, about our vast universe, tend to fail badly; past stories lack conflict or combatants, while future stories lack definition.

Having recently given a lot of thought to grabby aliens and UFOs as aliens, it occurs to me that they can offer great conflict stories of substantial moral intensity, plausible realism and definition, and quite unprecedented size, scope, and combatant impressiveness. Let us consider telling such stories!

The combatants in which we can be most confident are grabby aliens; the fact that we have appeared so early in the universe tells us that they are out there, and three other datums tell us we’ll meet them in roughly a billion years, if we last that long. Grabby civilizations will come into direct conflict with each other at their borders, and will compete more widely to influence the culture of the next hundred billion years. These conflicts rate high on reality, scope, and impressive combatants, but alas it seems hard to guess how such civilizations will differ, and thus to guess the ideologies that might orient their conflicts.

We can have less confidence that aliens are behind some UFOs. But they plausibly exist, and we can say a lot about a big ideological conflict they must have with grabby aliens. We can reasonably guess that UFO aliens have developed many millions of years past our level, are not changing fast now, and have coordinated to prevent any part of them from getting grabby, i.e., from aggressively expanding and filling the universe with their descendants. To achieve this, we can be pretty sure that they created a strong persistent “world” governments. And enforcing their anti-grabby rules on us is the obvious reason for them to be here now coyly showing themselves to us.

Furthermore, even if there are no aliens behind UFOs, we can forsee this same conflict in our future; we are likely to coordinate to try to prevent parts of our civilization from getting grabby. Thus the pro- vs. anti- grabby conflict is plausibly the big future ideological divide, whether or not UFOs are aliens. Let me explain.

For at least a million years, human foragers coordinated within each band to enforce local norms; individual humans were not free to do whatever they wanted. With farming, societies became larger and had more contact with outsiders, but within each society they enforced many norms and laws. And in our world today we actually have pretty strong global coordination enforcing many global norms via local laws. Human organizations have consistently been rising in size and scope, making much stronger global governance a likely outcome over the coming centuries. (It certainly happens in Age of Em.)

As an economist, I see that most people feel strongly that individual freedoms must be constrained by governance, and many seem to regret that we do not have stronger and larger scale governance to deal with our biggest problems. Few favor cutting our scales of governance. Even when governments seem to consistently fail at a task they’ve been assigned, like the unwinnable war on drugs, most are reluctant to give up; instead budgets and powers are continually increased.

Furthermore, I see these laments especially among futurists, who consider longer timescales and bigger problems. For example, many are uncomfortable with “capitalist” competition, which they hope will end soon or at least become globally managed, to prevent capitalist competition between nations. And many are wary of plain old biological competition, even without capitalism. For example, many see a big problem with overpopulation, for which their natural solution is global regulation of fertility. Some imagine that local unconstrained evolution might eliminate consciousness from future agents, or allow the values of our descendants to drift far from our own values, and suggest strong global governance as remedies for these.

In addition, we should expect rates of change due to natural selection to greatly increase with the rise of artificial life, which is likely to dominate our future starting in a few centuries. So whatever problems result from unmanaged natural selection are likely to become much stronger soon, and at a time when we in fact have a pretty strong world government.

If within a few centuries we have a strong world government managing capitalist competition, overpopulation, value drift, and much more, we might come to notice that these and many other governance solutions to pressing problems are threatened by unrestrained interstellar colonization. Independent colonies able to change such solutions locally could allow population explosions and value drift, as well as capitalist competition that beats out home industries. That is, colony independence suggests unmanaged colony competition. In addition, independent colonies would lower the status of those who control the central government.

So authorities would want to either ban such colonization, or to find ways to keep colonies under tight central control. Yet it seems very hard to keep a tight lid on colonies. The huge distances involved make it hard to require central approval for distant decisions, and distant colonists can’t participate as equals in governance without slowing down the whole process dramatically. Worse, allowing just one sustained failure, of some descendants who get grabby, can negate all the other successes. This single failure problem gets worse the more colonies there are, the further apart they spread, and the more advanced technology gets.

Thus if our descendants strongly value the regulations and coordinations that their world government allows, and are unwilling to give them up, then they may be strongly tempted to simply ban interstellar colonization beyond some manageable limits. Which it exactly what it seems that any aliens behind UFOs must have done successfully for millions of years. The exact opposite of the aggressive expansion that, for billions of years, has been and will continue to be chosen by grabby aliens.

Yes, banning internal expansion should put any civilization at a great disadvantage should they ever encounter a grabby one. But that distant possibility in perhaps a billion years may just not carry much weight against more immediate concerns. It might be easier to slip into denial, emphasizing the lack of solid proof that there will ever be any grabby aliens.

And there we have it: the grand cosmic conflict between authorities who use a strong world government to prevent local expansion, and grabby-wannabe rebels seeking a way to slip through this blockage and expand. A conflict with big values at stake, very impressive combatants, that takes places on the greatest scales of space, time, and social range, and which seems likely to be very real. Don’t you want to hear stories about that? Won’t someone write stories about that?

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UFOs – What The Hell?

(This post is more of an essay, intended to be especially widely accessible.)

Long ago, my physics teachers taught me to arrogantly dismiss the “paranormal”, like ghosts or telepathy. Or UFOs. Yes, we once saw meteorites as paranormal, but not today. Yes, we now accept ball lightning, even though evidence for it is weaker than for UFOs, but we have plausible theories there.

However, when the topic of distant “aliens” came up recently in my research on the origin of life and the future of the universe, I browsed UFO evidence and found it to be much stronger than stuff on ghosts or telepathy. And now a U.S. military report says that intelligently controlled UFOs with amazing abilities seem real to them, even if they don’t know their cause.

Hence my and perhaps your titular reaction, “What the Hell?” How can this make any sense?

Turns out, my prior research prepared me to address this very question, once I gave it some thought. Not on the evidence for UFOs, where others are more expert than I. But on how to fit this idea of strange objects with amazing abilities under intelligent control into your scientific world view. (Note that I’m not claiming this as fact; I’m saying it isn’t crazy.)

While there are many possibilities here, it suffices for me to show just one. And yes, it involves aliens.

We can easily believe that aliens are very advanced, and thus have amazing abilities. But two questions remain:

  • In a vast universe that looks dead everywhere, how is it that advanced aliens happen to be right here right now?
  • Even if aliens did travel to be here now, why would they act as UFOs do: mute and elusive, yet still noticeable?

First, note that our standard best scientific theories predict aliens. That is, they predict that life sometimes arises from simple dead matter, and can eventually evolve to make intelligent creatures like us. And this could happen most anywhere.

Yes, the universe looks completely dead; we see no signs of life outside Earth, even though over millions of years advanced aliens could have made some big visible changes. Some possible explanations:

  1. Aliens arise so rarely that the nearest ones are too far to see, or to have travelled to here,
  2. Aliens are common but simply can’t travel between stars or make big visible changes,
  3. Aliens are common and travel everywhere, but enforce rules against visible changes, or
  4. Aliens arise rarely, but in small clumps; the first in clump to appear can control the others.

Of these, only the last two can put aliens here now, and #3 seems too much a conspiracy (i.e., coordinate to hide) theory for my tastes. But scenario #4 works, and could plausibly result from “panspermia.”

That is, simple life might have arisen on a planet Eden long ago, via a very rare event. (My research suggests this happens only once per million galaxies.) After life evolved at Eden for billions of years, a rock hit Eden, kicking up another rock that drifted for millions of years carrying life to seed our Sun’s stellar nursery. A nursery that held thousands of new stars packed close with many rocks flying around, allowing life to spread quickly to them all.

Our sun’s siblings then drifted apart, while life evolved on each planet for billions of years. The first sibling planet to develop civilization did so millions of years ago, and it wasn’t Earth. These aliens then sought out their sibling stars and traveled to them to watch civilization maybe evolve there.

Now, to explain the fact that these aliens have not visibly changed our shared galaxy, even though they can travel to here, we must postulate that they enforce a rule against making big visible changes, probably enforced by a strong central government. A rule against mass aggressive expansion, colonization, and disassembling of planets, stars, etc. Maybe due to environmentalist values, maybe to enable regulation, or maybe just to protect central control and status. Yes, this is something of a conspiracy theory, but being smaller, it seems easier to swallow.

Okay, that is a not-crazy answer to the first question, on why aliens are here now in a dead universe. What about the second question, on why UFOs act so weird and coy?

To answer this, I postulate that these sibling aliens want us to comply with their rule against making big visible changes to the universe. And while they’d be willing to kill us, if that’s what it took, they’d rather we go along voluntarily.

To induce our cooperation, their plan is put themselves at the top of our status ladder. After all, social animals consistently have status ladders, with low status animals tending to emulate the higher. So if these aliens hang out close to us for a long time, show us their very impressive abilities, but don’t act overtly hostile, then we may well come to see them as very high status members of our tribe. (Not powerful hostile outsiders.)

If we are smart enough to figure out that they have a rule against big visible changes, enforced via a “world” government, we may naturally emulate those policies. We may even come to treat UFO aliens as ancient humans treated their gods and top leaders, with respect, deference, and obedience. After all, most ancient people knew little about their gods and leaders beyond their impressive wealth and abilities, but that was usually enough.

But why not just land on the White House lawn, meet with our leaders, and explain their agenda? Because once they start talking to us, we will have a lot of questions. Such as on their nature, practices, history, and future plans. And many of us would surely hate some of their answers. They are complete aliens after all, and we are often offended by humans from slightly different subcultures. They reasonably guess that we are just not as open-minded as we like to think.

Sure, maybe if they understood us really well they could just say “no comment” when a discussion got near something likely to offend us. But we’d then reasonably infer that they were hiding bad news near there, make a guess at what it is, and get somewhat offended at that. Far simpler and more robust to not talk at all, except in dire emergencies. That’s a plan that could be approved long in advance by a far away central power wary of allowing much improvisation by our local visitors. Especially as their very old and stable centralized civilization may have atrophied and lost much of its prior generality and flexibility.

This strategy works best if they carefully limit what they show us. Just give us brief simple impressive glimpses that don’t let us figure out their tech, or even the locations of their local bases. The package of simple geometric shapes, crazy accelerations, no sounds or other local side effects, clear intelligent intent, and avoiding harms to us seems to do the trick.

And that’s my story. How UFOs as aliens can make sense. Not an inspiring story, but a plausible one. They could be our panspermia siblings, here to get us to obey their rule against aggressive expansion, hopefully via our emulating them because they sit at the top of our status ladder. Not to say that this is obviously true, just to say that it isn’t crazy. Yes, there are other possible scenarios. But UFOs as aliens, that’s no crazier than ball lighting.

Added 4July: The many comments on this post are mostly the result of this mention at Instapundit.

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Report UFOs as Physical Likelihood Ratios

It is probably too late to influence the upcoming US government UFO report, and even if it isn’t I’m probably not high enough status to do so, but if I had any influence I have one main recommendation to its authors, and to authors of similar future reports: Express results in terms of likelihood ratios for simple physical hypotheses. Let me explain.

On a topic like UFOs, we must make a chain of inferences between data and theory. At one end is the data itself, expressed in the lowest and most primitive data levels: pictures, videos, physical remnants, testimony, biographies of testifiers, etc. At the other extreme are the main abstract hypotheses of interest, such as: error/delusion, hoax/lies, hidden Earth orgs, hidden non-Earth orgs.

Such a report should probably not give posterior probabilities for the abstract hypotheses. Making good judgements about those requires different kinds of expertise than they have, and consideration of data well beyond what they are tasked with reporting on. And government agencies are famously risk-averse; I’m pretty sure they want to limit what they say, and avoid controversial topics where they’d be more open to criticism.

But because these report authors have access to sensitive data that they’d rather not share, it also doesn’t make sense for them to just reveal all of their relevant detailed data. Yes, we’d like them to reveal what they can, so we can make independent analyses, and they probably can safely reveal more than they have. But we also want them to usefully summarize the data that they can’t share.

This means that their report needs to be expressed in terms more abstract than the pixels in a picture, even if they are less abstract than the main abstract hypotheses of interest. So what is a good level of abstraction for a UFO report?

It seems to me that the obvious choice here is in terms of physical objects. Report UFOs in terms of what objects seemed to have what shapes, medium (air, water, space), position/speed/acceleration histories, brightness, reflectivity, sounds, fluid disturbances, shadows, and apparent reactions to humans. Speaking to these sort of physical abstractions seems within the range of their expertise and data. And it avoids venturing into other harder areas.

Note I used the word “seems”. They shouldn’t be trying to consider how plausible are various combinations of shapes, accelerations, sounds, etc., beyond applying basic physics. (Beyond using simple physical priors over relative angles, distances, etc.) They should just ask which physical hypotheses would make the data seen most likely. Plausibility of theories are “priors” and  which theories make the data seem most likely are “likelihoods”, and Bayesian analysis famously recommends estimating these separately, a recommendation that I’m echoing here.

For example, testimony from someone on drugs can be discounted, as might radar data that goes away after the radar system is rebooted. But the more independent sources seem to show an object with a place, size, speed, etc., then the stronger is the likelihood evidence for that event, ignoring the question of what organizations might want to or be able to induce such an event.

Now while likelihoods can be expressed in absolute terms, I think it makes more sense here to express them here in relative terms. Both relative to other physical parameter values, and relative to simple error/delusion theories.

For example, regarding the estimate of the speed of a particular object at a particular point during some event, report a max likelihood speed, and also say how much relative likelihoods fall as speed changes. For example, the max likelihood speed might be 2000 mph, with the likelihood falling to 10% of that max value at speeds of 1000 and 3000 mph.

For an entire event, consider the mostly plausible sources of error or delusion: drunk observers, Venus reflected on a windshield, bits of fluff floating close to the camera, ball lightning, swamp gas, etc. And then give us a relative likelihood for the event really being the physical objects sizes, speeds, etc. that they seem, relative to the best error theories they could find wherein these are mistakes or illusions.  That is, how often would people report seeing something like this, given that this is actually what was physically happening there, relative to how often they would report seeing something this strange due to sources of mistakes and delusions most likely to appear this way.

I’m not an expert on UFO report details, and I will defer to experts when available, but my impression is that that for the ten “hardest to explain” UFO events, this last likelihood value will be huge. Well over a thousand, and maybe over a million. Which doesn’t answer the question of what they are if not illusions. For that we need to also consider the priors and relative likelihoods of the other theory categories. A task that goes beyond the limited expertise and data tasked to these report authors. A fact for which they are probably grateful.

So please, UFO report authors, you don’t need to discuss the main big theory categories, including aliens. And you can keep your military, etc. secrets. Just tell us what physical objects were seen where when and with what event features. Tell us how much less likely we would be to see that under the best error theories you can find, and tell us how steeply your parameter estimates fall away from your max likelihood estimates. (That is, give error bars.)

With a report like that then the rest of us can struggle to interpret this more abstracted physical data in terms of the big explanations of interest, with gratitude to you for your central contributions.

 

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Give Tyler His Due

In this post I complained that three pundits took UFOs “seriously” mainly by talking “only about the fact that other people seem to be taking UFOs as aliens seriously.” Tyler Cowen pointed out to me, correctly, that I haven’t given him sufficient credit, as I just quoted from his Bloomberg column, but not from this blog post:

My best bet is this.  The vehicles would be “unmanned” drone probes … highly generalized software instructions …  “Seek out major power sources, … send information back … if approached or confronted, run away fast.”   

The drone probes do not destroy us, because of Star Trek-like reasons: highly destructive species already have blown themselves up, leaving the relatively peaceful ones to send drones around.  The drones probably are everywhere, in the galactic sense that is. …

So the relevant theory is one of how advanced civilizations allocate their surplus when there is a lot of discretion and not much in the way of within-lifetime costs and benefits to determine a very particular set of plans and goals.  Not even for the grandkids.

In this hypothesis, of course, you have to be short immortality.  And short usable wormholes.

… photos of the drone probes make them look a bit like cheap crap?  … consistent with the view of them being a discretionary resource allocation stemming from projects with fairly fuzzy goals.

  If aliens are afoot, why should it be only one group of them?  That would seem strange, as in most things there are multitudes, …

Robin’s hypothesis, that they are relatively local panspermiacs, who feel some stake in us, appeals to me.  … chance of us having resulted from panspermia is pretty high; there are lots of baby civilizations for each parent, so why deny you are probably a baby?

Perhaps our visitors are exercising some “mood affiliation” in wishing to visit and record us!  They could be the parents, or perhaps another baby civilization.

Of course … these UFO sightings probably are not of alien creations, so all of this is pure fantasy anyway.

So let me respect this in the intellectuals’ way, by critiquing it.

  1. As aliens are likely millions of years more advanced than us, they are fully artificial; they are robots. Any probe capable of getting here could at a small extra cost hold an entire artificial mind, or even millions of them. No point in sending a smaller mind. If anything from aliens is here, some aliens are here.
  2. It is crazy to think of entire civilizations as stuck forever at the same one-bit setting of war or peace. Even animals are capable of a wide range of intermediate and contingent aggression strategies, to fight and to what degree as the situation demands. Humans and their societies have even subtler contingent strategies. So advanced alien aggression strategies should be very well adapted to circumstances. If they don’t kill us, it is for a reason, not just because time generically selects for peacefulness.
  3. Yes it is possible that alien behaviors toward us are random because we hardly matter to them. Though even then we’d want a theory of where all that “slack” comes from. But surely we should also consider other possibilities. Their actual behaviors seem like they will induce us to respect and emulate them, which doesn’t seem a crazy goal.
  4. I don’t understand what here Tyler thinks argues against alien immortality.
  5. Aliens could make themselves very visible, or hide completely. Suggesting that what we see is what they want us to see; they show us impressive abilities, but not crazy extreme abilities.
  6. Tyler says they are everywhere, and come from multiple alien origins, but doesn’t address why if so they haven’t made a big visible mark on the universe. That fact features centrally in my analysis.
  7. I proposed aliens are panspermia siblings, not parents. A directed panspermia scenario seems crazy to me, as there should be far easier ways to induce life elsewhere than sending out random primitive cells.
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Would UFO Aliens Be Our Gods?

In ancient societies, leaders and elites gained legitimacy in the minds of the masses via impressive displays of clothes, music, furniture, food, buildings, parades, etc., which made more plausible their claims to actually be a higher class of creatures. Religions also gained legitimacy by claiming to represent even higher classes of creatures, i.e., gods, with which they also associated impressive luxury displays. The masses worshipped and obeyed these leaders and gods, and deferred to their judgment.

One of the main reasons that we less worship and defer to such leaders and gods today is that we know more about them; we see leaders as less clearly superior, and gods as less clearly existing. But we are still the same sort of humans as the ancients, and so are capable of their actions, should we share their beliefs.

Which brings us to an interesting hypothetical that I will now consider: What if the world soon comes to a general consensus that some UFOs actually are aliens? And what if our direct physical relation to these aliens doesn’t change much? That is, they still don’t talk to us, we only see them rarely, and we don’t find their “bases”, their origins, or figure out any of their tech. And what if this situation persists for another century, or for many centuries?

In this postulated scenario, I think the main way that our world changes is this: in our minds, these UFO aliens take over the top of our status hierarchy; we see them as the top dog in our “pack”. And as status is a big deal to we social animals, this ends up being a big deal.

The first obvious implication is that acting or looking alien-like would start to become higher status. Hovering, fast movement and acceleration, bright fuzzy lights, making no sounds, geometric shapes, and smooth shiny surfaces without protuberances. Because that’s just how status works; if aliens are high status, we want to look like them.

Some would fall in status as a result of aliens being top status. The highest would fall, as would those who seemed to have opposed them, such as governments who lied about them and elite academics who dismissed them. We’d also see our familiar human elites and leaders as less in charge of our long term future.

We’d guess that these aliens have some agendas, and so even if they haven’t actually done much yet, they may well intervene in some scenarios. Maybe we’d worry less about killing ourselves, if we think they’d stop that. And if aliens don’t seem worried that our AI experiments might create super-intelligences that suddenly explode to remake the universe, maybe we would worry less about that too.

We would gossip a lot trying to guess alien priorities, priorities we’d be reluctant to visibly resist. We’d more want to adopt their priorities as our priorities, because, again, that is just how status works. Just as people in firms gossip a lot about CEO priorities, and as courtiers of a king gossip a lot about king priorities. They gossip, and also try to pretend that the CEO/king priorities always were their own deepest priorities.

People do seem to believe that they can guess UFO alien motives. In a recent poll, 65.2% of respondents guessed that these aliens main motive for visiting Earth is to “study us as independent example of life evolution.” Which is a pretty high status motive, you have to admit.

No doubt the people who push each priority X would try to also push the view that aliens also prefer X. But we also have some more direct evidence on alien priorities.

First, aliens must be very old and stable, so they less want or experience innovation and change compared to us. Second, they aren’t remaking the universe much around here, or anywhere we can see, yet such remaking would have happened naturally unless they had coordinated strongly to prevent it. Thus they must have a strong “world” government which enforces a policy of preventing mass colonization and remaking of the universe.

They haven’t killed us yet, and they also let us see them, so they can’t feel very threatened by us at our current level. Also, they refuse to talk to us, so they don’t respect us that much, and aren’t that interested in running the details of our world or our lives, or in converting us to their beliefs. In a great many ways, we are just “beneath” them.

Now when humans treat us like this, we are often offended, and expect observers to support our outrage. For example, 81% of respondents said that a small nation should see it an insult if the US refused to respond in any way to their request for a meeting. But only 36.6% of respondents said we should feel insulted if UFO aliens keep refusing to talk to us for another century. (And 52.3% said it would be an insult for a human to treat you like aliens are treating us now, in refusing to talk.)

This all suggests to me that we treat UFO aliens as very high status. You are far more likely to be offended if your sister refused to talk to you, relative to Bill Gates refusing to talk, as you accept that Gates is much higher status than you or your sister. Similarly, even though UFO aliens have come to visit our home, and are showing off their vast abilities, which they must know makes us nervous, most still don’t think we should be offended by their refusing to talk to us. Perhaps because they are as gods to us?

These inferred alien priorities have implications for our behavior. As the aliens have a world government, we’d be more inclined to give substantial powers to a world organization through which we study and deal with them. We’d also be more inclined to limit our physical and tech expansion, as the aliens seem to have also done this. We’d be more willing to slow down our rates of innovation and change, as aliens seem okay with this in their society. And we’d be more okay with just ignoring and refusing to talk to humans we see as beneath us, like the aliens seem to do with us. We’d also be less eager to preach and proselytize, as aliens don’t do that. Finally, if we keep thinking that aliens are mainly here to study us, we’ll be more eager to (from a distance) study other creatures of all sorts.

Of course not everyone would be eager fans of the aliens. Some would resent their ignoring us, and seek to resist their presumed dominance. In fact, being pro- or anti-aliens might become a big new axis of political orientation. Maybe even the main one. For every other existing political axis, we’d ask ourselves which side is more naturally the pro- or anti-alien side. Even racism.

To me this isn’t that pretty a picture overall. But the universe doesn’t consult me before it paints its pictures, and I will first try to see what it has painted, before I think about how I might change it, if that became possible.

Yes, many of these predictions might apply if alien behavior did change after we became convinced of them. But its hard to say more there without knowing more about in what ways their behaviors change. For example, if they acted more hostile we might not see them as top dog in our pack, but as a powerful enemy pack.

Note that this scenario seems to work out well for the aliens, which seems to vindicate their choice to not talk yet also not completely hide. And talking could easily risk their being forced to admit strange repulsive stuff that would really put us off. Maybe their show-not-talk strategy isn’t as crazy and a priori unlikely as many claim.

Added 15Jun: If we come to believe, as I do, that aliens are most likely artificial, having transcended their biological origins, we may then respect artificial things more.

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On UFOs-As-Aliens Priors

A careful analysis of UFOs should consider lots of data, and consider it in much detail. I oft hear skeptics seek shortcuts, such as by declaring all testimony invalid, or insisting that only some long conjunction of encounter features could be sufficient. But consider a legal accusation of attempted murder. Even though the prior odds that a random  X attempts to kill Y during hour Z is terribly low (<10-12), we are still willing to entertain such claims, and we accept personal testimony as an important part of supporting evidence.

Yes, advocates of things like UFOs seem willing to put more time into such details, and it may seem unfair to expect skeptics to put in as much work. But jurors and lawyers must put in a lot of effort in legal trials. This is the great problem of how to divide intellectual labor; as with most topics, we do best if we task a few with going into great detail on each topic, so the rest of us can defer to their analysis. If you aren’t willing to go into sufficient detail, then admit this isn’t one of your topics, and defer to others on it.

In that spirit, instead of expressing opinions on many UFO topics, let me instead focus on the area where I have the most relative expertise: the priors to associate with the some-UFOs-are-aliens hypothesis. As far as I can tell, the main reason that most give for skepticism that aliens visit Earth in the UFO style is that this theory seems a priori crazy unlikely. But that estimate seems wrong to me. Let me explain.

A full Bayesian analysis of the four main UFO theory categories (error, hoax, secret Earth orgs, aliens) needs eight numbers: one prior and likelihood for each theory. In this post I try only to estimate one of these eight numbers: the prior for the aliens theory. Here goes.

Life exists here on Earth, and our standard best theories say that this was not a miracle, nor was Earth the only place such things could happen. Furthermore, our universe also seems very large (perhaps infinite). Thus our standard best theories predict that advanced life has appeared and will appear many times out there.

These standard best theories also predict a wide range of dates when this could happen. As a result, two independent alien origins are likely to be millions to trillions of years apart in time. Which gives aliens a lot of time to travel to visit other aliens.

So we can break down doubts on prior expectations about UFO as aliens into three parts:

  • What is the chance that advanced aliens appear often enough in space and time for some of them to have been born early and close enough to travel to Earth to be here now?
  • What is the chance that aliens (or, more likely their robot descendants) who can travel actually do travel to Earth by now, but do not visibly remake the local universe?
  • Given that aliens exist, and travel to here, but don’t remake the local universe, what is the chance that they would act the way that UFOs seem to act, i.e., being somewhat evasive, but not completely hiding nor announcing themselves?

First, how close might aliens be? As my co-authors and I discuss here, humans seem to have arrived quite early in history, at least if one assumes that the universe would remain empty and wait indefinitely for advanced life like us to appear. This is the main reason we offer for postulating a grabby aliens deadline, to explain human earliness. And our grabby aliens model implies that aliens do appear often enough for maybe some of them to have come here by now.

Now grabby aliens arriving by here now would also be quite visible to us now. But our basic model is quite consistent with variations wherein there are many, perhaps thousands or millions, of non-grabby alien civs per grabby civ, all born at the same sort of places and times. These non-grabby civs do not remake their local universe. So either they die fast, life long but do not expand, or they expand long but do little to remake their universe.

In my view, the most likely scenario that puts long-expanding-but-not-remaking aliens here now is panspermia siblings. Life arose long ago on some very rare Eden, which then seeded our Sun’s stellar nursery, with life quickly spreading to most stars in that nursery. At least two of these stars eventually developed advanced life, but Earth was not the first. Aliens at the first star looked for their panspermia siblings, noticed simple life on Earth here long ago, and then long ago traveled to near here to await the arrival of advanced life. Where they now do their weird UFO encounter things.

So to explain UFOs as aliens, we must postulate that these first star sibling aliens had preferences and coordination abilities sufficient to do the following:

  • prevent any parts of their own civ from expanding and visibly remaking the local universe,
  • travel to sibling stars that might birth civs, to stand ready to prevent them from also expanding, but also not kill them, and
  • while waiting here they allow or induce the sort of UFO encounters we see, but prevent any clearer more direct interactions.

I estimate a chance of at least 10% for each of the following events, given the prior events:

  1. Earth was seeded by panspermia in its nursery
  2. A sibling star gave rise to a long-lived advanced civ long before now
  3. That civ prevents itself from expanding, tries to prevent siblings from expanding, and long ago traveled to here to wait to enforce this preference,
  4. They induce or allow UFO-style encounters while they wait here.

Note that #1 requires a high enough rate of rock transfer between star systems, #2 requires that most of the great filter happened on Eden, #3 is more likely when civs adopt strong “world” governments, and #4 is relatively likely because we shouldn’t really expect to be able to predict detailed behaviors of strange alien civilizations.

Four factors of 10% gives a minimum prior chance of 10-4, but as most of the probability weight should above these minimums, I estimate the total chance to be at least 10-3. As I’ve said before, combining all the relevant priors and posteriors I judge the hoax and aliens theories to be most likely for the hardest-to-explain UFO cases. But I don’t claim as much expertise on all the other numbers required to judge that, as I do for the one number I estimate here:

The prior chance of the aliens theory of the hardest-to-explain UFO cases is at least 10-3, relative to the other three theory categories of error, hoax, and secret Earth orgs.

This prior is actually pretty high compared to the usual priors in most legal cases. So the types and amounts of evidence on particular cases that is sufficient to convict in legal cases seems sufficient to judge UFOs-are-aliens as more or less likely than not. But again, I have no special expertise to offer you for judging the details of UFO encounters. I can just say that you need to look at such details; you can’t just dismiss UFOs-as-aliens theory with a wave of your philosophical hands.

Added 10June: Many take issue with my estimating 1/10 for the chance that aliens waiting here would be somewhat evasive, but not completely hide nor announce themselves. They don’t see this as a good plan for any goals they can think of.

But we are talking about an entire alien civilization here! Human societies often do things, like fight wars or stop having kids, that seem counter-productive from the point of view of that society as a whole. In addition, individual humans often do things that seem counter-productive until you consider their signaling incentives. I wrote a whole book on this.

If we often have trouble explaining the behaviors of human societies and individuals, I don’t think we should feel very confident in predicting detailed behaviors of a completely alien civilization. After all, many have reasonably doubted if we could even communicate with aliens, or recognize them when we saw them. Having outlined some possible signaling motives for alien UFO behavior, I can see that there are many possible explanations for aliens-as-UFO behavior. Thus a 1/10 prior seems reasonable to me.

Added 13Jun: I did 6 Twitter polls to elicit relative priors and likelihoods for the four main theory categories:

Added 14Jun: Thinking through the consequences of the show-but-don’t-talk strategy suggests that it will work out pretty well for the aliens.

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Skirting UFO Taboos

Since before I was born, elites have maintained a severe taboo against taking seriously the hypothesis that UFOs are aliens. As I’ve discussed, elite-aspiring UFO researchers have themselves embraced this taboo. They seem to figure that if we look carefully at all the other hypotheses, and see how inadequate they are, then the taboo against UFOs as aliens must collapse.

For elites pundits, this taboo is a problem when UFOs as possibly aliens are the topic of the day. Because elite pundits are also supposed to comment on the topic of the day. Their obvious solution: talk only about the fact that other people seem to be taking UFOs as aliens seriously.

For example, here is Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) in a 1992 word New York Times article:

Even if You Think Discussing Aliens Is Ridiculous, Just Hear Me Out

I really don’t know what’s behind these videos and reports, and I relish that. … Even if you think all discussion of aliens is ridiculous, it’s fun to let the mind roam over the implications. … Imagine, tomorrow, an alien craft crashed down in Oregon. … we are faced with the knowledge that we’re not alone, that we are perhaps being watched, and we have no way to make contact. How does that change human culture and society? …

One immediate effect, I suspect, would be a collapse in public trust. … Governments would be seen as having withheld a profound truth from the public. … “Instead of a land grab, it would be a narrative grab,” … There would be enormous power — and money — in shaping the story humanity told itself. … “An awful lot of people would basically shrug and it’d be in the news for three days,” …

how evidence of alien life would shake the world’s religions… many people would simply say, “of course.” … nation-states fall to fighting over the debris, … fractious results. … “Russians and Chinese would never believe us and frankly large numbers of Americans would be much more likely to believe that Russia or China was behind it,” … difficulty of uniting humanity …

knowledge that there were other space-faring societies might make us more desperate to join them or communicate with them. … might lead us to take more care with what we already have, and the sentient life we already know. … “inspire us to be the best examples of intelligent life that we could be.”

Note how Klein very clearly signals that he doesn’t believe, and that this is all about how people who believed would react; he never crosses the line to himself consider aliens.

Here is Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) in a 746 words Bloomberg article:

Now that the Pentagon takes UFOs seriously, it’s perhaps appropriate to consider some more mundane aspects of the phenomenon — namely, what it means for markets. UFO data will probably remain murky and unresolved, but if UFOs of alien origin become somewhat more likely (starting, to be clear, from a low base rate), which prices will change?

My first prediction is that most market prices won’t move very much. In the short run, VIX might rise, … But … would probably [quickly] return to normal levels. … I would bet on defense stocks to rise, … alien drone probes … might be observing with the purpose of rendering judgment. If they are offended by our militaristic tendencies, the quality of our TV shows and our inability to adopt the cosmopolitan values of “Star Trek” over the next 30 years, maybe they will zap us into oblivion. But … after such an act of obliteration, neither gold nor Bitcoin will do you any good.

Note that Cowen touches on a crucial issue, what if they judge us, but with a flippant tone and only for the purpose of predicting assets prices, which are set by other investors. If he were to directly and seriously consider that issue, he’d have violated the key taboo.

Here is Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) in 835 word Washington Post article:

These are all major, important stories, stories that lives and futures depend upon. And yet they’re almost irrelevant compared to the question that isn’t anywhere in my Twitter feed right now: Are we being watched by alien technology? …

Other humans … would not will the death of our entire species. Aliens might. … Whether we’re being visited, and what they might be up to, is the most important question of anyone’s lifetime, because, if so, everything that currently obsesses us, including the pandemic, will retreat to a historical footnote. …

So I’ve been surprised to find that the story of unexplained sightings, which has now been percolating for years, has been mostly a subplot to more ordinary human politics and folly. … it seems to be mostly fodder for jokes.  …Why is this particular unknowable getting such short shrift? …

One possibility is that UFOs have a social status problem; historically, they are associated with cranks … Thus, most … reflexively refuse to take the topic seriously. … But the third option is that we understand at some level that aliens would be a Very Big Deal — and that most of the possibilities for alien contact are pretty unpleasant. … the alternative is so horrible that I suspect for many of us, it simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

This is like all those long calls for a “conversation on race” that can’t seem to find the space to actually start conversing on race. (Because there is very little safe that one can actually say.) Here McArdle talks long on on being puzzled that we aren’t talking on the key issue, about which she doesn’t actually say much. In response to my complaint she tweeted “I did my best in 800 words!”

I’m pretty sure that any of these authors could have directly addressed the big “elephant in the room” alien issues here, if they had so desired. I’ve tried to do better.

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UFOs and Status

Status seems pretty central to the UFO phenomena.

For example, reports have been filed on well over 100K encounters worldwide so far, but most of the books & movies on the topic focus on the same few cases. These cases are chosen in part for having more witnesses, detail, and physical evidence. But they seem especially chosen for having prestigious witnesses and locations. Seen by police or military workers, especially pilots. At military bases, especially housing nukes. These same books and movies are most eager to interview sympathetic people who are very high status, such as heads of state.

Similarly, many ancient legal systems had formal rules relating status to whose legal testimony to believe. And the social status of witnesses matters greatly today in court, even when there are no explicit rules requiring this.

Apparently most who witness UFOs as part of their job don’t report them, fearing reputation consequences. Because UFO fans are widely seen as very low status, at least among cultural elites. Similarly, organizations like police, militaries, airlines, and airports don’t want to be associated with such events, and so discourage reports by members. Unless some outside monitoring system discourages it, such orgs probably simply destroy such reports when they can.

When high officials have been asked privately why they would be reluctant to publicly admit to UFOs, they consistently say that the public rewards them for projecting ability and knowledge re their topic areas. UFOs require them instead to admit that they don’t know, and that there may be other parties around far more able than they. This effect is larger for police and militaries, compared to other agencies. And it is largest for the United States, at least during the period when it has been nearly the world’s dominant military power.

This all fits with several other militaries around the world releasing their UFO reports, long before the US has considered doing so. And it predicts that coming US release will be minimal, at least compared to the data the US could have and may have been collecting.

As a mildly elite academic, I can directly feel the status hit. If UFOs have an exotic intelligent cause, then we as a species have a lot less freedom than we thought to direct our destiny. And our governments, elites, and academics can do less to protect or inform us.

Yes, we might fund more UFO research, but I honestly don’t see the evidence situation changing that much for the indefinite future. Given how much data we already have, I don’t see more funding changing the overall data situation that much. These aren’t events you can seek out; you have to wait for them. And if there are intelligent exotic UFO causers here, they are clearly not eager to clearly show themselves.

And as long as the data situation remains ambiguous, I expect academic elites to remain adamant in dismissing exotic explanations. They’ll probably divert most funding they get on this topic to other topics they respect more. It will be hard to make much intellectual progress here, and those who do will be consistently slighted by academic elites. Even if society comes to accept UFOs more as a legitimate topic of investigation, elites will make very sure that the people who have so far championed this cause will not get more respect. Instead funding and respect will go to existing elites who deign to touch on the topic, at least from acceptable angles.

Status effects may even help explain some key features of UFO behavior. For example, among humans today, the response to an aggressive physical attack usually depends on how strong is the attacker relative to the defender. (The strengths of both sides’ allies are usually included in this calculation.) When the attacker is much stronger, the usual response is submission. And if they have similar strength, then the defender is likely to react vigorously.

However, if the attacker is far weaker, like a toddler attacking an adult, the usual response is to signal one’s strength by easily deflecting the attack, with little harm to either side. And in the reports I’ve read, this seems to be the usual reaction of UFOs to human attack: easy deflection. Which seems to signal their awareness, intelligence, abilities, and status stance. Maybe they sometimes let us seem them just so they can dis us in this way.

Status effects might even explain their lack of communication. (If they exist, of course.) Often small nations are eager to “enter into talks” with big nations just for the status bump this gives; “they take us seriously, and include us among those who must be consulted”. Conversely, the ultimate status dunk is to refuse to talk to or about someone; you act as if they are as worthy of this as a gnat. Might this explain the otherwise-puzzling lack of direct communication from intelligent exotic causes of UFOs?

A perhaps related and more ominous possible reason for their lack of communication is that they expect this to lead to us asking them some awkward questions. About our history, their expectations about us, their previous behavior toward us, their future plans regarding us, etc. Often the simplest way to avoid having to answer awkward questions is simply refusing to talk. Maybe how they plan to treat us reflects their view of our relative status, and we might not react well to hearing this.

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Biologists Taboo Artificial Life

Recently I’ve reviewed three new books by academic biologists on the future of life in the universe. All three books have gained high profile and prestigious reviews in major media and academia. (Which is how I heard of them.) And all of these books, and all of these prestigious reviews, seem to share and enforce a taboo against seriously considering the possibility that artificial life will make a big difference to the cosmos.

For example:

Arthur admits the possibility of intelligent life spreading across planets, … and Arthur admits the possibility of artificial life. … But somehow these admissions make little difference to his forecasts, which ignore the possibility of artificial life at places other than planets, or made out of stuff other than carbon. And which ignore the possibility of intelligent artificial life spreading very far and wide, to become even more common than non-artificial life.

Similarly:

I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a [Cambridge] zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in million of years.

And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist [and computational biologist] recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials.

I actually just did a written debate with this last author, who wouldn’t even admit that I disagreed with him:

You write a long book mostly on the details of genetic engineering, saying we should use it to slowly change humans and their allied plants and animals, so that in 500 years we could launch them out to the cosmos, to arrive at other stars in a few thousand years.

I say, no, long before then artificial minds and life should have thoroughly replaced biology. A new kind of life, far more robust, able to grow far faster, able to travel out into space much sooner and faster, all made in factories out of stuff dug up in mines, and not at all based on biological cells, so that genetic engineering has little to offer them.

This all suggests more than just a few biologists with a mental block; it suggests an overall taboo within their shared intellectual culture, of biology academics who study astrobiology and our future. A taboo that has likely discouraged and distorted related research and analysis.

Added 30May: This post is discussed at Hacker News.

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