Tag Archives: Aliens

Hello Alien Polls

Define a “hello” alien civilization as one that might, in the next million years, identify humans as intelligent & civilized, travel to Earth, & say “hello” by making their presence & advanced abilities known to us. I just asked 15 Twitter poll questions on such aliens, each of which got 200-300 responses. 

Respondents mostly agreed to estimate a high chance of having internal status hierarchies (78%), being artificial (68%), trying to talk to us (64%), having morals (64%), and being descended from land animals (60%). Respondents mostly agreed on a low chance of being green (27%), once having had a nuke war (34%), and having internal conflicts (34%). They mostly agreed on a middle estimate (46%) on how much morals we’d share with them.

Respondents were split into two groups with strongly opposing views regarding if they could talk in our language, or if they feel materially threatened by our descendants. Respondents seem basically confused, with nearly even choice among the four options, regarding if hello aliens came from two genders, have identifiable agents, want to impress and lead us, or are led by a single government. 

Here are the main ways I disagree: Any aliens arriving here now on Earth must be very old; recent origin would be an incredible timing coincidence. As we don’t see them elsewhere in the sky, they have somehow prevented themselves from greatly changing nearby galaxies. This suggests they are green, and have a world government to enforce green rules.

Which suggests their reason for visiting: to get us to go along with their green rules. And a way to do that is to look very impressive but not talk to us, as talking would likely reveal things about them we’d hate.

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Great Filter With Set-Backs, Dead-Ends

A biological cell becomes cancerous if a certain set of rare mutations all happen in that same cell before its organism dies. This is quite unlikely to happen in any one cell, but a large organism has enough cells to create a substantial chance of cancer appearing somewhere in it before it dies. If the chances of mutations are independent across time, then the durations between the timing of mutations should be roughly equal, and the chance of cancer in an organism rises as a power law in time, with the power equal to the number of required mutations, usually around six.

A similar process may describe how an advanced civilization like ours arises from a once lifeless planet. Life may need to advance through a number of “hard step” transitions, each of which has a very low chance per unit time of happening. Like evolving photosynthesis or sexual reproduction. But even if the chance of advanced life appearing on any one planet before it becomes inhabitable is quite low, there can be enough planets in the universe to make the chance of life appearing somewhere high.

As with cancer, we can predict that on a planet lucky enough to birth advanced life, the time durations between its step transitions should be roughly equal, and the overall chance of success should rise with time as the power of the number of steps. Looking at the history of life on Earth, many observers have estimated that we went through roughly six (range ~3-12) hard steps.

In our grabby aliens analysis, we say that a power of this magnitude suggests that Earth life has arrived very early in the history of the universe, compared to when it would arrive if the universe would wait empty for it to arrive. Which suggests that grabby aliens are out there, have now filled roughly half the universe, and will soon fill all of it, creating a deadline soon that explains why we are so early. And this power lets us estimate how soon we would meet them: in roughly a billion years.

According to this simple model, the short durations of the periods associated with the first appearance of life, and with the last half billion years of complex life, suggest that at most one hard step was associated with each of these periods. (The steady progress over the last half billion years also suggests this, though our paper describes a “multi-step” process by which the equivalent of many hard steps might be associated with somewhat steady progress.)

In an excellent new paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, “Catastrophe risk can accelerate unlikely evolutionary transitions”, Andrew Snyder-Beattie and Michael Bonsall extend this standard model to include set-backs and dead-ends.

Here, we generalize the [standard] model and explore this hypothesis by including catastrophes that can ‘undo’ an evolutionary transition. Introducing catastrophes or evolutionary dead ends can create situations in which critical steps occur rapidly or in clusters, suggesting that past estimates of the number of critical steps could be underestimated. (more)

Their analysis looks solid to me. They consider scenarios where, relative to the transition rate at which a hard step would be achieved, there is a higher rate of a planet “undoing” its last hard step, or of that planet instead switching to a stable “stuck” state from which no further transitions are possible. In this case, advanced life is achieved mainly in scenarios where the hard steps that are vulnerable to these problems are achieved in a shorter time than it takes to undo or stuck them.

As a result, the hard steps which are vulnerable to these set-back or dead-end problems tend to happen together much faster than would other sorts of hard steps. So if life on early Earth was especially fragile amid especially frequent large asteroid impacts, many hard steps might have been achieved then in a short period. And if in the last half billion years advanced life has been especially fragile and vulnerable to astronomical disasters, there might have been more hard steps within that period as well.

Their paper only looks at the durations between steps, and doesn’t ask if these model modifications change the overall power law formula for the chance of success as a function of time. But my math intuition is telling me it feels pretty sure that the power law dependence will remain, where the power now goes as the number of all these steps, including the ones that happen fast. Thus as these scenarios introduce more hard steps into Earth history, the overall power law dependence of our grabby aliens model should remain but become associated with a higher power. Maybe more like twelve instead of six.

With a higher power, we will meet grabby aliens sooner, and each such civilization will control fewer (but still many) galaxies. Many graphs showing how our predictions vary with this power parameter can be found in our grabby aliens paper.

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How Do Aliens Differ?

Someone recently tweeted the question of if aliens would be more or less benevolent than us. My first reaction was “how could we possibly know how we differ from aliens?” But on reflection, that was hasty, and it seems that we could productively think about how we may differ from aliens.

If we are talking about aliens that we might meet soon, one big obvious difference is that they’d be far more advanced. Because aliens substantially less advanced than us couldn’t meet anyone. If we are nearly the least advanced creatures who could possibly cause or recognize a meeting, then they are almost surely much more advanced. Also, the rareness of having exactly the same origin time (i.e., date at which one becomes advanced enough to meet) implies that any aliens we meet soon must have had an origin time long before us. Millions of years at least, and perhaps billions of years.

What about aliens that we might meet many millions of years in our future, when we are then far more advanced? Can we predict how they might differ from us then? Our best bet seems to be to predict how their past (relative to then) might have differed from our past, as we at least know many things about our history up to today. And the most interesting such differences in histories would be ones that might more strongly “lock in”, causing differences that persist until that future date.

But how can we predict differences in alien histories? One approach is to look for spectrums where we seem near one end. For example, at some point humans became an “apex predator”, who preyed on other creatures but where no other creatures preyed on them. As this is at the end of a spectrum, we can say that other aliens were either also once an apex predator, or they were not. So we might expect that on average ancestors of aliens were more afraid of being preyed upon than were our ancestors.

A second example is that only 5% of stars are more massive, and thus shorter-lived, than our stars. Which suggests that most aliens might be connected to longer-lived stars than ours. A third example is that political units like nations today are nearly the size of the world, even though they were far smaller in the past. Which suggests that aliens tended to have smaller political units, relative to their worlds.

Of course for any feature where our history seems to differ from possible alternatives, we have to wonder how much success (in the sense of giving rise to an alien civilization that might meet others) could be caused by that feature. For example, maybe big stars are more likely to give rise to life, or give life more metabolism to evolve faster. Maybe predators tend to be smarter, and smarter creatures are more likely to give rise to civilizations. Or maybe the formation of nearly world size political units is a prerequisite for expanding into the universe. The more plausible is a strong selection effect for a feature, the less plausible it is that we can predict how aliens differ on that feature.

Okay, I’ve suggested that it is possible in principle to think productively about this topic, but also that this doesn’t seem easy. But a first task seems relatively easy: just collect candidate lists of features where we seem plausibly different, and where selection effects may not be overwhelming. Seems such a project could even be crowd sourced, via asking many people to contribute suggestions. What do you think world, wanna do this together?

Some places maybe to start: kinds of stars and planets, and more generally over places aliens might be found. Alternate kinds of biospheres. Alternate kinds of smart or social creatures. Alternate structures of civilized societies.

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Think of the (Alien) Children!

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren [in China].  Adam Smith

Among all the articles on UFOs I’ver read over the last half year, about half of them mentioned the possibility that some UFOs are aliens. But I can’t recall any giving thought to how such aliens might feel about the issue. Isn’t that awful self-centered of us? 

You may say that you can’t be bothered to empathize with only hypothetical creatures, and we just aren’t at all sure that UFO aliens exist. Fair enough. But then I will point you to grabby aliens; in my opinion we have strong enough evidence of their existence to say they are more likely to exist than not. If you recall, we need to explain why humans have arrived so early in the history of the universe, and a deadline set by grabby aliens who will soon fill up the universe seems our most robust explanation.

You may say that you can’t just take my word for this, that you must wait to see this argument endorse by standard academic astrophysics authorities. That, you say, is how “science” works. Fair enough. I hereby announce that our grabby aliens paper has been accepted for publication in one of the top astrophysics journals, aptly named Astrophysical Journal. (Here is a press release.) So now its not just speculation.

You may say that you still need to be sure they exist to care, and our results can’t support that level of certainty. But on the subject of global warming people often lament its effect on distant future generations, even though we can’t be sure that such future generations will exist. So you don’t need to be that sure, right?

You may argue that you’ll need to know more about these aliens before you can care about them. Fair enough. So let me tell you many things about them. They once were animals with minds and bodies like yours, but have since reimplemented themselves as artificial life. And they have been artificial life for millions of years; their tech is vastly more advanced than yours.

Even so, they are still more like you than all the other kinds of animals on Earth, as they should have trade, language, law, war, hierarchy, governance, tech, and much more. The first ones we meet will be frontier aliens, descendants of a long line who prioritized staying at the leading edge of expansion. At the expense of other things, such as world government. 

There, now do you know enough to care? Does it help to know that there are vastly more of them out there are humans on Earth?

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Brin’s UFO Questions

David Brin has some questions; I suggest some answers. His questions are indented; my answers are not.

I give a small chance that the much discussed “UAP” phenomena could – conceivably – be expendable drones or beam spots sent by such lurkers. Make that a VERY small chance. … ask some really fundamental questions, like: a) Why do UFO images keep getting fuzzier, when there are about a million times as many cameras than in the 1950s? 

The cameras that ordinary people have today aren’t higher resolution than they used to be, and ordinary people find it hard to take pictures of unexpected moving objects in the sky with camera phones. I don’t think the pictures are on average fuzzier today. Also, my theory suggests that their sources might be trying to stay near the edge of visibility. 

b) A whole lot depends on whether these sighted ‘UAPs’ are actually opaque physical objects that affect their surroundings and block passage of light from behind them! Or else, are they glowing spots of excited air that pass through light from the background behind them (translucent)? I have not seen this question even posed … == Cat lasers == My own hypothesis for what’s going on?  … very strong laser pointer. Go somewhere you can clearly see a wall many miles away. Like the Grand Canyon. Swipe left or right. If your wrist-flick was quick enough, that dot moved faster than the speed of light! … start with military laser systems for ionizing streaks of air and painting fake objects in the sky to serve as decoys. Here’s an excellent article. And what’s described is is impressively close!

This has been discussed, and this could well be the physical process behind many sightings. But if so, the abilities shown seem to be well beyond what has been revealed in our literature. Not only are these sometimes very large and bright “images”, but the beam source seems to be far away and well hidden. Hard to use this to explain sightings from decades ago, the US says it isn’t behind US sightings, and if some Earth power has this ability why is it revealing it to the world in this odd way?

are these glowing patches, blobs or “tic-tacs” radiating in just one or two colors? 

I think I recall data showing that at least for some night sightings the spectrums are broad. 

“I’ve never seen shock waves or ionization trails coming off them. … No acoustic booms?

Yes, that is one of the main puzzling features, and yes it might be explained via beam projection. 

Why do the vast majority of recent sightings appear to happen at US military training areas? 

I’m not sure this is true. We are much more inclined to believe military sighters, so they’d get more attention even if more sightings were not there. Remember that there have been over 100K sightings recorded over many decades. 

f) Getting back to fundamentals of motive and behavior: Why should we pay the slightest attention to “visitors” who behave like rude jerks? (Again, I say snub-em!)

Now, polymath Prof. Robin Hanson proposes they might have a reason for behaving this way. “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.”

I deem that to be pretty hard a stretch, since our natural response to nasty tricks is with hostility and determination to get smarter/stronger, fast. Anyway, it’s clear from the history of colonialism on Earth that Robin’s proposed method was never, even once, used to dazzle and cow native peoples. The Portuguese did not conquer Indonesia by coating their ships in glitter and sailing quickly by, while shouting “ooga booga!” for 80 years without making actual contact. Instead, the classic approach used by conquerers back to Chinese and Persian and African dynasties – and especially European colonizers – was to co-opt and suborn the local tribe or nation’s top, leadership clade. Use power and wealth and blackmail and targeted assassinations to install your puppets and help them overcome local rivals. Superior aliens? No need for stunts if you have sufficient computational ability to learn our language and do those same things. And one can argue that recent US history is… well… compatible. (Especially the blackmail part!)

Yes, humans sometimes submit to foreign humans, who are very similar and can inter-mate. It is far less clear what it would take to get all humans to capitulate to very strange aliens, and aliens might fear that would change us too much for their purposes. After all, as they could probably just exterminate us, they must value something about what we are independent of them. 

Also, aliens might have wanted a simple robust strategy that could be approved well in advance by distant home officials reluctant to give much discretion or powers to local Earth representatives of limited trustworthiness and abilities. Revealing more info about themselves might lead us to hate them or find ways to resist them. 

g) Why haven’t successive U.S. administrations who hated each other used “the truth” as a political weapon against the other party? … 

By all reports, until now U.S. political administrations have not been trusted with any info at all about UFOs. 

No, my complaint, again, is that UFO nuttery is boring! Leaping to clutch the dumbest, most stereotypical and mystically primitive ‘theory,’ slathering on a voluptuous splatter of “I’m such a rebel” anti-authority pretentiousness, and then smacking in happy smugness like those French castle guards in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. 

That seems a bit unfair. If anything the most respected UFO researchers are reluctant to talk about any theories at all, for fear of losing respectability. 

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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 is 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 two features of sibling alien preferences: 1) they want us get us to comply with their rule against making big visible changes to the universe, and 2) they are reluctant to just kill, crush, enslave, or dominate us to get this outcome (or they’d have already done one of these). Aliens somehow value something about us independent of their influence, and thus prefer us to organically and voluntary comply with their rule.

To induce our voluntary min-change compliance, their plan is put themselves gently 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 and discretion by their local representatives. Especially if their very old and stable centralized civilization has atrophied and lost much of its prior generality and flexibility. Or if they worry that such representatives may “go native” and be persuaded by us to go grabby.

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 voluntarily 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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