Technosignatures: SETI in sheep’s clothing


Last month I attended (virtually) a scientific workshop on “technosignatures,” held in Houston and sponsored by NASA. It was weird, fascinating, and ultimately frustrating.

NASA sponsored this workshop, organized by scientists with the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), because Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, which is in charge of authorizing NASA programs, is fascinated by SETI and thinks NASA should get back in the game. Rep. Smith, by means of a video clip, opened the workshop by saying he’s read every single book on the subject.

Michael New, the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s deputy associate administrator for research, said at the workshop that NASA was sponsoring the meeting because “there’s language in our authorization bill that says we should be interested.” New also mentioned that NASA’s call for proposals for exobiology research does not exclude SETI research in general – only searches for radio signals of extraterrestrial intelligent origin.

Scientists engaged in the search for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life (SETI, for search for extraterrestrial intelligence) have decided that “SETI” has acquired a taint. So now they say they are searching for evidence of technosignatures – that is, evidence of technologies produced by intelligent life. It’s still SETI, as far as I’m concerned (see below for more on what a technosignature might be).

Scientists at the workshop offered up many interesting, intriguing, far-out, and to a large degree infeasible (either financially or technologically, though mostly financially) proposals for advancing the search for evidence of ETI life.

Sofia Sheikh of Penn State University reported to the group on recommendations from an ad hoc committee on “SETI nomenclature.” For example, the recommended definition for (or meaning of) “intelligence” is “the quality of being able to deliberately engineer technology which might be detectable using astronomical observation techniques.” (This definition excludes non-human varieties of intelligence – say, octopus intelligence, bird intelligence…). The group also recommends rejecting use of the term “advanced” because it’s a vague term that stems from “deprecated theories” (that is, the belief that human life is the pinnacle of evolution and that human life is superior to all other forms of life on Earth).

Nonetheless, other presenters referred to the so-called “Kardashev scale” – proposed in 1964 by Russian radio astronomer and SETI advocate Nikolai Kardashev – “ a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy a civilization is able to use,” according to Wikipedia.

David Grinspoon of the Planetary Science Institute questioned the wisdom of the Kardashev scale. The history of human civilizations “disqualifies us from considering ourselves an intelligent” species. So in pursuing SETI, “what we seek is not what we are.” An “inevitable-expansion fallacy” is embedded in the Kardashev scale, an assumption that the more energy a civilization consumes, the more developed it will be. Intelligent civilizations on Earth have not acted very intelligently.

Adam Frank of Rochester University posed the question, “How do we avoid anthropocentric tunnel-vision?” (Good question. It was on display in a number of presentations at the workshop. See below.)

SETI Institute president Bill Diamond claimed that “all of humanity is curious” about extraterrestrial intelligent life. (I myself am not aware of any convincing evidence showing this to be the case.) Diamond also claimed that “SETI can only serve to drive greater public interest” in space exploration and that SETI “can enhance NASA’s brand.” (These are questionable claims, and I disagree.)

Shubham Kanodia of Penn State noted that our knowledge of the “known” universe is severely lacking and that SETI scientists have searched very little of the “cosmic haystack” for evidence of ETI – “a bathtub of water out of all of Earth’s oceans.” Why? “Because we haven’t searched that much.” (Though this was not Kanodia’s point, the point to me is that the search space is so vast that the idea of a thorough search is implausible.)

Others argued that SETI researchers should be looking for evidence of non-terrestrial artifacts in our own solar system – say, on Mars or Venus, planets that may have been habitable billions of years ago. Ravi Kopparapu of Penn State said researchers have searched very little of the searchable space in the solar system, “Repeated searches with time” may yield finds. He also said what’s needed to advance the search for ETI artifacts is “further synthesis and study on the persistence of uniquely industrial byproducts in ocean sediment environments.”

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said we could explore the subsurface of Venus and Mars with ground-penetrating radar and deep drilling to look for buried signs of past civilizations. Such searches should look for metals, multiple extinction horizons, nuclear waste, plastics, and synthetic chemicals, for example. Something to think about: “What will the fingerprint of the Anthropocene era” – the current human-dominated era of life on Earth – “be in the eventual sedimentary record hundreds of millions of years from now? Fingerprints of past industry may be more apparent in geology than in artifacts, he said.

(These arguments for searching for ETI artifacts are based on the “anthropocentric-tunnel-vision” assumption that ET intelligence would be like human intelligence – not, say, octopus intelligence.)

It’s easy to design an algorithm to look for a specific hypothesized signal, noted David Kipping of Columbia University, but the challenge is knowing how to recognize “the truly weird.”

Other presenters offered ideas about how to employ data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, near-infrared/infrared astronomical observations.

Jamie Drew, chief of staff for the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Initiatives, reported on partners in the organization’s SETI project, Breakthrough Listen, including the Green Bank Observatory, the University of California-Berkeley, and the Square Kilometer Array. The project is also pursuing a partnership with China’s FAST 500 Telescope, now the largest radio telescope in the world. Drew also noted that Breakthrough will not be proceeding with its proposed Breakthrough Message project due to its controversial nature (many scientists think it would be unwise, perhaps unethical, to send messages out in hopes that they would be received by ETI).

It seems to me that the SETI community has done a good enough job of tapping into billionaire reserves (Paul Allen for the Allen Telescope Array, Yuri Milner for Breakthrough Listen). NASA receives far more qualified proposals for funding for astrophysics and planetary science research than it has the budget to fund. Why add SETI? And even if Rep. Smith’s proposed $10 million a year for two years for SETI at NASA is appropriated – an unknown right now – I can’t see how the sorts of science projects discussed at the workshop will get very far along. Then again, I’m a self-described SETI skeptic.

3 Responses to “Technosignatures: SETI in sheep’s clothing”

  1. Jason Wright Says:

    Hi, Linda. Thank you for participating in the workshop and for your summary. I was especially thankful that you could contribute your expertise on some of the historical points made at the beginning of the workshop.

    But I admit that I find it puzzling that SETI is a “wolf” in your title metaphor, as if the field is preying on NASA or something. The term “technosignatures” was chosen for the workshop not by SETI practitioners, but by NASA, apparently to mirror the Congressional language (and perhaps because, as Michael New noted, that term “produces fewer antibodies” at NASA.)

    You write that as far as you’re concerned “it’s still SETI” as though you’ve seen through some sort of ruse by the SETI community, but one of the unanimous, repeatedly emphasized messages of the workshop by the participants is that SETI *is* the hunt for technosignatures. I don’t think anyone’s trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes (to mix sheep metaphors for a moment.)

    From my perspective the value of the term “technosignatures” is not that it hides the true intent here, but that it emphasizes how much more to SETI there is than the original radio program at NASA called “SETI,” and that it makes explicit the analogy with the hunt for “biosignatures” (a search which, I would note, suffers from most of the same philosophical difficulties that you attribute to SETI in terms of having a huge search space and being plagued by our not being really sure how alien life would manifest.)

    As for billionaire interest in the field, it’s an odd argument to make that if billionaires are going to fund it, then the government should not. We certainly don’t hear that argument much for, say, research into cancer or combating malaria or educating our children or developing quantum computers or countless other endeavors. Indeed, I think much of the public (incorrectly) assumes that NASA properly spends at least some of its resources looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, and would support that being a part of its permanent research portfolio, regardless of the level of funding from the private sector.

    Finally, a clarification about whether NASA accepts SETI proposals for funding: while Michael New said it was his *intention* that non-radio SETI work be permitted in exobiology proposals, he also acknowledged and took the blame for the “confusing” language that has, in fact, “exclude[d] SETI research in general” from the program. (It is similarly excluded from the XRP program, although, again, Martin Still said that should not be the case and that he would fix it).

    So I was heartened to hear from both New and Still that in the future SETI proposals should and will be permitted to compete on a level playing field with the rest of astrobiology for NASA research money. If they follow through that will be a welcome and positive outcome from the workshop, regardless of the fate of the funding language in the House bill.

    • doctorlinda Says:

      Members of the SETI community had been switching from “SETI” to “technosignatures” for some time before the term should up in legislation. I was working with NASA’s SETI project in the early 1990s when the SETI team changed the name of its SETI Microwave Observing Project (SETIMOP) to the High Resolution Microwave Survey, over concerns that some people, in Congress and perhaps elsewhere, might balk at the term “SETI.” The project was cancelled in 1993.

  2. More on “technosignatures” (a.k.a. SETI) | doctorlinda Says:

    […] as “science” (and because it’s a long word, I’m going to shorten it to TSs here.) As I’ve said before, the search for TSs is still […]

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