Sunday, March 29, 2015

Searching for the Anthropological Alien

An eminently sensible article in today's New York Times from Seth Shostak, the Director of SETI and a tireless advocate for our continuing quest to find intelligent life beyond the Earth.  But not just that: he's also been a leader in the continuing discourse of what each of the terms in the acronym "SETI" should mean: what kind of search?  Where?  And what should constitute "intelligence"?  This time, he's weighing in on a debate over actively courting extraterrestrial neighbors by broadcasting transmissions into space.  What should we say?  And shouldn't we be more careful?  Perhaps extraterrestrial intelligence will be less-than-impressed with the ravages that modernity and capitalism have wrought.  Or perhaps they'll see our various weaknesses, and swoop down to attack!  These arguments, Shostak suggests, have more to tell us about contemporary, Hollywood scripts than about the intentions of aliens, and he counters with another, suitably contemporary, proposal: send the aliens Big Data!

But this Big Data approach to SETI (Big Data SETI?) seems just as implicated in our vision of human futures as any Hollywood evocation of alien invasion.  "Big Data" seem poised to solve all of our problems, and it was just a matter of time before the idea came up in the context of extraterrestrial life.  And this is ok.  Unavoidably, SETI is about communicating with humans--today.  Each SETI proposal, each new Arecibo project, is potentially data about extraterrestrial intelligence, but also data about terrestrial intelligence.  As Kant writes (and as David Clark expertly annotates),
"The highest concept of species may be that of a terrestrial rational being [eines irdischen vernünftigen], but we will not be able to describe its characteristics because we do not know of a nonterrestrial rational being [nicht- irdischen Wesen] which would enable us to refer to its properties and consequently classify that terrestrial being as rational. It seems, therefore, that the problem of giving an account of the character of the human species is quite insoluble [sie schlechterdings unauflöslich], because the problem could only be solved by comparing two species of rational beings on the basis of experience, but experience has not offered us a comparison between two species of rational beings."  
To put it another way--we have already given Kant his aliens, and each SETI experiment is simultaneously an encounter with an extraterrestrial rationality with which to measure ourselves.  As we move from SETI@home to what will undoubtedly be fascinating experiments with Big Data, we uncover more and more of our own assumptions about intelligence and communication, and our own concern about the intentions of the humans and nonhumans around us.  In this case, "we" (keeping in mind this is hardly a universal "we") worry about the messages we're sending, the networks we're forming.  The albatross of Big Data around around our necks continues to compel us (like the Ancient Mariner) to tell the governments and institutions around us everything about ourselves, all of the time.  Do we really want aliens mining our Big Data?  Do we really want the terrestrial, non-human agents around us to mine our Big Data (search engines, social network analysis, etc.)?