Where the robot probes at?

You can get a screensaver for your computer called ‘SETI @ Home’, which helps to analyse radio-​​telescope data, searching for alien signals. This is hosted by the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University of California, and works using distributed computing on internet connected computers, and by assuming that intelligent extraterrestrial life is fond of using the same highly advanced technology as rural community radio in the 1940’s.

It’s no small point that the technology we’re using to analyse the data is now more advanced than the technology we’re supposed to be searching for. Radio technology began widespread use at around the beginning of the twentieth century, and given current trends, is likely to become essentially redundant in our lifetimes. That’s a window of around 150 years, and if we’re to assume that the technological progress of an alien civilisation is in any way comparable to our own (and we must in order to justify SETI), we must admit that searching for radio waves is a pretty desperate way to look for it.

Yes, I’m questioning SETI. Don’t hate me. The idea of contact with extra-​​terrestrials is many magnitudes of awesome, I know. But as skeptics we must follow the evidence. And in my investigations, there was just no disputing the logic in the Fermi paradox. I’m so sorry, Mr Sagan *salutes*.

The Fermi paradox is a complex and nuanced problem for those searching for extra-​​terrestrial life. It’s basically characterised as the apparent contradiction between the high estimates of probability of the existence of intelligent life, and the lack of evidence for any such thing. I prefer to express it this way: “If the…if there’s aliens and stuff, why is…where’s all the robot probes, huh? What’s up with that, yo?” You might think that’s not very eloquent, but I think you smell, so we’re even. Anyway look it up for a more comprehensive insight, but here’s a basic run down.

It’s a numbers game. Drake’s equation estimates, I dunno, something like a bazillion civilisations out there somewhere. But if we assume a few basic things about life and intelligent life, common sense tells us there would be evidence everywhere. Given the vast age of our galaxy, we would have to assume that there have been civilisations around for eons before we even crawled out of the slime. And since there are no apparent hurdles to galactical colonisation (all you need is enough time), it’s logical to assume that our galaxy would be colonised by now – if not by organic life, at least by its SUPER ROBOT PROBES™. Robot probes solve the problem of long distance travel because they can last über-​​long periods of time without the need for chocolate or beer. Get those guys out there, and the galaxy will be yours in no time, mwahahaha. And by no time, I mean lots of time, but it’s still no time as far as the universe is concerned. And it isn’t.

Ok, you might think that some or most civilisations wouldn’t last long enough to develop and send out their robot probes, cause you know, war and stuff, or lack of resources, or the dreaded space plague. But it would only need to happen once. And it would only take around 5 to 10 million years to complete the project, which is super quick, ladies and gents. So either Drake’s equation is wrong, or space plague is much worse than we thought.

But can we assume that an intelligent civilisation would be hell bent on developing a glorious galactic empire? In a way, yes. If we accept this intelligent life has developed by the same principles of evolution via natural selection as we have, we are accepting that it will always strive to reproduce and spread. If it survives long enough, it will chew through its planets resources and start looking elsewhere. However you spin it, you always end up expecting robot probes and not finding any.

To me, this is one of those cases where an absence of evidence does strongly suggest evidence of absence. I’m not saying there’s no alien life out there. I’m only saying that it must be much rarer than some people like to believe, and the chances of coming in contact with it are roughly comparable to the chances that Jesus will come back to earth riding a unicorn made of cheese. I don’t mean to be a killjoy. Just…you know. Skeptical. So by all means, help out SETI with your screen saver. Just don’t expect to meet an alien disguised as your dead father on a beach telling you ‘this is the way we’ve done things for millions of years’ any time soon.



PS: I do, of course, hope I’m wrong. If you think you have a knock out counter argument to my demand for robot probes, by all means let me hear it. Let’s get this mother discussed.