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SETI mulls reboot: Believing the strangest things, loving the alien

Radio? Just because we like it doesn't mean ET phones home

By Richard Chirgwin, 11 Jul 2016

SETI (the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is both exciting and disappointing: exciting because of peoples' eternal wish for someone else to be out there; and disappointing because life proves so hard to find.

The SETI Institute's Nathalie Cabrol is wondering whether the whole idea needs something of a reboot, a ground-up look at what we're looking for, so the world can design strategies to find it.

Cabrol has released a pre-publication version of a proposal to go back to first principles, and involve a lot more disciplines in a redesign of the world's search: astrobiology, life sciences, geosciences, planetary sciences, space sciences, cognitive sciences and mathematics among them.

She says SETI is soon going to invite the research community to help craft “a new scientific roadmap for SETI”, to “understand how intelligent life interacts with its environment and communicates.

The reboot, Cabrol writes, would start with three basic questions:

  • How abundant and diverse is intelligent life in the universe?
  • How does intelligent life communicate?
  • How can we detect intelligent life?

She continues: “Ultimately, SETI’s vision should no longer be constrained by whether ET has technology, resembles us, or thinks like us. The approach presented here will make these attributes less relevant, which will vastly expand the potential sampling pool and search methods, ultimately increasing the odds of detection”.

Cabrol's assessment is that the search so far has, in essence, been a “search for ourselves”. For example, SETI's best-understood search for the electromagnetic fingerprints of radio transmissions carry a strong “life like us” assumption.

Hence the multi-disciplinary reboot Cabrol proposes: she writes that a broader understanding of the “who” – their possible chemistry, for example, and possible genomics – can inform the kinds of life signatures the world looks for, the communications technologies that “ET” might use, the computing needed to sift signatures, and so on.

Vulture South would add that as well as laying out the ways in which the search can be rebooted, the paper offers a useful catch-up on just how broad the disciplinary input to SETI could be.

“Ultimately, to find aliens, we must become the aliens”, Cabrol notes. It would be inappropriate of El Reg to suggest the search start in Silicon Valley, so we won't. ®

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