Centauri Dreams on the probability that we'll recognize alien megascale engineering:
Some years back, I was doing an interview with Michio Kaku and made a confident statement that we 'knew that no Kardashev type III civilizations existed in the intergalactic neighborhood,' to which Kaku responded with disbelief. Why should I think I knew what alien technologies would be like given the time frames we were talking about? His point was that we would be no more likely to recognize such engineering, based on our own assumptions, than an ant colony would be to understand that the superhighway running past nearby was an artifact and a sign of a superior intelligence.
I tend to agree with Kaku. In any case, I'm far from sold on the validity of the so-called "Fermi Paradox," presently the subject of George Dvorsky's thought-provoking Sentient Developments. In my opinion, Dvorsky's undisguised disdain for the UFO phenomenon only undermines an otherwise systematic attempt to fathom the alien psyche.
Past posts suggest that Dvorsky's appreciation for the UFO problem is rooted in the idea that UFOs, if real, must necessarily be nuts-and-bolts spacecraft piloted by diminutive caricatures of ourselves (a meme that's survived among ufologists despite challenges posed by Jacques Vallee and others of a less literal bent). But the phenomenon's multiplexity and apparent mythic syntax allow for contact scenarios in keeping with the Cosmos of Centauri Dreams, Kaku and Dvorsky.
Instead of relatively limited Bracewell probes, for instance, imagine an intelligent technology capable of engaging emerging civilizations in an excruciatingly patient (by human standards) form of theater. Many UFO encounters seem less like chance sightings of extraterrestrial hardware than staged events conceived by an overarching intelligence that may have little to do with the will of perceived "occupants." Just as a Bracewell probe's agenda involves instigating a simple dialogue with an emergent civilization (or at least its technological ambassadors), the more robust capabilities and resources at the disposal of a galaxy-spanning post-"Singularity" intelligence should be more than up to the task of communicating with us.
But are we confident that such communication will be limited to electromagnetic exchanges? In light of Ray Kurzweil's amply demonstrated law of accelerating returns, perhaps it's just as likely that our first conversation with extraterrestrials will take the form of a complex psychosocial experiment (in which unconventional flying objects may play only a partial role). Although undoubtedly physical, it's an open question whether "real" UFOs are metallic spacecraft in the familiar sense (although in the early days of the phenomenon researchers quickly fastened to the idea, sensing appealing parallels with our own aerospace ventures). Dispensing with the conventional notion of "mere" ET craft allows us to view the UFO problem as a manifestation of technologies ranging from von Neumann machines to "utility fog."
If the ET intent is to test our reactions to its presence (or something more profound, as the phenomenon's impact on our mythology might indicate), quickly assembling "ships" and even "aliens" from raw materials would enable the disparity of forms seen in the sky. The flexibility of nanotech construction would allow the UFO intelligence to respond to our preconceptions in "real time," thereby ensuring a permanent foothold in the collective unconscious while maintaining plausible deniability -- at least among those tasked with policing potentially subversive memes.
Anthropologists have remarked on the inability of less-advanced cultures to profitably adapt to the arrival of more sophisticated cultures. UFOs, with all their attendant pageantry (including violation of military airspace and other airborne theater) are consistent with a form of deliberate invitation, perhaps imposed by an intelligence that -- like the Monolith-builders from "2001" -- promises to elude human comprehension.