Monday, February 23, 2009

Bracewell probes: part three

As we enter an era of molecular manufacturing and ubiquitous computing, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine what form an extraterrestrial presence might take. I'm personally convinced that the UFO phenomenon, bizarre as it initially seems, conforms to at least some of the "acceptable" criteria for a Bracewell-type probe. If I'm right, then the electromagnetic bias evidenced by our radio searches takes an abrupt and unwelcome backseat to something far stranger.

If our solar system is host to an ET intelligence, argue transhumanist pundits, it's unlikely we'll meet flesh-and-blood aliens. Metallic interstellar spaceships with biological passengers made sense to pre-computer audiences, but the reality-bending potential of the Silicon Age has cautioned theorists from expecting anything so blatant as the arrival of a "mothership." It's more likely that our first meeting with ETI will involve a novel form of artificial intelligence -- perhaps even the encoded persona of the ETs themselves. (It's worth noting the possibility that the fabled signal awaited by SETI researchers may turn out to be a practical blueprint instead of a mere greeting. In Carl Sagan's "Contact," the blueprint provides humanity with a transportation device, but perhaps it's just as reasonable to expect instructions for building an "alien-making machine": certainly an elegant solution to crossing the void in a messy, energy-intensive spacecraft.)

If we're dealing with an interstellar AI, its capabilities could be quite "indistinguishable from magic" -- and its motives substantially weirder than expected by mainstream scientists intent on marketing ETI as a readily comprehensible "product."

A sufficiently ancient ET presence could easily predate humanity and could even have played a role in guiding our evolution (a la Arthur C. Clarke's enigmatic black Monolith in "2001"). If so, there's no reason it should simply vanish upon our achieving what Sagan aptly called "technological adolescence." Indeed, an abiding alien intelligence might consider our continued existence imperative, offering the prospect that we've been subjected to some elusive form of psychosocial engineering lest we exterminate ourselves through warfare or environmental abuse.

Granted that a "neo-Bracewellian" presence could appear much how it wanted to, bound only by the laws of physics, might the UFO phenomenon shed light on our seeming cosmic isolation?

This piece originally appeared at


Anonymous said...

I think your conjecture concerning probes in this piece is, at the very least, a viable possibility. Why not an engineered life form that is beyond anything we can imagine right now? It could take the form of a vehicle, for lack of a better term, that is actually itself an intelligent life form, self sustaining, self repairing, self guiding.

My question is regarding motivation. You have posed that our continued existence might be an imperative. I struggle to understand what value, other than study, we might be to such a intelligence and I just can't imagine an intelligent life form guiding us in our development only to end up with where we find ourselves. Possible, sure, but still I can't understand why.


Nergal said...

Why bother sending machines to encourage alien life to follow a certain path? When the oven dings and you pull them out, all you have is a slightly strange copy of yourself - the best copy your machines could make. Instead, why not let intelligence develop on it's own, only interfering to pull their asses out of the collective fire (nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, etc). That way it's less work, and ensures you have someone interesting to talk to when you're done.

Mac said...


I guess the irony of my spin on Bracewell's model is that by the time the probe reaches us it might very well be indistinguishable from biology.

Anonymous said...


You always strive for the most complicated (albeit entertaining) solutions to the ET enigma.

What's really frustrating to me is that you seem to consistently dismiss F.O.I documents, astronaut testimony, insider testimony and more recently a plethora of "officially" released government documents pertaining to the ET puzzle.

What part of the above don't you want to look at and or why don't you take it more seriously? Maybe the question should be; why is the solution always an ambiguous, pet theory exploration for you rather than the literal? What is wrong with "Grey Aliens" poking and prodding but refusing to make open contact with an inferior, animalistic species? Seems pretty logical to me.

Mac said...


What's really frustrating to me is that you seem to consistently dismiss F.O.I documents, astronaut testimony, insider testimony and more recently a plethora of "officially" released government documents pertaining to the ET puzzle.

There's no doubt that the subject is taken seriously by officialdom. Thus far, however, all of the released documentation points toward a covert research effort. Yes, astronauts have seen objects -- and one would have to consider their firsthand observations reliable -- but very little of what they've observed argues for the reigning nuts-and-bolts interpretation.

Sure, we have plenty of forgeries to keep us entertained. Interestingly enough, this is where we find some of the lynchpins of the "Gray alien" mythos -- which fails as a resolution of the ETH because the salient aspects of the encounter experience are far older (and more prevalent) than the idea that we're being visited by poking and prodding alien anthropologists.

The "Gray" is the latest in a parade of convenient labels for a phenomenon that may only be tangentially related to the UFO mystery.

Your point, however is well-taken: There's nothing illogical or impossible about extraterrestrial visitation; indeed, I think a subset of the UFO enigma may eventually yield to a modified form of the ETH. But I'm convinced we're looking at a deeper puzzle that's rooted in the very physics of perception, not the "mere" comings and goings of big-eyed visitors.

Tim said...

Neat picture! You make that?

Mac said...


Nope. Found it on the Web. If I remember correctly it's from a trippy fractal animation.

asif ifteakhar said...

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