Beyond the singularity: The search for extraterrestrial technologies | Andrew Siemion | TEDxBerkeley

Beyond the singularity: The search for extraterrestrial technologies | Andrew Siemion | TEDxBerkeley

September 9, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Tijana Mihajlović
Reviewer: Denise RQ Good morning. Are we alone? Do we live in a Universe that is populated
with many, many intelligent species, or are we, as human beings,
just the only intelligent life anywhere in the Universe? The last couple of centuries
have been a triumph of modern astronomy. We can now trace back
the history of the Universe to just seconds after the Big Bang, when our Universe began. We can watch
the Cosmic Microwave Background and map out the structure
of the very early Universe. We can track the very first stars that formed in the first few hundreds
of millions of years after the Universe was born. We can track the formation of galaxies. We understand nearly everything
that there is to know about the way that the Universe was born and the way that the Universe
continues to evolve, except for one
very glaring exception: life. We know that in the very first
few hundreds of millions of years after the Earth formed, life arose on our planet. We know that from fossils
like these, stromatolites, that were formed
by the very first organisms that existed on our planet, cyanobacteria. So very quickly, as soon as the Earth
cooled off, after its formation, we know that life began here. And even more amazing than the fact that a self-replicating organism
somehow came forth, amidst the laws of thermodynamics
that govern our Universe, that life evolved fantastic complexity, and, in fact,
eventually evolved intelligence. Amazingly enough, we now know that nearly every single star
in our galaxy hosts a planet. And something like one in five
of those stars hosts a planet something like the Earth, at just the right distance from the star
to have liquid water exist on the surface. But on any of those planets
did life arise? Did something similar
to what happened on our own planet happened on those other planets? We know that the galaxy is awash in water, it’s awash in organic molecules,
and complex chemistry. All of the things that we know were necessary for life
to begin on this planet exist in abundance throughout the galaxy. But did life ever arise
on any of those planets? And even more pressing of a question: did that life – if it did arise – did it ever go on to develop intelligence? Is intelligence a common outcome of life? Is intelligence a driven process? Does life proceed towards intelligence for some reason
that we don’t yet understand, or is intelligence simply
some evolutionary fluke that only happened on one single planet
that maybe did develop life? And again, even more interesting, if intelligence does arise commonly,
how far can technology progress? How advanced could
very advance life become? The Universe is nearly
14 billion years old, and our Galaxy is something like
12 billion years old. So there could be life out there
if it evolved intelligence that could be dramatically more advanced than the life that we have
here on this planet. Now, we don’t have any way
of directly detecting intelligent life, so we use technology or can use technology
as a proxy for intelligence. Here, on this planet,
we have been producing technology that has been emitting signals that would be detectable
at very, very large distances, well out into the Galaxy
for hundreds of years. These are things like high-power TV
and radio transmitters that we use for communication systems
here on Earth, radars that we use to map
other planets in our Solar System, or asteroids that we have
in our own Solar System, and also laser technology. We don’t do this yet here on our planet, but it’s an amazing fact that if you take our most powerful lasers
and our largest mirrors, and you pair them together, for the fraction of a second that our most powerful lasers
can produce light, they can outshine the Sun by factors of a thousand
and more than a thousand light years away. We have just announced a brand new program that we think is going to be
humanity’s best chance ever to answer this question. It’s called “Breakthrough listen”. It’s humanity’s boldest attempt ever to determine whether or not
we are alone as intelligent beings. It’s a 100-million-dollar ten-year project
that will use three telescopes to conduct the most comprehensive,
sensitive, and intensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence
in history. We’re going to use optical telescopes, one called The Automated Planet Finder, that is just about an hour away from here,
near San Jose at Lick Observatory, and two of the world’s
largest radio telescopes, the Parkes Telescope
in Australia, near Sidney, and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia,
here in the United States. The Green Bank Telescope is one of the world’s largest
movable structures, and it is, in fact,
the largest fully steerable antenna that we have here, on this planet. With the telescope
like the Green Bank Telescope, we could detect a human-like technology
nearly to the center of the Galaxy. We’re going to search
a variety of different types of objects. We’re going to conduct
a survey of a million stars, about a thousand light years
or so off the Earth. We’re going to conduct
a comprehensive survey of the entire plane
of our Milky Way Galaxy, and we’re going to search
a hundred nearby galaxies to see if that very, very advanced life might have developed
the necessary technology to transmit at truly extraordinary
distances between galaxies. Let’s take a look
at how that’s going to work. Here’s an animation
of the Milky Way Galaxy. Imagine that somewhere
in the Milky Way Galaxy intelligent life arises
and begins to transmit. If they did so, their transmissions would proceed
at the speed of light out from their star, for as long
as that intelligent life existed. And that would form
a bubble of electromagnetic radiation that we might be able
to detect here on Earth. But how long do these civilizations live? They might develop life, intelligent life, and then some technology,
and a radio signal. But that radio signal
will only continue to emit for as long as the civilization lives. But these bubbles
of electromagnetic radiation continue out into the Galaxy
at the speed of light. And here, on Earth,
we can potentially detect those with our very large radio telescopes. Here’s the Earth itself transmitting
electromagnetic radiation, radio signals, and here are these bubbles of radiation
from signals from other intelligences that are sweeping across the Earth. And we can detect those again with the telescopes
like the Green Bank Telescope here. This is an animation of the signal that we might expect to see
from that civilization. And also with the Parkes Telescope
in Australia. It’s not just us that’s going to be
doing the data analysis. With Breakthrough Listen, there is a very key component
of the program that will make all of the data
that we collect available to the public immediately. It will, in fact, when complete, be the largest amount of scientific data that’s ever been made available
to public for any experiment whatsoever. This is one of the ways
that you can get involved in that program with an application developed
here at Berkeley called [email protected] This is a program that you can download
on your computer, and when you’re not using your computer, when you’re getting up
to get a cup of coffee, if you take long enough,
your computer will wake up, it’ll download a little bit of the data that we collected
at these giant radio telescopes, and use your computer to do the very computationally
intensive processing that’s required to detect
these very weak signals that we’re looking for. And your computer will join with hundreds of thousands
of other computers, and will in fact form
the largest supercomputer on the entire planet Earth, dedicated solely to hunting for evidence
of extraterrestrial intelligence. And here’s a video showing
how this process works. Here we see Berkeley, California,
where we all are here. All of the data that we collect
from these telescopes being sent out
to hundreds of thousands of volunteers, and then results of those computations
being sent back to us at Berkeley. And if one of those little blue dots
comes from your computer and happens to contain evidence
of extraterrestrial intelligence, you too will share in the Nobel Prize
that we will surely win. (Laughter) But I warn you, you have to share it with the hundreds
of thousands of other volunteers that participated in the project, so you might only get a couple nickels. But surely it would be one
of the most remarkable discoveries in the history of humanity. So I wanted to take a minute
to look back briefly at one of the still images
from the video that I showed you to point out something very remarkable about the search
for extraterrestrial intelligence and something that we do in this science. So here we see the bubbles
of electromagnetic radiation coming out from the civilizations that may exist somewhere
in our Milky Way Galaxy. And these bubbles
of electromagnetic radiation, they have fixed widths; they’re not constant. And that reflects
the lifetime of the civilizations that might be arising. And this is something that’s captured in a very famous equation in this field,
called the Drake Equation, named after Frank Drake,
one of the pioneers of this field. I promise that this is
the most complicated bit of mathematics that I’ll show you today, but I think it’s worthwhile
to take a minute to walk through this. So this equation here, N is the number of civilizations
that we might be able to detect. And it’s expressed as a product
of all of the factors that might go in
to the emergence of intelligent life. R*, the rate of star formation
in our Galaxy. Fp, the fraction of those stars
that have planets. Ne, the fraction of those
that are something like the Earth. Fl, the fraction of those
that actually develop life. Fi, the fraction of those that actually
go on to develop intelligence. Fc, the factor
of those intelligent species that go on to develop
some kind of communication technology that we might be able to detect. But perhaps the most interesting factor
in this equation is L, the lifetime of the civilization. How long can an intelligent,
communicative civilization actually exist? Now, if we look at our own technology
and our own human society, we might ask the question, well, maybe not very long,
maybe only a few hundred years. Can a truly advanced technology exist
for thousands and thousands of years without destroying themselves? This is something that we’re able
to probe directly in our experiments to search for intelligent life. We’re now just beginning to explore
the area around our own planet. In a hundred years, surely the area around our planet
is going to be populated with innumerable satellites,
communication, technology, perhaps we’ll visit the Moon again, perhaps we’ll have a colony on Mars. Maybe in a thousand years we might actually have
permanent colonies in space. We can sort of imagine getting that far
with our own current technology. But where might we be in the far future? Can we as humans being exist long enough to actually travel between the stars? Could our technology progress far enough that we could actually become
an interstellar civilization, sailing between the stars
on giant spacecraft? This is the ultimate question of the search
for extraterrestrial intelligence. We’re searching for life beyond the Earth, but truly what we’re searching for
is our own future. We’re asking the question: what is the future
of an intelligent civilization? How long can they last? This is something that a pioneer
in this field, Phillip Morrison called “the archeology of the future”. Because of the finite speed of light,
we’re studying civilizations as they were a thousand,
or maybe ten thousand years ago. Our galaxy is a hundred thousand
light years across. So if we detect a signal
from a civilization that is on the other side of the Galaxy, we’re seeing that civilization as it was
a hundred thousand years ago. But because our Galaxy is so old,
many billions of years, it’s likely
that that civilization we detect is much, much more advanced than we are, and has been around much, much longer. So although we’re looking
at that civilization’s past, we may be looking
at our own civilization’s future. Thank you. (Applause)