On Tuesday, physics legend Stephen Hawking and billionaire Yuri Milner announced a radical new space exploration initiative dubbed "Starshot." With postage stamp-sized spacecraft accelerated to 20 percent the speed of light via Earth-based lasers, the duo hopes to visit the nearest star system to our own Solar System, Alpha Centauri. The 4.37 light-year trip could be made in a mere 20 years, they say. Not bad.
Attentive space-spotters may note a curious discontinuity between Hawking's recent history of aliens-are-going-to-kill-us-all paranoia and his abrupt interest in, well, trying to find aliens via tiny spaceships.
After all, at an event last summer, he explained:
We don't know much about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.
That event was actually a grand unveiling of a separate, even more explicitly alien-huntingy alien-hunting initiative called Breakthrough Listen, which, if completed, will hunt for aliens by way of scanning for unnatural radio and laser signals from space. A key feature is that it will be one-way: no messages will be sent into space. Just listening.
(A separate initiative called Breakthrough Message consists of a global competition for coming up with the best messages to theoretically send. It emphasizes, however, that the messages will not be sent.)
And yet, clearly a tiny spacecraft from Earth—laden with sensors, communications equipment, and other assorted human technology—constitutes the distribution of critical information about Earth and its intelligent inhabitants. It kind of seems like the interstellar equivalent of flashing a bunch of cash in a sketchy neighborhood (no offense to any Alpha Centaurian observers—we just don't know!).
So, why the change in heart? We have some suspicions.
The aliens got to him
This is how it happens in Childhood's End, more or less. Aliens arrive on Earth and are too self-conscious to reveal themselves so they use the Secretary-General of the UN as a liaison. This dude is the only one that gets to go up to the spacecraft of the conquering aliens and interact with their leader. And so he unwittingly negotiates the subjugation of the human race. He's not a traitor so much as he is a dupe.
With that in mind, it seems almost certain that the very technology proposed by Hawking and Milner was devised by the very aliens the Starshot project would aim to find. In conclusion, it's too late.
Stephen Hawking, an alien, is homesick and just can't take humans' shit any more
Dude has been on this planet for 74 years. I've been here for less than half of that and would gladly take the first laser-rocket out of here, and I'm not even an alien.
Artificial intelligence is the real threat
Hawking has been beating this drum for several years now, perhaps best summarized in this quote from an Independent op-ed circa 2014: "Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history … Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks. In the near term, world militaries are considering autonomous-weapon systems that can choose and eliminate targets."
Last year saw a pair of open letters from the Future of Life Institute featuring Hawking as a signatory. The first, released in January of 2015 and titled "Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence," was the more restrained of the two, calling for more research work to be done on the subjects of AI security, validity, and verification, while the more infamous/hyped, released in July, called for an outright "ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control."
But Hawking's been making kinda hysterical comments about AI everywhere over the past few years, from the BBC to Reddit, and he isn't showing any signs of mellowing on the subject. Which brings us to …
The end times are here
In comments made during an audience Q&A session at the BBC Reith Lectures in January, Hawking got particularly apocalyptic, cautioning that humanity is entering a highly dangerous period of technological advancement. Through some combination of nuclear war, global warming, and genetically-engineered viruses, we're just asking for it.
The solution? Get the hell off of this planet, ASAP.
"Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years," he said, according to the BBC. "By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race."
"However, we will not establish self-sustaining colonies in space for at least the next hundred years, so we have to be very careful in this period."
Donald Fucking Trump
The Breakthrough Message initiative mentioned above (where a bunch of messages are collected to send out into space but not really) isn't actually transmitting the messages Earthlings send in not for some fear of revealing Earth to malevolent aliens but for the simple reason that Hawking already knows the one and only real message to be broadcast: "nuke Earth from space."