The year is 2050 and Earth has just received its first interstellar transmission from an extraterrestrial intelligence. The news is met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and an international consortium of scientists, linguists, and mathematicians work around the clock to decipher the message. Yet just as the code is cracked, havoc breaks out—all of the world’s networked autonomous vehicles begin to crash, computers are encrypted on a mass scale, the power grid is knocked offline, and no one is able to buy anything with Bitcoin, which inexplicably became the global currency.
It sounds like something straight out of a movie, but two astrophysicists have raised the possibility of an extraterrestrial hack as a legitimate question in a new, non-peer reviewed paper posted to arXiv. Although the researchers warn of the dangers of malicious alien messages, they ultimately argue that the benefit of the search significantly outweighs the risk.
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is divided into two main activities: listening for an extraterrestrial signal and transmitting a signal to extraterrestrials. Transmission efforts (collectively known as Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligences, or METI) have been criticized by many in the SETI community as a fool’s errand at best and an existential threat at worst. The thinking is that, since we don’t actually know if the aliens who might answer our call are friendly, there’s a chance we might be inviting an interstellar predator to our front door.
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Yet Michael Hippke and John Learned, astrophysicists from Sonneberg Observatory and the University of Hawaii, respectively, suggest that listening for an extraterrestrial message could invite destruction as well.
In one scenario envisioned by the researchers, Earth receives a threatening message saying “We will make your sun go supernova tomorrow.” Whether or not the alien sender actually had the ability to do this, it could cause widespread panic.
In another scenario, the aliens send malicious code that spreads through the internet to wreak havoc, sort of like a cosmic play on last year’s notPetya attacks. This point is contentious. SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak has argued that it is unlikely that an alien code could be automatically executed on a computer due to the way incoming signals are processed at observatories. Still, the paper’s authors argue there are scenarios in which the code would be executed after receipt. For example, if the data in the message was compressed to increase the transmission rates, for instance, it would be next to impossible to manually perform the decompression steps without a computer.
The downside of this is that the message could contain malicious code that could infect the computer interpreting the message. In the early 2000s, a SETI researcher proposed decoding messages on air-gapped computers for this reason.
Hippke and Learned argue that this is insufficient protection, however. While isolating a computer might work if the message is only received at one location, there’s a good chance that it might be received at multiple observatories or even picked up by amateur radio astronomers, who won’t be equipped to quarantine the message.
Consider another scenario broached by Hippke and Learned, where the extraterrestrial message contains a header saying “We are friends. The galactic library is attached. It is in the form of an artificial intelligence which quickly learns your language and will answer your questions. You may execute the code following these instructions…” In this scenario, the researchers imagine that utmost care is taken to isolate the machine, perhaps by flying the computer to the moon and wiring it with explosives so the experiment can be terminated at any time.
The problem is that, as some AI researchers believe, perfectly isolating a sufficiently advanced AI is next to impossible since it would be able to persuade its human captors to release it into the wild. In the case of an extraterrestrial AI, perhaps the isolated machine on the moon offers a cure for cancer in exchange for a 10 percent increase in its computing power.
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Although it may be rational for us to engage trade with this alien AI, the researchers ponder the consequences if the cure for cancer involves, say, building an army of nanobots from blueprints provided by the AI. In a sort of reverse-Contact scenario, the researchers imagine a scenario in which the machine blueprints turn out to be malicious. Perhaps humans build these cancer-curing nanobots and they are actually programmed to deplete Earth of certain vital resources.
The scenarios offered by the researchers are pretty far out, but are worth taking seriously in the event we ever establish contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Still, that’s not necessarily a reason to refrain from opening the message.
“Our main argument is that a message from ETI cannot be decontaminated with certainty,” Hippke and Learned conclude in their paper. “Overall, we believe that the risk is very small (but not zero), and the potential benefit very large, so that we strongly encourage to read an incoming message.”