Is SETI at risk of downloading a malicious virus from outer space?

We take it for granted that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is a safe endeavor. Seriously, what could possibly go incorrect with passively searching for interstellar radio signals? Unfortunately, the answer is fairly a lot –- especially if the incoming signal consists of something malicious, like a pc virus or Trojan horse.

And according to the professionals, this is not just idle speculation – the threat is quite actual. So, just how concerned do we require to be?

To get a far better sense of this possibility, we spoke to two experts on the matter: Andrew Siemion, a PhD candidate in astronomy at SETI-Berkeley, and Milan Cirkovic, Senior Research Associate at the Astronomical Observatory of Belgrade and a top expert on SETI.

We’ll get to their answers in just a second, but it is worth carrying out a quick evaluation to understand exactly where this concept came from –- and not surprisingly, it is science fiction inspired by science.

Visions of viral doom

Science fiction writers have been worried about this possibility ever since the advent of SETI, back in the early 1960’s.

Soon after the launch of Frank Drake’s Project Ozma in 1960, which was the pioneering attempt to listen for extraterrestrial radio signals, the BBC created A for Andromeda, a television series that was written by the acclaimed cosmologist and science fiction writer Fred Hoyle. The story concerns a group of scientists who detect a radio signal from a distant galaxy that consists of directions for the style of an advanced pc. The scientists determine to go ahead and construct the laptop or computer, which in turn produces a new set of directions for the creation of a living organism, named Andromeda. It’s at this point where one of the scientists raises an objection, amid fears that Andromeda’s objective is to subjugate humanity.

In 1968, Stanislaw Lem reprised this issue in his novel His Master’s Voice. In the story, scientists work to decode what appears to be a message from outer space, especially a neutrino signal from the Canis Minor constellation. As the scientists decode the information, they conclude that it is a mathematical description of an object, possibly a molecule or even an complete genome. They go on to construct two strange substances that exhibit odd properties, a glutinous liquid and a solid object that looks like a slab of red meat. They learn that the liquid can lead to an atomic blast at a remote place –- which, if employed as a weapon, would make deterrence impossible. As a outcome, a lot of of the scientists grow to be convinced that it’s an extraterrestrial weapon of some sort.

And more not too long ago, the thought of getting instructions from aliens was explored by Carl Sagan in his 1985 novel Speak to (which was made into a significant motion picture in 1997). But as opposed to his worrywart sci-fi predecessors, Sagan portrayed aliens as getting genuinely friendly.

In Sagan’s story, extraterrestrial make contact with is made, with the aliens transmitting the blueprints to a massive engineering project — supposedly for us to construct. After considerably consideration, the device is constructed, and it turns out to be a transportation device for a single human occupant.

Carl Sagan always held firmly to his belief in benign aliens. He was convinced that any advanced civilization had to be friendly by default — that overly aggressive or misguided aliens would have destroyed themselves prior to advancing to such a stage. His theory suggested that an interstellar selectional impact was happening, and the only advanced aliens left standing would be the good ones.

Sagan’s optimism notwithstanding, we should possibly be far more than a small bit wary of getting a signal from a civilization that is radically more advanced than our own.

When we spoke to SETI-Berkeley’s Andrew Siemion, he admitted that SETI is conscious of this particular threat, and that they’ve given the issue some believed. He stressed that SETI’s major objective is just to detect a signal. “Detecting signals is far easier than decoding them,” he told io9. “Our searches don’t attempt to decode or decipher any info content from signals that trigger our algorithms.” In other words, the people at SETI-Berkeley are only concerned with regardless of whether or not a signal is present, and regardless of whether it really is true.

But that does not mean they’re still not cautious.

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