Let’s go alien-hunting

A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. Why not?

You probably don’t think of Britain as a spacefaring nation but we’re up there with the best. It’s just that we usually do the dull stuff that no one talks about. How exciting, then, that the UK could soon be the only country with a government-sponsored alienhunting programme.

Britain’s space engineering efforts at present add up to a £9bn industry that employs 30,000 people. But although Britain has its own spacemanin- training, Major Tim Peake (why couldn’t he have been a Tom?), it’s still essentially the backroom jobs we’re grabbing. Britain’s final frontier is likely to be in better satellites to improve telecommunications, internet provision, navigation systems and TV broadcasting. We will also continue to be an important player in the European Space Agency’s science missions.

We’ll get even better at earth observations that tell us about climate trends and global weather patterns. Occasionally we’ll deliver an innovative launch technology, or create infrastructure that will pave the way for space tourism. But it’s not exactly Dan Dare.

Yet one day soon we might be the first to make contact with aliens. A group of researchers is lobbying for access to £1m of the UK’s space budget. The idea is to buy time on e-MERLIN, a network of seven radio telescopes dotted around the UK, and begin the world’s only government-funded search for aliens. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society, is in the captain’s chair, so the group has a good chance of being taken seriously.

That said, it does all seem a bit far-fetched. The UK Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) group made a series of presentations at the National Astronomy Meeting at St Andrews early this month. Among the more conservative suggestions was that space probes should be equipped with capabilities to interact with aliens. At the other end was the idea that the lunar surface may be studded with “extraterrestrial artefacts”, such as fragments of exotic alloys that have flaked off alien spaceships. We should go and look, apparently.

Somewhere in between was the contention that our search for aliens should also include consideration of machines that may have taken over a biological civilisation. Such eventualities would lead to different kinds of communication – machine codes – being more abundant than the biological-intelligencebased signals we’ve always sought. Then there was Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at Oxford University, who offered an analysis of the “deadly probes” scenario, in which the apparent absence of alien civilisations arises from highly developed cultures sending out space probes designed to kill off newly arising competitors.

This, by the way, is a scenario that causes great controversy in alien-hunting circles. Some say we should accelerate the time to first contact by broadcasting “We Are Here” signals for aliens to pick up. Those who object point out that some aliens might not be friendly, and could decide to come and destroy us.

You are probably rolling your eyes at all this. That is why no government funds SETI at the moment: the idea of searching for aliens is regarded as faintly ridiculous. Nasa’s alien hunt ended in 1993 after a Nevada senator pointed out that “millions have been spent and we have yet to bag a single little green fellow”.

However naive and Boy’s Own it might seem, though, first contact would be momentous – a watershed in human experience. The UK SETI group wants only a million pounds a year; it’s hardly going to kill us. Assuming the aliens are friendly, that is.

Is anybody out there? Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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You are living in a Black Mirror episode and you don’t care

The Investigatory Powers Bill is likely to become law later this year, but barely anyone is resisting the dystopian surveillance it will bring.

“They’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we're clumsy,” explained Charlie Brooker when asked to describe the concept behind his science fiction series Black Mirror. When series three was released on Netflix last week, this sentiment was reiterated over and over. “Omg, it’s just like Instagram!!!!” squealed individuals in their masses after watching episode one, “Nosedive”, set in a world where everyone rates one another out of five after their interactions. The parallel with social media is easy, obvious, and intentional, but it doesn’t teach us much. The real ways in which our world is like a dystopian sci-fi are, in fact, much more boring.

There will be no suspenseful songs or dramatic jump cuts preluding the third reading of the Investigatory Powers Bill in the House of Lords next week. The “snoopers’ charter” is likely to become law after it passed through its House of Commons readings with a few amendments, with 444 MPs voting in favour and 69 against. In short, the Bill will give the government unprecedented surveillance powers, allowing them to intercept and collect your communications, collect a list of the websites you visit and search it without a warrant, and force your internet service provider to help them collect your data.

Even though this is highly comparable to the dark visions of the future offered by Black Mirror, no one cares. Though the Bill faced initial resistance when it was announced in 2015, it has passed through its readings relatively unscathed. Black Mirror should provide a prime opportunity to discuss issues around privacy, but people prefer to compare dystopias to things they already hate. Lord help us all if we take selfies or stare at a device which is simultaneously an encyclopaedia, a newspaper, a book, a map, a bank, a radio, a camera and a telephone for more than ten minutes.

Yet the Investigatory Powers Bill does hold many parallels to the last episode of Black Mirror series three, “Hated in the Nation”. In it, the government use autonomous drones shaped like bees to spy on its people, which are then hacked to murder hated public figures. “Ok! The government’s a c**t, we knew that already,” says DCI Karin Parke, moving on to the real issue – not that the government spies on its citizens, but that the spying device can be hacked by those naughty, naughty citizens themselves.

The hacker – Garrett Scholes – has programmed the bees to kill whoever gets the most votes on Twitter via the hashtag #DeathTo. Then, in a Jon-Ronson-worthy twist, he sets the bees on the people who used the hashtag in the first place. The actual, moral, wake-up-sheeple message of “Hated in the Nation”, then, is that we should be careful who we wish death upon on social media. But it is precisely this freedom that we should be protecting. Under the Investigatory Powers Bill, your emails and search history could be used to argue that you really want to kill Katie Hopkins, rather than were just blowing off steam.

Yet it’s hard to blame anyone for ignoring the Bill, which is off-putting not because it’s not an episode of Black Mirror, but because it is long and confusing. Breaking through the terminology is hard, even in the handy fact sheets provided, and the government can claim transparency while using alienating language and concepts.

“Some of the powers in the Bill are deeply intrusive, and with very little possible justification,” warned former MP Dr Julian Huppert last week, “the cost to all of our privacy is huge.” The good news is that you don’t have to worry about metal bees spying on you, and the bad news is that this is because the government will soon have permission to do it the easy way.


Now listen to a review of the new series of Black Mirror on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.