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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile