MESSAGE DECONTAMINATION IS IMPOSSIBLE
You see that on your console, you start to worry.
A recent paper by Michael Hippke and John G. Learned, submitted to arXiv.org on February 6, 2018, looks into the potential risk of messages received from extraterrestrial intelligence. Could such messages somehow infect our computers with alien viruses and cripple our technological infrastructure?
Turns out the answer is a solid maybe.
Their paper, which you can find over at arXiv.org (PDF is here), argues that any messages we receive from extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) will need to be handled with caution. They’ll also likely require the use of computers to understand, and therefore could pose a very real risk of being contaminated with computer viruses, either intentionally or unintentionally.
And once we’re contaminated, it’s difficult to say whether or not we could fix that problem.
“After all, it is cheaper for ETI to send a malicious message to eradicate humans compared to sending battleships.”
A Communications Disruption Could Mean Only One Thing…
What are we to do, then? The paper first suggests that “complex messages would need to be destroyed after reception in the risk averse case.”
But Hippke and Learned aren’t only concerned with complex messages. They go over a few types that could prove problematic:
- A message of cultural significance, or one that could hurt planetary morale. They use the example of an alien message that reads, “We will make your sun go supernova tomorrow.” They argue this could cause global panic, and they’re probably right. I imagine messages along the lines of “Your planet was just an experiment, and we’re about to run out of funding” would throw us into a long-term existential crisis, as well.
- A message, perhaps similar to the above, sent repeatedly and unable to be controlled
- A complex message that contains an actual computer virus
They also consider the possibility of aliens sending messages in the form of learning AI. This, they argue, would likely require isolation — perhaps to only “a computer in a box on the moon,” they write — to contain the message and prevent the AI from spreading. Only then could it be translated or executed safely. Failure to do so could allow said alien AI to have free rein over the world, and who knows how that would end?
Possibly with human extinction.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The paper ends by stating that the risk of running into a malicious message from ETI is very low (but not zero), and that “the potential benefits from joining a galactic network might be considerable.” So, risk vs. reward.
I guess the question is…
Would You Open That Alien Email?
Funny enough, back in 2015 scientists were worrying about exactly the opposite — that messages we send into space might accidentally infect alien technology. Would that, perhaps, be seen as an act of war?
“Language can hide a lot of information,” Dr. Anders Sanberg said at the time, during a speech at the British Science Festival. “We’re worried about malware being sent to aliens.”
That might be useful, though.
In the event of an actual alien invasion or extraterrestrial malware, we could always pull an Independence Day and send them a copy of Windows 10.
You hear that, ET? Turnabout is fair play.