Scientists fear messages to aliens may cause cosmic offence

It is a perfectly human reaction to be annoyed if malware infects your smartphone or laptop. But just how extraterrestrials might respond is harder to predict.

An accidental cyber attack launched against aliens who might be hundreds of thousands of years more advanced than us is just one problem bothering British scientists working on such a message to send ET.

The small team from the 20-strong UK Seti (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) group is bidding for a $1m (€882,200) prize on offer for the best method of saying “hello” to our galactic neighbours.

Russian internet billionaire Yuri Milner put up the prize as part of a huge new investment in Seti.

Seti generally involves listening out for alien signals using powerful radio telescopes and computer software that can scan thousands of frequencies. However, some experts believe we should also be shouting out our presence to the cosmos by beaming messages to targeted stars.

Anders Sandberg, a UK Seti member from the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, said it was important to ensure we stream ‘clean’ digital signals that do not cause unintentional offence.

Speaking at the British Science Festival, he said: “There are complications about using a complicated language or syntax for sending a message — I’ve written a paper about this.

“A too complex language can hide an awful lot of weird stuff, which is a real problem for our own computer security. Sending out a message that could hide malware might be something the aliens don’t like.”

So far, UK Seti has not made a great deal of progress on its message. In fact it is not entirely sure one should be sent at all. A recent vote was split 50/50 between those in favour and those against.

The argument against calling ET is that it might attract the wrong kind of attention.

Physicist Stephen Hawking is quoted as saying: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”


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