Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Quarantine Summer
by Rebecca Birch

Calling Time on Candy
by Mark Patrick Lynch

Revenge in Shanty Town
by Seth W. Kennedy

A Boy’s Apocalypse
by Eric Del Carlo

How to Be a Foreigner
by Karen Heuler

Could They But Speak
by David Steffen

Bob’s Day Out
by Mark Bondurant

Everybody Comes to Rick’s
by Tim McDaniel

Equations in the Mirror
by Therese Arkenberg

by R.W. Warwick


If We Find ET What Will ET Be?
by J. Richard Jacobs

Regarding Fermi’s Paradox
by Eric M. Jones




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



If We Find ET, What Will ET Be?

By J. Richard Jacobs

IT IS AN OLD QUESTION BUT it has been getting some very interesting answers of late. So, what will we find? No one can possibly know what ET will be but we can know some other things based on our own history, psychology, environment and evolution. Things that will give us a more rational potential solution. The first step we can take is to take a look at the ladder we have climbed and we will be able to draw some surprising conclusions from that. Conclusions that have not made much press but that are shared among many in the scientific community.

Will we find slime drooling, indestructible exoskeletal creatures whose spit will eat through six inch thick titanium instantly, or spindly little gray guys with goo-goo-googely eyes? Not very likely, I should think. Why? Because it isn’t really all that logical, that’s why. I think our chances are much better to encounter EMI. Okay, so what is that? Well, it is Extraterrestrial Machine Intelligence. And I mean machine, not some biological/machine hybrid Cyborg. I mean something much more like full blown robots with minds that work like their biological counterparts only one hell of a lot faster and with substantially less error. Something like the artifacts in the Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrik film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I’m not alone in this line of reasoning, nor is it particularly new, although we have advanced well beyond our position at the time it was first seriously considered.

Seth Shostak, physicist, astronomer, astrobiologist, is one of those who thinks EMI is a distinct and highly possible alternative to finding advanced biologicals with their antennae pointed at us. Some of his thoughts are:

“If you look at the timescales for the development of technology, at some point you invent radio and then you go on the air and then we have a chance of finding you. But within a few hundred years of inventing radio—at least if we’re any example—you invent thinking machines; we’re probably going to do that in this century. So you’ve invented your successors and only for a few hundred years are you a biological intelligence.”

“If we build a machine with the intellectual capability of one human, then within five years its successor is more intelligent than all humanity combined.”

“Once any society invents the technology that could put them in touch with the cosmos, they are at most only a few hundred years away from changing their own paradigm of sentience to artificial intelligence.”

So, where do we look? It should be obvious. Shostak says:

“Think we could spend at least a small percent of our time ... looking in the directions that are maybe not the most attractive in terms of biological intelligence but maybe where sentient machines are hanging out.”

Paul Davies has gone on record as saying that this is a probability and not just a possibility and he is rather emphatic about it. From a podcast interview with Paul Davies:

“I think it very likely—in fact inevitable—that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe.”

“If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

I don’t know about you, but that “post-biological” comment is unsettling. But, unsettling as it may be, it is logical and probably prophetic.

Michio Kaku made the following comments:

“Because distances between stars are so vast, and the number of unsuitable, lifeless solar systems so large, a Type III civilization would be faced with the next question: what is the mathematically most efficient way of exploring the hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy?

“In science fiction, the search for inhabitable worlds has been immortalized on TV by heroic captains boldly commanding a lone star ship, or as the murderous Borg, a Type III civilization which absorbs lower Type II civilization[s] (such as the Federation). However, the most mathematically efficient method to explore space is far less glamorous: to send fleets of von Neumann probes throughout the galaxy (named after John von Neumann, who established the mathematical laws of self-replicating systems).”

Physicist Paul Davies of the University of Adelaide has even raised the possibility of a von Neumann probe resting on our own moon, left over from a previous visitation in our system aeons ago.

On our own moon? Well, why not?

So, getting back to where we should be looking. We should put some of our observing time looking at places where energy and material is in abundant supply. Near the event horizons of black holes. Near massive and/or young stars. Gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, only bigger. Lots of machine food in those neighborhoods. Sort of like molecular fast food joints. Certainly these are places where biological life wouldn’t be easy to find. Actually, close to impossible.

All of this, of course, is based on technological development. My thoughts on technological development go like this: We lowly humans make a rather general and sweeping assumption, something like painting a miniature portrait with a push broom, that technology follows a sequence of events motivated by need/greed and controlled by materials and the ability to work with them. Self-propelled heavier than air flight could not have been achieved until an engine was built that produced a sufficient amount of power with adequately low weight. Steam power was limited in scope and usefulness until materials of sufficient strength and corrosion resistance were produced. All of that took a while and with a sideways glance it seems to follow a logical pattern. A this, then that sequence.

That all sounds good, but the sequence did not have to follow the path it did. It did not have to be this, then that. What if, by some fluke, a Neanderthal stumbled across a way to make his fires really hot? Don’t laugh, it is a distinct possibility. Carrying it a little further, suppose he found that certain rocks could be reduced in his super hot fire, leaving behind a hard substance from which he could fashion some crude, nearly indestructible tools. It is entirely possible that the Iron Age could have been upon us some 60,000 years ago. It wasn’t, but that does not mean it could not have been. It could easily have predated bronze. Remember, humans are curious animals, even our prehistoric, cave dwelling forebears. Where would we be today if that had happened? Think about it.

There was a series of events that led to cell phones. The discovery of the properties of electricity and the eventual building of machines capable of generating it. Then we found we could produce light. Then someone found a way to use electromagnetic waves and the radio age began. Well, what if someone had found that we could transmit intelligence with light and that light could be contained in a glass filament before we mastered EMF? Our means of communication could easily have taken a radical turn. I don’t doubt that we would still have taken advantage of EMF, but it may have been a different ball game and who can say what form that game would have taken? One more step: What if Nikola Tesla had met with more favorable circumstances and not fallen in with bad company? See what I mean? Chance has played a major role in our long climb to air conditioning and iPads. Also, think about the quickening pace at which we are making iPads obsolete. What’s next?

We have no way of even rough guessing what path an alien culture followed in their rise up the tech ladder. Alien, remember? We also have no idea where in their development any culture outside our own could be. I find it laughable that the consensus is that any alien species is bound to be more advanced than we are on all levels. In my mind it is conceivable that a species could have stumbled upon space flight much earlier than we in their history and their emotional character could still be quite primitive. I know, it sounds weird, but it is a possibility. Ignoring that, let’s say they are indeed considerably advanced and they want to search for other life for whatever reason (hopefully benign) or they just want to find new territory for their kind. What do they do?

We first have to make the assumption that they have come to the same realization that we have that space is pretty big and it’s going to take a long time to get from A to B, let alone from A to Z. Let’s say their longevity is something long, like 200 of our years. I don’t know why. It’s just a number, okay? So, they look at what speeds their technology is going to give them and they find that they can hit 0.25c. Hey, that’s cooking right along, right? Well, yes, but it is still incredibly slow when we project that out into the immenseness of the big dark. They conclude that, even with their life span, it is going to take several generations to get anywhere and that demands ships that are way outside their meager budget of 2.8 gadzillion shammels. What can they do that will satisfy their desire for information and give them specific targets with known resources and environments without having to build a monstrous generation ship on spec?

“Probes. That’s it. We’ll send out compact, cheap, long lasting probes. When we get the signal that gives us a viable target, we can begin preparing for the invasion. Okay, guys, let’s get this done!”

So, we have a couple of possibilities to look at here. The first one I call a Stupid Probe. Actual name, von Neumann Probe. Why stupid? Because it would not be carrying intelligence per se. Just nanomachines capable of reproducing themselves, then launching their siblings on to another target. They would seek out a place at their destination where the raw materials to reproduce themselves is handy, like asteroids, moons and other things where the stuff they need is plentiful. There probethey would build a whole family of new probes. If one probe travels to a system, settles down and produces just two replicas and those new probes do the same, it is conceivable they could spread throughout our galaxy, assuming a mean speed of 0.1c (not all that fast), in about 500,000 years. That’s pretty quick, right? What if they reproduce themselves by the hundreds? Thousands?

It is possible that these Stupid Probes could be made intelligent enough to, after sending off their litter, build robots to occupy wherever they wound up and those robots would then be able to perpetuate the “species” indefinitely. It is not likely that much intelligence could be carried by them, but then, who knows? An even more fascinating look at this process came up brilliantly in the short story “Lungfish” by David Brin. He introduces the possibility that because of their reproducing like bacteria they could be considered a life form in their own right and that such machines coming from different intelligent species may find themselves in a not so friendly competition for the stuff they need for reproduction. A Darwinian battle for dominance and survival. Stepping out on the limb, my normal position, I suggest that they may even “interbreed,” forming a new “species” of machine. Perhaps, in time, they may even become sentient, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that one.

In 1980, Robert Freitas proposed modifying the Daedalus Project to include the subsystems necessary for self-replication. The purpose was to make Daedalus a seeding factory. When it arrived at a target system it would manufacture enough replicas to increase its capacity and develop a Daedalus manufacturing complex. It would then build hundreds of copies of the original seed ship, each being a new seed ship, and send them off to more target systems. This is still a Stupid Probe and its spread time would be about the same. Before long the galaxy would be filled with manufacturing complexes and Daedalus copies would be piling up all over.

But Stupid Probes aren’t smart. Did that make sense? Well, no matter. It’s time to get introduced to the aliens. Enter the Smart Probe. The one that knows what it is doing and why and is capable of contemplating more than its navel. Um ... do probes have navels?

This kind of probe is called a Bracewell probe and it is an autonomous interstellar traveler with an artificial intelligence that could be quite sophisticated—to the point of being sentient. It would contain all the information that whoever built it wanted to communicate to any discovered civilization. Us, for example. It would be equipped with sensing equipment that would allow it to know when it had found a technologically advanced culture. That, after all, would be its prime function. It could also determine if it had found a planet where life was evolving and whether that life had a chance of developing technology. If it found such a place it could orbit indefinitely while it waited for life to grow up. Patience and boredom would not be a problem and it would presumably have a life-span that would boggle the most agile of minds. Once the local inhabitants had advanced sufficiently it would call home to tell them the good news. Once the local technology had reached some predetermined level, it would let the locals know it was watching and set set up a dialogue with them. You know, “Hi, there. My name is Xorb and the people of Zhamak send you pleasant greetings.”

We are probably talking about immense distances here so direct communication with the home planet would not be efficacious for short term issues and the probe would necessarily be equipped and intelligent enough to work out problems on its own. A drawback, perhaps, is that whatever was loaded into the AI back home would have to suffice, whatever the circumstances unless it were able to do some reprogramming on its own. Otherwise there would be no upgrading the database or reconfiguring for unexpected conditions. It would need to be a rather versatile system indeed.

The basic Bracewell machine would not have to be self-replicating but it would be infinitely more efficient if it were able to duplicate the tricks of a von Neumann probe and send off its little clones whenever it reached a desirable location. That is, assuming speed of mission accomplishment were an issue and it is easy to imagine that any civilization engaging in such a search would want it to go as fast as possible. It would also be possible for the von Neumann/Bracewell machines to live much longer than the civilization that spawned them. Eerie thought, getting a message from someone who has been extinct for a couple of million years. Maybe we could call them Ghost Probes.

There was a time when an orbiting bit of stuff designated as 1991 VG was considered an anomalous object and there was some thought that it could have been one of those probes from out there, or one of our spacecraft returning. Some folks actually got quite excited about it and it was quickly picked up by the UFO and Conspiracy crowds. They ignored the possibility of a returning rocket body and focused on the anomaly part. Reports, opinions and incredible speculations were splattered all over and I understand that a couple of short-lived cults sprang up because of it. I don’t know if that is true but people are funny that way and I wouldn’t put it past them. It is interesting that all that nonsense persisted long after 1991 VG had left the list of the unknown.

In conclusion, it is entirely possible that when we discover extraterrestrial intelligence it will be a machine intelligence. Let me rephrase that. It is more likely than not. It is also possible that we have visitors with us now, watching and waiting. When will we receive that message that says, “Hi, guys. Guess what. You’re not alone. We’ve been waiting for you a very long time.” I don’t know, but it could be tomorrow. The next time you walk by a vending machine and you think you hear someone say “Hello,” you may just be on to something.

Oh, in conclusion to the conclusion, let’s think about what nanotechnology is capable of and take a squint-eyed look at another possibility. Don’t you just love what iffing? Suppose this advanced race, when designing their probes, included the blueprints for their DNA/RNA/quadruplex DNA along with the nanobots capable of assembling such structures with varied coding for biodiversity when presented with the proper conditions for the implantation of life on a planet like, say, Earth. They would simply use the local elements available and voila, the beginning of a new evolutionary process. Is it remotely possible that many have been paying homage to the wrong Creator? END

J. Richard Jacobs has studied physics and astronomy. After formal schooling in these areas, he became a naval architect and worked at designing the largest moving machines on the planet (and some of the smallest). He has been privileged to know Richard Feynman, Kip S. Thorne, Carl Sagan and Clyde Tombaugh.