Tuesday July 10th 2012

Another Way of Looking at Interstellar Probes

By Michael Michaud

The following post is a distinct change of pace for Centauri Dreams, a work of fiction that gets at questions at the heart of SETI. We’ve considered many ideas about interstellar probes that humans may one day launch toward nearby stars. But the reverse could occur: A more advanced technological civilization could send a probe in our direction, particularly after detecting signs of life or technology on a rapidly developing Earth.

This idea is a challenge to the dominant scientific paradigm of contact — our detection of radio signals from a remote society. The short story below presents one of many possible scenarios. In this case, the probe is an intelligent machine. It lacks the omniscience so often assumed in films and television programs; this form of intelligence, like ours, can misunderstand evidence and is capable of making mistakes. This story avoids the two stereotyped film and television versions of contact: being saved by altruistic aliens, or being attacked by vicious conquerors.

The story is not complete. Its author invites you to write your own ending. What should the discoverers do? How would governments react? What roles would scientists and the media play? The author hopes some of you will rise to the challenge.

Michael Michaud is the author of Contact with Alien Civilizations: Our Hopes and Fears about Encountering Extraterrestrials (Springer, 2007), along with numerous other works including many on space exploration. Michael was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for 32 years, serving as Counselor for Science, Technology and Environment at the U.S. embassies in Paris and Tokyo, and Director of the State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology. He has also been chairman of working groups at the International Academy of Astronautics on SETI issues. Here he takes us into a scenario that could happen one day. If it did, how would we respond?

Alan guided Esperanza with sensitive fingers, feeling the shifting pressures of the ocean on her keel, watching the stress and easing of her sails. Aiming the big ketch’s bow at Catalina Island, he evened out the yacht’s motion to give his partner the stable platform she needed.

Robin hunched over her instruments. The tall, lanky woman had folded herself into the science cockpit that she and Alan had designed together. She was watching for evidence that warmer Mexican waters were penetrating northward into the cold California current.

“I see some signs,” she told him, “but they are subtle, ambiguous. This isn’t strong enough evidence to convince other scientists.”

Alan suddenly pointed off the starboard bow. “What’s that?”

Robin’s keen blue eyes focused on a metallic object rocking in the waves a quarter mile away. “It’s an automated submersible, part of the ARGO system. There are hundreds of them, all over the world ocean. They sample the chemistry and measure the currents, as far down as three thousand feet.”

“What is it doing on the surface?”

“They’re programmed to come up every ten days to report their findings by satellite.”

“A mind in the waters,” commented Alan.

“Yeah,” said Robin, “but made of silicon.”

They watched the robot doing its job. Its message sent, the machine sank out of sight.

Alan mused aloud. “If you wanted to hide a clandestine undersea vehicle, you would make it look just like that.”

Robin switched off her instruments. “Enough with ocean research for today. I’ve hit the saturation point. Is there something else we can do, just for the hell of it?”

“Have you ever watched a meteor shower?”

“I tried once on Long Island. There was too much urban glow.”

“Tonight we’ll get one of the best of the year. We could anchor off Catalina to watch it.”

“There’s a lot of light on this side of the island, like those camps for religious groups.”

“Then,” said Alan, “we’ll go over to the Dark Side.” Robin groaned, theatrically.

Alan needed her help with the sails as they rounded Catalina’s west end. He and Robin managed the lines together, working as a well-practiced team.

Robin trusted her captain. Alan had reached out when her scientific career stalled, giving her a place aboard as crew for his charter voyages. Stocky but trim, he was warily alert to the ocean’s moods.

Suddenly, Esperanza faced a vast, empty Pacific. Alan and Robin glanced at each other, wordlessly. They had talked of greater voyages, of lonely atolls and distant reefs, where the test and the joy lay in mutual reliance.

They found a deserted cove, dropping their anchor in deep water. After dinner, they lay back on the deck to watch the sky, as dark as it was before electricity.

Far above them, Earth’s atmosphere encountered a swarm of rocks and ice. White streaks emerged from a focal point in the sky. Meteors flashed their brief lives.

“It’s like being the target in a shooting gallery,” said Alan. “I’m glad they burn up before they hit the ground.”

Robin pointed upward. “What about that one? It’s not moving.”

Alan focused on the point of light. It had no tail, no streak of incandescent matter. “Is it my imagination,” he asked, “or is that thing getting brighter?”

“You’re right. It’s coming straight at us!”

Alan tried to be reassuring. “The odds of a meteorite hitting us are infinitesimal.”

Robin’s eyes widened as their fiery visitor grew in size. “We need to take cover!” She dove into the main cockpit, Alan tumbling in after her.

The ocean erupted a mile away, a tower of water bursting upward into the night sky. The sound quickly followed — a crackling whoosh, then a boom that shook the boat.

“Hold on!” Alan shouted. Spray rained down on the huddled sailors. Violent waves rocked Esperanza, straining her anchor chain.

Robin raised her head, watching the restless ocean subside. “That was close!”

“The meteorite may have survived,” said Alan. “Let’s look for it.”

“How?”

“It’ll stay hot for a while. We may be able to spot it through Rover’s infrared sensor.”

They uncovered their remotely operated vehicle, the gadget-loaded undersea craft that extended their reach deep into the ocean. Rover was more than a tool to Alan and Robin. With its own eyes and its own means of locomotion, the ROV had a kind of personhood. It was the closest thing they had to a child of their own.

Alan attached Rover to the yacht’s lifting boom, lowering the machine into the ocean. Robin, at the controls, guided the submersible through the darkness.

They watched the screen intently as Rover neared the point of impact. Nothing but inky blackness.

“Let’s set up a search pattern,” said Alan. “Back and forth, close to the bottom.”

For long minutes, they saw only the dark.

“There!” said Robin, pointing to the edge of the screen. “I see a faint glow on the ocean floor. I’ll send Rover in for a closer look.”

Alan discerned a blurry image, an unearthly shine. “Can’t see any detail.”

“I’m switching to visual,” said Robin. “I’ll turn on the lights.”

She snapped on Rover’s powerful mercury gas lamps. The sudden brightness overwhelmed their vision.

As their eyes adjusted, they made out a dark lump on the ocean floor, lit from within. “It looks like a molten chocolate dessert,” said Alan.

“You would think of that. Hey, do I see something moving?”

“The meteorite is changing shape. They’re not supposed to do that.”

They watched the dark material sliding off the mysterious object, revealing a brighter surface underneath. Robin’s jaw dropped. “It’s shedding!”

“That,” said Alan, “is no meteorite.”

Forgetting to breathe, they watched a glowing crystalline object emerge from the blackness. Robin gasped. “It’s beautiful!”

“Are we seeing internal structure?” asked Alan. “There seem to be patterns, in three dimensions.”

“It keeps changing. It’s like watching a kaleidoscope.”

“Let’s turn on all the detectors. Everything you use for research.”

The hydrophone picked up a soft beeping sound. Alan and Robin listened intently.

“Maybe it’s a tracking signal,” said Alan, “so the people who launched this thing can find it.”

“No, wait. It’s more complex, like a message.”

“As if it were trying to communicate with Rover.”

“One machine to another,” said Robin. “But Rover isn’t smart enough to respond.”

“We are. Let’s signal back.” Alan sent low-power pulses from Esperanza’s directional sonar.

The glowing object silently rose from the seabed, shedding the last of its dark covering.

“It’s oval in shape,” said Alan. “Like a streamlined football.”

“I’ll tell Rover to follow it.”

“Where is it going?”

Robin studied the plot that showed Rover’s location. “Toward us.”

They watched as the visitor approached Esperanza’s steel hull. The glowing machine stopped twenty feet off their bow. Robin maneuvered Rover to a respectful distance, while Alan preserved the scene on video disk.

“I’m receiving a burst of signals,” Robin reported.

“It’s talking to us,” said Alan.

“I’ll record the message.”

“Can you make sense of it?”

“I’ll try the program I use to extract patterns from dolphin signals.”

Alan waited a decent interval, worrying that their visitor would leave. “Any luck?”

“I can’t make out a message,” said Robin. “It’s more like radio noise.”

“Maybe it’s not a language we can understand.”

Robin threw up her hands. “We have to do something, before it gives up on us.”

“Send it the most complicated digital files you have. Even if it doesn’t understand, it will recognize our messages as complex.”

“I have a bunch of oceanographic papers in the computer. I’ll convert them.”

“I’ll try to keep it entertained by turning the lights on and off.”

He watched as the ovoid machine disappeared into the darkness, then returned into the light. Its subtle color changes made his signals seem as mindless as airport beacons.

He introduced patterns, short and long. Would the machine understand an SOS?

Robin finished converting her files, full of words and data in digital form. “Who would find this interesting,” she asked, “except another oceanographer?”

“I love reading your papers,” said Alan.

“Yeah, yeah. When you want to put yourself to sleep.”

“Try sending one.”

They waited in frozen silence. Another burst of signals came from the visitor.

“It worked!” said Alan. “Keep transmitting.”

Robin continued sending her papers. The glowing object beeped politely after each one.

“Where did this thing come from?” she asked. “Could it be some exotic military technology?”

“I would be surprised if any country is this far advanced.”

She stared at him, waiting for his next sentence. He said nothing.

They ran out of files as the dawn began lighting the sky outside the boat. Their visitor remained silent.

“Maybe it’s analyzing,” Robin said hopefully, “digesting our messages.”

“Why do I get the feeling,” asked Alan, “that we’re not telling it anything it doesn’t already know?”

“We can’t keep using the word it,” said Robin. “That thing has a mind. It deserves a name.”

“How about Art, short for artifact?”

Robin shook her head. “Ugly. We’ll call it Artemisia.”

“You just gave it a female gender.”

Robin tilted her nose slightly upward. “It is a more advanced form of life.”

Suddenly, Artemisia began to move.

“Dammit!” cried Robin. “She’s turning away from us. Where is she going?”

Their hydrophone picked up new sounds, the chugging of an engine, the whine of a propeller. “We have company,” said Alan. “Let’s go topside to see who it is.”

He scanned the horizon through his binoculars. There, approaching from the north, was an aged trawler belching smoke.

Alan studied the small, seaworn ship, her sides streaked with rust. “She’s equipped with a crane, like a salvage vessel.”

Robin checked her screen. “Artemisia is sinking back toward the sea floor, disappearing into the dark. Maybe she doesn’t like the noise.”

“Send Rover after her,” said Alan. “I’ll watch the trawler.”

Focusing on the ship’s wheelhouse, he saw a bearded man at the helm. “I bet this guy is a salvager looking for a wreck. There’s a shotgun hanging on a rack behind him. Do we still have a rifle on board?”

“I’ll get it,” said Robin.

“Keep it out of sight until we know what’s going on.”

The trawler slowed to a stop thirty yards away. Alan heard the engine grind into neutral.

The bearded man stepped out of his wheelhouse, speaking through a loud hailer. “I’m looking for a meteorite that hit near here. I tracked it from the mainland. Did you see where it came down?”

“Are you a scientist?” asked Alan.

“Naw, just a collector. I sell them on the Internet.”

“We saw a bright meteor trail,” said Alan. “Something hit the water, but it was farther offshore. Maybe two or three miles.”

Robin, standing in the companionway, watched her partner’s face as the trawler chugged away. “Not like you to shade the truth.”

“He would sell Artemisia to the highest bidder.”

Two miles out, the trawler began tracking back and forth, searching the sea bottom with a towed array of sensors. Alan worried aloud. “What if Artemisia sends signals to him too?”

Robin checked her instruments. “She’s silent, as if she fears the trawler.”

“You’re giving her emotions.”

“Any intelligent being may be wary of strange men.”

“Thanks for implying that I’m not strange.”

“So what do we do? Wait until meteor man is gone?”

Alan studied the trawler’s movements. “His search pattern is bringing him closer to shore. Toward us, as if he suspects our story. We should get under way to draw him off.”

“And hope that he won’t find Artemisia?”

“Let’s ping her with sonar, then begin moving away slowly. Maybe she’ll get the hint.”

Robin sent the briefest ping their sonar could produce. Rover’s screen showed a glow in the dark. “She’s still responding to us.”

Alan nodded. “I’ll start the engine.”

“She doesn’t like engine noise.”

“Ah, yes,” he said. “Females are more sensitive.”

Alan hoisted minimum sails, then raised Esperanza’s anchor. The yacht slowly drifted south, moved as much by the current as by the wind.

“I have to tell Rover to catch up with us,” said Robin.

“I’m sailing as slow as I can,” Alan replied.

Robin watched the video image from the ROV. “Artemisia is rising again. She’s following us.”

Alan deployed the lifting boom to bring Rover back to the yacht’s deck. “Will Artemisia want to come on board too? She may be too heavy.”

“She’s maintaining the same distance.”

Robin set up a program to transmit underwater signals at regular intervals, like a beacon. “I hope this is enough.”

Rounding the east end of Catalina, Alan steered for the California coast. Robin held her breath, hoping that Artemisia too would change course. That mysterious being followed Esperanza like an intelligent dog.

Robin heard Alan’s expelled breath. “You were worried too,” she said.

“Artemisia is a lot more interesting than any machine I ever knew.”

Alan pointed off their beam. “Dolphins, leaping out of the water for the sheer fun of it.”

“I can hear them through the hydrophones,” said Robin. She listened intently. “I’m picking up something new. Artemisia is imitating the dolphins’ squeaks.”

“She’s communicating with them too?”

“She’s turning away from us! She’s following the dolphins!”

“We can’t keep up with dolphins under sail.” Alan reached for the ignition. “The engine will help a little.”

“Yes, yes!” shouted Robin. “I’ll send her every kind of signal I can think of.”

Robin filled the near sea with messages, hoping desperately for a response. The squeaks receded into the ocean’s background noise, now corrupted by Esperanza’s diesel. The dolphins – and Artemisia – were gone.

Esperanza rocked in the waves, until Alan and Robin accepted their loss.

Alan grunted. “It’s humiliating to think that we’re less interesting than dolphins.”

“At least we recorded her signals. Maybe someone can figure out what they mean.”

“We got video, but the quality is not very good.”

“Dammit!” Robin cried. “That was once in a lifetime.”

“Alan spoke gravely. “Maybe once in a millennium.”

“What…” She pointed to the sky. “You think Artemisia came from out there?”

“I know what most scientists would think of that theory. But I can’t come up with a better one.”

Alan and Robin sailed home in sullen silence. They brought Esperanza into her slip, making her fast with docking lines.

“We should clean up the boat,” said Alan. “Shut down all the systems.”

“Not tonight,” said Robin. “I’m too depressed.”

Alan lay in his bunk, trying to read. Nothing held his interest. Nothing matched Artemisia.

What could she have been? An artificial brain, with an impervious shell and an invisible propulsion system?

Some scientists had speculated that humans would be succeeded by intelligent machines. Would they be just sophisticated robots, or could they choose what they would do and where they would go?

Machines could tolerate hardship and boredom far better than a biological being. Would such a sapient entity have feelings?

If Artemisia had stayed longer, he and Robin might have been able to tell. Now she was gone, because they had not been clever enough to hold her interest.

Alan hung a transmitting hydrophone off Esperanza’s stern. Connecting his multi-disk player, he began transmitting music into the deep. He started with Bach’s greatest fugue.

A silly thing to do. Like leaving a porch light on in the hope that your angry lover will return, forgiving everything.

Alan arose early the next morning, letting Robin sleep.

He began washing salt off the boat. As he wiped down the stern rail, he noticed an odd glow in the water. He leaned overboard, staring into the murky darkness.

A smile spread slowly across his sun-damaged face. “Well,” he said, “hello there.”

Robin hugged him as if he had saved her life. Alan shrugged modestly. “Maybe we are more interesting than dolphins.”

“We need to show her that we want to exchange information, to converse.”

“Converse? How?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m running her signals through the best analytical programs I can find. Her language is not like anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Maybe she found dolphin language more recognizable.”

“That could be it!” said Robin. “She may have thought that intelligent life exists only in the sea.”

Alan extended their thought experiment. “She, or whoever sent her, may not have known of humans.”

“How could they miss us? We’re noisy as hell, sending out radio, television, and radar signals.”

“They might have been searching for other forms of life, or other evidence of intelligence.”

“Why would she stick around when we have nothing to offer but scientific junk mail?”

Alan scratched his unshaven chin. “We may be the surprise.”

“I’m running out of things to send her.”

Alan pondered. “You receive television through your computer, right?”

“Everyone does, except you.”

Alan ignored the dig. “How about sending her the news?”

Robin brightened. “It’ll take me a while to program that.”

“What am I going to do to keep her interested in the meantime?”

“Well,” said Robin, “you could sing to her.”

Alan donned his wet suit, slipping into the water beside Artemisia. Hesitantly, he laid his hand on her translucent surface, half expecting a shock. He felt nothing but crystalline hardness.

Her internal glow seemed brighter. Is she responding to me?

Alan sang every song he could remember, making up phrases where he had forgotten the words. How awful this must sound, with the distortion of the watery medium and his own limitations as a singer.

He remembered Robin’s sarcasm. Jailers could use his singing voice on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Surely they would confess.

Artemisia beeped. More slowly this time, as if she were adjusting to his inferior intelligence.

He was feeling the first numbness of hypothermia when an object appeared in front of his face mask — the small board that he and Robin used to write notes while they were diving. Robin’s message was brief: “I just started sending her the news.”

Alan was slow to rise to the surface. “Can’t talk,” he croaked. He had given Artemisia everything he had.

Robin helped him to stand. She threw an arm around his waist, bracing him against a fall.

“Let’s watch the news,” she said, “on a real television set.”

The images on Esperanza’s screen seemed even uglier than usual, the commentary even more inane. “This may convince her,” said Robin, “that we really are stupid.”

Alan pointed to the screen. “Navy ships are conducting a search operation off the back side of Catalina.”

Robin studied the steep island slope in the background. “That’s where we were.”

“They’re using a submersible. They’re looking for Artemisia.”

“If Meteor Man talked, the Navy will come to see us. They’ll see the glow. Where can we hide her?

“Maybe we can put something over her, to disguise her.” He paused. “If this is a serious investigation, they may seize your computer.”

“All my work is on that machine!”

“Can you transfer your files?”

“I’ll put them on disks, then overwrite the data. I hope that’s enough.”

Alan grabbed their underwater video camera. “I’ll take close-ups, just in case we lose her.”

The Navy telephoned the next morning, inviting themselves aboard Esperanza at ten.

“Time to hide our visitor,” said Alan. He donned his SCUBA gear, picked up a tarpaulin, and slid quietly into the water.

He hovered over Artemisia’s glowing bulk. “I need to cover you for a few hours,” he told her. He must sound as idiotic as barbarians sounded to the ancient Greeks. Ba ba ba.

As gently as possible, he spread the tarp over Artemisia. He backed off a few feet to watch her reaction.

A gleam penetrated the tarpaulin, turning it translucent. The fabric began to disintegrate, sheets of material falling away. Soon there was nothing left.

I should have known, thought Alan. Don’t imprison intelligence.

Very cautiously, he approached Artemisia again. “I’m sorry,” he said into the water, “but I have to hide you somehow. If I don’t, they’ll take you away.”

He extended his hand toward her, fearing that his flesh would be vaporized. No heat.

He laid both hands on Artemisia’s top. Using his swim fins for leverage, he gently pushed her down. She sank to the bottom without protest.

“Wait here,” he said aloud. “I’ll be back.”

Is it just darker down here, or has her glow diminished?

Robin paced nervously on the pier, wondering what the Navy would do. She imagined armed men brushing her and Alan aside, stripping the yacht, carrying away everything that mattered. They would haul Artemisia out of the bay, dumping her on to a barge. “National security,” they would say.

Too much Hollywood. The Navy had sent only two people, a man and a woman in crisp dress uniforms.

Robin spoke quietly to Alan as the Navy people approached along the pier. “One of us has to lie.”

“And you just nominated me.”

“What if they want to search the boat?”

“We have to let them. If we don’t, they’ll be suspicious.”

“I didn’t have time to clean up my cabin.” Robin studied the neatly dressed female officer. Not a hair out of place.

Captain Babb and Lieutenant MacDonald were attractive officers with excellent posture and keen, penetrating eyes. The Navy had sent its best.

“You must have seen the meteor,” said the firm-jawed Babb.

“Yes,” Alan replied, “we did.” Be responsive, with minimal information.

“It shook us up,” Robin added.

Lieutenant MacDonald focused her bright green eyes on Robin. “You do oceanographic work. Did you search for the object?”

“We looked, but we didn’t find a meteorite.”

Alan intervened. “You might want to ask the man in the trawler. He was equipped to pick up something heavy from the bottom.”

“We did,” said Babb. “He didn’t find it either.”

“I can understand why scientists would be interested in a meteorite,” said Robin, “but why the Navy?”

“It may not have been a meteorite. It may have been a satellite re-entering the atmosphere.”

“One of ours?” asked Alan.

“Can’t say.”

Lieutenant MacDonald smiled at Alan, with fatal charm. “Mind if we look around?”

The Navy people went through every compartment, opening doors and hatches. Robin stayed with them, trying to be cordial.

Alan remained on deck, nervously glancing over Esperanza’s stern. No sign of Artemisia.

As the Navy officers came up from below, he spoke toward the bow. “Everything okay?”

Captain Babb stared into Alan’s eyes. “If you learn anything about this object, can we count on you to tell us?”

“Sure,” Alan responded uncomfortably.

Lieutenant MacDonald smiled, enchantingly. “We’ll be in touch.”

Alan and Robin watched with fixed smiles until the Navy people were out of sight. Alan leaned against a stay, expelling a contained breath. “I hate lying to people.”

“I know,” said Robin, “and so do they.”

Alan returned to the water to raise Artemisia from her hiding place. Robin logged on to her computer to search relevant blogs.

After an hour, she found what she did not want to find. The most credible of the UFO sites reported a rumor that the object striking the sea had not been a meteorite, but some sort of alien craft.

Alan watched over her shoulder as Robin checked other blogs. “This story may spread,” she said.

Alan tried to be reassuring. “It won’t have much credibility.”

“Should we go to the media, tell the real story ourselves?”

“They won’t believe us, unless they see Artemesia with their own eyes.”

“We could give them the video.”

“A mysterious fuzzy light on a dark background? The media have been there before.”

“We can’t keep this to ourselves forever. We don’t have the resources to deal with Artemisia.”

Alan nodded. “At some point, we have to inform the right people.”

“And who might they be?”

“Would scientists do the right thing if they knew?”

Robin spoke sharply. “I wouldn’t count on that. Some of them think they know what’s best for the rest of us.”

Alan tried to step back from his feelings. “We don’t own Artemisia.”

“No one should.”

They stared at the screen as if that would help. The computer offered no wisdom.

“What should we do?” asked Robin. “What should we do?”

——-

Now, dear reader, it’s your turn to suggest the next events in this story. How should it end? What should the discoverers do? Feel free to write an ending of 1000 words or less.

Copyright Michael A.G. Michaud 2007

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This article was originally posted on Centauri Dreams