By Bruce Fenton
Default scepticism in science is understandable, it is how good science is done, but could the current stance of ‘it’s never aliens’ ensure we are biased away from detecting evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence? Have we perhaps already overlooked indications of alien visitation to our solar system?
Ceres is a dwarf planet, like poor old demoted Pluto, but it is also the largest object in the main asteroid belt. Ceres orbits the sun at a distance from the sun which the Titius–Bode law predicts is where we should find another planetary system, just between Mars and Jupiter. This prediction has led astronomers to theorize that a planet, nicknamed Phaeton, once existed but was somehow disrupted giving rise to the asteroid belt and Ceres.
This distant world, just 939.4km in diameter, has a surface composition like that of C-type asteroids. It is understood however, that the rocky surface hides a significant amount of water somewhere beneath. While water is always an interesting find, being considered essential for life, it’s not the presence of this crucial chemical that has brought the attention of space scientists towards this barren world.
Several years ago, a crater on Ceres, Occator, was found to house several mysterious bright spots, quickly leading to various speculations over the cause – including aliens. The 2015 visit to Ceres by NASA’s Dawn probe enabled detailed study of surface features, including the bright spots, leading to the conclusion that they were most likely the result of highly reflective compounds in volcanic ice and salt emissions.
This story might well have ended there, but for another striking feature inside the Occator crater that has since come to light. It appears there is a highly ordered geometric pattern within an area of the crater designated Vinalia Faculae.
A recent study involving an artificial neural network which had been taught to recognize shapes and patterns, identified a square area within a larger triangular feature inside the Occator crater. These geometric patterns were initially occluded by the bright glow emanating from one of the ‘highly reflective’ spots.
The same peculiar feature was also picked out by numerous people among a test group of volunteers, all of whom had no training in astronomy. The joint human-AI confirmation seemed to further support the legitimacy of the identification of a true anomaly. The result of this experiment carried out by Gabriel G. De la Torre, a Spanish neuropsychologist, understandably led many scientists to question the way in which we apply artificial intelligence in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI).
The question that came up was could AI designed to assist space science carry elements of human perceptual bias, a type of digital pareidolia, and thus inadvertently fool us into believing we had found evidence of aliens?
The initial intention of the research organised by the University of Cadiz team was to compare how human beings and machines recognize planetary images, and in doing so better understand whether specially designed artificial intelligence can help astronomers discover physical evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, so called ‘technosignatures’, associated with advanced alien civilizations.
“We weren’t alone in this, some people seemed to discern a square shape in Vinalia Faculae, so we saw it as an opportunity to confront human intelligence with artificial intelligence in a cognitive task of visual perception, not just a routine task, but a challenging one with implications bearing on the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI), no longer based solely on radio waves,” explains Gabriel G. De la Torre.
The University of Cadiz scientists having already recognized the problem of potential undetected non terrestrial intelligent signals associated with the cosmic gorilla effect, brought together 163 volunteers with no training in astronomy to determine what if anything they perceived in images taken of the Occator crater.
De la Torre and his team have previously carried out highly insightful research into the potential for inherent neurological factors of human cognition among space scientists to bring about failures in the process of detecting non-terrestrial intelligent signals. That earlier work strongly supported the likelihood of scientists failing to observe alien technosignatures even when right in front of their eyes. This investigation into human cognition led the research team to announce what they term the ‘cosmic guerrilla effect’.
The researchers then did the same with an artificial vision system (based on convolutional neural networks), that had been to recognize shapes in thousands of images to be able to identify them in any astronomical imagery.
“Both people and artificial intelligence detected a square structure in the images, but the AI also identified a triangle,” notes De la Torre, “and when the triangular option was shown to humans, the percentage of persons claiming to see it also increased significantly.”
The square seemed to sit centrally positioned within the triangle, and inside its boundaries there even appeared to be a faded circle.
“On the one hand, despite being fashionable and having a multitude of applications, artificial intelligence could confuse us and tell us that it has detected impossible or false things,” says De la Torre, “and this therefore compromises its usefulness in tasks such as the search for extra-terrestrial technosignatures in some cases. We must be careful with its implementation and use in SETI.”
“On the other hand,” he adds, “if AI identifies something our mind cannot understand or accept, could it in the future go beyond our level of consciousness and open doors to reality for which we are not prepared? What if the square and triangle of Vinalia Faculae in Ceres were artificial structures?”
We certainly do have to recognize that any artificial intelligence created by human beings is likely to include some of our own failings and biases, meaning caution is warranted in the application process, but let’s consider De la Torre’s final ‘what if’ question more closely.
What if the square, triangle and circle within the luminous Vinalia Faculae region of Ceres really are artificial elements?
No Flying Saucers but Possibly Ancient Aliens
Most space scientists dismiss the suggestion that an alien civilization is currently interacting with humanity, viewing tales of alien abductions and flying saucer landings as a mixture of fabrications and psychological delusions. Despite the astonishing number of anecdotal claims of alien contacts very little objective scientific evidence has been accrued, which tends to further diminish the veracity of such claims for academic researchers. One of the major reasons for extreme skepticism is that it’s statistically astronomically unlikely any alien intelligence would happen to stumble on us just now we begin actively looking for them with our technologies. Especially so when we consider the enormous scale of the cosmos, both in space and time.
If you ask a space scientist whether he/she believes aliens might be visiting us right now they will almost certainly say no, however if you rephrase the question and whether the same scientists think extraterrestrial intelligence may have ever passed through our solar system, many will express openness to that possibility. Statistically speaking it is quite reasonable to think that extraterrestrial intelligence might have visited our part of space sometime in the last 4.5 billion years, as oppose to arriving during the narrow slice of time that is our high-tech now.
In a recent collaborative study, four highly respected space scientists, Jonathan Carroll-Nellenback, Adam Frank, Jason Wright and Caleb Scharf, modelled the settlement of the galaxy by space-faring civilizations in order to address issues relating to the Fermi Paradox. Their paper, The Fermi Paradox and the Aurora Effect: Exo-civilization Settlement, Expansion, and Steady States, discusses the possibility that extraterrestrial civilizations may expand across the galaxy in wave fronts that take advantage of the movement of stars relative to each other.
The benefit of waiting for star systems to move closer is that it requires less effort to colonise their associated planets. Any advanced civilizations may expand rapidly through the galaxy by taking advantage of stellar motion, never having to travel enormously vast distances in space. The researchers speculate that our own Sol system may have been previously visited but now is perhaps located at an unfavourable distance for exploration, an expanding civilization may be waiting for us to come to them, so to speak.
In fact, we know that 70,000 years ago a star passed right through the Oort cloud out on the edges of our solar system and there would have been many other such close passes during the last few billion years. Perhaps during one such near miss visitors from a passing star explored our solar system, exploited its resources or even temporarily colonised its worlds. If that were the case what evidence might we hope to find?
“What would last a hundred million years? Not much, but there are some things, like nuclear waste. Or any sort of biotechnology that has knock-on effects: If you tinkered with genomes a hundred million years ago, the traces of that would still be with us today. Or any large-scale quarrying: If you chopped up an asteroid in a very distinctive way, that’d still be orbiting.” – Professor Paul Davies, astrophysicist, Macquarie University
Davies notes that if aliens chopped up an asteroid in a distinctive way, we might one day find that and know they passed this way in distant prehistory. How about if they engraved a huge complex geometric formation into the surface of a dwarf planet?
Let’s say, for sake of argument, that the feature on Ceres is a deliberate message, after all math and geometry have long been considered likely universal languages. How would the creators work to ensure any other civilization that arrived or arose nearby would eventually locate the time capsule? What about planting it in the middle of a naturally highly reflective region – or deliberately surfacing the surrounding area with a suitable material?
There is something else about that highly reflective material that beg more questions. While we are given to understand that the site is simply reflecting light, we note that when this deep crater is fully in shadow, we can still see the glow. This leads us to speculate that perhaps Vinalia Faculae isn’t just covered in reflective chemicals but somehow produces light. If so, that should really make us question the current assessment of the site.
I have to say, and this is purely my opinion, but when I look at the various glowing regions of Occator they look astonishingly like star map. The central and largest ‘star’ of the alien constellation which looks rather like a spinning black-hole) is singled out by the addition of the geometric pattern in its centre.
I mean could it be that someone visited our solar system in the distant past, used luminous chemical compounds to paint a star map onto the largest object in the asteroid belt, and then marked it with a universally recognizable geometric symbol. I mean, that would certainly make for quite the compelling calling card.
Now, I know that it’s never aliens, but what if this time it really is?
Does artificial intelligence dream of non-terrestrial techno-signatures?
The cosmic gorilla effect or the problem of undetected non terrestrial intelligent signals
The Fermi Paradox and the Aurora Effect: Exo-civilization Settlement, Expansion, and Steady States
Meet Paul Davies, The Man Who’ll Greet the Aliens