Why Are UFOs Still Blurry? A Conversation With David Brin


David Brin
David Brin

The UFOs are back

In recent years there has been a surge in reported sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs - also known as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, or UAPs). There are perhaps more now than at any time since the 1950s. But there are also many millions more cameras active on the earth than there were in the 1950s, and the cameras are far better, so why are the UFOs still blurry?

One man who has some answers is the scientist and science fiction author David Brin, whose best-selling novels (e.g. “The Postman”) have won the Hugo, Locus, Campbell, and Nebula Awards. He is a writer of 'hard science fiction', meaning that his books feature scientific or technological change that is plausible rather than purely magical. The observation about cameras is sometimes called Brin's Corollary to Moore's Law: every year, cameras get smaller, cheaper, better, more numerous, and more mobile.

Brin joined The London Futurists Podcast to talk about UFOs, aliens in asteroids, the difficulty of evolving intelligence, and how to survive the arrival of superintelligence.

Brin works with NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts programme (NIAC), and he has been involved with SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence for 45 years. The thing which annoys him about today’s UFO stories is what dumb things the aliens are reported to be doing. In fact he argues that UFOs are reported to behave in pretty much the same way that elves were said to behave in the middle ages: prowling around in the dark forest, and occasionally coming into the village to to probe folks or steal children. This similarity suggests that UFOs are springing from human imagination.

Cat lasers

The popular narrative is that recent sightings reveal ‘ships’ zipping about faster than light. But should we not look first at explanations that don’t violate the laws of physics? Perhaps the glowing blobs observed are actually just that – glowing blobs of air? Most modern UFO sightings by naval pilots are explicable as experiments being performed by humans - military scientists creating glowing atmospheric effects, for instance. In other words, a lot of what is being reported aren’t solid objects or ‘ships’ at all, but overgrown cat lasers: converging beam lasers being fired into the atmosphere, creating plasma dots. As a series of light effects, and not solid masses, they can appear to move around the sky faster than the speed of light.

Brin points out that one of the main reasons for the recent increase in sightings is that military pilots are no longer penalised for reporting sightings. This is a much saner policy than obliging the pilots to keep silent about what they have seen.

Overall, Brin is pretty confident that we haven’t encountered intelligent aliens here on earth, but he thinks we might do when we get a little farther out - when we start mining asteroids.

Aliens in asteroids

The moon is a tourist sandbox, and Brin has argued that the Artemis programme, in which NASA goes back to the moon, chasing symbolic footprints on a plain of poisonous useless dust, is a mistake. Leaving symbolic lunar footprint stunts to younger space programs, a consortium of NASA, Japan and Europe should go instead to the asteroids, he says, where robots can mine huge reserves of valuable metals. In contrast, there are few resources on the moon, apart from some ice at the poles. It is handily outside the earth’s gravity well, so there will be cities on the moon eventually, but for now, the wealth is in the asteroids, and the most technologically advanced countries should pursue that challenge instead.

When we do get out into the asteroid belt, Brin thinks we might encounter mechanical probes, either dormant or defunct, sent long ago by distant aliens to observe us.

In his novel “Existence”, he posits the idea that intelligent aliens have sent out robotic probes, which arrive in a new solar system, replicate themselves, and send further probes to the next few systems, and so on. These probes are designed to watch for new intelligences, and keep watching for millions of years. This is also the core idea in Arthur C Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel”, which Clarke and Stanley Kubrick developed into the film “2001”.

We’re pretty confident now that there are no such probes on the moon, but there could be some on the recently-discovered moonlets which orbit the earth, and the Chinese are preparing a mission to investigate one. But the asteroid belt is a better hiding place.

Intelligence is hard to evolve

There seem to be many, many places in the galaxy where our kind of life could exist. Roughly one in 20 stable stars out there appears to have an earth-like exoplanet in its so-called Goldilocks zone. Even here in our own solar system, there are between six and a dozen ice-roofed ocean worlds – moons like Europa, Enceladus, Ganymede, Callisto, and probably Titan – that have vast amounts of liquid water that might support life. Also dwarf planets like Ceres, and poor, demoted Pluto. We haven’t been looking for extraterrestrial life for long, but we are getting better at it. Brin is delighted by the European Gaia mission, which launched in 2013. It is measuring the exact positions and movements of 10 million objects in deep space. He finds it sad that so few people appreciate what marvels of science and engineering projects like this are.

The apparent absence of intelligent life makes Brin think that it is hard for intelligent life to evolve. In some of his science fiction, like the excellent Uplift trilogy, he suggests that most of the intelligent life in the galaxy has been coaxed into existence by a tiny number of naturally evolved beings.

Judging by the life on earth, it seems to be fairly easy to evolve to a pre-technological level of intelligence, but very hard to evolve beyond that. There are plenty of examples of the former on the earth (dolphins, apes, crows, elephants, sea lions, and so on), and only one example of the latter – us. Something little short of miraculous happened to us 80,000 years ago or so, and we’ve been re-writing our software with language ever since.

Somewhat lobotomised

Brin may be best known as the author of the book which Kevin Costner used for his movie “The Postman”. He describes the movie as “gorgeous, big-hearted and maybe a little bit dumb… somewhat lobotomised, but overall under-rated”. He says he can forgive its flaws because it is such a beautiful and morally inspiring film to watch.

Perhaps his most famous non-fiction work is his book "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?", first published in 1998.

He still thinks that the solution to many of our problems today is an old one: reciprocal accountability. Humans are delusional, and we cannot often see our own delusions. Science can help because it always admits that it might be wrong. But in the end, the only way to discover errors is competition – you point out my delusions and I’ll point out yours - and that process requires transparency. Sousveillance is the answer to surveillance, providing a way to prevent Big Brother. Which leaves the next layer of problem: what if a majority of people in a democracy openly and deliberately set out to repress and persecute a minority? This oppression by a 51% of ‘little brothers” is what happens in Fahrenheit 451, and it is a harder problem to solve.

Surviving AI

Harder still is the problem of how to survive the arrival of superintelligence. This is not just hard to survive; it is even hard to write about a future world with active superintelligence in it, because you have to write about how something godlike behaves, and perhaps thinks. Most science fiction authors simply pretend that advanced AI never happened. Others, like Iain M. Banks, cheat by pretending that humans could have meaningful conversations with superintelligences that are millions of times smarter, and think millions of times faster. (Although in the case of Banks, of course, the cheating is magnificent.)

Brin thinks we can survive the arrival of superintelligence by creating several of them, all in competition with each other. Clearly, then, Brin is an optimist. As he reminds us, looking back at all the dystopian science fiction in the world, “things aren’t as bad as we were warned they would be.”

London Futurists Podcast
London Futurists Podcast