Last Orders

Turing's Cathedral

The beginnings of digital existence. Published by Allen Lane/Penguin Books 2012. Cover illustration by Paul Catherall.

The speed of light may be a permanent obstacle for interstellar travel within a realistic timescale for any being with a lifespan similar to ours, but sending messages between the stars by radio, or some other part of the electromagnetic spectrum, is entirely feasible. There would still be a significant time delay in having a proper chat, but it could be the favoured method of contact between extraterrestrial civilizations, and a good means of passing around helpful guidance and instructions. Or perhaps not so helpful, as we discuss in the current issue of Odyssey, which has just come out.

Such communications might be the primary method of spreading a civilization’s influence, or even the civilization itself, throughout the Galaxy. In his wide-ranging 2012 book on the development of digital computers Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, the historian of technology George Dyson pointed out that modern computer systems are able to make exact copies of any readable sequence, and current life forms might adopt computers as carriers of their genetic code.

He develops this idea by explaining that, with the development of a digital universe which extends way beyond mere hardware, we are already at a stage where “the notion that one particular computer resides in one particular location at one time is obsolete.” Furthermore, life elsewhere in the universe, if it exists, “will have had time to explore an unfathomable diversity of forms.”  The consequence is that those that become most widespread will be those that are “best able to survive the passage of time, adapt to changing environments and migrate across interstellar distances.”

A life form that has digital representation could travel at the speed of light for all or part of its life cycle.  As it travels through the Galaxy, it may not necessarily come across a host environment that has the digital computer facilities that would allow it to reproduce itself, but that may nevertheless be its aim.  But once it does find a suitable location, that world, so to speak, is its oyster.

Frankly, if such a signal was received on Earth, it is inconceivable to think that the human race would simply ignore it.  It would be decoded and the sequence reproduced.  This life form would start to utilise the resources available to it, which could effectively comprise the entire computer resources of our planet, and we must not forget that this is the representative of a highly advanced civilization with considerable experience of growing and adapting, quite possibly at the expense of its new host.

Perhaps our visitor will enter into constructive dialogue with us, but the chances that it has much to learn from humanity are somewhat limited.  It may not even be interested in our existence – our purpose is served by allowing it to reproduce.  But, if it is to propagate further, it will still need to be sent on its way to colonise further planets, and that might require a level of coercion on its part.  If it has evolved to perform this part of its life-cycle effectively, we might have little choice in the matter.

Science fiction has plenty of instances of superior aliens arriving on Earth who don’t offer much in the way of choice to human beings in bringing about their desired ends.  John Brunner’s 1973 novel Age of Miracles depicts an immensely powerful alien race effectively taking over our planet, with apparently little or no interest in humanity.  On the other hand, the short 1972 novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky shows mankind being left bewildered by a brief alien visitation which has an unknown purpose and leaves behind only debris. Choice on our part isn’t remotely relevant.

Such extraterrestrials are not necessarily being cruel – human beings just don’t feature in their way of thinking.  We’re not that important.  It might well be that any instructions we receive from an interstellar digital entity are the last we ever need to execute.  Or ever can.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Lonely Universe: Do You Hear What I Hear? | Totally Lost in Translation

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