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Meeting aliens will be nothing like Star Trek – fact

The latest Star Trek movie, opening tomorrow, raises an eternal question: why are the Klingons (or Cylons or Daleks) always at roughly our technological level? For any sense of drama, interplanetary protagonists…

What use are Vulcan salutes when other life-forms see you as bacteria? Gage Skidmore

The latest Star Trek movie, opening tomorrow, raises an eternal question: why are the Klingons (or Cylons or Daleks) always at roughly our technological level?

For any sense of drama, interplanetary protagonists have to be evenly matched. Usually, the aliens have technology that is sufficiently superior to humans to promise them victory - yet not infinitely superior, thus permitting nail-biting battle scenes and humanity’s eventual triumph against (almost) insurmountable odds.

But the technological progress of life on Earth – as deduced from palaeontology, archaeology and modern history – indicates this cliché makes no sense.

Should we meet aliens, they will almost certainly either be at the bacterial level, or so advanced that they would see us as bacteria. Either way, it would not be a very exciting encounter, at least by Hollywood standards.

Why do we Klingon to illusions? Wikimedia Commons

The fossil and archaeological record emphasises the jerkiness of technological progress on Earth. Life has existed on earth for more than 3.5 billion (3500 million) years, but was at the microbial level for 85% of this time.

Tools were only invented in the past couple of million years, by a select few species (such as humans, chimps and Caledonian crows).

Technology – complex tools – is unique to humans and only appeared in the past few thousand years. But when technology finally appeared after aeons, innovation accelerated exponentially.

I quantified this exponential growth by consulting a detailed timeline of modern inventions: a list of game-changing technological breakthroughs that transformed society, such as the printing press, antibiotics, the car, the aeroplane, TV and the internet (any such list has inherent subjectivity, so you might want to find your own).

I plotted the cumulative amount of technology available to humanity through time based on this list: so, for instance, the earliest piece of technology on the list (the abacus) appeared around 2400BC, so humanity’s (and Earth’s) technological “score” finally moves up to 1 at that time, after being stuck at 0 since the origin of life.

The accelerating growth of technology, which has doubled every 200 years since 1400. Michael Lee, SA Museum

The resultant graph of technological progress shows innovation proceeds rather slowly until about 1400AD, and then really takes off.

Between 1400 and 1600, there were 12 revolutionary innovations, which exceeded the number of such innovations in the entirety of human existence (and thus Earth’s existence) up to that point.

Between 1600 and 1800, there were 21 such inventions; and between 1800 and 2000 there were 75.

Technology is growing exponentially, and since 1400 has doubled every 200 years (analogous to a computing phenomenon known as Moore’s law, applied across all technology).

The next double-century (2000-2200) therefore promises no fewer than 150 breakthrough innovations on par with the steam engine, antibiotics and the aeroplane. No wonder technophobes moan “stop the world, I want go get off”.

babbagecabbage

This exponential growth is no surprise. Innovation is a positive feedback process. Every invention sets in train further innovations, which can further drive elaboration of the original invention.

Think of inventions that improve communication (eg writing, print, telephone, radio, TV, internet). Better communication means ideas circulate much more rapidly, interact and synergise, resulting in further innovation, which in turn quickly yields even further improvements to communication.

Every invention relies on, and sets the groundwork for, other innovations, though some links are not immediately obvious.

The technology to build tall buildings has existed for many thousands of years, as evidenced by the massive temples and columns of the ancient world. Yet the first skyscraper – the first inhabited tall building – only appeared Chicago as late as the 1880s.

It was built shortly after the invention of the lift and the powered industrial water pump.

lisa cee (Lisa Campeau)

This is logical: a skyscraper would not be very popular if there were no lifts, and the toilets were on the ground floor. So an efficient water pump, as much as the lift, made possible the skyscraper. And of course, as those buildings got ever taller, the pressure to improve pumps increased.

Once life on any planet – such as Earth – hits upon technology, the rate of change will rapidly and continuously accelerate, and society will spend less and less time at any particular technological level.

Humans spent more than two million years at roughly the same stone-age level: transplant a palaeolithic caveman 100,000 years into his past or future, and he probably wouldn’t notice any change.

But imagine the angst that would result if you put a teenager 50 years into her past, or yourself 50 years into the future. Things are now changing faster than ever, and the pace of progress will only increase.

Our current technological level will probably span about 100 years, from 1950 to 2050: daily life before and after this period will be qualitatively different.

Archaeologists of the future, and palaeontologists from the very distant future, will look upon this period as a unique period in human (and Earth) history, and perhaps label it the “palaeodigital age”: the age when life first made crude digital tools (such as plastic watches, Pac-Man machines and iPads).

Greeting aliens would likely involve shaking hands or rubbing noses with a microbe. Michael Lee, SA Museum

If evolution on alien worlds proceeds even vaguely like that on Earth, then extraterrestrial life, too, will be stuck at zero technology for aeons.

When technology finally appears, it will hurtle forwards with increasing momentum so that life spends short (and increasingly shorter) intervals at any particular technological level.

Even a slight time displacement on this steep learning curve translates to monumental differences in technological capability. For intance, the end of the age of sail was separated from the beginning of the space age by less than a century.

And human societies, which all shared similar tools until some left Africa perhaps 60,000 years ago, diverged sharply in technological advancement very rapidly, resulting in grossly unequal encounters during the Age of Exploration.

There is therefore effectively zero chance of meeting an alien society at the fleeting moment that it happens to occupy a similar point on the technological learning curve as humanity.

Rather, any inhabited alien world we encounter will either be filled with bacteria – or brimming with technology advanced far beyond our comprehension.

And, of course, neither scenario would make for a very exciting movie.

This article is adapted from a talk Mike Lee presented at TEDx Adelaide on May 4, 2013.

Join the conversation

58 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Farmer

    Not only do we cast our aliens in comforting self-similarity, we see the future as a smooth continuation of the Hollywood vision with a more or less dominance of western culture and economic power and political dominance.

    But the odds are Michael that the crew of the good ship Enterprise will look a lot more like you than Charlton Heston and they'll be speaking Mandarin.

    It's not just our characterisations of aliens that are comfortingly wrong. We can't even get ourselves right.

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  2. Laurie Willberg

    Journalist

    Beam me up, Scotty: there's no intelligent life on THIS planet as evidenced by this article. Probably why we haven't officially met any visitors from other planets to this date, or at least any reports that have been universally acknowledged at any rate. Can we verify or deny? No.
    Have humans made it to any other planet? Absolutely not.
    Any extraterrestrial sentient beings from elsewhere, if they have been here, have obviously created technology that doesn't on Earth at this time.
    Would they like to meet the author of this article? Probably not.

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    1. David Heasley

      Contracts manager

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Technically we "have made it to other planets" or at least close enough in astronomical terms not to matter.
      The Mars probes? The Voyager spacecraft?

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      Worth having a google at Fred Hoyle - freelance ratbag astronomer heretic and proponent of the viruses from space suggestion. Fred also wrote science fiction. And it would not be the first time that something invented for science fiction became something well, truly invented - from science fiction to science fact.

      I wouldn't put any money on it but if you wanted to survive out there for light years a virus would probably do it... virtually indestructible but then not really "alive" either - just potential.

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    3. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      You can thank Star Trek for inspiring MRIs and CT scans, cell phones and desk top computers just to name a few.
      Anything that can be imagined can be created. However only a very tiny number of humans have been responsible for technological or CULTURAL advances. This ain't just about technology.
      Thomas Edison stated that invention was 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It's getting that "never been done before" inspiration and having the guts to see it through that makes the difference.
      Hopefully without wiping out the planet in the pursuit of $$.

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    4. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to David Heasley

      Don't you think there's a difference between landing a machine and actually "being there"?
      Star Trek has given humanity a very positive possible vision of the future as opposed to a "zombie" or other "apocalypse" in which humanity ultimately destroys itself through the misuse of technology.
      Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator, broke a lot of social boundaries by casting non-white races in pivotal roles when everybody else in 1960's Hollywood (and elsewhere) was still hung up on the predominately white mainstream model.
      To quote Whoopi Goldberg upon seeing Nichele Nichols (Uhura) on screen: "Mom, you have to see this woman, and she ain't no maid!"

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    5. David Heasley

      Contracts manager

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      I'd see landing a machine as the first "baby step". There, but just.
      I am however willing to concede your point.
      You forgot another interesting fact about Whoopi... years later she appeared herself in Star Trek Next Generation as the alien barkeep.
      Another piece of trivia. Gene Roddenberry was going to explore a gay relationship (can't remember which show). It was canned by management!

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    6. David Heasley

      Contracts manager

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      A trekkie doctor at NASA invented the hypospray. (It was used on various space flights) and the Motorola "Star Tac" phone was based on the earlier hand held communicators.

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    7. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to David Heasley

      Yes, Whoopi appeared as Guinan on Star Trek TNG.
      They sort-of did a gay relationship between Riker and a member of an alien species that didn't recognize/have a gender. The alien individual was arrested and "re-programed"!

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    8. greg rzesniowiecki

      being and doing

      In reply to Laurie Willberg

      This discussion to be objective must include and be able to countenance all possibilities;
      1. We have or not been to other planets. This includes distant past.
      2. Pre-historic civilizations on Earth were capable of intercourse with outer space, or not.
      3. Self-aware and technically capable outer space entities have engaged with Earth.
      4. Living entities and self awareness definitions need to be broad to include all potentials of consciousness in the Universal Membrane. For instance here life…

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    9. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to David Heasley

      he also intended his later wife Majel, who played Nurse Chappell. to be second in charge of the original series, but that was carrying women's rights too far according to the money people and women had to wait until Star Trek Voyager for a woman in charge.

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    10. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Majel Barrett/Roddenberry became the voice of the ship's computer in the various sequels to the original series. So in a way she WAS in charge.

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  3. Yuri Pannikin

    Director

    There exists the possibility that even civilisations in the exponential technological growth phase fail to evolve psychically in parallel and thus sow the seeds of their own destruction, creating, in essence, a short period in evolutionary terms, of high-camp razzmatazz before plunging back to a more primitive form of life.

    Another reason why we might not expect to meet advanced civilisations in the universe. Short window.

    Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

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    1. David Heasley

      Contracts manager

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      Thats also (in part) the basis of the Fermi Paradox.
      In summary: "The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist.
      However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it."

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to David Heasley

      Statistically it seems inevitable that there will be something like life - but not as we know it - out there. And that is pretty exciting.

      But on the other hand there might be nothing but rocks and dust and black holes and the like and that life is only found here. How even more magical and entrancing is that? How precious?

      Either way it's an exciting and challenging prospect really. Can't lose.

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    3. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter, yes, we could be unique. I've thought about this and I don't think it is unlikely.

      The problem is that we are looking out from within and see biological life as something special; but complexity comes in many forms, and biological life may just be another form. And as for 'intelligence', there are many definitions of that!

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  4. John Campbell

    farmer

    There are almost certainly aliens, viruses and some bacteria which can survive in vacuums among them. It seems so unlikely they would have developed this characteristic for any other reason than to travel through space.

    But then again we are not so entirely different ourselves as we exist on 'space food'- ultimately all our food comes from non earthly photons.

    As others have pointed out though we would have to hope that any intelligent aliens, if they exist, would hopefully be a bit more sensible and intelligent than us.

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  5. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    I was thinking about this the other night, and I came up with a profound idea – or maybe I was just stoned. But it seemed pretty rational at the time.

    It seems likely that humans – indeed any biological species – would be unable to traverse the vast distances between stars, as the time to do so makes such voyages unlikely. So the possibility that biological life is regularly transiting across the galaxy seems far-fetched.

    However, we are nearly at the ‘singularity’ – the point where machines…

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    1. Fred Pribac

      logged in via email @internode.on.net

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      "However, machines could very easily transit between stars. They do not have the biological time limitations that we do, nor would they face the difficulties of interactions between disparate personalities that would be exacerbated by living in a confined space for years."

      Assuming that a machine would happily devote aeons of time to interstellar coasting when there might be so many more ineteresting ways to spend it's time locally before it runs out of AA batteries seems to be just another stretch of an already over-strung fantasy.

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    2. David Heasley

      Contracts manager

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      There is an author called Ian Douglas who wrote a pretty decent series of books around just that issue. In his world mankind meets a race that has been around (in machine form) for a long long time. Worth a read if you like space opera.
      His books also have some fairly intelligent discussions on philosophy and the Fermi paradox.

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    3. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      I'd like to think any purported artificial successor intelligence (supposing such a thing is actually possible) to a biological one would have the same reverence for its predecessors' origin and heritage as we ourselves do for our own ancestral cultures. At the very least I have no doubt that an artificial intelligence of human creation would bear traces of that terrestrial origin for many generations to come. An encounter between the intelligent machines of Earth and those of another world would…

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    4. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      "What will happen when we meet one of them?"

      ... Earth will be destroyed, to make way for a hyper-space bypass ...

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    5. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      "..... If it's not worth the trouble for *us* to visit other stars, any successor machine intelligences would likely have the same attitude...."

      I disagree. I suggest that hyper intelligent machines will have the same attitude as 'V-ger', from the original Star Trek movie. An unquentionable thirst for more and more knowledge, which will require them (it?) to send out machine probes to explore the galaxy and send back information. They will all linked by some form of wi-fi (which makes sense) just like the hive mind of the Borg, so the more they spread out the more they will know. And it won't be us sending the machines - they will be sending themselves.

      And Doug - it was the Vogons who blew up the Earth for the hyperspace bypass. Machines would not be so uncouth.

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    6. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      "it was the Vogons who blew up the Earth for the hyperspace bypass. Machines would not be so uncouth." Mike, I wish I could share your optimism, but self-aware machines might not see us as worth saving. They would know that we are not adapted to spending millennia in space, travelling to other stars and they would know that Earth is doomed by the death of Sol in the next 5 billion years or so, so, in their eyes, we may well not be worth much. Indeed, if we can't take better care of our planet, that negative assessment might be correct.

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    7. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      Hi Doug

      I think everything you suggest is perfectly reasonable, and I don't really disagree. Although I suggested that machines may be traversing the galaxy in search of knowledge, they may equally be after resources, and what better way to extract them that to 'blow up' a large ball of rock to obtain the ones they want more easily.

      My point about the Vogons was more tongue in cheek that serious.

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  6. Sean Gurney

    IT Analyst

    Assuming nothing wipes out life on the home planet (at least not before technology empowers the life forms to live elsewhere indefinitely), technology will advance the fastest in profitable fields where it most fulfils the basic needs of the civilisation.

    If new technology mostly comes about to better fulfil our basic needs (certainty/comfort, uncertainty/variety, significance, connection/love, growth, and contribution) then I’m sure anything will be well within the realm of comprehension and…

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  7. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    I first heard this idea from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. His take on why we haven't encountered advanced aliens was the possibility that they don't recognise humans as intelligent life, just as we don't recognise an ant as intelligent.

    Interesting idea.

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  8. Jason Bryce

    logged in via Twitter

    This totally sux.
    I was totally counting on Star Trek First Contact happening in fifty years on 4 April 2063 like in the movie when Zefram Cochrane discovers warp drive and the Vulcans drop in for a cup of tea.

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    1. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jason Bryce

      Jason

      I am pretty sure it wasn't tea that Cochrane was serving the Vulcans.

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    2. Christopher Webber

      IT Guy

      In reply to David Heasley

      You forgot the Replicator, yes you can now buy a 3-D printer with that name, or build one yourself. The capabilities of 3-D printers are improving rapidly.

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  9. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    I like the article for its capacity to ponder, but in doing so wonder about basic assumptions. Like when humans (or some other now extinct earth species) first acquired technology and innovation. After all just a few thousand years are needed to totally obliterate most traces of our own. There are intriguing (even if authenticity challenged) artifacts found from time to time that hint at a possibility of an alternate past.

    Absence of evidence is as they say not necessarily evidence of absence…

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    1. Christopher Webber

      IT Guy

      In reply to Peter Davies

      There have been politico/cultural breaks on technolocial progress, such as the Hellenistic Greeks (great scientists and mathemeticians) being conqured by the Romans (great engineers but hardly invented anything for hundreds of years) or the Chinese being conqured by the Mongols (the emperor put a stop to a nacent industrial revolution and an outward-looking empire). In the future, though, it is likely to be the challengens of population growth and diminishing resources that are most likely to act as a break, with many new technologies requiring more resources to make (and consume when in use) than previous ones. Either that, or this will result in a strong challenge that will spur on new types of technologies.

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  10. Lioneldo Olan

    Performance Artiste

    There is, however, a limiting factor you haven't considered; the human brain. While it may be possible that someone will one day manage to unite quantum mechanics and relativity into a GUT, it is unlikely that the human brain has the capacity to go much further than that. Consequently, human technology, limited as always by our level of understanding how nature works, will not progress too far beyond what we are able to do now. Some things will remain impossible for us until/unless the human brain…

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    1. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Lioneldo Olan

      "our technological level may revert back to the middle ages". I am more pessimistic: by that time, we will have long ago used up all the energy sources and mineral deposits available to the technology of the Middle Ages. Future-proofing your family might include teaching them how to knap flint and how to make a fire without matches ... "8-/

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  11. Yoron Hamber

    Thinking

    well, let's hope they are friendly, be they microbes or hi tech. If they are just as friendly as we are to each other, then it's time to get worried methinks :)

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  12. Ian Burns

    Company Chairman

    '...any inhabited alien world we encounter will either be filled with bacteria...' - as we're said to be 90% bacteria our aliens might not be all that different!

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    1. Laurie Willberg

      Journalist

      In reply to Ian Burns

      Bacteria outnumber our own cells 10:1. Recent experiments by Prof. Luc Montagnier (the co-discoverer of the AIDS virus) has established that bacteria communicate with other members of their species in the presence of an electro-magnetic field.
      One Star Trek TNG episode featured a photonic organism calling humans "ugly bags of water".
      If an alien species, as in Galaxy Quest, tuned into Earth's TV shows and perceived them to be our "historical documents" we'd be the laughing stock of the Universe.

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  13. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    Guys a couple of things to consider

    1) Unless they have a faster than light system it would take hundreds perhaps thousands of years to get here and then back. That means they have to be living probably on a planet circling Tau Ceti or Alpha Centauri. Chances of advanced civilisations living there at just the same time as we have a technological civilisation are not too good.

    2) Why would an advanced civilisation come here. We have nothing to trade and they can get any resources we have on…

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Ron

      I have always held the opinion that tentacles beat opposable thumbs, er, hands down.

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    2. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      If you've ever seen the SciFi film Futurecop (aka Trancers) you'll understand that tentacles are for squids.

      But yes I remember that doco with the octopus opening a closed lid of a jar to get to the goodies. Eight tentacles would be a toolmakers godsend.

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    3. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      The only thing I can remember about Futurecop was that I preferred Robocop.

      Tentacles not only for toolmakers, but surgeons as well.

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    4. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Just side tracking a little Dianna. Futurecop (aka Trancers) was a 'b' grade Scifi, pretty good but yes Robocop was better...so were a lot of scifis. But my reference to 'squids' was a quote from the film where the cop from the future Jack Deth, whilst rubbing oil through his hair, says 'Dry hair is for squids'. Squids I suspect meant 'uncool' 'nerdish ergo 'Tentacles are for squids''.Just a little of my poor attempt at humour.'.

      Thought I'd let you know the context.

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    5. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Ron Chinchen

      Curse you Ron Chinchen - all is flooding back, Tim Thomerson always struck me as, well, to put it bluntly, too old and craggy even for the part of a time travelling irascible detective.

      Peter Weller was more my type - this is of course totally biased opinion from my hetero aspect.

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  14. Damien Dempsey

    logged in via Facebook

    A few things to consider ...

    1) We are not at the center of the universe and we're not doing a lot to let anyone know that they can find us here in our little patch of space.

    2) As for the Fermi paradox ... why would advanced alien civilizations give a damn about us anyway? We can't travel faster than light so we don't have a basis for technological and cultural exchange ... sadly, we're not particularly interesting. If it's interstellar conquest that motivates these guys then I expect…

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    1. Jonathan Maddox
      Jonathan Maddox is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Engineer

      In reply to Damien Dempsey

      > sadly, we're not particularly interesting

      Sorry, I disagree.

      I adduce Darwin, Attenborough and Dawkins; Bach, Mozart, Britten, the Beatles and Madonna; Shakespeare, Joyce, Kazantzakis, le Guin and Keneally; Leibniz, Newton, Einstein, Meitner, Bohr, Fermi and Oppenheimer; Rembrandt, van Gogh, Kahlo and Burgert; Kroeber, Mead and Diamond ...

      Phew. Just listing the reasons extraterrestrials ought to love humanity is exhausting. Never exhaustive :-)

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    2. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Damien Dempsey

      Ah Damien, you old romantic. I also love Star Trek and the Star Trek universe. But realistically the aliens we met in that and other series were more reflections of our own cultures and values.

      Dont worry though. I suspect when we do get out there amongst the stars, and I've no doubt we will, we will find a vastly richer, more exciting, frightening and bizarre universe than our imaginations can create at this stage in our development. I suspect all the things we know and expect, will be turned totally upside down, and any technological alien species we do meet will blow our minds.

      We've only just started the journey.

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    3. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Jonathan Maddox

      Its all relative Damien surely.How many of the marvellous achievements of the magpie to you wonder at...or the octopus...or even at Ice Age humans, many of whom achieved some remarkable efforts that make even those geniuses you referred to, pale in comparison.

      We're impressed because it is part of the world in which we live. To an alien vastly ahead technologically and intellectually, such efforts may be viewed like clever rats doing tricks or not be recognised at all because it may be meaningless to them.

      That's not to say they arent here on an anthropological (or is that Zoological) expedition watching our development.

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    4. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter,

      Wot . . . even the Star Trek yanks . . . or are you just expressing your usual fascist, racist nature?

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