Intelligence means technology: SETI expert says they’re actually searching for “technosignatures”

The term extraterrestrial used to stand for something truly great. Now, as far as the general public is concerned, it has all but lost its meaning. The same applies to the related phrase, extraterrestrial intelligence. Perhaps both terms just don’t roll off the tongue. No matter the reason, it’s quite clear that both words are, for lack of a better term, obsolete. Now, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject has given her thoughts on it, and surprisingly, she wants to get rid of it entirely.

According to Jill Tarter, a world-renowned astrophysicist who served as a former director of the Center for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Research, it’s pretty much high time for the term “SETI” to be changed or rebranded. In her view, it’s a misnomer and could ultimately end up leading people down the wrong path on the search for alien life outside of the planet Earth.

During a recently concluded meeting of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Astrobiology Science Strategy for the Search for Life in the Universe, Tarter said that the term “search for extraterrestrial intelligence” implies something that was simply not remotely possible, based on current understanding of space and, indeed, extraterrestrials. Instead, she proposes that experts use the term “the search for technosignatures” which means to look for signs of old but standing and working alien technology.

Tarter said that it’s important to make the changes to the term “SETI” because of the implications that it sets forth on anyone who happens to come across it, especially those who decided to dedicate parts of their lives to it. “We need to be very careful about our language,” she said during a presentation at the committee meeting last January. “SETI is not the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We can’t define intelligence, and we sure as hell don’t know how to detect it remotely. [SETI]… is searching for evidence of someone else’s technology. We use technology as a proxy for intelligence.

She concludes: “‘SETI’ [as a term] has been problematic in history, and we should just drop [it] and just continue to talk about a search for technosignatures.”

Based on her comments on the subject, it’s clear that Tarter simply wants to make the distinction that intelligent life outside of Earth would have the capability to develop different kinds of technologies to make their lives easier and maximize the use of their resources. Therefore, it would be useful to search for a certain level of “technosignature” that would be left behind by any sufficiently advanced life form or civilization.

“We have a pragmatic definition for technology, which is the ability to deliberately modify an environment in ways that can be sensed over interstellar or interplanetary distances,” Tarter explained further. “Life does this, but it doesn’t do it deliberately.

One example of a technosignature that signifies intelligent life is the presence of communication signals. In short, if it ever comes to the point where the SETI Institute happens upon an alien communication signal, then that would mean their search is successful. Other technosignatures are waiting to be detected, of course. But unless the focus of experts and all others here on Earth changes from simply searching — somewhat vaguely — for “intelligent extraterrestrials” to actual extraterrestrial with functioning intelligence that can be translated into technosignatures, then perhaps the world would be that much closer to meeting its first non-human life forms.

Here’s hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be a disaster for humankind.

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