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So far as we can tell at the moment, we’re alone in the galaxy. Or at least far enough away from other civilizations that we can’t find them. Apparently, they can’t find us, either… yet. That’s not to say alien’s don’t exist. It’s just that interstellar travel is a very, very difficult problem to defeat, so, practically speaking, if aliens wanted to show up to invade, it would be expensive. Aliens probably have budgets, too, after all.
Fortunately for science fiction writers who don’t want to get quagmired in interplanetary numbers crunching, two scientists have pointed out that there are much cheaper and more effective ways for aliens to kill us all, either by accident or design.
John Learned, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, and Michael Hippke, a self-described gentleman scientist, have a not-entirely-serious, but still pretty serious, paper about how even aliens making contact with us could wipe out humanity. To start with, any message aliens sent us would necessarily be in some form of computer code, and that computer code could be anything, including a virus that spreads across the world before we can stop it and, say, launches all our nuclear missiles, or just shuts down every computer it finds, grinding the entire planet to a halt. It might not even be intentional, they point out, as aliens have no way of knowing what our computer systems are like.
A bunch of dum-dums running a Minecraft scam crashed the whole internet; who knows what aliens could do by mistake?
If that weren’t enough, they point out that any message from aliens would necessarily need a computer to understand it, and that there is no “perfect prison” for locking down computer code. Some well-meaning Search for Extra-Terrestrial Institute (SETI) guy could just be doing his job. He might not even have time to realize he’s opened an alien code and we’re all boned.
The good news is the scientists do agree that the risk of a malicious contact is extremely low, they’re just pointing out that it’s not zero, and that we should think about this before firing up those radio telescopes.