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The Amsterdam Gathering
Reports by Giovanni Vulpetti, Salvatore Santoli, Claudio Maccone, and Allen Tough

Early in October 1999, during the international SETI meetings in Amsterdam, 15 members of the Invitation to ETI group gathered for a buffet lunch and a 3-hour discussion. Here are four brief reports of that discussion, in hopes that they can be a useful foundation and stimulus for future discussions.

Giovanni Vulpetti sent this report:

(a) I pointed out that if I were an alien I would remain silent in order not to risk my mission, on considering the dangerous mentality of our world. If even a sophisticated robot has been studying us for decades, it should know many risks that would arise from a revealed presence. That risk would apply also to being revealed to a group of researchers, of course, for the simple reason that they would eventually reveal such news to other people.

(b) This does not mean that we should abandon the idea to contact another self-aware species. Instead, we should proceed with this project. We can gradually change public opinion on the subject, just as we do on the subject of interstellar flight.

(c) Also, we should give up the idea that we are ever likely to send information faster than light. Our current knowledge is based on Special Relativity that heavily enters General Relativity, Quantum Field Theory, Quantum Gravity, the Standard Model and even the String Theory. It is possible to show that it is NOT possible to send true information at a speed > C. If one hears someone saying that current physics promises something like that, it is wrong. At the moment, we are NOT able to scientifically imagine that a far civilization may send signals > C. As a direct consequence, we are forced to use our schemes to understand. In such a framework, it is not excluded that we will manage to produce (for instance) intense (massive) neutrino beams to send special information into space, even though we do not know where. Radio waves are not the only way to detect ET civilizations.

Salvatore Santoli sent this report of another portion of the discussion:

While dealing with the problem of our behavior in case of a close encounter with an alien intelligence, Giancarlo Genta, supported also by Giovanni Vulpetti, objected that this was actually a kind of problem involving an indeterminate answer, because of the possibility of completely different evolutionary histories and mental habits. C Bangs, too, spoke about the possibility of different sense organs with a completely different appreciation of the environment and conception of arts. Salvatore Santoli added that all these observations might be boiled down to the high probability of a completely different meaning given by aliens to signals from the environment and from other intelligent beings, so that the problem of communication would not involve just syntactic structures of the language, but also its semantic and its pragmatic components. These can be thought of as a real communication barrier to meaning. This barrier originates from the very basic living structures (on the nanometer scale and during their evolutionary history). It might be overcome through a suitable physical study of semantic information, which involves non equilibrium thermodynamics and is very different from (Shannonian) syntactic information, the latter being tractable as negative entropy and with equilibrium thermodynamics. He recalled that such problems have been dealt with to a considerable extent in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.

Those interested in deepening such aspects of communication with an ETI might start from the following paper: S.Santoli, Man/Alien Dialogues - A Nanobiologist's Perspective, JBIS vol. 51, No. 5, 195 (1998), and related references. The very conclusion of that series of papers, in which any living system had been described as a dynamical hierarchical system, involving both classical and quantum physics, was that only co-evolution among such systems and hence between human kind and any ETI could overcome the initial barrier of meaning among such different evolutionary hierarchical systems. It was shown that the problems arise just from the complex, mesoscopic and macroscopic, intra-level and inter-level nonlinear and quantum dynamics, even within a system itself (e.g., metabolic, motor, and psychic disturbances), not only in a communication link between two such systems that attempt to decode each other's messages.

Claudio Maccone recalls this major point from the discussion:

In case ET has sent probes to explore our backward civilization, and in case they do use electromagnetic communications with their mother-star, then the best way for them to send messages back home is to place a relay probe at a distance of 550 AU from our Sun (the focal sphere of our Sun). But the point on such a 550 AU sphere must be opposite to the direction of their own star. So, if we can detect an alien probe at 550 AU, then we would know immediately in which direction their star is. Not a small piece of information at all, in view of the fact the Hipparcos catalogue already tells us "everything" about ALL stars within, say, a thousand light years from the Sun!

Allen Tough adds his reflections on the discussion:

The wide-ranging 3-hour discussion at the Amsterdam gathering was one of the liveliest and most stimulating SETI discussions that I have ever experienced.

The aspect that I recall most vividly was the idea of a continuum of just how smart and competent and technologically advanced ETI might be. One end of the continuum might be labelled "stupid" and the other end "super intelligent; a million years ahead of humanity." This continuum is useful regardless of whether ETI turns out to be (a) a computer imbedded in a probe or robot, (b) a biological flesh and-blood creature, or (c) some synthesis of the two.

Some participants in the discussion stated that ETI would not be smart enough to monitor our telecommunications, learn our languages, or surf the World Wide Web.

Others took a position at the opposite end of the continuum. They worried that ETI might be so smart that a dialogue with humankind would be of no interest.

My own view is that at least some species of ETI will be somewhere in between these two extremes--at least as capable of intelligently surfing the Web as we are, yet potentially interested in some sort of scientific, educative, or spiritual dialogue with us.

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