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So What Else Is New?

January 11, 2008

Considering its provenance, I can scarcely believe the tale I am about to tell you, but since it deals with an aspect of human nature we know to be true, however shocking, I think the right way to view it is as a parable, intended to edify and instruct, but not subject to the usual tests of veracity.

I am a contributor to SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, using my own 10-meter dish tuned to 1.420 gigahertz and trained on Alpha Comae Berenices, one of the brightest stars in the cluster.Most people regard this initiative as a ridiculous waste of time, given that we can’t even communicate with our carbon-based brothers, the earthworm, the shark and the marmoset, who share the same DNA with us; so how could we talk to, say, a silicon-based being? But we have to try.

For 20 years my rig detected only the usual cosmic noise, but last August it picked up something else. The raw signal looked like what your PC puts out, but when processed by the Maxwell algorithm, the decoder spit out the following fragment. Even then, it made no sense to me, but a panel of linguists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) pronounced it as classical Latin typical of public scribes in first-century Rome. Translated, it read:

“…Appeal Session XXL. Deponent states, ‘I am a domestic android Model LVII assigned to Citizen Hvorth following assembly. Both he and his companion treated me courteously until she elected early recovery. Shortly thereafter Cit. Hvorth invited me into his night room and attempted a procedure for which I was not designed and deem illegal under the Domestics Code. I appeal to the Court to reassign me to an elderly couple of opposite gender.’”

Leaving aside the vexed question of why this was in a dead language and how it got injected into my antenna, we have to admit the sad fact that just because technical progress has far outstripped moral improvement, behavior acceptable in caveman society cannot be condoned today. This subject is of particular interest to me because while I am in no way opposed to the use of machines to perform menial tasks, I strongly deplore the tendency to make them indistinguishable from ourselves.

I am also concerned that this particular message, which must have been received by dozens of other SETI dishes, has not been previously reported, suggesting that others are not so concerned as I.

The urge to conform is strong, but I shall be guided by the example of Copernicus, who, when forced to recant his absurd hypothesis that the earth goes around the sun, said, under his breath, “Nevertheless, it does.”

 

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