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Michio Kaku: Let’s not advertise our existence to aliens

The countdown continues! The 4th most popular video from 2018 involves humanity hiding behind a tree.

MICHIO KAKU: We have this mental image that a flying saucer will circle the White House lawn, land on the White House lawn and give us a bounty of all sorts of technological goodies to initiate an age of Aquarius on the planet earth. Personally, I don't think that's going to happen. For example, if you're in the forest do you go out and talk to the squirrels and the deer? Maybe you do for a while, but after a while, you get bored because they don't talk back to you because they have nothing interesting to tell you because they can't relate to our values and our ideas. If you go down to an anthill do you go down to the ants and say I bring you trinkets; I bring you bees; take me to your aunt queen; I give you nuclear energy. So I think for the most part the aliens are probably not going to be interested in us because we're so arrogant to believe that we have something to offer them. Realize that they could be thousands, maybe millions of years ahead of us in technology and they may have no interest in interacting with us in the same way that we don't necessarily want to deal with the squirrels and the deer in the forest.

Now some people say that we should not try to make contact with them because they could be potentially dangerous. For the most part, I think they're going to be peaceful because they'll be thousands of years ahead of us, but we cannot take the chance. So I personally believe that we should not try to advertise our existence to alien life in outer space because of the fact that we don't know their intentions.

Then the other question is what happens if they're evil? Well, I think the question of evil is actually a relative question because the real danger to a deer in the forest is not the hunter with a gigantic rifle; he's not the main danger to a deer in the forest. The main danger to a deer in the forest is the developer; the guy with blueprints; the guy in a three-piece suit; the guy with a slide rule and calculator; the guy that's going to pave the forest and perhaps destroy whole ecosystems.

In other words, the aliens don't have to be evil in order to be dangerous to us, they might not care, they just might not care about us and in the process pave us over. In fact, if you read the novel War of the Worlds the Martians in HG Wells seminal novel were not evil in the sense they wanted to torture us and they wanted to do all sorts of barbaric things to humanity. No, we were just in the way. And so I think that is a potential problem. We could be in the way of a very advanced civilization that simply is not evil but simply views us as we would view squirrels and deer in the forest. So personally I think that we should not advertise our existence when we go into outer space. For the most part, however, I do think they are going to be peaceful, they're not going to want to plunder the earth because there are plenty of planets out there that have nobody on them that they can plunder at will without having to worry about restive natives called humanity. And so I think they're not going to come to visit the earth to plunder us, to do all sorts of mischief. For the most part, I think they'll just leave us alone.

  • If advanced alien civilizations do exist, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku asks: Why would they want anything to do with us? It would be like an academic talking to a squirrel, he suggests, and he has a great point.
  • Hollywood and science fiction novels have conditioned us for years to believe that aliens either want to hang out on our intellectual level and learn from us... or destroy us. If alien life really does have the technology and know-how to make it all the way here, perhaps we should just play it cool and not assume that we are the top species in the universe.
  • Kaku speculates that our hypothetical demise would come at the hands of an intelligence civilization that sees us as no more than deer in the woods and wipes us out by accident — just as we have done to (what we deem) less remarkable species since time immemorial. Our best bet for survival? Lie low.


Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How to do archaeology with place names

Mapping the frequency of common toponyms opens window on Britain's 'deep history'.

Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • A place name is more than a name – it's a historical record of the name-givers.
  • By examining some of the most common toponyms, Britain's 'deep history' is revealed.
  • See where Danes, Welsh, and Anglo-Saxons stamped their name on the land.

Trans-generational communication

This is Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of George Washington, in the northern English town of Washington.

Washington DC is a place named after a person who was named after a place. This is Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of George Washington, in the northern English town of Washington.

Image: Public domain

Giving a location a name is a possessive act. It transforms an 'anywhere', a random space, into a 'somewhere', a certain place. A place with meaning, not just for the name-givers, also for later generations. Because place names are sticky. They can survive for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. And even if today's toponym, worn with use, sounds different and lost its original meaning, it still remains a 'vector of trans-generational communication'.

In isolation, each toponym is like an archaeological dig – hiding multiple layers beneath a well-trodden exterior. In context, surprising toponymical patterns emerge. As in these maps by Helen McKenzie. She's disassembled British place names to examine the frequency of some of their most common constituents. They reveal deep history hiding in plain sight, on countless road signs across the UK.

Denmark's footprint in England

The toponymic \u200bsuffix -by is most prevalent in the area around the Humber.

The toponymic suffix -by is most prevalent in the area around the Humber.

Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission

Take -by (or -bie). It's one of the most common suffixes in place names throughout England, but also Scotland and Wales. Familiar examples include Grimsby and Whitby, on the North Sea coast; Derby inland, Formby on the Irish Sea coast and Lockerbie in Scotland.

There are hundreds of other examples, and they are among the most lasting relics of Scandinavian influence in Britain. By in Old Norse signified a farmstead or village. In modern Scandinavian languages, a 'by' still means village or city. In English, the word has also given rise to the terms 'by-election' and 'by-laws' – although pronounced differently than the suffix.

As the map shows, the suffix is most prevalent in the area around the Humber, and northern England in general. This is the core of what was once known as the Danelaw, a large swathe of northern and eastern England that was under Danish rule for about 80 years, until the expulsion of Eric Bloodaxe from Northumbria in the year 954.

But 'by' also occurs in Wales, as far south as Cornwall and as high north as central Scotland – a testament to the scale of Scandinavian involvement in Britain.

The valleys of Wales, and beyond

\u200bThe green, green valleys of south Wales.

The green, green valleys of south Wales.

Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission

The anglicised version is 'coombe', which gives an indication of how to pronounce what looks like three consonants in a row. As the Welsh word for 'valley', it stands to reason that this toponym is most prevalent in the valley-rich south of Wales. Examples include Cwmbran, Cwmafan and Cwmfelinfach.

As for the comparative antiquity of British languages, Welsh is the much older rival of English. The post-Roman, pre-English inhabitants of Britain spoke a Celtic antecedent of Welsh. They were pushed west by the invading Anglo-Saxons. A telling – but disputed – piece of toponymic evidence is the Welsh word for England, Lloegr, which some say means 'lost lands'.

Better evidence are the many Celtic-influenced place names throughout England, including such well-known toponyms as Dover or Manchester. Focusing on Cwm and its anglicised variant, we find pockets throughout southern, central and northern England, as well as in Scotland.

Tons of -tuns all over Britain

\u200bThe area of central England around Merseyside has the heaviest concentration of -tons and -tuns.

The area of central England around Merseyside has the heaviest concentration of -tons and -tuns in Britain.

Image: Helen McKenzie, reproduced with kind permission

'Tun' is an old English word for enclosure that is cognate with Dutch 'tuin' ('garden') and German 'Zaun' ('fence') – for more on that, see #615 – and by way of 'ton' gave rise to 'town'. Perhaps the world's most famous example is Washington: the U.S. capital's name derives from the country's first president, whose name comes from the eponymous town in northern England. Its name, in turn, probably originated as Hwæsingatūn, the estate (tūn) of the descendants (inga) of Hwæsa – an old English first name that means "wheat sheaf".

The Anglo-Saxons planted countless tuns/tons throughout England, with the second-highest concentration in the northeast, around Washington. The highest concentration, though, is centered on the part of central England towards Merseyside (Liverpool and environs), with Bolton, Everton, Preston and Warrington some of the best known examples.

But really, there are tuns and tons all over Britain, with distant areas of Scotland and Wales the only exceptions. Note the concentration in southwest Wales: southern Pembrokeshire, once known as Little-England-beyond-Wales.

Maps reproduced with kind permission of Helen McKenzie. For a few more maps on toponymy and a lot more on other subjects (including emploment density in Hackney and otter sightings in the UK), check out Ms McKenzie's Instagram, at helen.makes.maps.

Strange Maps #1037

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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