Epistemic status: I’ve been mulling this over for a few months but have done no in-depth research on the topic. I think it’s plausibly true that the case I make below is solid but it’s outlandish enough that, on priors, I discount it significantly. It’s also outlandish enough that I’ve chosen to write this anonymously (at least for now).
Explanations of UAPs
The Pentagon has now endorsed the idea that UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) exist (see this report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence). Several prominent individuals have expressed support for the idea that UAP are real objects and cannot be explained by current technology. All are uncertain as to what they are. Below are some potential explanations, most supported by the DNI report.
- Ultra-advanced Chinese or Russian technology: Russia or China have advanced systems (seemingly much more than 10 years ahead of the US) and they have had them for more than 10 years (Pentagon evidence of UFOs goes back to 2004). (DNI Report)
- This contrasts with the fact that, to date, all military systems deployed by Russia or China we know of have lagged behind the US and they have not leveraged this ultra-advanced technology at all.
- Ultra-advanced US technology: The US military could have secret projects which are ultra-advanced but are so secret that only very few are allowed to know. UAP reports are an attempt to dissuade adversaries from recognizing they have this technology. (DNI Report)
- I would also be surprising that the US has not yet leveraged such technology and that it has been kept secret for so long.
- Airborne clutter: “These objects include birds, balloons, recreational unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or airborne debris like plastic bags that muddle a scene and affect an operator’s ability to identify true targets, such as enemy aircraft.” (DNI Report)
- Natural Atmospheric Phenomena: “Natural atmospheric phenomena includes ice crystals, moisture, and thermal fluctuations that may register on some infrared and radar systems.“ (DNI Report)
- Spoofing by adversaries: China or Russia could have somehow hacked into the systems or otherwise tampered with their inputs so as to make sensors detect movement which was not actually happening. This could explain some of the more unrealistic maneuvers which UAPs have been documented as performing. (DNI Report)
- This level of spoofing would be extremely advanced and is of unclear purpose.
- Extraterrestrial craft: There is some alien presence on earth which possesses advanced flight capabilities.
- Edit: A friend mentioned that this could be a PSYOP by an intelligence agency.
- This seems plausible but very unlikely to me given this would constitute an incredibly complicated project and there is no clear reason why any intelligence agency would go to the trouble of executing it.
The report explicitly states that only one of the 144 sightings could be conclusively attributed to any of the categories listed above (excluding extraterrestrial crafts and PSYOP) and argues that we need more analytic resources or scientific breakthroughs to understand what is happening. While the report does not name extraterrestrial crafts as a possibility it seems there is a realistic possibility that some sightings are indeed extraterrestrial crafts.
Indeed, a 5% chance of these being extraterrestrial crafts seems to be a very conservative estimate with another 5% allocated to advanced earth technology also seeming a reasonable lower bound. Either of these possibilities could be game-changers for any number of questions longtermists care about.
Why we should care about UAPs
While the (probably) most likely explanations of airborne clutter, instrument failure, or natural atmospheric phenomena would have no effect on longtermist thinking, any case in which ultra-advanced flying craft exist should rock our world models significantly.
- Implications for the great filter hypothesis: The great filter hypothesis theorizes that the reason we don’t see advanced life in the universe is because there is some point at which the probability of survival drops to near-zero (or maybe zero). This point could be behind or in front of us. If other advanced alien life exists this at least partially invalidates the great filter hypothesis. This should give us much more confidence that humanity will survive.
- Potential for transformative technology acquisition: If any nation-state shoots down a craft then the technology it could acquire could lead to rapid and discontinuous breakthroughs in any number of areas.
- Potential for contact: Contact with an advanced civilization could be incredibly useful for humans or have any number of important consequences.
- Potential threat: Alien civilizations might be looking for habitable planets to colonize. Earth is a habitable planet and is therefore at risk.
- Importance of non-universe-destroying existential risk: If we’re sure there are aliens in the universe then the extinction of the human race is less important as we’re not the only sentient life. So long as whatever kills us doesn’t kill all life in the universe (as a superintelligent AI plausibly could) then some longtermist arguments matter less.
Ultra-advanced earth-originating technology
- World Hegemony: If one state possesses ultra-advanced technology then dominance by one world power is much more likely in the near future. Given this hasn’t yet happened, perhaps the technology demonstrated by UAPs is not as militarily useful as it seems or still requires significant refinement to be useful.
- There are more secrets than we thought and actors are capable of keeping even extremely important developments secret.
- Other things?
A theory: Maybe they’re von Neumann probes
The most likely extraterrestrial explanation of UAPs in my opinion, and which I’ve never seen mentioned, is that we are seeing von Neumann probes (aka self-replicating probes) sent by distant civilizations. If von Neumann probes are both feasible and useful for advanced civilizations/Superintelligent AIs (which seems likely) and advanced civilizations/superintelligent AIs are out there (also seems likely) then there should be massive amounts of probes in the universe. If each civilization launches just a few which then replicate each time they find viable materials then the result should be that, after many thousands of years, there should be billions or trillions of these probes. The galaxy should be littered with von Neumann probes!  Indeed, from this perspective perhaps we should have a strong prior that von Neumann probes have visited Earth.
It would then make sense that, if they were to find a habitable planet, the probes would stick around and monitor things while reporting back to the home planet. Under this theory the probes might avoid contact with humanity while they wait for instructions from the home planet (which could take thousands of years given the distances involved). On the other hand, it's hard to say why a Superintelligent AI wouldn't delegate some actions to a self-replicating probe (unless maybe the alignment problem is impossible to solve?) so that counts as some evidence against the hypothesis.
It might also make sense for the probes to behave strangely. After many thousands (or millions) of replications the probes might degrade from their original state and start to malfunction in various ways. The UAPs we see today could be the entropy-riddled craft of very distant civilizations.
What could we do about all this?
It’s not at all clear and I haven’t thought much about it. Perhaps more research would yield some insight into what is happening. Perhaps we could create better estimates of the likelihood of different explanations. For instance, we could look into how long the US government managed to keep stealth technology secret as a case study. Perhaps efforts to shoot down a UAP would be worthwhile in order to advance technology. Perhaps we should try to show UAP how cooperative we are and think of humanity’s behavior as our application for joining the galactic UN.
Another interesting line of reasoning is to speculate as to why, if there are probes from multiple or even many alien civilizations, none choose to contact, destroy, or otherwise engage with us. Does this imply there is some theoretically dominant strategy for von Neumann probe usage? If so, what might this strategy be? Does it perhaps imply something about the difficulty of the alignment problem that no alien civilization chooses to delegate actions (e.g. contacting or destroying us) to an intelligent AI in their probes? Indeed if there are many existing advanced alien civilizations what does that imply about superintelligent AI? Could we know whether these civilizations are run by superintelligent AI?
Obviously all of this is highly speculative, but the evidence and the current state of the discourse still indicates that maybe not enough people are working on this with the appropriate rigor. Mull it over, share your thoughts if you feel like doing so publicly, or DM me to do so privately.
The new term for UFO ↩︎
David Norquist, the Deputy Secretary of Defense; former CIA Director John Brennan; President Clinton’s former chief of staff and Obama advisor John Podesta; Senator Harry Reid. See this New Yorker piece for information and Tyler Cowen’s comment on his Brennan interview. ↩︎
One plausible reason for alien craft on our planet could be to stop a superintelligent AI from being created. One could imagine something like a prime directive to not interfere with developing civilizations but with the caveat that they should not be allowed to create something potentially universe destroying. ↩︎
I have thought very little about the implications of this scenario but surely there are other important implications. ↩︎
This seems much more likely than manned craft being on planet earth because manned craft cannot be replicated so easily. ↩︎
This logic echoes Bostrom’s Simulation Argument in which he argues that if you buy the premises that building an ancestor simulation is possible and potentially useful to future civilizations and that humans are not almost certainly going to go extinct then it’s more likely than not that we live in a simulation. In this case, if you believe advanced species exist and that von Neumann probes would be useful to them it is more likely than not that we have von Neumann probes on Earth. ↩︎
This seems really important! If you have thoughts on whether this seems true please share. ↩︎
It does seem like they could have some kind of pre-recorded message or send a simple AI but I could imagine any number of reasons why they might not want to do this (e.g. might not want to help some civilizations, keep the element of surprise, prime directive, etc). Another question is why they don’t just kill us and leave the planet undefended for future colonization if that’s their objective. I don’t know why this doesn’t happen but perhaps while we’re at a non-threatening stage and they’re simply curious? ↩︎
E.g. Maybe some alien civilization just got the news that we’re starting to learn how to farm and have sent us a message already and soon we’ll get a message written in Sumerian. ↩︎