To find intelligent alien life, humans may need to start thinking like an extraterrestrial

alien world artist illustration
If extraterrestrials are living on alien worlds, what types of signals would they send us? Our human biases might limit what we can imagine. (Image credit: NASA)

HONOLULU — Our hunt for aliens has a potentially fatal flaw — we're the ones searching for them.

That's a problem because we're a unique species, and alien-seeking scientists are an even stranger and more specialized bunch. As a result, their all-too human assumptions may get in the way of their alien-listening endeavors. To get around this, the Breakthrough Listen project, a $100-million initiative scouring the cosmos for signals of otherworldly beings as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is asking anthropologists to help unmask some of these biases. 

"It's kind of a joke at Breakthrough Listen," Claire Webb, an anthropology and history of science student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said here on Jan. 8 at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Honolulu. "They tell me: 'We're studying aliens, and you're studying us.'"

Related: 9 Strange, Scientific Excuses for We Haven’t Found Aliens Yet

Since 2017, Webb has worked with Breakthrough Listen to examine how SETI researchers think about aliens, produce knowledge, and perhaps inadvertently place anthropocentric assumptions into their work. 

She sometimes describes her efforts as "making the familiar strange." 

For instance, your life might seem perfectly ordinary — maybe involving being hunched over at a desk and shuttling electrons around between computers — until examined through an anthropological lens, which points out that this is not exactly a universal state of affairs. At the conference, Webb presented a poster looking at how Breakthrough Listen scientists use artificial intelligence (AI) to sift through large data sets and try to uncover potential technosignatures, or indicators of technology or tool use by alien organisms. 

"Researchers who use AI tend to disavow human handicraft in the machines they build," Webb told Live Science. "They attribute a lot of agency to those machines. I find that somewhat problematic and at the worst untrue."

Any AI is trained by human beings, who present it with the types of signals they think an intelligent alien might produce. In doing so, they predispose their algorithms to certain biases. It can be incredibly difficult to recognize such thinking and overcome its limitations, Webb said. 

Most SETI research assumes some level of commensurability, or the idea that beings on different worlds will understand the universe in the same way and be able to communicate about it with one another, Webb said. Much of this research, for example, presumes a type of technological commensurability, in which aliens broadcast messages using the same radio telescopes we have built, and that we will be able to speak to them using a universal language of science and math. 

Related: Greetings, Earthlings! 8 Ways Aliens Might Contact Us

But how universal is our language of science, and how inevitable is our technological evolution?  Do alien scientists gather in large buildings and present their work to one another via slides and lectures and posters? And what bearing do such human rituals have on the types of scientific knowledge researchers produce?

It was almost like trying to take the perspective of a creature on another planet, who might wonder about humanity and our odd modern-day practices. "If E.T. was looking at us, what would they see?" Webb asked. 

The assumptions and anxieties of alien-hunters can creep in in other ways. Because of the vast distances involved in sending a signal through space, many SETI researchers have imagined receiving a message from an older technological society. As astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 book and television series "Cosmos," that might mean E.T. has lived through a "technological adolescence" and survived nuclear proliferation or an apocalyptic climate meltdown.

But those statements are based on the specific anxieties of our era, namely nuclear war and climate change, and we can't automatically assume that the history of another species will unfold in the same way, Webb said. 

Veteran SETI scientist Jill Tarter has told Webb that, in some ways, we are looking for a better version of ourselves, speculating that a message from the heavens will include blueprints for a device that can provide cheap energy and help alleviate poverty.

The ideal of progress is embedded in such narratives, Webb said, first of scientific and technological progress, but also an implicit assumption of moral advancement. "It's the idea that, as your technology develops, so does your sense of ethics and morality," she said. "And I think that's something that can be contested."

Even our hunt for organisms like ourselves suggests "a yearning for connectivity, reflective to me of a kind of postmodern loneliness and isolation in the universe," she said. 

Webb joked that SETI researchers don't always understand the point of her anthropological and philosophical examinations. But, she said, they are open to being challenged in their ideas and knowing that they are not always seeing the whole picture. 

"One thing Jill [Tarter] has said many times is, 'We reserve the right to get smarter,'" she said. "We are doing what we think makes sense now, but we might one day be doing something totally different."

Ultimately, the point of this work is to get SETI researchers to start "noticing human behavior in ways that could push SETI to do novel kinds of searches," Webb said. "Inhabiting other mindscapes is potentially a very powerful tool in cultivating new ways to do science."

Perhaps beings on another planet might use gravitational waves, or neutrinos, or even some other unknown aspect of reality we have yet to come across to send messages into the heavens. 

Originally published on Live Science.

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Adam Mann Contributor

Adam Mann is a journalist specializing in astronomy and physics stories. His work has appeared in the New York Times, New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Nature, Science, and many other places. He lives in Oakland, California, where he enjoys riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @adamspacemann or visit his website at

  • Vaz
    I hate people who say "to find aliens, you need to think like one."
    It's a catch 22. In order to think like an alien, you need to have discovered it, studied it beforehand to even grasp how one might think. And by then, you wouldn't need to find aliens, because you've already found one!
  • Joe Brooks
    One thing I've always thought about regarding our SETI searches and looking at ourselves regards our reactions to one-off signals like the WOW! signal detected in 1977 or the Russian signal detected in 2015. Both of these are likely to have been false alarms, the WOW! signal likely being from hydrogen gas escaping from Comet 266P/Christensen and the Russian signal likely coming from a Russian military satellite. The key feature of both of these signals, though, is that these signals were heard once and never picked up again.

    However, what would aliens see looking at Earth? Since our accidental radio signals sent to space (radio and TV) are barely strong enough to be detected out by our own Oort Cloud, never mind by a much more distant alien civilization, we only need to consider very strong signals. Some military radar signals, which would be one-offs detected at random intervals, would also be accidental. Then there would be the intentional signals that have been sent, such as the Arecibo message sent in 1973 (and only recently sent again) and a few other one-offs such as when NASA beamed the Beatles song "Across the Universe" out to the stars. So any alien civilizations using our detection methods, where you come back the next night and try to find it again, or when you ask other observatories to try to pick it up the next day, would hear nothing. They would be the recipients of the same type of one-off messages that we thought we had received. They have since turned out to have either natural or terrestrial causes, but until the causes were figured out, a one-off could not be ruled out.
  • Craig Jones
    I really can't see advanced civilizations using radio or laser communications (being too slow for useful communications over stellar distances). Surely they have cracked manipulating entangled atoms in huge arrays allowing high quality instant communication which can't be otherwise intercepted or observed.
  • Anonymous010
    They tell me: 'We're studying aliens, and you're studying us.'"

    No they aren't. To actually study aliens, they'd at least need to find some solid evidence for them first.
  • Letsaytheyexsist
    Let me exspress my feelings about Aliens. I realy think they do exist, some beeings beyond us, who are way more smarter and developed. Let's just say that what doomed them, and not saying they are extinct, was actualy some kind of a weapon. I realy think they had somekind of a war going on between each other. Humans have or had similar wars but still, they are having their own weapons, lasors, nuklear and so on. And I think, that untill human race will have nuklear weapons, weapons of mass destruction of any kind, we will simply not find exstraterrestrial inteligence . No way. We must provide peace to "upgrade" and to find them.... let's just say we wont find them but they will find us when we will be ready for them or never at all. We are allready prooving ourselves that we are not deserved to be on this planet. Look only for global warming, where is the peace in afrika or any other continent that wars are still up. Where are we even looking? Who is in charge and who runs this show? We need to get things right before we doom ourselves like alliens did once. All we need to show them is peace. Are we ready to become peacfull nation or are we still going to be selfish fools, taking everything to themselves, and still having WARS, pollutioning our world and making difference between humans. Look where we landed folks. And lets say for sure, THEY ARE WATCHING every move we make. Lets make it in right direction this time. New era new, people, young people, any people, we should gather and make this world better place.
  • Mage
    The title has a few mistakes. I fix it for you.

    The correct title is:

    “To find intelligent life, humans need to start thinking“
  • MPM
    No need at all. Please see that for the said intelligent aliens, we are intelligent aliens. May be superior to them or may be inferior to them. If they are made out of an entirely different form of matter for us , we can't imagine about thinking like them. If they are far superior to us , they may be able to do so.
  • Eatmyrubber1969
    We are all alien's in another place ie the multiverse, however we are the dumbest of the bunch that's why we are are always the bridesmaid and not the bride. We need to get a bit wiser before we can be accepted in the galactic population
  • Geomartian
    Thinking like an alien used to get you stoned or burned at the stake. While the idea does have merit by expanding the range of your viewpoints, the consequences of shedding your human disguise have always been tragic.

    The consequences of crashing one of our lizard overlord’s meetings would make the work of HP Lovecraft seem like a child’s lullaby😊

    Simply recognizing the social and scientific pressures of conformity can be a big step forward. Reading a lot of alien genre science fiction rather than Space Opera can also help.
  • Jaspal Singh
    Anonymous010 said:
    No they aren't. To actually study aliens, they'd at least need to find some solid evidence for them first.
    Anonymous010 said:
    No they aren't. To actually study aliens, they'd at least need to find some solid evidence for them first.
    Can you explain it clearly