The search for extraterrestrial intelligence stands out in the quest for life elsewhere because it assumes that certain types of life will manipulate and exploit its environment with intention. And this intention can go far beyond simply supporting essential survival and functioning. In contrast, the general search for other living systems, or biosignatures, is really about eating, reproducing, and, not to overdo it, littering.
The intention hypothesis has a long history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American astronomer Percival Lowell convinced himself and others of the “unnatural features” on the surface of Mars, and associated them with the efforts of an advanced but dying species to channel water from the pole. Regions. Around the same time, Nikola Tesla suggested the possibility of using wireless transmission to contact Mars, and even thought he could have picked up repeated and structured signals from beyond Earth. Almost a century earlier, the great mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss had also thought about active contact and suggested cutting up the Siberian tundra to make it a geometric signal visible to aliens.
Today, the search for intention is represented by a cosmic field still in fusion.technosignatures”, Which encompasses the search for structured electromagnetic signals as well as a wide variety of other evidence of intentional manipulation of matter and energy, from alien mega-infrastructures to industrial pollution, or night lighting systems on distant worlds.
But there is a puzzle that really precedes all of this. We tend to automatically assume that technology in all the forms we know is a marker of “advanced” life and its intentions, but we seldom ask the fundamental question of why technology occurs in the first place.
I started to think about this riddle back in 2018, and this leads to a deeper way of quantifying intelligent life, based on the exterior information that a species generates, uses, propagates and encodes in what we call technology, from cave paintings and books to flash drives and cloud servers and the structures that support them. To give it a label, I called it the “dataome”. One consequence of this reframing of the nature of our world is that our quest for technosignatures is ultimately about the detection of extraterrestrial dataomes.
A critical aspect of this reframing is that a dataome can look much more like a living system than any kind of isolated, inert synthetic system. It’s rather provocative (well, okay, very provocative) is one of the conclusions I draw in a much more detailed investigation of my new book The ascent of information. Our informational world, our dataome, is best viewed as a symbiotic entity for us (and for life on Earth in general). It is truly another “ome”, much like the microbiomes that exist in an intimate and inextricable relationship with all multicellular life.
As such, the arrival of a dataome on a world represents an origin event. Just as the origin of biological life is, we suppose, represented by the successful encoding of evolutionary and self-propagating information in a substrate of organic molecules. A dataome is the successful encoding of evolving, self-propagating information in a different substrate and with a seemingly different spatial and temporal distribution, carrying much of its function through a biological system like us. And like other major origin events, it involves the global restructuring of the planetary environment, from the use of energy to fundamental chemical changes in atmospheres or oceans.
In other words, I would say that technosignatures are a consequence of dataomes, just as biosignatures are a consequence of genomes.
This distinction may seem subtle, but it is important. Many remotely observable biosignatures are the result of the internal chemistry of life; metabolic byproducts such as oxygen or methane in planetary atmospheres for example. Others are consequences of how life recovers energy, such as the colors of pigments associated with photosynthesis. All of these signatures are deeply rooted in the genomes of life, and this is ultimately how we understand their basis and likelihood, and how we distinguish these markers from difficult and incomplete astronomical measurements.
Analogously to biosignatures, technosignatures must be rooted in dataomes that coexist with biological life (or perhaps that once coexisted with biological life). To understand the basis and probability of techosignatures, therefore, we need to recognize and study the nature of dataomes.
For example, a dataome and its biological symbionts may exist in a difficult Darwinian equilibrium, where the interests of either side are not always aligned, but coexistence provides a statistical advantage for each. This could be a key factor in evaluating observations on environmental compositions and energetic transformations on other worlds. We ourselves are experiencing an increase in the carbon content of our atmosphere which may be associated with the exponential growth of our dataome, but this change in composition is not good for preserving the conditions under which our biological selves have thrived.
Projecting where our own dataome takes us could provide clues to the scales and qualities of technosignatures elsewhere. If we only think of technosignatures as if they were an arbitrary collection of phenomena rather than a consequence of something Darwinian in nature, it might be easy to miss what is happening in the cosmos.