Space & Innovation

What a ‘Cosmic Welcome Mat’ Can Teach Us About Finding Extraterrestrial Life

The experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats is testing an attempt to make aliens feel welcome here on Earth.

After searching for aliens for decades, we haven’t yet found definitive prove that they exist. While noted Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researchers urge scientists to keep looking, San Francisco-based experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats suggests that perhaps we need to rethink our calls for contact.

Keats says that aliens may not be welcome enough. He has designed a set of “cosmic welcome mats” in consultation with space archaeologist Alice Gorman, of Flinders University in Australia. The mats are being tested during the 68th International Astronautical Congress taking place in Adelaide this week and at Flinders University nearby. Keats and Gorman hope to see versions of these mats deployed at welcome centers worldwide, or even on the International Space Station.

If the idea seems quirky on its face, it is. Keats has pursued several projects combining science, philosophy, and art, such as opening a “photosynthetic restaurant” for plants, and creating canvas paintings based on space-based signals detected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

While most of humanity’s messages to aliens have been in radio form or in time capsules deposited on spacecraft — the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record being a notable example — this latest messaging to extraterrestrials comes literally in the form of welcome mats, such as what you would see at a human household’s front door. (Each are 60 by 90 centimeters, or 24 by 35 inches.)

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“Developing a language to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence is by no means straightforward,” Keats told Seeker via email. “That’s where creativity was most important.”

“I came to realize,” he added, “that my greatest chance of success would be to look at creative expression as a human phenomenon: When the communicative chasm is especially extreme — such as the communication of one person’s innermost emotions to strangers — humans tend to express themselves through art.”

The slow pace of SETI discovery isn’t a new problem. The Fermi paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, was proposed in the 1950s to explain why there has been no contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. (Fermi wasn’t the first to propose this, but the theory is named after him.)

Fermi and his colleague Michael Hart suggested that the Milky Way galaxy could be explored in just a few million years, provided that a certain percentage of inhabitants of Earth-like planets discovered interstellar travel. So Earth, they concluded, should have already been in contact with extraterrestrials, prompting them to ask, “Where is everybody?”

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Scientists have since generated many answers — perhaps the aliens are dead or don’t exist, or maybe they don’t want to talk to Earth, or it could be that SETI researchers aren’t searching in the right areas.

Keats argues that extraterrestrial life coming to Earth is at least as possible as an alien encountering the Arecibo radio message of 1974 sent to globular star cluster M13, or aliens encountering the time capsules aboard the Pioneer 10/11 or Voyager 1/2 probes that NASA launched in the 1970s. These spacecraft are hurtling out of the solar system, with the exception of Voyager 2, which passed the boundary of interstellar space in 2012.

“I sought to determine what assumptions could be made, at least tentatively, in order to have a reasonable likelihood of being understood,” Keats explained. “Fundamentally these assumptions all derive from what might be called the Alien Anthropic Principle: In order for the aliens to encounter the mats, they must be here in the first place, and that can potentially tell us something about them. In other words, there is a degree of self-selection inherent in being on this planet.”

Keats and Gorman wanted to convey the message “you are welcome here” in the form of abstract art, on four separate mats:

• The concept of “you” is shown as an alien, who is depicted as a red-colored blob; the blob was chosen because it is “as far as geometrically possible from the shape of identifiable beings and objects on our planet,” Keats said.

• The concept of “being welcome” shows how the blob or alien fits into the terrestrial surroundings. The first mat shows the alien near a biochemical (Earth-based) receptor, while the second mat shows the alien and receptor merging. The third mat shows the merged alien-receptor growing, and the fourth indicates “stretching” — which in this case is meant to represent not only locomotion, but also possible communications with multiple aliens, since there are multiple blobs shown on this particular mat.

• The concept of “here” or “inside”: This is shown by colors on the mat. Specifically, the blue background is supposed to represent the blue sky that we usually see here on Earth, and the geometry of the mat (the rectangular shape) is meant to suggest our built environment (the structures that humans create, such as skyscrapers or houses.)

There’s a subtle color gradient on each mat between sky blue and violet, which is meant to suggest the color spectrum between the blue of Earth’s sky and the black of space. In other words, this gradient represents “the distance to be traversed to reach the interior,” Keats said.

The four mats have been deployed at Flinders University, while one larger mat from the series welcomes visitors to the Adelaide convention. During the conference, archaeology students from Flinders will photographically document the four mats at the university, as well as record the local weather conditions and take samples from deposits on the mats.

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In recognition that these mats could include human or alien traces, the samples will be processed at the Flinders University Archaeology Technical Laboratory “using standard archaeological protocols and geological techniques,” Keats said. 

These samples will be analyzed to find differences between debris from Earth and from extraterrestrial locations. The mats will also be analyzed to see which design was the most welcoming to visitors, both from Earth and other locations. That finding will help inform the design of the visual language for future work, Keats said.

While most of the analysis will be done on the Flinders mats, the Adelaide single mat will serve as a control.

“The large mat at the convention centre — which is an enlarged version of one of the designs on campus — will provide a baseline for assessing the ratio of human and extraterrestrial traffic in Adelaide,” Keats said.

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Initial results from the mats will be presented at the STATE of AI series in Los Angeles, which will include a sort of Mat 2.0 deployed at the festival, which will reflect improvements depending on what the researchers find from the initial analysis. Keats and Gorman also plan to publish their results in an academic journal in 2018.

But that won’t be the only place where the results are seen by the public. The researchers would ideally like to see versions of the welcome mats deployed on the International Space Station, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, and other locations such as airports and embassies.

“Since the designs are freely available and open-source, the mats could really end up everywhere, and ultimately their future is beyond my control,” Keats noted. “One mark of success will be a decrease in hostility here on Earth. Another will be the discovery of one of these cosmic welcome mats awaiting human explorers in the far reaches of space.”