why reverse-engineering alien tech is a pain

December 28, 2011

Apparently, there was a large flatbed truck driving down a major through way carrying a UFO last week. Maybe someone at the Men In Black headquarters forgot to issue a memo to the Area 51 drivers not to parade alien spacecraft traveling from one top secret base to another for more reverse engineering. Or maybe, it was really the captured aliens making a break for it, unaware of how much of a stir they would cause. But at any rate, the people of Kansas living along a stretch of  U.S. 77 called their local newspapers and police departments with questions about whether a mysterious truck was carrying an honest to goodness flying saucer. So what was that mysterious, otherworldly-looking object trucked around the country under a thick gray tarp? An X-47B, the Northrop Grumman built killer drone intended to launch from and land on aircraft carriers in the near future. It is definitely a much more exciting cargo than pipes or big industrial machine parts that sort of look like a UFO in the right light from the right angle, but alas, it’s not a flying saucer. Just a drone on its way from a test.

Now the fun thing about this incident is that it shows just how quick Americans are to reach for the UFO label when they seem something unusual and sleek, reaching for that label almost reflexively as has become very customary in some parts of our culture. In one region, unusual doings are attributes to gods and demons, in others, to aliens and their technological prowess. Even high ranking Air Force officers do it, with three former colonels claiming that UFOs interfered with their nuclear test projects to send a message earlier this year. But what if for the sake of argument, we take this classic misidentification and say that there really was a tiny flying saucer transported to an USAF base for reverse-engineering. Could we actually disassemble any alien spacecraft that wasn’t so much like our own technology that we’d quickly grow suspicious of its origins? True extraterrestrial spacecraft are almost physically bound to be extremely large since they’ll need huge reactors, massive engines, and thick armor to make their way through the cosmos. Real UFOs are not going to be the size of drones, they’re going to be the size of the USS Nimitz, if not bigger, and something that big could easily be seen by amateur astronomers with a good telescope as it approaches or orbits the Earth.

Obviously capturing something like that would be far beyond our means. We could shoot it down with a volley of massive KKVs and pick up the pieces, but we’d damage the technology we want to reverse-engineer if we do that. So let’s say that it deploys an unmanned drone to take survey of the planet and that’s what we happen to bring down with an EMP or a well-placed shot. We get it onto a truck as inconspicuously as possible, rush the alien craft down to the closest military lab, open it up, and then… actually then what exactly do we do with a vessel built on another world? We could analyze the materials form which its made and its overall design, but there’s not that much we could do with it. Just knowing the ingredients for an exotic alloy doesn’t mean that it’s now possible to accurately replicate it, much like just knowing the ingredients for a complex cake doesn’t give you the knowledge of how to put them together and what tricks to use to replicate the finished product. Trying to hack its software would be an even bigger pain because the computing protocols will vary greatly, down to the simple binary signals, and that’s assuming that aliens even use binary signals in their machinery. Try to decompile alien code and I pretty much guarantee that you’ll get nothing but binary garbage. And don’t even start thinking about deconstructing interstellar propulsion. It may rely on the physical phenomena we haven’t a clue about theoretically, much less in terms of practical applications.

Oh and just a thought on the idea of deconstructing an alien craft. When Iran claimed to capture the wayward drone which crossed into its airspace and either got caught or suffered from a major glitch and went down, a number of experts said that its software was built to be tamper resistant. Putting self-destructs triggered by a typical engineer’s attempts at a dissection has a long tradition in weapons design. What says that aliens will simply allow random Earthlings to paw at their ships willy-nilly rather than put in an explosive charge that can reduce the drone and any facility in which we could contain it to supersonic shrapnel? Or unleash some toxic or radioactive contaminant? Or even some nefarious nanomechanical virus? To assume that aliens would be more than happy to share their technology with us and are generous and understanding enough not hurt us if we wanted to cut up a craft of theirs to see how it works, seems rather naive. Of course they’d be willing to kill anyone who goes near their ships. They have no attachment to life on this planet and killing curious humans would probably not bother them any more than exterminating mice does us. And this is why we have serious, highly respected scientists warning us about the prospect alien invasions and wondering if we really, really want to pursue active SETI rather than quietly avoid interstellar marauders which may dominate space

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  • Bruce Coulson

    The late John W. Campbell (noted science-fiction author and editor) once wrote an article on just how difficult it might be to reverse-engineer advanced technology. He used the time-travel trope; a military base in 1925 has an advanced ramjet scout plane land at the base. Campbell explored the idea that certain concepts (how could you determine how something flew when it was designed to be launched from a plane travelling (from your technical understanding) impossible speeds?) might just be completely frustrating and incomprehensible. (At least for some time.)

    It is possible that aliens might make the same elementary errors that human militaries have done from time to time, and that might allow some really cool device to fall into our hands. Of course, the reason the U.S. hasn’t immediately bombed the Iranian base which recovered the drone is geo-political; perhaps not a big issue where aliens would be concerned…

  • Greg Fish

    Bruce, the important point here is that the idea of a captured UFO yielding the fruits of a radically advanced technology from another solar system has a lot of problems even if we were to get a UFO in the first place. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be much, much harder than many popular sci-fi shows and conspiracy theories make it sound.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Which is why the Campbell article was useful; he used existing technology and then pointed out how difficult it would be for human beings (using the same type of thinking) in the past would have in reverse-engineering human built technology from their future. Even if you’ve seen it working, that doesn’t help in understanding why it works, or how to build it yourself.

    The best logic I’ve heard re Roswell is that it was an experimental plane/drone the U.S. was working on, and so no one could come forward and deny the UFO story, because all the information was (and is) classified.

    But let’s look at this from a UFOlogist point of view. The military actually gets an alien drone/saucer/whatever. They can’t figure out how it works. But they aren’t going to let it be studied by anyone else, because what if someone else manages to reverse-engineer something before we do? So, you’ve got a classic white elephant. You can’t get rid of it, you can’t let other people know you have it, but you get no use out of it, and it costs you however much to keep it secret.

    Of course, if that’s the case, it won’t do much good even if you could prove such a thing existed.

  • Anonymous

    reverse engineering could yield knowledge . if we can determine how an object functions then we may
    be able to replicate the object on a smaller or larger scale .if this is possible we could learn more
    about its capability .it is obviously clear to me that the devices that are assembled will be used to
    change the laws of physics.