why reverse-engineering alien tech is a pain

Reverse-engineering alien technology is a common sci-fi and conspiracy theory trope. But doing it in real life would be a lot harder than it sounds...

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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

# astrobiology // alien civilizations / alien contact / engineering

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