How to bargain with aliens

Let’s say you meet up with an alien race and you need to bargain with them by radio or some other method of signaling.  You don’t have any other information other than your knowledge of human beings.  What traits should you think are overrepresented in humans, relative to what a rerun of evolution can be expected to produce in an intelligent being?  Would you expect them to be more or less benevolent than humans?

Should it matter if they have demonstrated superior technology?  Should such achievement make you think they are more or less cooperative toward "outsiders"?

Let’s say the "alien beings" are designed robots, like Cylons.  How would that change your answer?  But unlike in BSG you know only that they were once designed.  What if you know the robots were designed not by evolved beings but by other designed robots?  Does it matter how many levels of robot design enter the picture?


A robot society would be unburdened with the constraints imposed by the organic nature of our bodies and brains. Very basic things like our sense of individuality would crumble if our minds could be copied like software. It would be difficult for us to understand robotic minds, especially of robots for which no resemblance to an original organic designer was intended.

What if the designed beings designed by designed beings despatched to greet us are more transportable, influential, durable and versatile than robots, like bacteria?

Morality is a luxury good, enabled by technology. The economy of the Roman Empire could not have existed without slavery; modern automation enables us to do without. Nuclear testing was a necessary evil until the development of supercomputers powerful enough to simulate a nuclear explosion. Animal testing is a necessary evil until we can develop supercomputers powerful enough to simulate a mouse. And so forth.

Therefore, to the extent that the aliens are more advanced than us, we would indeed expect them to be more benevolent. They can afford to be.

Any creature that evolved through natural selection would be expected to share certain basic social traits. Competition is not only between species but between individuals within a species, so we would expect things like dominance hierarchies, status seeking, and a certain equilibrium between mostly good and a touch of evil (psychopathy can be a highly successful evolutionary strategy in a naively good monoculture; however too many psychopaths make large-scale cooperation impractical).

Designed creatures such as robots would not have this evolutionary legacy. However, we are now at the stage where we can genetically engineer and design ourselves going forward, so this distinction may not be useful for creatures any more advanced than we are now.

Those traits that we call "instinct" or "human nature" are over-represented. They are endemic to us, rather than being driven by reason's dictates. (Some of those traits are reasonable, but that is something of an accident, if not divinely determined.)

My approach to dealing with them would be to construct games that I could use to see what programming flaws remained to constitute their "robot nature". If they were truly rational, the golden rule suggests that we would be able to jointly construct a modus vivendi, assuming we didn't destroy them first.

I'm profoundly skeptical about why, if there were intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, that life would be interested in contacting us. According to my speculations, we're not much more evolved than the protozoa from the point of view of being able to offer anything useful to intelligent life in another galaxy. I mean, is the thought that they'd enjoy our company? Do you enjoy having discussions with animals? But perhaps -- perhaps -- they might show up to help if they saw that we were about to destroy ourselves.

On the robot questions -- I don't believe that robots will ever be able to "design" other robots in the sense of a universal Turing machine. So the concept of robots designing robots is off the table, and the question of whether that would change things with it.

Should it matter if they have demonstrated superior technology? Should such achievement make you think they are more or less cooperative toward "outsiders"?

I would first try to determine if the aliens had taken classes in game theory. If so, then I would raise my shields.

Tit for tat. Do something or offer something and see how they respond. As long as they respond in a cooperative manner, you continue. That's how cooperation evolved among humans, and it's likely to work on non-humans.

Whoa, there is some serious misanthropy going down on this thread. Aliens would be thrilled to find us. Wouldn't our scientists be ecstatic if they discovered a Stone Age civilization in another solar system? Don't millions of human beings right now devote their lives to studying "inferior" organisms?

I don't care how advanced they are, the aliens would love to see how their social theories fit the case of Earth. And plus they could listen to Sinatra recordings.

What is the hypothetical impetus of robot societies to perpetuation ?

In other words if a designed creature no longer effectively functioned to serve the intent of the designer what would move the designed creature to replicate or redesign itself and so on.

MFM wrote:


You're assuming that alien civilization would be constituted entirely of the faculty of natural sciences from our universities.

No I'm not. What makes you say that?

Even if an alien asteroid miner came across Earth, I think he would radio it back in (or whatever). Just like if a shrimping boat discovered a sunken ship, I think our scientists would soon be exploring it. Why would the aliens be different in this respect?

When attempting to understand an alien agenda, this conversation always looks like a mirror of our own hopes and fears. I would propose that those who default to alien visitors being a threat, are equally protectionist or defensive politically. Those who presume aliens are benign also favor cooperation over domination in their politics and approach to international relations.

Then again, perhaps economics really is the best way to study aliens. Ecology is, if nothing else, economical.

What is this, like a rerun of the movie Signs?

"Hi, we're aliens. We have somehow conquered the non-trivial problem of interstellar space travel, and have been studying you guys for years without being noticed, yet we lack the ability to use anything you would understand, and nevertheless want to trade you for useless trophies, while significantly and irrevocably altering your civilization's development."

I would keep a copy of Minds, Machines and Gödel handy in case the robots ever got out of line, because by reading it they'd undoubtedly disappear in a poof of logic.

To be more serious, however, I'd brush up on my binary.

Those are a lot of questions. Obviously, it would be impossible to identify an optimal strategy based on a-priory knowledge. Whether the aliens are of natural or artificial origin does not matter that much, since that could be regarded as a general extension of normal evolutionary processes. Since we don't know anything about whether evolution results on earth are comparable with any other life base in the universe, a distinction between natural and artificial entities makes no sense right now.
Bargaining presumes that the other side is interested in exchange. If someone engages in radio conversation it can be assumed that there is such an interest in some form. So a bargaining process should heed the same precautions as trading between primitive human cultures on earth whose predecessors parted ways a couple of tens of thousands of years before. That and observing the results, integrating new discoveries into the strategy while going along would be a promising approach, I suppose.

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