Humans have invented a rogue’s gallery of nightmarish fictional aliens over the decades: acid-blooded xenomorphs who want to eat us and lay their eggs in our chest cavities; Twilight Zone Kanamits who want to fatten us up like cows and eat us; those lizard creatures in the 1980s miniseries V who want to harvest us for food. (You may be sensing a theme here.)
But the most frightening vision isn’t an alien being at all — it’s a computer program.
In the 1961 sci-fi drama A for Andromeda, written by the British cosmologist Fred Hoyle, a group of scientists running a radio telescope receive a signal originating from the Andromeda Nebula in outer space. They realize the message contains blueprints for the development of a highly advanced computer that generates a living organism called Andromeda.
Andromeda is quickly co-opted by the military for its technological skills, but the scientists discover that its true purpose — and that of the computer and the original signal from space — is to subjugate humanity and prepare the way for alien colonization.
No one gets eaten in A for Andromeda, but it’s chilling precisely because it outlines a scenario that some scientists believe could represent a real existential threat from outer space, one that takes advantage of the very curiosity that leads us to look to the stars. If highly advanced aliens really wanted to conquer Earth, the most effective way likely wouldn’t be through fleets of warships crossing the stellar vastness. It would be through information that could be sent far faster. Call it “cosmic malware.”
To discuss the possibility of alien life seriously is to embark upon an uncharted sea of hypotheses. Personally, I fall on the Agent Scully end of the alien believer spectrum. The revelation of intelligent extraterrestrials would be an extraordinary event, and as SETI pioneer Carl Sagan himself once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
Intelligent extraterrestrials who also want to hack our planet would be even more extraordinary. But this scenario became a bit easier to envision this week.
On Wednesday, a story published in China’s state-backed Science and…