Carl Sagan Sent Music & Photos Into Space So That Aliens Could Understand Human Civilization (Even After We’re Gone)

A popular thought experiment asks us to imagine an advanced alien species arriving on Earth, not in an H.G. Wells-style invasion, but as advanced, bemused, and benevolent observers. “Wouldn’t they be appalled,” we wonder, “shocked, confused at how backward we are?” It’s a purely rhetorical device—the secular equivalent of taking a “god’s eye view” of human folly. Few people seriously entertain the possibility in polite company. Unless they work at NASA or the SETI program.

In 1977, upon the launching of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, a committee working under Carl Sagan produced the so-called “Golden Records,” actual phonographic LPs made of copper containing “a collection of sounds and images,” writes Joss Fong at Vox, “that will probably outlast all human artifacts on Earth.” While they weren’t preparing for a visitation on Earth, they did—relying not on wishful thinking but on the controversial Drake Equation—fully expect that other technological civilizations might well exist in the cosmos, and assumed a likelihood we might encounter one, at least via remote.

Sagan tasked himself with compiling what he called a “bottle” in “the cosmic ocean,” and something of a time capsule of humanity. Over a year’s time, Sagan and his team collected 116 images and diagrams, natural sounds, spoken greetings in 55 languages, printed messages, and musical selections from around the world--things that would communicate to aliens what our human civilization is essentially all about. The images were encoded onto the records in black and white (you can see them all in the Vox video above in color). The audio, which you can play in its entirety below, was etched into the surface of the record. On the cover were etched a series of pictographic instructions for how to play and decode its contents. (Scroll over the interactive image at the top to see each symbol explained.)

Fong outlines those contents, writing, “any aliens who come across the Golden Record are in for a treat.” That is, if they are able to make sense of it and don’t find us horribly backward. Among the audio selections are greetings from then-UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, whale songs, Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto No. 2 in F, Senegalese percussion, Aborigine songs, Peruvian panpipes and drums, Navajo chant, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” (playing in the Vox video), more Bach, Beethoven, and “Johnny B. Goode.” Challenged over including “adolescent” rock and roll, Sagan replied, “there are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” The Beatles reportedly wanted to contribute “Here Comes the Sun,” but their record company wouldn’t allow it, presumably fearing copyright infringement from aliens.

Also contained in the spacefaring archive is a message from then-president Jimmy Carter, who writes optimistically, “We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.” The messages on Voyagers 1 and 2, Carter forecasts, are “likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed.” The team chose not to include images of war and human cruelty.

We only have a few years left to find out whether either Voyager will encounter other beings. “Incredibly,” writes Fong, the probes “are still communicating with Earth—they aren’t expected to lose power until the 2020s.” It seems even more incredible, forty years later, when we consider their primitive technology: “an 8-track memory system and onboard computers that are thousands of times weaker than the phone in your pocket.”

The Voyagers were not the first probes sent to interstellar space. Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in 1972 and 1973, each containing a Sagan-designed aluminum plaque with a few simple messages and depictions of a nude man and woman, an addition that scandalized some puritanical critics. NASA has since lost touch with both Pioneers, but you may recall that in 2006, the agency launched the New Horizons probe, which passed by Pluto in 2015 and should reach interstellar space in another thirty years.

Perhaps due to the lack of the departed Sagan’s involvement, the latest “bottle” contains no introductions. But there is time to upload some, and one of the Golden Record team members, Jon Lomberg, wants to do just that, sending a crowdsourced “message to the stars.” Lomberg’s New Horizon’s Message Initiative is a “global project that brings the people of the world together to speak as one.” The limitations of analog technology have made the Golden Record selections seem quite narrow from our data-saturated point of view. The new message might contain almost anything we can imagine. Visit the project's site to sign the petition, donate, and consider, just what would you want an alien civilization to hear, see, and understand about the best of humanity circa 2017?

via Ezra Klein/Vox

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Meet Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone and Popular TV Pitchman

Mr. Watson, come here! I want you to tell me why I keep showing up in television commercials. Is it because they think I invented the television?

- The ghost of Alexander Graham Bell

Not at all, my dear Mr. Bell. A second's worth of research reveals that a 21-year-old upstart named Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented television. By 1927, when he unveiled it to the public, you’d already been dead for five years.

You invented the telephone, a fact of which we’re all very aware.

Though you might want to look into intellectual property law.... Historic figures make popular pitchmen, especially if - like Lincoln, Copernicus, and a red hot Alexander Hamilton, they’ve been in the grave for over 100 years. (Hint - you’ve got five years to go.)

Or you could take it as a compliment! You’ve made an impression so lasting, the briefest of establishing shots is all we television audiences need to understand the advertiser's premise.

Thusly can you be co-opted into selling the American public on the apparently revolutionary concept of chicken for breakfast, above.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Mr. Watson gets a cameo in your 1975 ad for Carefree Gum. You definitely come off the better of the two.

You’re an obvious choice for a recent AT&T spot tracing a line from your revelatory moment to 20-something  hipsters wielding smartphones and sparklers on a Brooklyn rooftop. Their devices aren’t the only thing connecting you. It’s also the beards…

Apologies for the beardlessness of this 10 year old, low-budget spot for Able Computing in Papua New Guinea. Possibly the costumer thought Einstein invented the phone? Or maybe the creative director was counting on the local viewing audience not to sweat the small stuff. Your invention matters more than your facial hair.

Lego took a cue from the 80s Muppet Babies craze by sending you back to childhood. They also saddled you and your mom  with American accents, a regrettably common practice. I bet you would’ve liked Legos, though. They’re like blocks.

As for this one, your guess is as good as mine.

Readers, please share your favorite ads featuring historic figures in the comments below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3, an indictment of the Trump administration that adapts and mangles Goethe's Faust (Parts 1 and 2) and the Gospels in the King James translation, as well as bits of Yeats, Shakespeare, Christmas carols, Stephen Foster, John Donne, Heiner Müller, Julia Ward Howe, and Abel Meeropol. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Experts Predict When Artificial Intelligence Will Take Our Jobs: From Writing Essays, Books & Songs, to Performing Surgery and Driving Trucks

Image via Flickr Commons

We know they’re coming. The robots. To take our jobs. While humans turn on each other, find scapegoats, try to bring back the past, and ignore the future, machine intelligences replace us as quickly as their designers get them out of beta testing. We can’t exactly blame the robots. They don’t have any say in the matter. Not yet, anyway. But it’s a fait accompli say the experts. “The promise,” writes MIT Technology Review, “is that intelligent machines will be able to do every task better and more cheaply than humans. Rightly or wrongly, one industry after another is falling under its spell, even though few have benefited significantly so far.”

The question, then, is not if, but “when will artificial intelligence exceed human performance?” And some answers come from a paper called, appropriately, “When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts.” In this study, Katja Grace of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and several of her colleagues “surveyed the world’s leading researchers in artificial intelligence by asking them when they think intelligent machines will better humans in a wide range of tasks.”

You can see many of the answers plotted on the chart above. Grace and her co-authors asked 1,634 experts, and found that they “believe there is a 50% chance of AI outperforming humans in all tasks in 45 years and of automating all human jobs in 120 years.” That means all jobs: not only driving trucks, delivering by drone, running cash registers, gas stations, phone support, weather forecasts, investment banking, etc, but also performing surgery, which may happen in less than 40 years, and writing New York Times bestsellers, which may happen by 2049.

That’s right, AI may perform our cultural and intellectual labor, making art and films, writing books and essays, and creating music. Or so the experts say. Already a Japanese AI program has written a short novel, and almost won a literary prize for it. And the first milestone on the chart has already been reached; last year, Google’s AI AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, the South Korean grandmaster of Go, the ancient Chinese game “that’s exponentially more complex than chess,” as Cade Metz writes at Wired. (Humane video game design, on the other hand, may have a ways to go yet.)

Perhaps these feats partly explain why, as Grace and the other researchers found, Asian respondents expected the rise of the machines “much sooner than North America.” Other cultural reasons surely abound—likely those same quirks that make Americans embrace creationism, climate-denial, and fearful conspiracy theories and nostalgia by the tens of millions. The future may be frightening, but we should have seen this coming. Sci-fi visionaries have warned us for decades to prepare for our technology to overtake us.

In the 1960s Alan Watts foresaw the future of automation and the almost pathological fixation we would develop for “job creation” as more and more necessary tasks fell to the robots and human labor became increasingly superfluous. (Hear him make his prediction above.) Like many a technologist and futurist today, Watts advocated for Universal Basic Income, a way of ensuring that all of us have the means to survive while we use our newly acquired free time to consciously shape the world the machines have learned to maintain for us.

What may have seemed like a Utopian idea then (though it almost became policy under Nixon), may become a necessity as AI changes the world, writes MIT, “at breakneck speed.”

via Big Think/MIT Technology Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Story of Habitat, the Very First Large-Scale Online Role-Playing Game (1986)

Long before World of Warcraft, before Everquest and Second Life, and even before Ultima Online, computer-gamers of the 1980s looking for an online world to explore with others of their kind could fire up their Commodore 64s, switch on their dial-up modems, and log into Habitat. Brought out for the Commodore online service Quantum Link by Lucasfilm Games (later known as the developer of such classic point-and-click adventure games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, now known as Lucasarts), Habitat debuted as the very first large-scale graphical virtual community, blazing a trail for all the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs) so many of us spend so much of our time playing today.

Designed, in the words of creators Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer, to "support a population of thousands of users in a single shared cyberspace," Habitat presented "a real-time animated view into an online simulated world in which users can communicate, play games, go on adventures, fall in love, get married, get divorced, start businesses, found religions, wage wars, protest against them, and experiment with self-government." All that happened and more within the service's virtual reality during its pilot run from 1986 to 1988. The features both cautiously and recklessly implemented by Habitat's developers, and the feedback they received from its users, laid down the template for all the more advanced graphical online worlds to come.

At the top of the post, you can watch Lucasfilm's original Habitat promotional video promise a "strange new world where names can change as quickly as events, surprises lurk at every turn, and the keynotes of existence are fantasy and fun," one where "thousands of avatars, each controlled by a different human, can converge to shape an imaginary society." (All performed, the narrator notes, "with the cooperation of a huge mainframe computer in Virginia.") The form this society eventually took impressed Habitat's creators as much as anyone, as Farmer writes in his "Habitat Anecdotes" from 1988, an examination of the most memorable happenings and phenomena among its users.

Farmer found he could group those users into five now-familiar categories: the Passives (who "want to 'be entertained' with no effort, like watching TV"), the Active (whose "biggest problem is overspending"), the Motivators (the most valuable users, for they "understand that Habitat is what they make of it"), the Caretakers (employees who "help the new users, control personal conflicts, record bugs" and so on), and the Geek Gods (the virtual world's all-powerful administrators). Sometimes everyone got along smoothly, and sometimes — inevitably, given that everyone had to define the properties of this brand new medium even as they experienced it — they didn't.

"At first, during early testing, we found out that people were taking stuff out of others' hands and shooting people in their own homes," Farmer writes. Later, a Greek Orthodox Minister opened Habitat's first church, but "I had to eventually put a lock on the Church's front door because every time he decorated (with flowers), someone would steal and pawn them while he was not logged in!" This citizen-governed virtual society eventually elected a sheriff from among its users, though the designers could never quite decide what powers to grant him. Other surprisingly "real world" institutions developed, including a newspaper whose user-publisher "tirelessly spent 20-40 hours a week composing a 20, 30, 40 or even 50 page tabloid containing the latest news, events, rumors, and even fictional articles."

Though developing this then-advanced software for "the ludicrous Commodore 64" posed a serious technical challenge, write Farmer and Morningstar in their 1990 paper "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat," the real work began when the users logged on. All the avatars needed houses, "organized into towns and cities with associated traffic arteries and shopping and recreational areas" with "wilderness areas between the towns so that everyone would not be jammed together into the same place." Most of all, they needed interesting places to visit, "and since they can't all be in the same place at the same time, they needed a lot of interesting places to visit. [ ... ] Each of those houses, towns, roads, shops, forests, theaters, arenas, and other places is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. Attempting to play the role of omniscient central planners, we were swamped."

All this, the creators discovered, required them to stop thinking like the engineers and game designers they were, giving up all hope of rigorous central planning and world-building in favor of figuring out the tricker problem of how, "like the cruise director on an ocean voyage," to make Habitat fun for everyone. Farmer faces that question again today, having launched the open-source NeoHabitat project earlier this year with the aim of reviving the Habitat world for the 21st century. As much progress as graphical multiplayer online games have made in the past thirty years, the conclusion Farmer and Morningstar reached after their experience creating the first one holds as true as ever: "Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

36 eBooks on Computer Programming from O’Reilly Media: Free to Download and Read

This past week, we featured a free course on the programming language Python, presented by MIT. A handy resource, to be sure.

And then it struck us that you might want to complement that course with some of the 36 free ebooks on computer programming from O’Reilly Media--of which 7 are dedicated to Python itself. Other books focus on Java, C++, Swift, Software Architecture, and more. See the list of programming books here.

If you're looking for yet more free ebooks from O’Reilly Media, see the post in our archive: Download 243 Free eBooks on Design, Data, Software, Web Development & Business from O’Reilly Media.\

For more computer science resources, see our collections:

Free Online Computer Science Courses

Free Textbooks: Computer Science

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Japanese Computer Artist Makes “Digital Mondrians” in 1964: When Giant Mainframe Computers Were First Used to Create Art

In the 21st century, most of us have tried our hand at making some kind of digital art or another — even if only touching up cellphone photos of ourselves — but imagine the task of producing it 50 years ago. To make digital art before the world had barely heard the term "digital" required access to a mainframe computer, those hugely expensive hulks that filled rooms and printed out reams and reams of paper data, and the considerable technical know-how to operate it.

But the achievement also, to go by the very early example of Hiroshi Kawano, required a background in philosophy. A graduate of the University of Tokyo majoring in aesthetics and the philosophy of science before becoming a research assistant at that school and then a lecturer at the Tokyo Metropolitan College of Air-Technology, Kawano marshaled his knowledge and experience to create these "digital Mondrians," so described because of their computer-generated resemblance to that Dutch painter's most rigorously angular, solidly colored work.


Kawano had drawn inspiration, according to a Deutsche Welle article on his donation of his archives to Germany's Center for Media Art, from "the writings of the German philosopher Max Bense, who proposed (among other things) the idea of measuring beauty using scientific rules. At the same time, Kawano heard that scientists were using computers to create music. Putting the two together, he decided to explore the possibility of using a computer to program beauty."

Doing so required "writing programs in complex computer languages, then laboriously punching these programs into hundreds of cards before feeding them into the machine." And "while the design of his works produced during the 1960s might look simple — they're not. They are the result of complex mathematical algorithms programmed so that, although Kawano sets the rules for how the picture could look, he can't determine exactly what will appear on the printer."

Just before Kawano passed away in 2012, the ZKM (or Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe), celebrated his pioneering digital art with the exhibition "The Philosopher at the Computer," some of which you can see in this German-language video clip. "The retrospective emphasizes Kawano's special role in the circle of pioneers in 'computer art,'" says its introduction. "He was neither artist, who discovered the computer as a new production medium and theme, nor engineer who came to art via the new machine, but a philosopher, who left his desk for the computer center to experiment with theoretical models."

Can computers create art? Can they even be used to create art? These questions now have practically obvious answers in the affirmative, but back in 1964 when Kawano produced the first of these pieces, working through trial and error with the advice of the curious staff of his university's computer center, the questions must have sounded impossibly philosophical. Today, writes Overhead Compartment's Claudio Rivera, Kawano's digital Mondrians "suggest themselves as an oddly ephemeral transition in the nexus of technology and art. The familiar colors and forms are flash-frozen in crystalline pixelation, almost as if seized up in the final, overheated throes of a suddenly-too-old computer."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The History of Electronic Music Visualized on a Circuit Diagram of a 1950s Theremin: 200 Inventors, Composers & Musicians

No historical leap forward has changed human culture more than the harnessing and commercialization of electricity. It may seem banal to point out such a truism—of course, nothing in the modern world would be what it is without the furious activity of Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and so many other inventors and early electrical engineers. But the scope of electricity’s role in the music of the past hundred plus years becomes truly awe-inspiring when we see it mapped out in the blueprint-like graphic above, “Electric Love,” inspired by circuit diagrams from the 1950s for a Theremin. (You can view the graphic in a larger, zoomable fashion here.)

As we noted in an earlier post, designer of “Electric Love” James Quail has created a similar diagram for Alternative and Indie rock, based on the circuit layout for a 1954 transistor radio. In the electronic music version here, not only does Quail draw on older technology, but he reaches back to earlier ancestors as well: to Edison, Alexander Graham Bell rival Elisha Gray, and Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, inventor of the obscure early recording device the phonautograph.

It’s a choice that foregrounds just how much technicians and engineers contributed directly to the sound of the modern world. Among them, of course, is the late Robert Moog, inventor of the portable analog synthesizer that become ubiquitous in nearly every genre of modern music, and whose work “was actually based,” notes Wired, "on technology from the 1800s.”

When it comes to the musicians who took this technology and transformed it into avant-gardism and dance records, the relationships are complex and perhaps impossible to fully represent in simple terms given the number of indirect influences through sampling technology. But “Electric Love” does an admirable job of showing how diffuse and diverse the music made by analog and digital technology has been. From the musique concrete of Pierre Schaffer, the experimentalism of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Arnold Schoenberg, commercial avant-garde of Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos, minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, new wave of Kraftwerk, house and hip hop of Derrick May, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool DJ Herc, ambient soundscapes of Brian Eno, jittery electronica of Aphex Twin, synthpop of Depeche Mode and New Order…

It’s seemingly all there, and everything in-between, connected, Quail says, according to “common link[s]—whether that’s a style, or an instrument, or an influence on one another.” Even The Beatles and Pink Floyd show up, presumably for their creative studio experiments. On the whole, however, most of the smaller names here are much less familiar by comparison to Quail’s Alternative chart, but for true fans of electronic music, this only means there’s more to discover in this visual compendium of “over 200 inventors, innovators, artists, composers and musicians.” You can purchase “Electric Love” as a print from design house Dorothy.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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