NY times has a new material about possible observations of UFOs by air force pilots. Should rationalists use their arsenal of new ideas about how the world works – simulation, superintelligent AIs etc – to explain these things, or should they be of more sceptical side and explain them via some combination of biases and hoaxes?

For example, one could speculate that an alien AI have terminated long before now, but some of its self-replicating robots colonised the universe. Or may be we live in a simulation which is full of glitches and viruses?

It is possible to create many hypothesis like these with infinite explanatory powers.

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While these objects may be unidentified, the idea that they are the products of aliens, a simulation, AI, or something else seems unlikely given the low quality of the evidence. In all cases I'm aware of evidence for something like this being the true origin of a UFO would have to overcome the more likely alternatives of

  • secret, experimental, or stealth aircraft, probably military, with advanced capabilities undisclosed to the public;
  • observational errors and instrumentation glitches;
  • misremembering, embellishment, and outright lying.

For a comparison, the literature on cryptids (claimed to be real but unobserved by science animals like bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, and the chupacabra) is full of cases where the evidence looks pretty compelling...so long as we only look for evidence that confirms the hope that a cryptid exists. Perhaps sadly, there are no cryptid humanoids or sea monsters that we know of, and all evidence of them thus far collected is either best categorized as hoaxes, misidentifications, and hopeful misinterpretations or turned out to be evidence of real, undiscovered, and not fantastical animals.

If we take the NY Times article as a true report, it is strong argument against american "secret, experimental, or stealth aircraft" as they would not risk to crash it by flying between two airplanes in tight formation. But other explanation are possible, like disinformation.

This is incorrect. They shouldn’t risk crashing by flying between a tight formation, but you’ve got to consider that people who work in top secret programs are mostly just regular people who don’t talk about their work. There is plenty of room in top secret military projects for all the same jackassery that happens in public projects, like incompetence, pranks, deliberately dangerous tests, etc. Arguably more so, since they are sheltered from scrutiny. And this ignores more prosaic explanations like an autopilot glitch. Alpha Go made weird decisions because it was misreading the apparent score, a pilot AI would certainly encounter similar problems at some point.
Maybe they tested some radar-jamming tech. I also find more discussion about new radars there here [https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/28231/multiple-f-a-18-pilots-disclose-recent-ufos-encounters-new-radar-tech-key-in-detection] .

Rationalists should have mental models of the world that say if aliens/AI were out there, a few rare and poorly documented UFO encounters is not at all how we would find out. These stories are not worth the oxygen it takes to contemplate them.

In general, thinking more rationally can change confidence levels in only two directions: either toward more uncertainty or toward more certainty. Sometimes, rationalism says to open your mind, free yourself of prejudice, and overcome your bias. In these cases, you will be guided toward more uncertainty. Other time, rationalism says, c'mon, use your brain and think about the world in a way that's deeply self-consistent and don't fall for surface-level explanations. In these cases, you will be guided toward more certainty.

In my opinion, this is a case where rationalism should make us more certain, not less. Like, if there were aliens, is this really how we would find out? Obviously no.

The princeton-nimitz reports are unambiguously worth the oxygen it takes to contemplate them, given the consistency of the reports and the ramifications it would have even if it was "just" a human technology. So if you had the virtue of curiosity, you would contemplate it, and you would get led down the path that ends with the resolution that the "lie", "mistake", or "human technology" theories don't really make deep sense either, and a rationalist does indeed have to start considering the other theory, that some aliens end up being much stranger than we w... (read more)

Rationalists should be deeply interested in the Princeton-Nimitz encounters, regardless of whether it was confusion, aliens, or a secret human technology, because cases of confusion on this level teach us a lot about how epistemic networks operate, and if it were aliens or a secret human technology that would be strategically significant.

So, since those were pretty much the only possibilities, I was deeply interested.

I eventually settled loosely into the theory that the tictacs were probably a test of a long-range plasma volumetric display decoy/spoofing thing. More from David Brin. I did get the impression that the higher ups on these ships were consistently, sharply less curious about the UAPs than the rest of the crew: Perhaps they'd been warned in advance.
There are a few loose threads, though:

  • We don't know of a way of spoofing those sorts of radars.
  • Obama would seem to be lying, in saying, of them, "We don't know exactly what they are". He could just be lying by omission, though. It's conceivable to me that when a president starts to realize it's probably a secret US technology they will generally pull back from their investigation, lose curiosity, and choose to stay as ignorant as possible, knowing that, if they knew, they'd be kind of obligated to tell people, and that would just slightly weaken the US, and potentially increase the distance between military and public representatives which wouldn't be healthy.
    • Earlier presidents seemed more interested than Biden is, in getting to the bottom of these things and telling the public, but it's conceivable that they didn't have the decoy thing working during Clinton's term so there weren't any actual US UFO techs to report.
  • There are a couple of little details in the report that don't line up with this theory (for instance, tictacs having detailed parts on the bottom, or seeming to be clearly physical objects? (though note, Voorhis reported them having a glow to them, at night (I'd guess that they were the glow, and that it was only non-obvious that they were glowing during the day because the sun was bright enough that they could be read as reflective white objects instead), and they were hot, on the FLIR)), but I'd expect a certain number of details in any report of a mysterious phenomenon to be confabulations, due to the fact that whenever a person sees anything, they see it through their interpretations of what they think it is, they don't just give you raw images, that's not how human sensation or memory or language works. If you want to find a novel (more correct) interpretation of any phenomenon, you have to be prepared to disregard some of the details as confabulations that people made up and perpetuated as a result of seeing everything through the previous interpretation.


I initially agreed that aliens would not look like this. Then Robin Hanson wrote a series of rationalization stories about why an alien civilization might look like this, which has bamboozled me. (In short, his theory was: They're an extremely centralized, conservative civilization who evolved recently, and nearby, relative to us, due to being siblings of the same panspermia event. They give their visiting parties only limited agency to execute the simplest possible plan that would gradually convince us to look up to them and become like them. (While still allowing us enough doubt and agency that our choice would be meaningful?))

It is difficult to make even a Moon's photo with a smartphone https://www.popsci.com/how-to-photograph-the-moon#page-2

Doesn't land a hit on the story as it's always been told: They're piloted by intelligent beings and that they only want to be seen occasionally. They'd notice that we're all carrying cameras and deliberately appear less frequently (while still acting aloof).

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According to a comment on the NYT website:

I've heard the upcoming History channel doc premiering on May 31st gets into the useful data you're asking about. I've been told by those who've seen it that it's the most impressive presentation of miliary encounters with UAO so far broadcast on US tv.

So this, together with the on-record interviews, looks like a deliberate effort on the part of the US Navy to release/publicize this information. I wonder why they're doing this now.

Another thing I noticed while browsing the comments is that people report many different types of flying objects that aren't very similar to each other. If it's aliens, why are they fielding so many different types of crafts?

The last questions would seem to beg the follow up of, and yet we still have no other indication of ET life beyond the most simple forms.

1. In Soviet Union there was a practise to publish an article about UFO in tightly controlled central press just before major food price increase announcement. I personally remembered such article carbon copied and discussed for days around 1988. (Fact check: it was 1985, full story here in Russian). But it could be just a conspirological interpretation of publishing practices.

2. Personally, I don't buy extraterrestrial explanation of UFOs (it is so middle-20-century) and prefer something more interesting, like self-replicating glitches in the matrix or intrusions of randomness into the chains of observer-moments of Boltzmann Brains. This may explain variety of experience and their absurdness.

3. If we stick to the extraterrestrial explanation of UFOs, than Zoo hypothesis prevails. It goes like following: even if most colonisation waves by ETI destroy potentially habitable planets, we could find ourself only in the world there ETI decided not destroy life, but observe it. Thus we live in some kind of natural reserve. However, its ETI-owners sell tickets to different other civilizations tourists for short trips to Earth. This explains variety of observed crafts and their irrational behaviour. But this explanation is also too anthropomorphic.

We can see the minute details of the Moon's surface, every thermal tile on a space shuttle, a black hole millions of light years away, and all we have to show for this UFO evidence is a few grainy videos and a lot of exclamations by the observers?

One possible answer is that most of our observational system are very specialised for a target and they ignore any other objects as noise. To record UFOs – if they do exist and can be recorded – one need a net of telescopes with very wide angles or many airplanes with different sensors. The last thing is similar to a squadrons of military aircrafts.

Certainly it is possible that we are not equipped for recording UFOs, but then, given the amount of sightings and that we have had grainy images for decades, the technology should have improved by now to have something more definite.

Good point. Actually, I think that all almost early time "saucer's photos" are home-made fakes.

I can’t tell if you already know this, but “infinite explanatory power” is equivalent to no real explanatory power. If it assigns equal probability to everything then nothing can be evidence in favor of it, and so on.

If it assigns equal probability to everything then nothing can be evidence in favor of it

Nope. If it assigns more probability to an observation than another hypothesis does ("It's going to be raining tomorrow! Because AGI!), then the observation is evidence for it and against the other hypothesis. (Of course given how the actual world looks, anything that could be called "assigns equal probability to everything", whatever that means, is going to quickly lose to any sensible model of the world.)

That said, I think being reasoned about instead of simulated really does have "infinite explanatory power", in the sense that you can't locate yourself in the world that does that based on an observation, since all observations are relevant to most situations where you are being reasoned about. So assigning probability to individual (categories of) observations is only (somewhat) possible for the instances of yourself that are simulated or exist natively in physics, not for instances that are reasoned about.

I note that the most advanced aircraft the United States (officially) has is the F-22. It was designed to take advantage of a few future technologies, like advanced materials and electronics.

It was also designed ~30 years ago. That’s three decades of Moore’s Law, materials science advancements and the proliferation of metamaterials, and so on. So when accounting for the possibility of it being a real craft in the air, I ask myself questions like “what could plausibly fit into that 30 years worth of advancements?”

I also note that one of the areas where we have seen considerable improvement is in compressing the design-build pipeline, which is to say we make prototypes faster than we used to. I therefore expect that the gap between what is possible on paper and what can actually fly is shorter than it was in the 1980s.

This would only follow if the UFOs spotted today were 30 years more advanced than the UFOs spotted 30 years ago. Also, the UFOs spotted 30 years ago should be the equivalent of modern tech-ish.

That’s an interesting point.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough data to make good performance comparisons to my knowledge. Although I would definitely watch a medium-production-value documentary that does the work with what is available.

I have no idea about the truth of the statement but the person who told me was a rather level headed and very smart person. He mentioned that most of the new cutting edge stuff we see tended to be prototyped about 20 years prior. Fits well with your timing.

If it is true, it should also applied to AI. Should we expect that secret AIs are 20 years ahead of OpenAI? If yes, what about their safety?

Cutting-edge modern military AI seems to all be recently developed; the first flight of the F-22 Raptor was in 1997, while the first deployment of Sea Hunter was in 2016. I also think there are strong incentives for civilian organisations to develop AI that aren't present for fighter jets.

But if there is antigravty using (nuclear powered?) drone capable to do thing described by the pilots it also probably needs advance forms of AI to be controlled.

Also NSA is the biggest employer of mathematician and is known to be 20-30 years ahead of civilian science in some math areas.

TL;DR: if we assume some form of "supercivilization" inside military complex, it also should include advance AI.

The story I just saw, with a nice video as well, makes me wonder about the "full of glitches" view. They show something on their sensors (radar, infrared) but then note they can not see anything visually but should. Is the conclusion we have some form of cloaking technology at play (it does exist from what I hear but currently only very limited application due to constraints)? So perhaps we should assume the pilot's vision is fine (they are supposed to have very good eye sight after all) and there is just something odd in the sensors -- or even that there are conditions that produce such false positives.

May be they deliberately tested some kind of radar-jamming technology, which produces false targets on radar. However, if true, they would keep the whole story secret.