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UFO’s, AI and the ELIZA Effect

Scouring through past news linked on our website in 2023, as I was thinking on writing a tentative article about the most important UFO stories of last year, it became instantly clear to me that the only relevant development that managed to eclipse the carnival of government whistleblowers, whispers of behind-closed-doors reunions to influence UAP-related legislation, and the litany of promises about a Disclosure event which seems to be forever stuck on the horizon, was the increasing global obsession with Artificial Intelligence.

What was once content fit for juvenile science fiction has now become the subject of serious political discussion due to the attention (warranted or not) or what is technically known as large language models (LLMs) spearheaded by companies like OpenAI and Midjourney. AI is finally here —or just about— pundits say, and it will either be a boon for humanity or the final nail in its coffin, alongside political instability and climate change.

As a person who has tried (and often failed) to make a living out of his creativity, my position with regards to AI is not hard to discern. But getting back to the subject of weird whatzits dashing through our skies, and for people who may be new to my writings, my general take on the subject of UFOs is that I am deeply skeptical of the popular interpretation that they represent elusive evidence of extraterrestrial visitation in our planet, and that if the government of the United States finally acquiesced to come clean and reveal whatever they have secretly managed to learn about them, we would finally know once and for all that we are not alone in the universe.

Sorry, but one of the few pearls of wisdom all these many years of studying these damn things have revealed, is that they are too fucking weird to be just ET coming to say Hi.

Perhaps there is good reason why these disparagingly different subjects, UFOs and AI, managed to capture the imagination of the public so effectively, and that is because they may be more interrelated than we realize —but not for the reasons many enthusiasts in both fields may imagine. For it was only after I was re-reading a fantastic blogpost written by British author David Gerard titled “Crypto collapse? Get in loser, we’re pivoting to AI” that I began to wonder if we may be making the same wrong assumptions about AI in the XXIst century, than what people in the XXth century did with the UFO phenomenon.

Gerard’s lengthy piece does a good job pointing out the many flaws found in what Silicon Valley insists to call “Artificial Intelligence,” even though these algorithms are a far cry from the autonomous computerized entities envisioned in movies and TV shows. TL/DR: The algorithms are just good enough to mimic the semblance of intelligence, by vomiting responses produced by mix-mashing an obscene amount of content already found on the Internet (you think AI will save the world? Learn how much juice it takes to create one single answer from ChatGPT) which let the human user’s imagination on the other side fill the obvious gaps into thinking they actually received a reasoned response to their query from a semi-sentient entity. What we may call Par-AI-dolia.

Computer scientists have actually been aware of this proclivity to self-deceive ourselves by assigning agency to non-sentient programs for decades. They even have a term for it: The ELIZA effect.

Developed in the 1960’s at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum, ELIZA was one of the first chatbots intended to explore natural forms of communication between humans and machines. Despite being so primitive, Weizenbaum was surprised to discover how many users firmly believed the program showed signs of empathy to the things they shared with it throughout a session.

“I had not realized … that extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program could induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people.”

Joseph Weizenbaum

Could we be suffering from a similar form of delusion when we face the UFO phenomenon?

Consider all the instances in which UFOs have penetrated restricted airspace above or near sensitive nuclear installations; cases which seem to have raised the most amount of concern in the US government, and possibly their foreign adversaries in their own nuclear facilities. The rationale of many people who take these reports seriously is that, since we’re ‘obviously’ dealing with highly advanced technology, then the beings controlling these ‘craft’ are showing concern for our nuclear arsenal. Perhaps, they think, the aliens are actively seeking to prevent us from destroying ourselves —or, the most pessimistic ones suggest, maybe the aliens are seeking the complete opposite as a sort of perverse plan to get rid of humanity with our own weapons.

But what if —as David Grusch suggested in his interview with Jesse Michels, and I myself have mentioned on other occasions in podcasts like Where Did the Road Go? — UFOs may be simply reacting to the higher levels of radioactivity emitted by nuclear installations; the same way moths are attracted to a glowing lightbulb?

This “reaction” hypothesis could also be used to explain cases of UFOs ‘buzzing’ both commercial and military aircraft. I’ve often wondered out lout with my podcasting friends (half-joking and half-seriously) that maybe the UFOs are instinctively engaging the aircraft in some sort of aerial mating ritual, like hummingbirds when they get horny. The colorful lights displayed in many close encounter cases, after all, seem more designed to attract attention rather than maintaining a low profile, which would be more understandable if the UFOs were performing covert surveillance the way paranoid people in the Pentagon would expect. It’s as if UFOs were expressing “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME!” with their antics instead of “pretend I’m not here” like many animals that have mastered the art of camouflage.

Speaking of camouflage, Jordan Peele’s movie NOPE does a great job of using the reference of UFOs hiding inside clouds (or even creating the clouds by apparently manipulating the atmosphere surrounding them) which was often reported in old close encounter testimonies. Just what kind of intelligent extraterrestrial explorer thinks it’s better to use the weather instead of some highly advanced cloaking technology in order to deceive the Earthlings they are hypothetically monitoring? These are precisely the nonsensical aspects of the phenomenon which have surely sowed confusion amongst the secretive government UFO programs which have purportedly studied it for decades; but to paraphrase a Joseph Campbell quote, “The nuts-and-bolts Ufologist drowns in the same waters in which the Fortean swims in delight.”

Which brings us to the “wetter” aspects of the UFO mystery: Close encounters of the 3rd kind.

Since the first accounts of contact with the strange beings piloting these craft (or should we say ‘allegedly’ piloting them, since this is just another assumption on our part) were begun to be taken seriously by civilian UFO groups*, they were largely interpreted as further proof we were being visited by entities not unlike ourselves, only more ahead of us in terms of technological and moral development; the latter, being the trope of the so-called Contactees of the 1950s and 60s who began to refer to these beings as our ‘Space Brothers’.

Fortean researchers like John Alva Keel, however, eventually began to point out how most (if not all) of these encounters with seemingly enlightened entities from another world didn’t make much sense when closely scrutinized. The entities often act and speak (when they do so) in ways that are apparently erratic if not downright idiotic, conveying either false information or bland moralistic advices which are never above the witnesses’ level of intelligence.

Consider, for example, a case referred by both Keel and Jacques Vallee in their books, which allegedly took place in Voges, France in 1954. The Ufonaut first asked the witness Lazlo Ujvari (in Russian, no less) whether he was in Spain or Italy. Then he asked, “What time is it?” to which Ujvari answered, “Two-thirty.” The Ufonaut then replied back, “You lie. It is four o’clock.”

The witness wasn’t lying. 2:30 was the correct answer. So why did the entity contradict him? Vallee theorized in The Invisible College that perhaps this was an example of an incredibly subtle “control mechanism” which injects absurdity in order to delicately influence our cultural development without totally overwhelming it. Absurdity by design.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Countless other close encounters (very possibly all of them if objectively studied) contain details which render them nonsensical from a (human) logical point of view. From “Italian-looking” entities who pay for free water with badly baked pancakes, to medical examiners in black uniforms who apparently navigate the vast distances between Earth and Zeta Reticuli using a map drawn on a piece of paper(!).

In my own essay for UFOs: Reframing the Debate I referenced Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magic,” and spun it to speculate that perhaps any sufficiently alien intelligence is also indistinguishable from madness.

But maybe both Vallee and I (not to mention everybody else) got it all wrong. Maybe human witnesses and the researchers trying to make sense of their experiences are responding to the illogical performances of the phenomenon —what in modern computer science parlance is called “hallucinations” — the same way users of ChatGPT and ELIZA do: by ascribing a higher meaning when there isn’t any.

Maybe the guru we’ve been chasing all along is nothing but a simple gardener from Alabama after all.

Computer science visionary Jaron Lanier has warned about the dangers of modern A.I. algorithms but using a different route than most techno alarmists. Lanier doesn’t think LLM’s are going to turn into Skynet and destroy John Connor’s resistance any time soon. The real danger of these algorithms, Lanier says, is that they have the power to drive us insane. Which is pretty much what John Keel wrote in his seminal book The 8th Tower, where he took Vallee’s control mechanism and smashed it in a million pieces with a sledgehammer.

Whatever it is that’s churning these ‘hallucinations’ which can not only affect the minds of witnesses but also leave burn marks on the ground, jam the sensors of aircraft and even manifest physical objects (animate or inanimate) for brief periods of time —“apports” as parapsychologists call them— Keel saw it as a mechanism that is no longer functioning as it was originally programmed. The Wizard’s projector keeps showing its light show from time to time in a sort of corrupt loop, but the Great Oz has been dead behind the curtain for a long, long time…

At the end of the day, the only thing we can say with sufficient certainty about the UFO phenomenon is that it is something more than Chinese balloons, secret black projects, hoaxes, or misidentifications. And whatever remains after you take all that clutter away doesn’t conform to our expectations of an otherworldly presence intervening on our planet, either. We have always assumed there is an intelligence behind it because it displays capabilities that exceed our own, and we have created mythologies out of these manifestations which are as flimsy as a house of cards.

And when the cards fall apart, so do our minds.

The ultimate cosmic joke may be that there is no actual punchline. Or maybe there is, but before we get it we first have to realize we are inside the House of Mirrors, and the grotesque figures peering from the dark and waving at us are nothing but our own twisted reflections.

(*) And here it’s important to remember how some of the most prominent organizations, like NICAP, were very reluctant to accept the validity of humanoid sightings at first, because it did not conform to their paradigm of extraterrestrial probes conducting a thorough exploration of our planet, after just discovering it in the first half of the XXth century. This is, ironically, the same assumption employed by the likes of Avi Loeb, who seems totally convinced the only aliens we would be finding on our world would be autonomous AI probes.

Thanks to Jeff Knox and Theo Paijmans.

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