In May, Sean Kirkpatrick, the director of the Department of Defense’s All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), reported that approximately 2% to 5% of UAP sightings appear to represent genuine anomalies. GEIPAN, the unit of the French Space Agency CNES tasked with studying UAPs, reports similar percentages for a subset of its investigations.
As is consistently shown by the re-investment into UAP research on the part of our national security apparatus, the nature of anomalous UAP sightings appears to warrant further investigation. However, this sentiment is not a new one.
Writing for the RAND Corporation in 1968, George Kucher studied the UFO phenomenon and its implications in a report titled “UFOs: What to Do?” which analyzed the phenomenon and called for a centralized reporting program to understand which of nine stated explanations—from novel physical phenomena to extraterrestrial probes—was likeliest to be correct.
The possibility that some UAP could represent extraterrestrial craft was as tantalizing for Kucher in 1968 as it is today. An opinion piece recently published by The Hill discussed present-day reports of anomalous spherical objects that appear to share similar attributes with UAP accounts that date as far back as the 1940s. The author, Marik Von Rennenkampff, then makes a startling assertion: “According to Kirkpatrick, this highly anomalous range of attributes amounts to a UAP profile – a ‘target package’ – that AARO is ‘out hunting for.’”
Given Kirkpatrick’s mention of a UAP “target package” and the existence of anomalous attributes in at least a small percentage of modern sightings, three follow-up questions come to mind. First, are there any grounded theories or evidence to suggest UAPs might be extraterrestrial in origin? Second, if we entertain the extraterrestrial hypothesis, why would UAP reports convey only “anomalies” in sensor and other data rather than appearing as unambiguous structured craft? Third, if we assume for a moment that these anomalies are stealth probes of some kind, what might their observed behaviors suggest about their objectives?
Here, we explore the possibility that some portions of the truly anomalous UAP sightings could be produced by stealth-driven extraterrestrial probes imbued with artificial intelligence (AI) and a complex camouflage system. Given the limitations of our current detection methods, the nature of these UAP sightings suggests that there might indeed be more going on than what can currently be perceived.
Regarding our first question, it is plausible that an extraterrestrial civilization would conclude out of necessity, as humans did in our early efforts to explore the cosmos, that intelligent machines – not manned craft – offer the most robust way to explore the galactic neighborhood. Machines don’t require creaturely necessities, nor do they tire out, grow old, or easily break down under the harshness of interstellar space.
Initial machines might start as craft akin to Voyager 1 or semi-autonomous rovers like Perseverance on Mars. As technology advances, craft such as these would likely be updated to include sophisticated AI capabilities and may be leveraged into a spacecraft swarm that could spread through a solar system, while nano-scale craft may depart for nearby exoplanets. Eventually, newer models might approximate self-replicating Von Neumann probes. These might be, in the words of Professor Allen Tough, “small smart interstellar probes,” which would have advanced AI and the necessary suite of capabilities to arrive at an exoplanet. Such advanced models, like Tough’s probes, have been predicted to arrive before early-generation models.
Writing for The Astronomical Journal in 2019, James Benford explored the idea of “lurkers,” or extraterrestrial probes designed to “observe Earth while not being easily seen.” He suggested that lurkers could be hiding in our solar system, possibly positioned in stable locations, such as at Lagrange points. However, if these probes are sufficiently advanced and have the requisite technologies and interest, we believe they might choose to explore an exoplanet instead of keeping at a distance.
One compelling reason a probe might come to Earth is to learn about our species in advance of making contact. An AI probe might need to gather a lot of information to understand how to communicate, much like an anthropologist working in the field. But unlike an anthropologist dealing with another human community, this AI probe might face a seemingly impossible barrier: how to bridge the communication divide between humanity and an extraterrestrial species.
Published in 1998, Dr. Douglas Vakoch considers the “Incommensurability Problem” of communication between humanity and extraterrestrial species. In this, while physics and mathematics are assumed to be universal, terrestrial and extraterrestrial civilizations would have different models of reality and so would need to find a different way to reach each other. Dr. Vakoch argues for the use of icons over symbols, while contemporary scholars such as Professor Avi Loeb consider the possibility that AI systems from both species could form a communication bridge in the form of an AI emissary.
One might imagine an emissary from late Bronze Age Egypt who would have spent more time either in transit or visiting distant civilizations, such as Cyprus, Canaan, or Mycenaean Greece. Similarly, an AI emissary would invest considerable effort into learning to navigate star systems and, after that, learning – while on-planet – about the alien civilization it found itself in contact with.
From this, we can try to answer our second question. If UAPs were truly of extraterrestrial origin, why would they show up as anomalies? Given the barriers of alienness, an AI probe would likely need significant time to observe us to train itself on our data, perhaps as it waited for us to create our own emissary. During this time, stealth capabilities would essentially promote its survival. Intentional obfuscation would help explain the anomalous nature of UAP sightings. We believe, given the large geographical range of sightings coupled with the lack of detections of obvious craft, that if some UAPs are truly of extraterrestrial origin, there might be several stealth extraterrestrial artificial intelligence probes (SEAPs) operating on our planet.
The covert nature of SEAPs might also answer Enrico Fermi’s famous question: “Where is everybody?” The Fermi Paradox highlights the contrast between the vast number of hypothetically habitable planets and our current lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations. Various resolutions to the Fermi Paradox have been proposed, from barriers to technological progress, self-destruction, or avoidance, to a human-zoo theory. We think that the presence of SEAPs would also satisfy this paradox, although this remains speculative and would need significant research and funding to assess.
Following the SEAP theory, a small portion of UAP accounts appear to suggest a complex form of camouflage and intelligent action. It could be plausible, given public observational accounts, that the camouflage is a sophisticated mix of advanced technology, metamaterials, operational patterns, and behavioral mimicry. Such camouflage is not outside the realm of possibility, given natural analogs, current intelligence operations tradecraft, and advances in modern-day cloaking material.
The carefully crafted camouflage of these SEAPs would mask their true nature – and give us reasons to doubt. Their stealth might encourage the average witness to dismiss, but not forget, what they have seen. While there might be various reasons for the public sentiments and actions surrounding UAP sightings – including scientific skepticism, government information management, or personal beliefs – the proposed camouflage theory provides another lens through which to consider these responses.
Hypothetically speaking, if an advanced extraterrestrial species did send SEAPs to Earth, how might they operate, and what might we see? While our advancements in drone technology provide a basis for speculation, extraterrestrial technology, if it exists, might operate on entirely different principles. However, if the principles are somehow related, SEAPs might be specifically designed to stop attempts at detailed observation. For example, materials that diffuse light or absorb radio frequencies would make SEAPs harder to spot or track. Beyond materials, SEAPs might have specific behavior patterns meant to avoid detection by specific humans. While some SEAPs might operate at lower altitudes for specific tasks, they could also maintain a much higher operational altitude when not actively engaged in surveillance to stay out of the average person’s sight range.
While our proposal might seem speculative, improvements in current technology by governments and private corporations suggest that similar advancements could exist elsewhere. Modern drones, enhanced with AI and surveillance technology, have the capability to identify and differentiate objects in real-time using high-resolution cameras and infrared sensors. These drones can recognize patterns of human activity, allowing them to use GPS data to navigate away from particular areas.
Advanced AI models assess threats as they occur and can react to certain devices and situations. When working together, drones can exchange information regarding observed locations and activities and, if detected, can use AI for evasive maneuvers and can adapt routes based on predictive data analysis. Many of these drones also feature designs that decrease their visibility or audibility, like anti-reflective surfaces, making them harder to detect.
Motives and Intent
This brings us to our final question: If SEAPs account for the truly anomalous UAP sightings, what do these accounts suggest about their objectives? While it’s speculative, if SEAPs do exist, one possibility could be that they operate for information gathering, as indicated by the intricacies observed in some UAP sightings. While there is no way to know what the purpose of this collection might be, we hope it is related to establishing peaceful cross-species communications at some future point.
If SEAPs are a contributing factor to UAP sightings, their operational approach might involve balancing stealth capabilities with data collection. This balance inherently comes with risks. Under these conditions, sightings may be a result of moments when a SEAP took a calculated risk to gather data. Extrapolating from this, one can imagine the SEAP would want to understand which regions of, say, the United States, maximize the opportunity for stealth while at the same time maximizing the total amount of information collected about the people and ecological systems nearby.
As future regional scientists, we think about how geography and human activity interact – and through this lens, SEAPs would certainly need to understand which regions would maximize both protection and opportunities. Case in point, a 2023 report by the RAND Corporation titled “Not the X-Files” conducted a spatial analysis of UAP sightings controlling for variables such as total population, population density, and percent of cloudy days. A key finding was that population density was negatively correlated with UAP sightings. While this could be interpreted in various ways, we believe that this fits with the SEAP theory and suggests a tradeoff between stealth and data-gathering.
In taking this a step further, we considered which regions in the continental United States might offer unparalleled security and viewing opportunities. Regions high in natural features that limit human incursion, such as large lakes, dense forests, rugged mountain terrain, and subterranean caverns, all with population centers nearby, would be favored by SEAPs. In viewing the RAND report’s cluster of UAP sightings, major regions that stand out include the Pacific Northwest, parts of Appalachia, the Front Range of the southern Rockies, and the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, among others. Each of these regions has been a historical hotbed for sightings and has its own distinct pattern of UAP activity.
It’s challenging for us to imagine the strategies an advanced intelligence might employ, given that we’ve never encountered one. While it’s not a direct comparison, think of the way some creatures, like chameleons, use camouflage in their environments. Would a passing insect realize that there’s a more sophisticated being right beside it, or would it merely go about its business, unaware? The insect might not even recognize the difference. In the same way, given the unfamiliarity of an extraterrestrial, it might be presumptuous for us to assume we’d readily recognize or comprehend their presence on Earth.
Even after extensive research by both scientists and government agencies, some UAP sightings continue to defy explanation. Among the myriad of theories is the speculative idea of stealth-designed advanced extraterrestrial technology. Given the observations and theories discussed, further exploration of our SEAP hypothesis could provide additional insights into the UAP phenomenon. Researchers should consider the implications of truly advanced extraterrestrial technology operating on our planet and design a thorough, systematic framework to potentially gain deeper perspectives into the UAP question.
Courtney Bower is a doctoral student in regional science at Cornell University. Elizabeth Redmond, who also attends Cornell, is a master’s student in regional science.