With accelerating developments in planetary astronomy and exobiology – NASA has confirmed nearly 5,200 planets outside our solar system (exoplanets) – it’s possible-verging-on-probable that the most momentous discovery in our lifetimes will be signs of life on another planet. Of course, it’s only momentous if you don’t believe we already have evidence, or if you haven’t seen it yourself. So it’s hard to know how actor-comedian-Blues-Brother-Renaissance-man Dan Aykroyd will react.
As a fellow Canadian, I’ve been a Dan Aykroyd fan since he teamed with Eddie Murphy in Trading Places to corner the market for frozen concentated orange juice. But I was surprised to learn that Aykroyd, who believes in ghosts (Ghostbusters origin story), has also cornered the market for extraterrestrials. On a recent podcast, Danny (as his friends call him), who talks as fast and formally as Elwood Blues, recounted in rat-a-tat style:
Aykroyd comes by his fascination with UFOs naturally. In 1947, his mother saw a UFO flying above Sparks Street in Ottawa and, in true Canadian style, thought, “that’s odd, you know?” Aykroyd concluded: “I don’t think these beings want a formal relationship with people on Earth. They want an informal secret relationship. I think they probably have one with black ops elements of the Air Force and the government.”
For lifeless scientists who throw cold water on sightings like Aykroyd’s, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been focused on one thing: radio signals. The assumption has been that intelligent life will eventually emit electromagnetic signals like radio and TV broadcasts, cell phone calls, and satellite transmissions. Any signals strong enough to exit a planet’s ionosphere will radiate at the speed of light. Nearly a century ago, in the summer of 1924, when Mars was at its closest point to Earth, the U.S. proclaimed a National Radio Silence Day with the goal of turning off all radios for five minutes every hour so a radio-receiver-equipped blimp above Washington DC could listen for messages from Martians.
Today, anyone on an exoplanet 100 light years away could be aware of “intelligent” life on earth. The Jodie Foster film Contact, written by my hero Carl Sagan, visualized this by having extraterrestrials send back a coded message in what was unfortunately the world’s first powerful TV broadcast: Hitler at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. So as in Contact, SETI has been all about getting access to as many radio telescopes as possible and monitoring as many parts of the sky as possible across as many frequencies as possible for unnatural patterns. SETI efforts have been funded by the likes of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Steven Spielberg.
This uniform approach to SETI is akin to how companies hire. Hiring managers want candidates with similar educational backgrounds and experience. And as as digital transformation continues to wash over the economy, turning virtually all good jobs into tech or tech-enabled jobs, hiring managers expect candidates to emit clear signals of technical intelligence. Are they conversant with platforms used in the business? Will they be productive on day one? If not, they’re left to fade into the cosmic void of applicant tracking systems (where no one can hear you scream).
Our monochromatic, monolithic, monotonous hiring practices have given rise to underemployment, unaffordable student loan debt, broken socioeconomic mobility, and – by putting the dynamic, digital economy out of reach for Americans who need it most – contributed to frustration and social instability. Likewise, while not as spectacularly unsuccessful, SETI hasn’t worked. As a result, researchers are trying a different tack in the search for life beyond earth.
The new approach looks for “technosignatures” – signs of technical prowess in an exoplanet’s atmosphere. Technosignatures may be as benign as lights on a planet’s dark side (distinct from dark ops), or heat islands only a few degrees warmer than the planet itself (which would differ from natural phenomena like fires or volcanoes). Or they may be chemicals in the atmosphere that can only be produced by industrial processes. There could even be “service worlds” harvested for energy (i.e., covered in solar panels, therefore unusually reflective). A recent New York Times report on technosignatures references papers that consider how chloroflurocarbons (aerosols, refrigerants) would emit a specific spectral signal and be picked up by the new Webb space telescope and how nitrogen dioxide (fertilizers) might be detected by a new telescope planned for 2040.
HR has a lot to learn from a lot of things, and this is no exception. Rather than scanning for candidates who are transmitting prepared and polished signals of technical intelligence, hiring managers would be well served to look for technosignatures. Is there something in a candidate’s “atmosphere” that demonstrates an aptitude to quickly master technical skills? What underlying detectable traits could constitute such a technosignature? As a technosignature scientist told the Times, “what’s detectable… that’s really the fundamental question.”
There are a few detection options. Putting assessments at the top of the hiring funnel is the obvious solution. If employers got in the habit of asking every applicant to take a short online assessment in order to be considered – assuming the assessment is valid – we’d go a long way to democratizing opportunity. Deloitte is now recommending tests it calls “minimally viable demonstrations of competence.” Assessments can also serve a second purpose: engage candidates and make them more likely to accept an offer. To evaluate problem solving and critical thinking, McKinsey situated applicants on a simulated coral reef or mountain valley and asked them to work to save an endangered ecosystem.
Unfortunately, developing assessments like these isn’t the hard part. The hard part is they’re probably illegal. When companies insert some process or instrument between the point of application and hire, they’re in violation of labor law if the practice has an “adverse impact” i.e., if the resulting applicant-to-hire ratio for a disadvantaged group is ~20% lower than the ratio for an advantaged group. Most adverse impact cases pursued each year by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) involve the use of assessments in the hiring process. According to the CEO of a leading employment assessment provider, “the industrial-organization psychologist at one U.S. client described the last 10 years of her career as being spent in court defending adverse impact cases brought by the EEOC.” Between 2015 and 2018 Target paid out almost $7M in fines and settlements over adverse impact in its hiring screens. As the Minneapolis EEOC office director said of Target’s case: “The tests were not sufficiently job-related… [and] screened out people in particular groups.” In 2020, Walmart settled an EEOC pre-employment testing suit for $20M. As one assessment provider executive told me, “what’s remarkable about the U.S. is how quickly lawyers and general counsel get involved.”
In a world where companies are scanning for technosignatures – a need that increases in urgency as DEI initiatives move from the honeymoon to results phase and critiques of hiring practices become conventional wisdom – and where formal assessments are impractical, job trials are poised to become a primary hiring strategy. Research indicates that the best predictor of job performance – much more than degrees or test scores, let alone whether a candidate attended the “right” school – is some kind of trial. A seminal metastudy by Hunter and Hunger demonstrated that trials are over 2x more predictive than experience and over 4x more predictive of job performance than educational background and interviews. Meanwhile, interviews are notoriously poor predictors of job performance because extroverts outperform introverts and they assess competence to answer predictable questions, a tiny sample of relevant behavior for most jobs.
Job trials include project work embedded in coursework, virtual internships, onground internships, hackathons, and apprenticeships. The key is to develop and adopt new trial models that scan as much of the sky as possible across as many frequencies as possible. So watch for large employers to develop trial programs that scan hundreds of thousands of candidates each year. More likely, they’ll partner with nonprofits, staffing companies, business services companies, emerging workforce businesses, and perhaps a few enterprising higher education institutions that develop expertise in standing up such trials.
Technosignatures are not infallible. Different sectors and jobs demand different technosignatures. And at least for now (or until aliens actually visit), it will be humans doing the seeking. So as one astronomer says, there’s going to be bias involved: “if you go to a party where you know hardly anyone, the first thing you do is go to someone that you recognize so you can start up the conversation.” Hiring managers will probably always hire candidates who remind them of themselves (connectedness as a proxy for competency).
The other key is get as many data points from a trial as possible. On August 15, 1977, the SETI world was set aflame by a signal received by Ohio State’s Big Ear radio telescope. The signal came from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, lasted for at least 72 seconds, and measured 30 standard deviations above background noise. The researcher who noticed it a few days later wrote “Wow!” beside it, leading the SETI community to name it the Wow! signal. Unfortunately, decades of subsequent searches of the same area in the same frequency band have yielded nothing. The Wow! signal was a one-time only event.
The longer the trial, the more reliable the technosignature, and the more valuable the hiring practice. So the operating function for trials will be to maximize number of candidate and trial length while minimizing cost and hassle for employers. How will candidates be motivated to participate? Paying them for their time and providing in-demand skills. A decade from now, I believe most young Americans will experience one or more trials as they launch their careers.
On the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, the National Geographic Channel paid the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (the now-defunct radio telescope featured in Contact) to beam a message towards Sagittarius. Unfortunately, the message was “#ChasingUFOs” – promotion for a National Geographic series.
Identifying qualified candidates may not be as hard as finding life on other planets. But if you’re searching for technosignatures, I don’t suggest a trial based on seeing how candidates respond to #ChasingUFOs. Otherwise you’ll end up hiring Dan Aykroyd.