Monday, April 3, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Communicating with Extraterrestrials

First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization could happen in a myriad of ways, if it ever occurs at all. However, you can break down First Contact scenarios into two general categories: Direct First Contact and Long-Distance First Contact (I have sometimes called this Indirect First Contact). The two general types of First Contact can also help to determine the challenges involved in communication with aliens.
Long-Distance First Contact is the most likely scenario. It involves humans receiving a message, or intercepting some sort of data, from an extraterrestrial civilization. If the message comes from the star system where the aliens live, communication back and forth, with our current technology, would take many years or decades. There would be major challenges along the way. We would need to decipher the message. We would need to analyze the message. We would need to formulate a response. We would then try to respond in the language used by the aliens. Without linguistic teaching help from the aliens, such a scientific effort could take many years.

The Atlantic Monthly has a story about the flip-side of this idea- what language should we use to send messages out into space in our effort to communicate with extraterrestrials? Writer Daniel Oberhouse examines a language created for just such a need. It’s a math based language called Lincos and was designed by German mathematician Hans Freudenthal. The premise is that aliens would be more likely to understand a math-based language, since some math concepts may be universal, or at the very least easier to decipher. Oberhouse writes that recently scholars have been working to update Lincos to make a new language that could be used in sending a human message to specific star systems in an effort to make contact.
We are fortunate that we have talented astrophysicists and other scientists working on Long-Distance First Contact issues. Direct First Contact is a different animal altogether, with a very different set of challenges. Direct First Contact is differentiated by location. In a Direct First Contact scenario the aliens are in our solar system and can communicate relatively quickly. The possibilities under this category are also myriad. It could range from an alien probe entering our solar system and contacting us, to aliens landing a spacecraft on Earth to say hello.

The challenges for Direct First Contact are primarily response-oriented. Direct First Contact would be a much more threatening type of contact for humans, simply due to the relatively close proximity of aliens or alien-designed machines. There is one area, though, that Direct First Contact could be easier than Long-Distance Contact and that is language. Aliens in our solar system could easily monitor our TV signals. They could even tap into our Internet system. If the aliens have the technology to travel great distances in space to reach our solar system, they would likely have the technology to study our languages and design communication systems to reach out to us. Television could be particularly helpful, since there are pictures to help put words into context. This could involve years of study for aliens, but communication would likely be achievable in a shorter time-frame than Long-Distance First Contact.

My concern is that currently almost all of extraterrestrial contact research is focused on Long-Distance First Contact. It’s understandable, as I pointed out before, it’s the most likely form of alien contact. But because the challenges are very different between Long-Distance First Contact and Direct First Contact, it leaves us rather unprepared if the unlikely does occur some day and we find aliens on our doorstep.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Politics and Polarization

Have you felt the urge to strangle someone who supports a political party that you oppose? You are not alone. Some analysts suggest that America has the most polarized political climate in 150 years. The Washington Post has a cool graphic representation. And it’s not just the United States. Europe is also suffering from a political polarization problem.
So, what’s the big deal about political polarization and how does this tie in to extraterrestrial First Contact? Polarization is the movement of political debate to the extremes of the political spectrum. It moves debate away from moderate, and potentially problem solving discussion, to extreme stances that make negotiation problematic. Political polarization makes it difficult for governments to get things done. Polarization in a Direct First Contact event would likely come down to two extremes. The first would be people who want complete, open contact with visiting extraterrestrials. They would view First Contact as a tremendous opportunity for humans and not be concerned with security issues. The opposite end would be individuals who don’t want any sort of relationship with extraterrestrials. Fear would be the driving factor for people on that pole.  How does all of this compare to political polarization? Politics would be a big part of a Direct First Contact event. Nations would need to decide what they think of a relationship with extraterrestrials and those views would be represented in the United Nations. And current political polarization could play a part. One could imagine that in America liberals might be in favor of a relationship with extraterrestrials and conservatives would be concerned about human safety and perhaps be protectionist.
The primary problem is that the likely battle between both sides of the spectrum…those in favor of a human relationship with extraterrestrials and those opposed to it…would make decision making difficult. Consensus is important in any process. When two sides cannot find some degree of agreement, everything bogs down. The inaction of the U.S. Congress in recent years is an example of what can go wrong.
Why do we care if the extraterrestrial relationship process takes longer? There are important decisions that would need to be made immediately. They include protocols for handling extraterrestrial contact and the assurance of human security and autonomy. The issues are complex and would require input from experts in many different areas. If political polarization makes that process even more difficult, we could be in for trouble.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Fake News

Fake news is one of the most challenging communication issues we face today. Fake news stories have been lurking around social media for several years. But the number and impact of those fake stories seems to have grown during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.
For many years political leaders and the media have been hesitant to mention incorrect information and fake news that is trending on social media, perhaps not wanting to legitimize such posts. I think the torrent of fake news and the impact of such stories is changing that. The social media user who shot up a pizza restaurant in Washington over a fake news story is a dramatic example. However, such stories don’t have to involve gunfire to be extremely damaging. This makes it imperative for media, law enforcement and government representatives to respond to the big rumors and fake news stories immediately.
Back to the blog topic: What challenges would fake news present during an alien first contact event?  We can’t predict what aliens would want or do, or even if that will ever occur. However, we can look at current events to see how humans react to other public stressors, such as a nasty political race or communication during a disaster.

The first challenge would be misinformation during the initial hours of extraterrestrial Direct First Contact. Direct First Contact can be described as aliens (or robotic representatives) landing on Earth or contacting us from our solar system, to say hello. Confusion, exaggeration and other such misinformation during a First Contact event would be a huge problem. This can been seen during disasters here on Earth. In the initial minutes and hours observer social media posts dominate the discussion. It’s logical, since more authoritative sources need time to respond. While, people on the scene can post immediately, professionals know to double-check information before they make it public. Members of the public simply let their fingers fly.
But soon others will realize that they can cause confusion and fear through fake news or disinformation. Misinformation happens due to human error. Disinformation is an active campaign to spread untrue information.

I would imagine that fake news would at first be conducted by people who are amused by causing trouble. However, the next groups to latch onto the fake news technique will have specific agendas: political, monetary, and social goals. These fake news disseminators will be trying to influence the public for a focused reason. The fake news could be just one part of all sorts of social media mayhem created by people who are trying to influence the public. We saw quite a bit of that happen during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Partisanship was certainly the big driver in the presidential social media battle.

So, would partisanship drive fake news in a First Contact event? And what groups would be battling?  I would imagine the big debate would be between those strongly in favor of a relationship with extraterrestrials and those completely opposed to such a relationship. The drivers would be excitement and optimism on the one side and fear on the other side. The bigger the debate in public, the more partisan forces will be tempted to use fake news to influence people. The dangerous part is that both sides would have legitimate concerns. Using fake news and disinformation to promote their agenda could cause huge issues in the public arena. It would drive the debate to extremes at either end of the spectrum, and drown out nuanced, moderate responses.

Media outlets, the law enforcement community, and government representatives, will have to correct confusion, exaggeration and fake news immediately. It is critical that someone in these agencies monitor trending topics on the major social media sites and develop a response plan. It could be a simple refutation of the top ten trending confused, incorrect or fake social media posts. Such statements should always be capped with a reminder that there is going to be much incorrect and fake information out there. People need to know they can’t trust all communication, even from friends and family. Members of the public must be encouraged to double-check information before reacting.

Alien Direct First Contact would cause anxiety for many humans across the globe. If incorrect information and fake news is allowed to grow in audience, that human anxiety could turn to civil unrest and violence.

Are our institutions prepared to respond quickly to incorrect information and fake news? Perhaps not as quickly as would be needed. Each media outlet, law enforcement agency and government office would need to assign a team to the problem immediately. Corrections and denunciations of such social media postings are not something that could wait an hour or two. They would need to happen immediately in news coverage and be featured prominently in news conference by authorities or scientists.

The response would need to be continued in the long-term. Some of the most damaging fake news could be quite hard to dispel. It may take weeks or months of work to keep fake news and incorrect information at bay.

Transparency is the best weapon against fake news. If people can disseminate and monitor entire meetings and news conferences about alien First Contact, it will be tougher for fake news to worm its way into the public discussion. That means a long-term effort by organizations, scientists, governmental leaders, and media outlets to stream meetings live on the Internet and for reporters and others to sum up the most important points online and in news reports. That will be easy in the short-term, while interest is quite high. It will be tougher, and in many respects more important, in the long-term as public interest wanes.

Dissemination of true information, the correction of incorrect news, and the response to fake news will be among the most important human activities in the wake of extraterrestrial First Contact. But we can’t expect our institutions to be the only ones responsible for screening the fake news and raising a red flag. Individual social media consumers, you and I, will need to check questionable posts and then respond if we find that post is incorrect or fake. Critical thinking and quick response, may be the glue that holds human society together during what would be, arguably, the biggest event in human history.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Communication Flowchart

A dramatic extraterrestrial First Contact scenario on Earth would require a great deal of action on the part of local, state and world leaders. They would have to take measure of the situation; explore the situation to determine if there is a threat to humanity; employ experts in many different fields to study the situation; and communicate to the human population. I put communication last in that line of actions for a reason. It would likely be the last thing scrambling leaders would consider. And yet, in many respects, it is the most important action. That’s especially true if the aliens are either non-threatening or indeterminate in action. In that scenario human reaction becomes the biggest threat, not the aliens themselves. Now I don’t expect that humans will run in fear or riot if faced with a direct alien First Contact event. Awe and wonder would be the first reaction for most humans. But what would happen after that?

There are no events in human history that would compare to First Contact with extraterrestrials on Earth. However, if we chop the fantasy scenario up into smaller bits, we can find some human comparisons. Let’s consider how modern humans react during sudden natural disasters and incidents of terrorism. And in doing so, let’s use time as our form of organization. We’ll develop a flowchart of reaction, and the communication needed to respond to that reaction, from immediate to long-term.

Social Starters

The first rule of thumb in the digital age is that individual civilian communications will lead the way in reaction to any sudden and dramatic event. Those communications include text messages to friends, postings to twitter, pictures on Instagram, and Snapchat messages. The media will catch up quickly, but initially they will utilize those same individual communications to report on what has occurred. This could get out of control quickly as speculation and exaggeration proliferate. It’s critical that the next step occurs as soon as humanly possible.

Made for Television

Media outlets will scramble to get reporters and photographers in place to cover the event. People will turn to television coverage immediately. TV is the superior method of communication in a disaster. The reasons are obvious. TV stations and their networks have many different forms of live broadcast equipment, including weather skycams, helicopters, and live trucks. They have trained on-air professionals and an entire support staff to dedicate to a sudden emergency. TV stations and networks may rely on individual civilian reports, such as spectators phoning into the TV station, Tweets and public Internet posts at first. Soon, though, they will move on to their own reporters and experts. Internet posts will continue to drive some elements of the story, perhaps seeking new directions that the mainstream media has not considered. The experts used by the media will grow larger in stature as the situation progresses. In initial reports they will be first responders, such as police and firefighters. As the emergency organizations deploy more resources those experts will be further up the hierarchical ladder. It may only be a matter of hours before state and national leaders take control of the communication flow.

Information Vacuum

Governmental leaders will quickly formulate a strategy. In emergencies there are two major issues: putting out the facts and telling people what to do. Putting out the facts is critical. In the initial stages of an emergency there is often an information vacuum. That leaves media outlets to rely on individual civilians for information, as I stated above. The danger is that some of these civilians could exaggerate the facts or even report things that are not true at all. This makes the information vacuum a very dangerous time during an emergency. The authorities know they must get facts out as quickly as possible to fill the vacuum with the truth or in some cases what they want to portray as the truth. Leaders have to be careful at this stage. They could easily lose credibility if the statements of authorities conflict with the statements of civilians. This is an important part of the digital age- authorities are quickly held accountable for statements. If a government downplays a disaster civilian reporters can quickly show the truth, through video and reporting. Conversely, authorities being truthful will have to speak out against false reports coming from members of the public.

If it all sounds rather complicated, that’s because it is. And the events will be moving incredibly fast.

Short-Term Communication

In the short-term, the authorities will use news conferences as the primary form of public briefing. News conferences are easy to stage; they can provide a great deal of information in a short time; and they can be carried live by television and the Internet. You can reach a whole lot of people very quickly with a TV news conference. But you can’t do that forever. In the days and weeks following a Direct First Contact event, governmental leaders will need to put out a steady stream of information and not have time for continuous news conferences. This is where social media comes back into play. Twitter is probably the most used Internet source during social unrest, wars and disasters. That’s because anyone with an account can tweet and hundreds of millions can easily find and follow that Tweet. Twitter requires no network of editors and handlers. The message goes out and followers receive it unfiltered and immediately. Facebook and other social media outlets are not nearly as adaptable and scalable as Twitter. This puts Twitter in the forefront of the crisis communication toolbox and not just initially. It could continue in that role for quite some time, just as it has in U.S. Presidential races.

Medium-Term Communication

There would be a massive world-wide interest in a Direct First Contact event at first. Eventually, though, that interest will wane. It may get reignited in spurts based on the drama inherent in an action or a particular piece of new information.

In the medium-term, information would be less immediate and more in-depth. It would consist of world leaders in meetings with experts and many layers of bureaucracy at work. I have stated before that transparency would be critical in keeping humans calm. It needs to continue long after widespread interest dies down. While TV might cover entire meetings in the initial days and weeks, eventually they will tire of such coverage. The Internet is well prepared to take up the cause.  Streaming meetings in their entirety would allow all interested people to look in and see what is happening. That would include people with expertise in a specific area, who may not be called to participate. They could evaluate what happens in a meeting and discuss it with colleagues via social media. Those ideas could then reach back to the decision makers.

Even with transparency there will be some degree of speculation occurring in the medium-term and that could allow conspiracy theories and outright lies to grow, especially on the Internet. People will use such communication to attract attention or promote their cause. But transparency can still help. Average Internet users will often police social media themselves by quickly refuting false statements. But those average Internet users need the ammunition of truth to do so. Putting out information, far beyond what may seem of interest to the general public, is essential. There will be some members of the public interested in even the most esoteric of discussions. Those people can help protect against Internet conspiracy theories and misinformation.

I think that this medium-term stage would be the most dangerous for humans in terms of physical threats. It is the point at which terrorists could begin to take action. Politicians could use the situation to rally for their cause. Despots could wield fear to take or solidify control. There will still be a high degree of agitation in the human population in the medium-term. People may seek to use that agitation to their advantage.

Long-Term Communication

Long-term communication becomes easier as the agitation wears off. This could be months or years after the original event. It would depend on the nature of the event itself and the challenges presented. The more decisions we need to make, the greater the agitation and the more complicated the long-term communication needs. Leaders will need to continue to make transparency the hallmark of action. Conspiracy theorists love quiet- because it allows them to interject their own ideas without anything to refute them. I say bury the public in as much live streaming and document release as possible. There is nothing that should not be made public. Let me say that again- there is nothing in a Direct First Contact event that should not be made public. This will be really tough for emergency first responders and governmental leaders. They will see transparency as a threat. Transparency would in fact be their greatest tool for keeping the human population calm.

Where does the flowchart go from there? Hopefully to happy and peaceful times. That level of peace and happiness will likely depend largely on actions taken in the very first minutes, hours and days of a direct extraterrestrial First Contact event.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Arrival Movie a Welcome Respite

Okay, so there is one explosion in the new science fiction movie Arrival. But it’s a small part of the plot. The film is an intelligent look at alien First Contact and that’s a welcome respite from the multitude of marauding extraterrestrial flicks.

I won’t go into the plot. It’s an excellent movie and you should see it for yourself. Like the best alien First Contact movies it says a lot more about us than it does the aliens. Alien ships appear hovering above several countries across the globe. This leads to the fear of proximity. The ships don’t communicate at first and that leads to the fear of mysterious intentions. The process also leads to military control of First Contact in those countries, which in turn raises the issue of many different responses to First Contact by those nations. Will the countries work together or go their own way? Those are all important factors to consider in First Contact. The movie explains the alien reasoning for handling First Contact in such a dangerous way. But without the reasoning used by the aliens, the movie shows everything visiting extraterrestrials would not want to do. So many alien craft appearing on Earth leads to increased fears. The lack of clear and swift communication of intentions builds worry in the public and leads to unrest. And the method used by the aliens makes it necessary for the military to take control in each country.

No plot spoilers here. You will have to see the movie for the answer to why the aliens choose such an odd method. Lacking that reason, aliens with good intentions would be advised to do everything differently. Here are some tips:

-Send your intentions via some form of electronic communication and well ahead of the appearance of any space craft. Let humans know you are coming and that you are coming in peace.

-Beware of proximity threat. Land in a place that is not highly populated or near a military base.

-Keep it simple and easy for us to monitor. Only one spaceship at a time please.

-Communicate your intentions quickly to avoid paranoia on the part of humans.

-Don’t make nations compete against each other. Find a way to reach all nations at once and treat them equally.

-Learn our most used languages before you get here. There is no reason to say hello until you can communicate.

-Have a process for initial First Contact in mind and communicate it clearly. After that, let humans take charge. Humans should have a right to determine how a Direct First Contact scenario develops on planet Earth.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: First Contact and Nationalism

There has been a significant movement towards nationalism and protectionism across the globe. The most notable examples would be the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the European Union. While there is much debate about the policies associated with nationalism and protectionism, the philosophy comes down to world leaders wanting what they consider to be the best possible outcomes for their country.

First contact with aliens would at first blush appear to be a threat to nationalism and protectionism. Certainly from a military perspective it could be so- if the aliens have hostile intentions. But if an extraterrestrial civilization offers a non-threatening introduction that perspective could be very different for world leaders, especially where it concerns the United Nations. The UN has long been a flash-point when it comes to supporters of nationalism and protectionism. The UN is often viewed as a threat to national sovereignty.  But in a Direct First Contact situation, one where the aliens come to our solar system to say hello, the United Nations could be a necessary tool for world leaders.

Much of the debate would be decided by the aliens themselves. If they extend their welcome to one nation or a specific group of nations, that would have to be respected. Other nations could argue their point, but ultimately it’s up to the aliens to decide who they want to communicate with. The same is true if the aliens want to deal with all nations. Individual countries could grumble about it and even try to gain advantage behind the scenes. But if the aliens are not interested in dealing with individual nations, this would quickly prove to be a fruitless endeavor. More so, it could risk an individual nation’s relationship with aliens and the rest of the world. This could prove to be a big problem for aggressive nations who are intent on making their own deal. They may very well get left out of the international deal-making.

The countries most likely to seek control of First Contact would be the United States, Russia and China. Why? They have much at stake with large economies and a preference for asserting influence in global affairs. All three are members of the UN Security Council- likely to be the first UN body to consider alien contact. The question is how the use of their influence would be most effective – alone or in the UN Security Council? Taking a separate path could be dangerous, as it could cause the straying country to be less influential in the United Nations. It would seem prudent for world leaders to consider this- the United Nations may be their most effective way of exerting influence on the process. This is true for the Security Council nations, especially the P5 permanent serving nations of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other nations would also be advised to exert their influence through the United Nations. To go it alone would be foolhardy. If the aliens want to deal with individual nations they will. If they want to deal with everyone, the United Nations would be the best alternative for individual countries.

The problem is what the United Nations represents for nationalists- the threat of an extra-governmental agency running the show. There is already a fear of the United Nations turning into a world government. First Contact would likely increase that fear. However, in the specific case of alien First Contact the United Nations could be viewed as a valuable tool- a conduit of sorts for contact. The major nations exert much influence over the United Nations currently and would continue to do so in a First Contact scenario. Less powerful nations would have their only opportunity to be involved in the decision making process through the United Nations. Does this mean that the United Nations should gain more control over international affairs? That would depend on how the arrangement is put together. In a conduit scenario the UN would be a process body. And much of First Contact would be about process. Nations could decide how the UN should structure response to First Contact and the framework for a global relationship with aliens. Strong involvement from the General Assembly in the decision-making process could ensure national control. It also means a great deal of responsibility for nations to work together and make decisions with alacrity. Hesitance and in-fighting could make a General Assembly controlled First Contact strategy untenable. Nations can control how much of the process is decided by United Nations bureaucracy. There will have to be some level of action and decision-making in the United Nations. The framework for the process will be an important point for General Assembly consideration. It comes down to this: if the General Assembly can be effective in decision-making countries will retain control. If they fail, the bureaucrats in the UN will have to lead the way. That means it is critical that American, Russian and Chinese UN ambassadors work together to solidify support for actions in the General Assembly. This is the type of superpower leadership that will be necessary in the wake of First Contact. Those ambassadors can be extremely important in the process, but only if they have the complete backing of their bosses. And First Contact would not be a time to play games. If a national leader chooses to “go rogue” in public statements and push for something else behind the scenes they could find their national influence undermined. Any sign of gamesmanship would send a signal to other nations that the process cannot be trusted.

So, how should the United States, China and Russia present themselves in a First Contact situation? It depends on what the aliens want in the First Contact process. If the aliens want to deal with the entire planet it would seem best for the big three, and the rest of the UN Security Council members, to act as strong leaders within the context of the UN. It seems likely that the nations who figure this out quickly, and set forth a UN-based strategy will fare better in the post- First Contact world. It’s one situation in which going it alone could be a very, very bad idea.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Cultural Autonomy

Cultural autonomy is the ability of a group of people to decide their own fate. Cultural harm is one of the significant threats that we would have to consider in a direct alien First Contact event. It’s a topic addressed in a recently published book titled “Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy and Governance.” In one chapter Philadelphia area writer Brent Franklin focuses on the interaction between civilizations and what that could mean for humans in a First Contact situation. Cultural harm is the potential damage that interaction between civilizations could have, especially for the weaker, less-advanced society. Franklin points to Brazilian relations with the isolated tribes of the Amazon. These may be the last such isolated societies on the planet. Brazil has gone to great lengths to protect the autonomy of the indigenous tribes. Those actions are based on the negative outcomes for many other tribes in previous years. Interaction with humans has collapsed indigenous economic and social structures, to the point of completely dissolving some cultures. This is not a new aspect of human life. We have experienced such actions for thousands of years. Some may argue that it is a natural progression for more advanced societies to subsume less advanced. However, in the last 100 years fierce opposition to this argument has developed. It can be seen in the efforts of Native North Americans to preserve their culture, much of which was decimated by European settlement and intrusion.

We may consider our human society rather advanced in terms of depth and complexity. But there could be risks in interaction with extraterrestrials. Technology is one of the most obvious considerations. Should aliens provide technological information to us? If they are more advanced we may not even have the foundation to understand alien technology. But if we did, would having knowledge given to us make us stronger or weaker? Science is a foundational system that grows through the sharing of ideas and replication of study results. Each new piece of information is a building block, but that block is only put in place once it has been critically reviewed. Along the way, all sorts of other ideas, challenges and considerations can come to light. Human science is a complicated set of interactions and development. Alien technology could throw us off course. Or it could make us dependent on alien tutoring.

Human religion could also suffer cultural harm. Perhaps the aliens have a religious system that is adopted by humans? That could undermine human religions and have a drastic impact on human culture.

There could also be benefits to alien interaction with humans. New ideas could cause us to develop our technology in new directions and grow our religious perspectives. A lot would depend on how interaction with aliens would occur. The negative comparisons in human history usually involve the new society encroaching on the geography of the indigenous group, quite often through dominance and even war. If aliens were not threatening us physically, could interaction create positive change for the human civilization? Many would argue that we need new religious perspectives, as religion is the source of much conflict here on Earth. Perhaps alien technology could be shared in a way that would incorporate our human scientific system?

Cultural autonomy is the ability of a group of people to guide the future development of their culture. If there is agreement that some alien perspectives might be beneficial, those perspectives could be incorporated into human society. The point is that humans need to make the decisions. If aliens do visit our solar system some day they will be encroaching on our space. We should be the ones who decide how the relationship should progress. We should have the ability to limit and control contact. That could even mean turning down alien assistance.

Franklin suggests a “peaceful and cautious approach to contact.” This is something I have been promoting for several years now. Yes, there would be clear threats to humanity in an alien First Contact scenario, especially if it is Direct First Contact, taking place in our solar system. But there may also be benefits in such a relationship. The tough part would be setting up a framework for the relationship that would allow for that “peaceful and cautious approach.”

In simple terms humans would need to assess the following in any First Contact scenario:

-The details of the situation itself: what are the aliens proposing?

-Our position in this scenario: what are our weaknesses and strengths?

-The risk that further contact could provide to the human civilization

-The benefits that further contact could provide to human civilization

It’s basically the SWOT analysis that businesses use for planning. You evaluate strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. From there you can develop a short-term response and a long-term strategy.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Everyone in the Same Boat?

I make assumptions on this blog. One major one is that there are at least a few civilizations in our Galaxy far in advance of us in terms of technology. This would really be our only hope for communicating with extraterrestrials. A presentation by Cornell University student Evan Solomonides says that we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting. His extrapolation is that it could be 1,500 years until First Contact. He made his remarks to an American Astronomical Society meeting this year. writer Nola Redd reports that Solomonides thinks humans may be on the same development track as any other extraterrestrial civilization that may be out there. Meaning that extraterrestrials are probably no more or less technologically advanced than us. This idea is based on the particular mixture of heavy elements needed to produce life as we know it. It takes many generations of stars to produce the amount needed to produce life. That means most other stars with life would be along the same timeline as us.

It’s an interesting idea. Many people have been attempting to answer the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we haven’t heard from extraterrestrials yet. Solomonides would argue that if they are out there, they simply haven’t developed enough for us to hear them or for them to hear us. And that’s what the search for extraterrestrial life comes down to for humans right now- radio and television signals traveling through space.

There are plenty of other reasons we may not have heard from extraterrestrials- they may not care to talk to us. They may have sophisticated methods of communication that we can’t detect. They may be waiting to say hello until we are further developed. They may not care if any other civilizations are out there. But the idea of equal technological development is an interesting idea. I suppose if that is the case, we really won’t know anything for many more generations. That, in and of itself, is kind of an annoying idea. Thanks Evan.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Let There Be Light

The reliance on radio wave searches of the universe, in hopes of intercepting signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, may be too narrow. That’s what astronomers have been suggesting for some time now. Radio waves are already diminishing in importance for humans. So, why expect that an alien civilization would use them at all?

Next up is light. There are a few projects underway using light searches and proposing light communication on our part. A recent post in ScienceBlog describes a paper by UC Santa Barbara researcher Philip Lubin. He suggests in the journal REACH that directed energy may be useful in the search for extraterrestrials.

“In our paper, we propose a search strategy that will observe nearly 100 billion planets, allowing us to test our hypothesis that other similarly or more advanced civilizations with this same broadcast capability exist,” Lubin said. –ScienceBlog

Of course, it is entirely possible that even light would be an outmoded communication technique for extraterrestrials. It seems clear, though, that the only hope in this search is to constantly reevaluate our methods and utilize the latest advances in human technology to help re-define the search.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

HD 164595: An Example of How Tough Discovery Notification Will Be

Update: Russian scientists now call the signal terrestrial in origin. More here.

There's a sudden rush of excitement on the Internet about star HD 164595 in the Hercules constellation. An Italian scientist found a strange signal emanating from the star on May 15, 2016. According to SETI there have been 39 observations since that time, in attempts to replicate the signal. Nothing else has been discovered. So, why all the excitement? A blogger apparently got advance word of the search, details of which were due to be presented during a conference in September. Internet speculators and the mainstream media, including CNN, have jumped on board this week. While the stories themselves offer a more complete analysis, the headlines are rather excited.

Who knows? This could be what everyone has been waiting for- an actual signal from an alien civilization. But the only way scientists can begin to prove that is by finding the signal again, and again, and again. They are still looking in many frequency ranges and even for any possible laser light emission.

This is another example of how quick information can spread and the danger of that speculation. One can only imagine what would happen if scientists do make a discovery some day. This shows that it will likely come out prematurely and lead to rampant speculation. The difficult thing about speculation is that it could lead if there is some element of truth, it can be spun so many different ways people won't know what to believe.

What can we do? Pay attention to trusted sources. The folks at the SETI Institute in Mountain View California have been through this more than once. Seth Shostak is a good source for an educated, and well informed, scientific opinion. Just watch out in the mainstream media. I have already seen quotes from Shostak and colleague Douglas Vakoch, twisted around in reports that make things seem more exciting than they are- yet.

We need to have patience and let scientists do the hard and often tedious work that is required when there is an unexplained astral phenomena. Here's a link to the situation on the SETI Institute website. This is a recently updated link to the star HD 164595 Wikipedia page with a lot more about the sun and why this signal is so intriguing to SETI researchers.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Anyone Out There?

There are two basic schools of thought when it comes to the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe. One group insists that the “eerie silence” means that we are alone in the universe. We have been listening for more than fifty years now and there has yet to be an alien signal discovered. The other group insists that we have searched a tiny bit of the observable universe and we have used technology that may very well be irrelevant to extraterrestrials- the radio spectrum.

Lee Speigel with the Huffington Post writes about a new effort to predict the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe. His story focuses on an Astrobiology journal paper by Adam Frank and Woodruff Sullivan. They use new data from the search for exoplanets to update the famous Drake Equation. Frank Drake sought to quantify the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence in the universe back in 1961. His equation is still in use today. The Astrobiology paper, as outlined by Speigel, suggests that the new exoplanet research be used to update the equation. According to NASA, There have been 3,268 expoplanets discovered as of May 19, 2016. The Astrobiology authors extrapolation of this number is rather astonishing to consider:
“Even if you are pretty pessimistic and think that you’d have to search through 100 billion (habitable zone) planets before you found one where a civilization developed, then there have still been a trillion civilizations over cosmic history!” Frank wrote. “When I think about that, my mind reels — even if there is just a one in a 100 billion chance of evolution creating exo-civilizations, the universe still has made so many of them that we are swamped by histories other than our own.” –Huffington Post

It’s quite a difference in perspective- either we are the only civilization in the universe or there may be a trillion civilizations in the history of the universe.
All considerations, with this little real information, is basically speculation. Even with the scientific discovery of thousands of exoplanets, we still don’t know enough about how life could develop outside of the Earth to truly consider the possibility of life on another planet, or for that matter a trillion planets. The article does provide some new ammunition for those seeking extraterrestrial intelligence. The discovery of exoplanets and more importantly, the nature of those exoplanets, allows us to now focus our search in a way that we could not even five years ago.
We need to update the search with the continuing discovery of exoplanets. We need to update our search strategies to get beyond the radio spectrum. We need to keep searching.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Those Damn Aliens

Independence Day, one of the better marauding alien movies, is back with part two. It has some people considering space defense. It’s not an unreasonable topic, if you think alien civilizations exist and that they have the ability to travel to Earth. A Forbes contributor, Bruce Dorminey, recently took up the subject. He talked to physicists to discuss how humans might prevent a sneak attack. Not surprisingly it all comes down to the technology available to visiting aliens. If they travel at less than the speed of light they would probably be detectable. If they know something about physics that we don’t know- and can travel faster than the speed of light- we would be in trouble.

The other issue is space defense. Detection is one thing- but what do you do next? People have suggested building space defense…usually nuclear missiles in space. That is currently banned as part of an international UN treaty for the peaceful uses of space. No one wants another country putting nuclear missiles in space.

It’s unlikely anyone will spend money on what is probably the biggest “what if” in human history. There is no evidence that intelligent alien life exists, let alone that they have the technological ability to travel here. This is just speculation now, but can you imagine the reaction if some day we do discover intelligent alien life out there? I would suspect that there would be an immediate call for detection and defense platforms in space. There could even be a space arms race. We will need to carefully consider the circumstances if that does occur. If the aliens are much more technologically advanced than us- defense may be a moot point. And no matter what we would have to consider the risk of putting missiles in space. Exactly who would control them?

In the meantime, stick with the movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I would guess the humans win in the end.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Responding to Social Media Demands

It’s tough to keep anything secret these days. There are so many outlets for information that news tends to be instantaneous. That’s a big change from 1989 when the International Academy of Astronautics put together a set of protocols for the detection of a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization

Cathal O’Connell writes in Cosmos about a proposal to update those protocols. University of St. Andrews researchers Duncan Fargan and Alexander Scholz suggest a speedier process for public dissemination of news of an alien signal discovery. This is a big difference from the current protocol, which calls for researchers working together behind the scenes, to confirm that the signal is indeed of intelligent origin before taking it public. The reason for the suggested change is simple: it is likely someone in that chain of researchers would put it up on Twitter or Facebook before it could be confirmed. The authors point out in their Acta Astronautica article that the social media revelations could contain incorrect information or be misinterpreted. It would be better to have an open release to the public of preliminary information. Research to confirm the discovery can follow.
Communication has changed significantly. It is critical for researchers to consider those changes when it comes to announcing a possible extraterrestrial signal or contact. I think this article points to a larger issue. Transparency would be essential in any first contact scenario. It’s important that correct information be available to the public as soon as possible, so that speculation and rumors can’t overtake the facts.

The article brings up another interesting aspect of our age: the dangers associated with revelation of extraterrestrials contact. O’Connell writes that Fargan and Scholz suggest hazards for those making such an announcement. The researchers could be subject to Internet based intrusions and attacks.
Keeping up with the Internet and social media won’t be easy. Speculation and rumors would likely fly no matter how much researchers work to put out correct information. It’s critical to take into account the possible reaction to news of First Contact now. When it happens there will barely be time to think before the news has reached the entire world.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Politics and Space Aliens

I’ll just go ahead and say it this way: if aliens have any plans to visit Earth they had damn well better keep an eye on our politics. I know that is unfair, as most human political situations are a vast cesspool of ego aggrandizement and power grabs. But despite the disgusting nature of the subject, it would be important for extraterrestrials to consider. Political matters offer an indication of the stability of governments. Governmental leaders would be key decision-makers in the wake of a Direct First Contact event.

Let me wade hip-deep into the political muck by first examining the current presidential race in the United States. If I was an alien (I am not) I would consider the timing of my big hello. Would I want to make First Contact when there is a lame duck U.S. president in office? Should I wait for a new president to take command? The advantage of the lame duck president is that they have very little to lose politically, hopefully enabling them to act thoughtfully and make decisions based on the long-term well-being of the U.S. and the world. A lame duck president also has experience with all sorts of crises and many veteran cabinet and staff members. A new president has the advantage of newness- they have not yet developed the network of enemies that a veteran president has. A new president would also have more time to carry through with an extraterrestrial policy.

The big issue during an election cycle is candidate reaction. Presidential candidates are more likely to present brash ideas during an election, in an effort to appeal to voting blocs. Candidates don’t have the same responsibilities as a sitting president. Alien First Contact would be wrapped up in a huge political debate in regards to our response, no matter when it happens. That debate could be much more aggressive during an election cycle.

The political situations in Russia, France, China and the United Kingdom would also be important to consider. They are the other standing members of the United Nations Security Council. They would likely have a large role in diplomatic relations with an extraterrestrial civilization. Evaluating politics in Russia and China might be tough for aliens. Much of the important decision-making process is conducted out of the public in these two nations. That’s not to say that behind the scenes political decisions don’t happen in the United States, France and the U.K. But the nature of news coverage in those nations, and less government control of the political process, makes it more likely decisions will be made in public.

So, how do aliens go about evaluating the situations in China and Russia? They would have to do what reporters around the world do when examining the countries- get as local as possible with sources and know enough about the nature of each government to understand what is really going on when they make public announcements.

This could all be accomplished on the Internet. But it means that extraterrestrials would need to take the time to study us, before saying hello. I understand the argument could be made that aliens would not understand or care to understand, our human political systems. However, I think that if they have the technological means to travel to our solar system, they would also have the ability to study and learn. The value in evaluating human politics is simple: it can give you an indication of how various governments, and the United Nations, might react in a Direct First Contact situation. This includes military reaction and that’s a big one. You don’t want to scare leaders of an unstable nation.

Another factor to consider is United Nations leadership. The process is underway now to pick a new Secretary General. That position would be critical in any First Contact scenario. The same thoughts apply- do you want to say hello with a lame duck Secretary General or wait for a new Secretary General to take office?

How would aliens take in all this information and could they ever fully understand the human implications? That’s impossible to say. But we humans do a good job of putting it all out there. There are thousands and thousands of political blogs, academic works and other analyses of political situations available on the Internet. An alien wouldn’t need to start from scratch. There are plenty of humans evaluating politics and offering insight.  That does raise another concern: lies and exaggerations on the Internet. Humans have enough trouble keeping information on the Internet straight. How would aliens do it, considering the fine points of human behavior might be hard for them to understand? Let’s just hope the aliens take their time and study the cesspool of human politics very carefully before they say hello.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Extraterrestrial Contact: Humor and Honesty

Many humans would be anxious about First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, if it ever happens some day. A quick review of First Contact fiction plots in popular media shows the anxiety quite clearly. Books and movies have dwelled on the negative for decades. And there is a possibility that First Contact could be a real problem for humans. However, it seems more likely that First Contact would be a mixed bag of positive and negative impacts. It also seems likely that many of the outcomes will depend on how humans respond to First Contact. Negative outcomes may be due to negative human reaction and have nothing to do with aliens. Managing those reactions will be important in the wake of First Contact.

I think it would be important to maintain the “humanity” in any First Contact event.  That can be accomplished with honest communication, transparency in action and the use of humor.

Why humor? It’s a human way of relieving tension and acknowledging fears, and could help to calm people. Serious matters would need to be handled seriously, but there should be plenty of room in the process for humor. Such techniques would, of course, depend on the nature of First Contact. If aliens are reigning down missiles on Washington and Moscow, humor wouldn’t be such a good idea. But in a more positive scenario, humor could serve to act as a reassuring anchor for people watching First Contact coverage. Humor would remind them that this is a human event and not the end of the world. Aside from relieving tension, humor can help in communication. It is a way to address concerns and counteract negative stereotypes with less confrontation than a more direct approach.

Governments don’t do a very good job utilizing humor. Some politicians have learned the value of the technique. And that’s an important point. Institutions can’t show a sense of humor about a situation, but people can. Humor, honesty and transparency will need to start with the major human players in a First Contact situation. Hopefully, with good examples from those individuals and good results, it could be a foundation for the process going forward.

The most important part of communication would be honesty. Humans have been trained by Hollywood writers to expect conspiracy in an alien First Contact scenario. The best way to be honest is to be transparent. The entire human population has a right to know exactly what is occurring at each step in the process After First Contact. Meetings should be made public, whenever possible. At the very least, closed door meetings should be summarized for the public afterwards. This would not be easy to achieve without a struggle. Governments often act behind closed doors when it comes to security decisions. There would be many security considerations in a Direct First Contact situation. Governmental leaders would need to weigh their options carefully. The benefit of having a closed door meeting, and not reporting on the outcome of that meeting, could be minimal compared to the value of keeping the public informed and calm.

Perhaps the biggest fear in the back of the collective human mind in a First Contact event would be the alien perspective. Will it overwhelm our human world? Will we somehow lose our humanity in the process of having a relationship with extraterrestrials? Humor and honesty could help to keep the process of Contact human in nature, and thus understandable, and hopefully acceptable, to the world public.

What do you think? Give your opinion in a comment here or visit the Alien First Contact Facebook page.