Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Elite, The Disenfranchised and First Contact

A small number of scientists are leading the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. From that research-based scientific inquiry, a few have also been considering the challenges that would come from alien First Contact. These questions include the process that should be used to inform the public of such a discovery, and how a response to alien contact would be developed. These scientists have been primarily astrophysicists and astronomers. In recent years, though, through the efforts of groups such as the SETI Institute and the NASA AmesResearch Center, biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and religious experts joined the conversation. Most of the effort is still focused on the scientific inquiry. That makes sense. Without the discovery itself, the rest of the issues are moot. But there is a growing realization that we are not prepared for what might happen after First Contact. Do we reply? What do we say? Who makes these decisions?

The International Academy of Astronomics (IAA) and the International Astronomical Union (IAU) have suggested that scientists would be heavily involved in such decisions. Certainly, in a case of Indirect First Contact- the reception or interception of an extraterrestrial signal or message- scientists would lead they way. They would be the ones who made the discovery and it makes sense that they would be the ones that the world would turn to for advice on what to do next. The good thing about indirect First Contact is that it would likely give us time to ponder such decisions. There could be a healthy debate and, hopefully, then a consensus about how to proceed. These very scientists have attempted to get the United Nations to consider the issue. There would be a great need for international leadership in the wake of First Contact and a coalition of scientists and international leaders would be a good start for developing responses to First Contact. Unfortunately, the United Nations has yet to take substantive action. 

Just last month scientists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting discussed the issue of sending intentional human messaging into space in hopes of making contact. The arguments ranged from those favoring the approach to those warning of dire results if we make contact.

But what about Direct First Contact- contact that happens within our solar system and leads to the possibility of direct communication? Suddenly, the issue of time becomes a primary concern. Rather than waiting for our signal to reach an extraterrestrial civilization light years away, the communication time frame is much more immediate. That means that decisions would have to be immediate. Direct First Contact also poses a greater risk for humanity. It’s not just the dangers of attack or interference, but also the impact on humanity from what we learn from an extraterrestrial civilization. If communication is near immediate and the aliens willing to share, there could be dramatic revelations for humanity in the areas of science and technology. How do we handle such opportunities and threats?

Initially, in the wake of Direct First Contact, a coalition of scientists and international leaders, perhaps under the umbrella of the United Nations would also make sense. But that umbrella would need to expand quickly. Astrophysicists and astronomers would need to be joined by, not only the above-mentioned biologists, anthropologists, sociologists and religious experts, but also by political scientists, and economists. The potential disruption to human civilization would be a primary concern in the wake of Direct First Contact. The amount of information shared would ramp up those concerns.

But there is another fact that we would have to face in such a situation. Scientists, academics and international leaders are part of an elite segment of our society. I know the word elite, especially concerning academics, has been used as a political club for ideological bludgeoning recently in America, but nonetheless, there is a valid point to be made. Can those in the top income brackets and the higher leadership circles in human civilization, necessarily speak out for the rights of the larger, poorer, majority of humans?

I think that bodies formed in the wake of First Contact should include people who represent third world nations and humans who live in poverty. Governments of those nations could be involved through representation in the United Nations. They would need to have a role. As I have pointed out previously, it would be easy for humans to let the most powerful nations run the show. That would be a mistake. First Contact response should be developed with a wide range of ideas and opinions. That cannot be gained from just a few powerful nations. I would suggest that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that represent those in poverty, from third world nations, would be a good place to start. Someone will need to advocate for the needs of the less powerful humans on planet Earth. First Contact cannot be the province of elites. The voices of middle and lower class people, and especially those living in poverty, need to be considered.

Would such an approach make things more complicated in the wake of First Contact? Absolutely. Adding more debate to already divisive alien contact issues would not be easy. It would make it tougher to develop a response. If not carefully managed it could lead to chaos. It is a problem worth managing. All segments of human society have a right to be heard when it comes to First Contact response.

This is the process that must be developed. We should be thinking about it now, both in the context of Indirect, signal-based Contact and immediate communication based Direct First Contact. Alien contact may not occur for many years or decades. It may never occur at all. But the implications for humanity are huge. We must be ready to act with at least a very basic plan of response. A little thought now into the development of that plan, and methods to help all humans be involved, would help tremendously. 

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Extraterrestrial Contact: Who Controls Alien First Contact?

It’s a simple question and a question for which there are probably no simple answers. In many respects, though, the question of who should control alien First Contact comes down to whom you trust more- individual governments or humans as a whole. That may sound like a generalization and I agree, those are very broad terms. But at the heart of the issue is a simple philosophy that would be the subject of great debate: I believe that all humans should participate in alien First Contact. How could this happen? Through international representation and vigorous debate.

Government control is the most popular scenario in books and movies. It seems to stem from 1950’s post-nuclear fears. In the movies, we humans look to the military for expertise and leadership in the wake of alien contact. Interestingly, in many of those plot lines, the military leaders eventually screw-up the mission, by trying to exert too much control. And that’s the problem. We would likely have some degree of anxiety in alien contact and having the military in charge is a way to protect ourselves. But eventually we could question the motives of the military. Will they keep the event secret and try to gain technological advantages though alien contact? Will the government deem alien contact too dangerous for the public to know about?

These are simplistic scenarios, but I think they do mirror our fears and concerns. We want someone to be in control and to protect us, however we worry about what that might mean in the long-term.

This is something astrophysicists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have been considering for some time now. The most well-known protocol comes from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).

The protocol calls for scientific confirmation of the signal discovery before any public announcement is made. The next step involves notifying other scientists of the discovery and confirmation. The next level is scientific associations and governmental leaders. The United Nations is listed, as well, with perhaps the strongest role in the protocol and the specific mention of a UN Committee- the Committee on the Peace Uses of Outer Space.

Such a protocol is relatively straightforward. It is supported by well-regarded scientific associations and it follows procedures that might be used for other astronomical discoveries. There is a ready-made system for the first level of extraterrestrial signal detection. Best of all, the instruments (radio telescopes) used for such signal detection are controlled primarily by scientists and academic institutions. There is a certain amount of openness built into their usual process of communication.

Direct First Contact would be different. In such a case, the most likely first responders would be law enforcement and the military, in whatever jurisdiction a craft landed or made direct contact with humans. That provides a level of institutional control. The authorities may support transparency and public observation of such an event. They may also choose to hide the event and subsequent interaction.

That’s why I suggest a sudden, media-based First Contact scenario. If done correctly, transparency and openness would be an integral part of the event. Institutions could seek to gain control of the situation, but the media scrutiny would create pressure on law enforcement and the military to be transparent in actions and accountable to the public.

There is no doubt that First Contact needs to be led by someone. It could be a coalition of scientific, governmental, and academic groups, as suggested in the IAA protocol. The obvious group to lead such an effort would be the United Nations, as it is the largest and most robust international agency on the planet. The UN provides a system of representation for the great majority of nations on Earth. It has built-in systems of bureaucracy that could be applied to First Contact. Most importantly, it is a body that is designed to foster discussion and debate among nations. That exists nowhere else on the planet to such a degree.

Direct First Contact is an unlikely event, due to the vast distances of space and the constraints of physics, as we understand the field currently. It is not, however, entirely out of the realm of possibility. If it were to occur there will be an inevitable conflict between the public right to know and the governmental mission of protection. There will need to be careful thought given to each and every step.
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Human Opportunity

If alien First Contact does occur someday, we will focus our attention to the wonders of the wider universe. Whatever we learn about other extraterrestrial civilizations and the nature of our universe will in turn help to expand our perspective. Of course, how much we learn depends on how much extraterrestrials might be willing to share. Once the wonder dies down the perspective change could also provide a catalyst for human self-examination.
I’m not suggesting that we need to act like aliens or incorporate an alien way of thinking. Learning about other civilizations does not mean becoming like other civilizations. The knowledge that we are not alone in the universe, in and of itself, could help us to make changes here at home. These would be purely human decisions about how to make our world better for everyone. Why should we care? First Contact would present something that we never had to consider before. If another civilization exists, suddenly we have competition in the universe- perhaps not immediate competition for resources or status, but competition nonetheless. We would want to consider our strengths as a civilization and that means coming up with ideas for improving on our weaknesses.

Global Decision-Making

There would be some immediate needs in extraterrestrial contact. We would need a global body to make decisions and take actions regarding alien contact for the entire human race. This could be a newly created group representing all nations or it could be a United Nations committee. The group would need to consider the contact process and what messages should come from humans.

The need for speaking with one voice would make overall global decision-making suddenly much more important. And it would force us to consider a basic fact about our current global relations: they’re dominated by a few powerful nations. In the wake of First Contact, who would be working to ensure that the people of Belize have their voices heard? Who would stand up for the concerns of citizens of Uzbekistan?

Some people might argue that the largest and most powerful nations have the most at stake and the best scientific resources, and thus should lead the effort. But I think that allowing that current system of global inequity to continue would be a mistake. It could also lead to power struggles amongst those power nations. Truly soliciting input from smaller nations, and actually acting on that input, could prevent the power struggles, by adding additional voices to the mix. It could also bring about ideas that we might not have considered.

Powerful nations should view First Contact as an opportunity to lead, not dominate. True leadership comes from recognizing the value of all of the parts of the whole. This will not be easy for the United States, China and Russia. Current politics makes the quest for dominance part of the international agenda. This, however, leads to conflict and in the end, weakens all parties. How so? Just look at the interdependence of economies. We live in a world where economic problems in China can lead to economic problems in the United States. When we quietly applaud as the Ruble falls in value in Russia, we forget that interdependence. Russian economic turmoil may seem like a positive thing for Western nations in the short term, especially for those upset by Russian international aggressions, but in the long-term, Russian financial issues could have a negative global impact for multi-national companies and that has an impact on economies all over the world.

Racism, Sexism and Culturalism

Meeting alien beings should make it quite apparent that differences in human skin tones, facial features and cultural beliefs, are slight when compared to extraterrestrials. We could use that perspective shift to push for a new understanding between human cultures. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all related. We know this. Alien First Contact would take that knowledge beyond the intellectual level and give it new primacy. We are all humans. We live on this tiny planet with many other creatures and organisms. We need to take care of each other and take care of our fragile home.

The entire planet suffers from the consequences of sexism. Women are nearly half of all humans and yet they often do not have the same opportunities as men. This includes education and employment. There is no greater need for positive change on Earth. All women should have opportunities for self-betterment and the ability to make their own choices.

A renewed focus on human concerns could also have a downside. Some people may attempt to use fear to build xenophobia towards aliens. This would be a natural tendency, especially if the aliens look and act much differently from us, which seems likely. Promoting a stronger human alliance does not have to lead to such xenophobia. But the struggle to keep it from becoming so, and thus influencing our decision making in regards to alien contact, will likely be with us for the rest of human history.


A sudden First Contact event could help us realize that things can change quickly. Perspective controls much of what we do. If our perspective on the universe can change so quickly, and without much physical action, than why couldn’t our perspective on human issues change, as well?

Much of the progress made in the American civil rights struggle came relatively quickly once the world focused attention on the plight of African-Americans in the South. Media attention and the leadership of some key individuals helped to change something in the American consciousness. Perspective is an incredible thing.

I’m not suggesting that the civil rights movement didn’t come from years of incredibly daring and dangerous work on the parts of so many. What I am suggesting is that there can be a tipping point in human consciousness where one state of affairs quickly becomes unacceptable due to publicity and leadership. What other areas might we be able to improve human conditions based on a new perspective brought on by First Contact.

What about violence? It’s easy to say that humans will be humans and violent conflict between humans is inevitable, but in the wake of First Contact we could realize that human violence is a choice, not an inevitability. We make such choices each and every day. Clearly, the key to preventing human violence starts with solving the problems that lead to violence and that is extremely complicated.  But a perspective change could allow us to climb out of the trenches, where we are surrounded by those complications, and achieve a wider view. The catalyst of First Contact could lead to a change in how humans resolve conflicts.

The Environment

It would be interesting to hear the alien perspective on climate change as a result of industrial growth. Perhaps such problems are endemic in growing civilizations? We could desperately use some new input on the subject and that would perhaps encourage us to take our environmental decisions more seriously, and, in turn, prod us to make the many changes needed to respond to the growing crisis.

Technology and attitude changes have made a difference in pollution and waste in the United States. But Americans have the furthest to go, as we are among the biggest consumers. Emerging nations need to pay better attention to environmental issues. China may seem like an extreme example now, with widespread pollution in its large cities, but India, Malaysia and Latin American nations are not far behind. As economies grow, consumer pollution and waste increases. Could a new perspective help us to take bolder actions to preserve the health of our atmosphere and ultimately our planet?


Humans have a propensity to support economic systems that keep other humans in poverty. Human development is closely watched by the United Nations and other international agencies. In some parts of the world, such as Asia, it has improved greatly in the last 30 years. In other locations, most notably sub-Saharan Africa, it has improved marginally at best. The UN calls people in poverty “vulnerable” because it defines a whole range of impacts, from employment to health. Could we see humans differently in the wake of First Contact and make significant changes to help those humans who are most vulnerable?

I know that these are rather grand pronouncements. When it comes to human change the devil is always in the details. Real change comes from individual struggle each and every day. But that struggle for positive change could be energized by the change in perspective that would come from extraterrestrial contact. If First Contact does occur some day, we will likely be slack-jawed in wonder for a time. Once we get back to reality, we should use some of that wonder and turn our attention back to planet Earth. Alien First Contact could be a catalyst for positive human change unlike anything we have ever seen. That catalyst could also be ignored and it could be business as usual on planet Earth. That decision will be ours to make.

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Nurtured Life on Earth

If contact with an extraterrestrial civilization occurs someday, there will be an immediate question: has the extraterrestrial civilization been in contact with humans previously? This question wouldn’t just come from those who claim alien abduction or envision some vast alien conspiracy. It’s a basic question with huge implications. There is one particular category that might be important to explore now: has life on Earth been nurtured by alien intervention?

Nurturing life on Earth could come in many forms. In the most dramatic, writers have suggested that ancient earth societies had interaction with aliens and even benefited from that interaction. Many of these theories have been debunked as historians have learned how the pyramids were built or the Nazca lines in Peru possibly created. But nurturing life on Earth doesn’t have to mean such drastic interaction. Life itself is widely accepted to be a rare creation, due to the formidable obstacles faced in the formation of life. Asteroid strikes and atmospheric imbalances are just a couple of the events that could render most of life on a planet extinct. Intelligent life, due to its complexity, would likely be at high risk for extinction from naturally occurring events. And, of course, atmospheric imbalances could also be a byproduct of technological development, as is becoming an issue here on Earth.
But what about less dramatic intervention? Humans face a risk from the effects of coronal mass ejection.  Highly energetic particle bombarding the Earth could cause a massive disruption to the electrical system and even health risks for humans. But highly energized electrons are streaming towards the Earth on a regular basis.

Scientists recently announced in the journal Nature that they have discovered a force field of sorts about 7,200 miles above the Earth that stop most of these energized electrons from reaching Earth. This is part of the overall study of the Van Allen Belts, two radiation belts that surround the Earth. NASA has probes that have been studying the belts. They hope to use them to further analyze this “puzzling phenomenon” as it is described by the co-author of the study, Daniel Baker from CU-Boulder. This is a Huffington Post article describing the results.

None of these folks are suggesting that the phenomenon is something that was intentionally created. But it does provide an opportunity to raise the question: what if life on Earth has been nurtured? Perhaps there are many aspects of our planet that were engineered to better suit the development of life? If so, what does that mean for us? If we find out that aliens have been helping us along, does that mean we are beholden to them? Are they our Gods? That probably seems an offensive thought to most of us. And if it was true that we had help along the way, do we ask for more help? Do we sit back and ask to be spoon-fed alien science?

The human race has struggled for thousands of years. Struggle is part of our way of being. We need to keep struggling to survive. And doing so will make us more technologically advanced and, hopefully, wiser in our human relations. Taking away the struggle, even with some simple technological assistance from an extraterrestrial civilization, could be detrimental. If we do find out that we have had help along the way, I think we would want to make sure that we are not get spoon-fed anything involving technology or culture. Learning from aliens about their culture and other aspects of the universe would be an exciting and welcome benefit of First Contact. We would need to make sure we placed controls over the information shared, so that we continue to struggle in our science and development, without outside help.
Okay, let’s take a deep breath again. The Van Allen Belts electron shield is probably just a natural phenomenon that we don’t understand yet. Scientists will put in the hard work and analyze data and help us come to a new understanding about our world.

But I go back to my original point- we will have legitimate questions to ask a visiting extraterrestrial civilization in the wake of First Contact. And if it ever does occur no question will be too outlandish. The alien abduction folks will have just as much a right to an answer as anyone else. Until we know the truth, anything is possible. There will be many questions to ask in the wake of First Contact. Perhaps most disturbingly, at least at first, humans would be unable to verify what aliens tell us about their history with the planet Earth. Do we trust their answers? That’s why it doesn’t hurt to consider these general issues now. A little forethought could be a valuable thing if First Contact ever does occur someday.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Religious Reaction Expanded

Religious reaction to First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization is important, primarily because it could be a driver for overall human reaction. Vanderbilt University Astronomy Professor David Weintraub has a new book out called “Religions and Extraterrestrial Life: How will we deal with it?”

I appreciate the straight to the point title. While I have not read the book yet, from the articles and reviews describing the work, he seems to cover more ground in his book than most articles or surveys have done. Particularly interesting for a quick view is the overall survey of different religions put together from his book by the Boston Globe. Weintraub says that the revelation of extraterrestrial life could actually bolster the spirits of Muslims, who have long believed that other worlds with intelligent beings exist. Perhaps most importantly, Islam doesn’t say that human religious systems have to apply to extraterrestrials, but that each world would have its own prophets. That would allow wiggle room that many other religions on planet Earth, including fundamentalist Christian sects, could not provide. It’s those fundamentalist Christians that Weintraub seems most worried about in terms of reaction.
That’s an interesting perspective. From a purely religious text standpoint, such reactions seem relatively easy to figure out. What worries me is the nexus of religion, politics and government. It is here where the real impact of religion can be felt and especially in extremist religions. Will world leaders find religious reasons to oppose First Contact with extraterrestrials? Will they try to use religion to sway public sentiment in one direction or another, in issues important to extraterrestrial contact? It seems likely, considering that such actions combining religion and political control are taken each and every day here on Earth currently and involve just about every religion on the planet. Religion does not exist in a vacuum. It is just part of the fabric making up our institutional quilt of society. All sorts of people: religious leaders, politicians, and even military despots and terrorists, pull on those strings to get their way.

I look forward to reading Weintraub’s book. Here is a Huffington Post article about it in his own words and a You Tube video.
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Monday, October 13, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Importance of China

China throws a big global shadow these days. The country has the largest number of Internet users in the world: 600 million. Chinese consumer spending is projected to triple by 2020. Chinese consumers are purchasing property around the world, including a major buying spree in the United States, England and Canada. None of that is probably a surprise to you. But what does Chinese influence mean if alien First Contact occurs some day?  Americans love to assume that aliens would make First Contact with the United States. After all, we are the self-professed leaders of the free world. One does have to ask a question: why wouldn’t those aliens want to contact China first? The country is due to outpace the United States both in population and economic growth in the next few decades. Why would aliens want to bet on the second place nation? Okay, okay, Americans, stop freaking out about the second place nation remark. I love America just as much as the next guy. But we need to be realistic: demographics mean that China will play a huge and growing role in world politics in the next 50 years. Visiting aliens would need to take this into account. If you have read this blog before, you probably know that I actually don’t advocate alien First Contact with any one nation. I think doing such would be short-sighted on the part of the aliens. It could lead to distrust, paranoia and divisiveness in humans. Who knows, perhaps aliens would want such a thing? Communicating with one nation first could destabilize Earth politics and that could be an advantage to aliens with a harmful agenda. But the one nation approach doesn’t hold much value for aliens that want to start an honest and open relationship with all humans.

The Chinese perspective on alien intelligence is perhaps more enlightened than in some Western Countries. Doug Vakoch and Y.S. Lee conducted surveys of American and Chinese students in regards to religious and social reaction to the receipt of a message from an extraterrestrial civilization. The Chinese students were generally found to be better able to fit such an event into their social and religious framework. The real question may be how the Chinese government would react. China’s government is different from any other on Earth. It has a unique hybrid of communism and free markets. It also has a history of acting in secrecy and blocking the free flow of information for its citizens. And yet the same forces that are driving Western governments are also driving decision-making in China: world market competitiveness and free enterprise. How would the Chinese government handle pressures from Chinese business interests in the wake of First Contact? Alien contact would likely be perceived as a potential industrial bonanza. Whether this would be true or not would depend on what information aliens were willing to share with us. But the potential alone would drive most large companies to look for a strategy to capitalize on alien contact. That would in turn push governments in certain directions.

Would the Chinese want something different out of First Contact than Americans or Russians? Perhaps not, but the Chinese government has been scrapping to catch up to the other superpowers for decades now and that has led to an aggressive and hard-nosed attitude about technological developments. China has an active program of industrial espionage. It seems unlikely that the Chinese government would sit back and let the United Nations run the show in the wake of alien contact. The same could be said of the United States and Russia. Most of the security council nations would probably be hell-bent on getting a technological edge from visiting aliens and using espionage to do it. The only difference may be each nation’s ability to hide such things from its public. The U.S. does plenty of spying, needless to say, but there are some safe guards that occasionally lead to light being shed on those activities. That includes Congressional comment and hackers/activists uncovering secrets. You don’t hear much about Chinese spying coming from its own people. The Chinese government has much tighter controls on such criticisms and would be more likely than Western nations to have a comprehensive effort to gain advantage in First Contact.

I’m not beating up on China. The growth of the nation, and what it has meant for many of their people, is fantastic. The Chinese scientific community would be an important part of any First Contact reaction and the Chinese perspective on First Contact would be essential to world decision-making. The Chinese will need to be taken very seriously if First Contact occurs someday and take a shared leadership role in the human reaction to such an event. Hopefully, they will be an engaged, open and active partner in helping to determine the human reaction to First Contact.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: React Quickly and then Go Slow and Learn

If representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization make contact with us some day, we will be at a distinct disadvantage. It seems unlikely that such aliens or the machines made by aliens, would make contact without first doing some research about us.  That means that, chances are, they will know more about us than we know about them. There is really only one responsible way to handle such a situation: react quickly and then go slow and learn.  I’m going to explore this in reverse.

How do we ensure that we go slow and learn? The first step would be to set the agenda. This would be tough to do, if the aliens are the ones making contact. But it would be important for humans to take a couple of steps back and analyze the potential impact of whatever it is the aliens are suggesting. Do they just want to say hello? Are they interested in providing information about themselves? Do they want to unlock the secrets of the universe for us? These examples are quite simplistic and the process is unlikely to be simple. But I think you can see the problem. Our reaction needs to be based on what they are suggesting and also what is in the best interest for humanity. Saying hello back sounds like an entirely logical response. Showing a willingness to learn about their culture and history also seems logical. But we need to set that agenda and decide what topics we should discuss and how it will be done.

Their culture and history could teach us much about aliens, especially if we look behind the communication for indications of the nature of the aliens and their culture. Where are the conflicts in their society? Where are the divisions? How could such issues impact humanity? Who are we dealing with, and perhaps more importantly, whom do they represent? Is it a small sub-culture of aliens or part of a larger group? It’s easy to assume that visiting aliens or their probes represent the entire alien society. But one look in the mirror reminds us that that is seldom how things operate on Earth. Can we really assume aliens are monolithic and of one mind about First Contact with humanity?

Learning the complications and nuances in an alien society would be extremely important and require an expert eye. Human anthropologists might be the most skilled at such an endeavor. They could certainly delineate differences between aliens and humans. But there would probably need to be a wide range of expertise brought to the study of extraterrestrials. Because of that need, it seems likely that we would need an organized effort, so that people from different fields and with different backgrounds can share perspectives and insights.

This would take time. Some human group would need to set a thoughtful and clear agenda. Questions would need to be prioritized. We would need to know alien intentions and expectations. We would need to discuss human security issues and receive assurances about how contact will proceed. There would need to be an organized human structure to carry out the process. All of this would need to be transparent and inclusive to reassure the human public.

Arguments and power struggles in designing this process could be devastating. Humans will need to choose carefully, but the process needs to be mapped out quickly. I know that moving quickly to decide a process sounds like a contradiction for go slow and learn. But in reality, coming up with a general process and deciding who is leading which effort, is critical and needs to happen quickly. Then, with a basic process and organizations structure in place, we need to go slow and learn.

We must respond to First Contact with one clear voice. There would most likely be plenty of debate here on Earth and that would be healthy. However, debate must stay here in the family. When speaking to aliens or alien machines we would need to be united and with a clear purpose and agenda. And then, given some room to breathe, it would be time to go slow and learn. Imagine how exciting that would be.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Who are the Experts?

--> Perhaps, someday, extraterrestrials will make contact with humans in a way that will allow us to truly communicate with them. It would be a big news story, needless to say. It would be exciting. Everyone would want to feel involved. Depending on how sharing those extraterrestrials might be, we could find out new things about our universe. There will be much to consider with whatever information we can glean from First Contact. In a high information First Contact scenario, new academic fields will need to be created. Old academic fields will need to be updated. The big question is: who will be the experts? Who will be able to provide context? Who will be able to point out pitfalls going forward?

It seems to me that in the wake of Direct First Contact there could be three different periods of human reaction and thought. The first I have discussed before. I call it the stunned period. During this time the event itself will be the focus of all attention. People will be waiting for more information. While the news media will attempt to provide context, via experts, that discussion won’t be easy. It will simply be too soon for anyone to comment with any great insight. The experts will be waiting for information, just like the rest of us. They may be on TV, but they probably won’t have much to say, perhaps only providing more questions. This may last a couple of days or even a week or more.

The second period would be what I would call intellectual anarchy. The old ways of thinking could seem irrelevant given First Contact. When humanity gets a breather and breaks away from the stunned period of observation there will be a flood of speculation and opinion. Because there would be few experts to provide context, the media and others may go looking for context anywhere they can find it. This would especially be prevalent on the Internet. Anyone even loosely associated with the UFO movement or other extraterrestrial speculation would offer themselves as experts. One would hope that the news media and the public itself would recognize the pitfalls of such questionable expertise, but unfortunately that might not always be the case. It’s hard to say how long intellectual anarchy might last. If the news media recognizes the problem, they may attempt to self-correct. If not humanity could be in for wild ride. Rampant speculation could lead to rash reactions and even physical unrest.

There should be a period where intellectual institutions and experts try to reinstate order; this action could be led by the media, the government or other institutions. The point is simple: the people we will need to rely on for expertise will be the same before First Contact as After First Contact. An expert in economics is still an expert in economics. They may need to do a lot of intellectual work to fit their old expertise into the new reality, but they will have the education, experience and skills needed to comment thoughtfully and provide meaningful context.

Why would it be important for the true experts to take control back? There would be immediate concerns in the wake of Direct First Contact. There could be great challenges to economic, political, and religious systems. This could lead to conflict, both intellectual and physical. There will also be long-term concerns. This could include the impact of extraterrestrial information to human sciences. There could also be a psychological challenge for some humans and this could be another area needing study.

There are currently a small number of ready-made experts to provide context in a First Contact situation. If they are not already announcing the event, the scientists at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center would be important experts on extraterrestrial matters. The Royal Institution of Great Britain is one of the few scientific bodies brave enough to publish papers on the subject. The journal Acta Astronautica by the International Academy of Astronautics has continually provided a forum for new research and ideas. But these astronomers and researchers can only go so far in providing the context and thought needed in the wake of First Contact. If the aliens are willing to share information, it will be a great enlightening for humanity, perhaps the greatest period of enlightenment for all of human history. We will need a wide-range of daring and thoughtful experts to show us the way.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Respecting Human Institutions

Direct First Contact, where representatives of an extraterrestrial civilization travel to our solar system, would provide many challenges. Security would likely be the first and foremost concern for humans.  A threat to security could come in the form of armed action. This is the scenario we most often dwell upon. But another threat is possible: manipulation, and in dire circumstances, it could be just as harmful.

As we all know, the human civilization is really a conglomeration of cultures, nations and alliances. At best, it can be a complex system. And at worse, the divisions lead to conflict and war. The divisions could provide an opportunity for an outside agent to manipulate humans. An extraterrestrial with an agenda could side with one nation or group of nations to better accomplish their goals. That could create a dangerous situation on Earth, as countries or groups of countries compete for extraterrestrial favors. What would we give up if there were to be some sort of technological information bidding war? How much would a clean, renewable and robust energy source be worth? Would you give up your autonomy for it? Considering such technology could make a nation dominant on Earth, it might be a trade some leaders would consider.

But manipulation doesn’t have to be that drastic. It could also be done in a much more stealthy manner. An extraterrestrial representative could decide to throw humans into conflict, to weaken them. That could be done behind the scenes and without much notice. Divided humans would be much easier to control.

That’s why I think humans must demand and fight for control of any First Contact situation. Humans must make sure that our institutions are not manipulated. That means that we need to speak forcefully and with one voice. Setting ground rules, immediately in the aftermath of a First Contact event, would be essential. Those rules could be revised later, according to need. But at first we would need to be cautious and protective of our human institutions and our human way of doing things.

Humans, left to their own devices, will have a tough time handling First Contact with aplomb and dignity. While we could hope for such a reaction, the reality would probably be messy and full of conflict. But that is how humans operate. Everything in our lives is complicated. We make plenty of mistakes on the road to progress.

Humans need to be human. We need to have the room for a debate about how to proceed After First Contact. That debate needs to be free from extraterrestrial influence. The demand for that freedom is a message that would need to be delivered with one voice. We must have one united voice when speaking to outsiders. And then, here at home, we can splinter into our usual human way: conflict and mess.
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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: A Planetary Call to Action

We tend to imagine alien First Contact as a matter of what aliens will do to us. We usually ignore the bigger question: what will we do in response to the aliens? Aside from the Hollywood cliché war spectaculars, there is actually some thought that should be put into the subject. Why? The human reaction is the only thing we could control in an extraterrestrial First Contact event. 
I’ll avoid the hostile, self-defense scenarios and instead focus this piece on a particular scenario. What do we do if friendly aliens say hello? There are a myriad of possible ways that it could occur. But generally, let’s say it is high information, direct First Contact. That basically means we have the ability to have a conversation with the extraterrestrials. To do such, in the context of our current knowledge of science, would require that the aliens or a probe perhaps, be in our celestial neighborhood.

I’ve written plenty of blogs on this topic, but I now believe there is one important element that I have left out: the need for a planetary call to action. To prepare for such an event we need to recognize that each and every one of us would have some basic responsibilities in First Contact. You may say, no not me…that’s something for the scientists and politicians to worry about. As important as the role of scientists and world leaders would be in First Contact, your role, as a member of your society, is also quite important. Why? It comes down to the dynamics of reaction. I think that scientists, world leaders, military leaders, the news media, religious leaders, corporate leaders and institutional leaders will all have important roles. But technically, all of those people are supposed to represent you, in one way or another. They will certainly be following public reaction closely and taking cues. Mass hysteria will provoke certain reactions. A calm, thoughtful citizenry will bring about more measured responses.

Each human needs to realize that they would have a role to play in a First Contact event. What would we need to do? Here’s a short list:

Focus on facts: it would be easy for us to be scared and let our imaginations run wild in the initial hours, days and weeks after First Contact. We need to stick to the facts.

Beware of rumors and fiction: even if we can control our own imaginations, there will be those who will not be able to. They will take to the internet, and anywhere else they can spout off, to spread rumors and outright lies.

Beware of scare tactics by fringe groups: some people will spread rumors and fiction to further their own particular agenda.

Beware of inaccuracies. And remember that the most dangerous inaccuracies are the ones that have a grain of truth.

Think critically, act thoughtfully: evaluate the source of whatever information you are receiving. Just because it’s a relative or someone you usually trust, doesn’t mean that they are correct.

Listen to scientists, but realize that scientists have opinions as well. Trust research based opinions.

We owe this to future generations. This is a tremendous responsibility for those of us in this bridge generation…those who knew life before first contact, those who witnessed first contact and helped to set the path forward. That path would be critical for the human race in the wake of First Contact.

I also suggest a call to action for the media, scientists, civic leaders, corporations and institutions. It’s quite similar:

Don’t allow speculation to run rampant.

Don’t chase rumors just because it will boost your ratings. This is one of those times that the media will need to realize a role so much more important than the daily competition. It’s a media reaction we often see in the United States in the immediate wake of disaster. We need the sober, cautious and thoughtful media that we saw in the days after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. And in extended First Contact scenario we would need that media for some time.

Explain and provide perspective.

Calm the public and provide reassurances.

Be cautious.

Be thoughtful.

Listen to scientists, but realize that scientists have opinions as well. Trust research based opinions.

Don’t try to control first contact for national or other self-interest.

Am I expecting too much out of humans? I don’t think so. We’re extraordinarily adaptable. If we pull together and use our heads, First Contact could be an amazing experience. If we don’t, the aliens may be the least of our worries.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: A Nudge for Humanity

I have presented many reasons for why an extraterrestrial civilization may not want to contact humans. One of them is an old idea, made popular in TV show Star Trek: the Prime Directive. The concept is simple: don’t use your advanced technology to influence a developing civilization. Any alien civilization capable of traveling to our solar system would have technology far more advanced than ours. If they introduced us to alien science, religion and philosophy, we would not develop in the same way as we would if we made our own scientific discoveries and had our own cultural evolutions. Even worse, with our scientific muscles taken out of action, we would not truly be developing our own science. At some point, without alien assistance, we could be helpless.

Visiting aliens with a concern for such matters would have a few options when coming to our solar system. They could avoid us entirely, or perhaps just watch from afar. If they did decide to make contact with humans they could simply say hello and very little else. They may also be able to share their own history, without giving up scientific principles. There are risks involved for the aliens. If you can’t share much with humans, you could just end up making us mad.

Why would aliens even bother? The best reason to say hello could be to give us a nudge in the right direction. The human civilization is fragile. There are many ways we could falter and die-off. Some of those ways are natural disasters, such as a massive meteorite hitting the Earth or a gigantic volcanic eruption. Global warming is our own doing. Scientists have shown that through fossil fuel emissions we are creating greenhouse gases. Those gases are altering our atmosphere and the effects could be dramatic in coming years. And yet we have done little to act. There is still a great debate. It’s hard to ask people to sacrifice now for a problem that won’t fully impact us for another few decades.

We could really use a nudge.

I know that’s a lot to ask of extraterrestrials. But it could be a unifying moment for humanity. If outsiders viewed our situation as dire, then perhaps we would finally take action. Is that interference that would violate the Prime Directive? Perhaps. The best solution for solving global warming will be our own. But a nudge doesn’t have to give us the solution. It could merely point out the problem. Could we handle such a thing? Would we be incensed to know that critical aliens have the knowledge to solve our problems, but refuse to do so for our own good? Perhaps. But a kick in the pants can sometimes go a long way. I think we would eventually be able to understand the alien reasoning and be at peace with the decision, and hopefully with a better atmospheric outlook to show for it.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Extraterrestrial Contact: Are We Educated Enough?

It’s a central question when it comes to extraterrestrial contact: are humans ready for such an event? Dr. Gabriel de la Torre of the University of Cadiz in Spain is one of a handful of researchers who have attempted to answer the question through research. His answer is simple: no. 
De la Torre did a survey of 166 university students in America, Italy and Spain. They were asked general questions about their religious beliefs and their knowledge of cosmology. They were also asked about their beliefs in regards to First Contact. De la Torre has published the results in his paper “Toward a new cosmic consciousness: Psychoeducational aspects of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.”

It’s always a disappointment not to have access to the full paper. But as usual, it’s an Acta Astronautica publication and there is no free view available. I found out about the study via the Universe Today. 
It’s an interesting topic for a neuro-psychologist to explore. De la Torre concludes that due to a poor understanding of the science of the cosmos, the university students would end up relying on political and religious figures to mediate their response to First Contact. The report recommends that we do not attempt to contact extraterrestrials, because we are not ready. De la Torre concludes that education is the key to preparation.

I can understand the concern that Dr. De la Torre has in regards to mediators. An uneducated public could be easily swayed by fear messaging. Given the human condition, it does seem likely that politicians, religious groups and other organizations might spin First Contact in a way that gives them more power.

I think the only antidote to this problem would be an active and aggressive news media. If First Contact does indeed happen someday, the media will be critical in relaying information and providing perspective. Now, many folks involved in this subject matter have worries about how the media might handle First Contact. Those are legitimate concerns. One need only look to the CNN coverage of the search for Malaysian Flight 370. The speculation and hyperbole have been excessive and quite frankly, rather stupid. But it brings up an important point. The most dangerous situation in any media event is a lack of information. Speculation comes about when there is a mystery. The longer the mystery, the worse the speculation can become. I have called this phenomenon an information vacuum. It’s a big part of crisis communications. A crisis communicator must work quickly to provide facts, so that people don’t fill in the gaps with speculation.

How would this work in First Contact? I think the key is to have a well-considered plan for contact. And this is where it gets complicated. I don’t mean a plan for humans, but rather for aliens wishing to make contact with us. They would have to consider human crisis communication issues and have a plan to respond in a way that obviates the dangers inherent in high-stress situations. People assume that aliens would be so different from us that such considerations would be impossible. I think this is a naïve view. One would imagine that an extraterrestrial civilization with the technology needed to contact humans would also have the ability to study us, perhaps via the internet, if they had a probe of some sort. That research would be critical. But everything needed to plan a thoughtful, and hopefully successful, First Contact event is available on the internet. Would it take time to learn our languages, examine human psychology and understand sociology? Certainly. But if you are an alien civilization with advanced technology, you are used to doing the hard work, in whatever context that means for your particular extraterrestrial perspective. There would be no advantage in a hasty and poorly-prepared First Contact with humans, no matter what the agenda. I think aliens interested in contacting humans would likely prepare well.

How best to approach humans and how to make sure such a First Contact event is successful is a matter that could be studied today, using research and knowledge that humans have already collected. The human response has nothing to do with aliens. It has everything to do with human behavior.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with Dr. De la Torre, if his comments in the popular media are in fact representative of his paper. I think humans are ready. But the process is the key. Scientists must be front and center in the media, providing perspective and calming fears. Attempts by politicians and religious leaders to spin the situation for their own interests must be called out by the media, scientists and more enlightened leaders. In the end, the type of First Contact would be what could decide human reaction. All of these factors must be considered and unfortunately for us, it’s up to the aliens to do the work on the front end. Once the ball is rolling we will need to be ready, but I don’t think education will get us there. Now, I agree with Dr. De la Torre that an educated human population would be best. But we have everything in human society that we need to accomplish a positive First Contact right now. Those components just need to be used properly.

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