Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: The Power of Humanity

The wonder of discovering an extraterrestrial civilization will eventually lead to an examination of who we are as human beings. If we meet technologically advanced extraterrestrials we may feel inferior. We may fear extraterrestrials because they are different from us. We may be incredibly impressed and seek to emulate alien thought. However, the discussion of those issues will eventually lead back to who we are as humans. What is the power of humanity? What makes us proud to be human? What would we share with extraterrestrials as examples of what we are capable of: music, literature, visual arts, science, technology, philosophy? 

In the 1970s NASA sought to collect those very ideas on special discs that were placed on each of the Voyager space probes. They are now traveling outside of our solar system in interstellar space. Carl Sagan chaired the committee tasked to create the discs. Much of the information on the discs described our human biology and the physical makeup of our planet. Aside from the sciences, and an attempt to show how we view the world around us, there were also cultural depictions. Those included pictures of architecture, cities, and food. Music recordings ranged from Bach to Chuck Berry. These subjects, updated of course, might be similar to what we share with extraterrestrials if First Contact does occur someday. However, if the aliens are thoughtful and enterprising, they will have already seen much of that through our television transmissions flying through space or thanks to the Internet, if they have sent a probe to Earth orbit.

The bigger question is this: who are we? What would set us apart from other civilizations in the universe? I think we would inevitably turn to the basic, positive functions of human life: love, friendship, family, community, learning, creativity, communal progress, curiosity, religion, science and philosophy. That would, in turn, lead to questions: What about the negative aspects of humanity? Conflict is an inherent part of human existence. Just to live on this planet is a struggle. We could point to the institutions of government and religion as ways we attempt to join together and overcome conflict. And, of course, to be honest, we would have to share those same institutions as things that often drive us apart.

Despite horrific wars, daily violence, and conflict of all varieties, we are apparently thriving with 7.7 billion humans. We have built a large civilization. And as we have come to learn in recent years, that progress is not necessarily always a good thing. We are changing our planet in ways that nature did not intend, so much so that we face many new challenges. Climate change is impacting our weather and our coastal cities. Species extinction is at record levels and proceeding at an astonishing rate. We face the threat of ecological collapse. The threat of nuclear war hangs over our heads. Is this who we are- beings hell bent on dominating each and every square foot of planet Earth? Do we care nothing for other species? Do we care nothing about the future of coming generations of humans? Are we selfish creatures prone to self-aggrandizement?

Certainly all of those aspects of humanity are true to some extent. But let’s get back to the basic positive functions of human existence and focus on one in particular: love. Love may be quite unique in the universe. Perhaps extraterrestrial beings are already so closely connected to each other that they don’t even understand human differentiation and thus love? Or they could be so far advanced in technology to not even understand the concept of caring and love. So much of what I have described as human is the result of specific biological needs on this planet. Different biological needs on different planets would create not only different extraterrestrial biology, but also different alien psychology. This difference could be especially acute if aliens are machine-based artificial intelligence.

If love and friendship are so important to us, why do we so often dwell on conflict and division? Our existence in 2019 is beset by many challenges. It is difficult to support 7.7 billion humans. There are natural human behaviors that cause us to seek the best resources for ourselves and those closest to us, while leaving other people without. We struggle with how we govern ourselves and how we interact as communities. We are attempting to overcome the weight of our history.

Despite the news of the day, we continue to improve our lives. We generally live in a safer, healthier, and higher opportunity world than our ancestors. We face new challenges daily, and together we manage to overcome those challenges. We can find cures for disease and new ways to grow crops to feed more people. We have done these things for thousands of years. We continue to develop. How do we do that? We rely on love, friendship, family, community, learning, creativity, communal progress, curiosity, religion, science, and philosophy. And so I come back to the power of humanity. What is it that we can sum up as representing the human civilization? I think most of us would agree that it is love. Love, in it’s many forms, is the glue that holds our civilization together. Fred Rogers, of the TV show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, perhaps said it best:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

There are humans dedicated to helping war refugees. We send aid to other nations in times of famine and natural disaster. We rush to assist a person who has been hurt. We take these actions every day, and perhaps in far greater frequency than we take part in conflict and violence.

Our civilization is built on the good work of people- the so-called “common people” in every city and every nation on the planet. I would imagine that they are the great majority of humans on the planet. They are often not the most famous or the most powerful humans. They are certainly not perfect. They may do an awful thing one day and then turn around and do something good the next. But they will most likely be there in times of need. There are billions of people on planet Earth helping other people in one way or another. That is the power of humanity. And no matter what we learn about alien worlds, that essential nature of humanity is something we need to come back to when assessing this new perspective. Humans have the power of love. We can support each other and create tremendous change when we work together. We can overcome nearly any challenge imaginable, if we just believe in each other and understand that power. The only things holding us back are negative thinking, selfishness, and inaction. Critical thinking is essential. It shows you how to make things better. Negative thinking becomes a spiral to drag us down, either individually or collectively. We give up and succumb to the horrible. Love can pull us out of that hole. We have used it to do so throughout human history. Let us proudly show off our great human power to any extraterrestrial strangers we meet some day. And let us resolve to use it here on Earth to heal wounds and make our world better.

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Monday, May 6, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Humanity in Crisis

As I write this, it’s a lovely day outside: spring green, bright blue canopy overhead, fresh air, bees buzzing, and birds chirping. It certainly doesn’t seem like we are in crisis. However, scientific research continues to warn of massive changes in the ecological health of planet Earth. The latest is a United Nations report that combines many recent studies into a frightening summation. This lede is from the New York Times:

“Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.”

It’s tough to comprehend that statement given the beautiful day and abundant nature outside my window. And that’s the problem- these changes are occurring right under our noses. Unless we pay close attention we won’t see this disaster coming. It’s no longer a matter of worrying about the decline in elephant or rhinoceros populations, science shows that we are losing a huge amount of the insect population. One German study found a 75 percent decrease in the flying insect population in one region over the last 27 years. Insects are a foundational part of the Earth ecology.

It’s ridiculous to argue about what is responsible for all of these changes- it is humanity. There is no other logical conclusion supported by science. The damage is the result of a variety of human impacts: expanding human development, agriculture, livestock, the burning of fossil fuels, chemical use, and many other factors combined. The common element here is humanity. We are altering the planet in a way that we are only beginning to understand. And even if you don’t care about plant and animal life, the effects will likely produce devastating impacts to human lives. Agriculture may experience collapse in some regions. Animal and plant life is intermeshed in ways beyond our comprehension. Losing one species can alter many others. The end result could be crop decline and then human famine.

We have not even begun to tackle the problems at hand. That will take a comprehensive change in how humans live their lives- everything from how we travel and where we live, to what we eat. We can’t continue to live this way. We are fundamentally altering Earth in a way the planet cannot support.

The lovely day outside is part of the problem. Until people experience crop failure and famine, ecological collapse may not seem believable. If we wait until that happens the results will be devastating. Even if we started right now, and took these challenges seriously, the research points to devastating consequences. The only hope is to mitigate the horrible and deal with the results.

And yet there is probably more discussion about current movies and sporting teams today than there is of this topic. That is the definition of insanity. We are suffering from a human mass delusion. We see what we perceive as normal conditions and assume that it will always be this way. Even people who are beginning to feel the impact of climate change push it off as something long-term. Those of us in our later years may not suffer as much, but every generation after us will experience a significant degradation in quality of life. Poor people in vulnerable nations will be the first to be hurt. Climate change is already making life difficult for farmers in countries such as Guatemala. We may not recognize the U.S. border crisis as a climate change issue, but it is one factor creating the migration of people from Central and South America. That is only going to grow worse.

So, when do we take action? It may takes years for any significant change to take place given our complacency and the incentives to ignore the warnings. Imagine the pushback from fossil fuel producers, farmers, car companies, and makers of consumer goods? Politicians will need to lead the charge and yet all of those constituencies will be screaming at our leaders and fighting change at each and every step. It’s not just corporations that are responsible for the ignorance- most humans are not prepared to take the steps needed to mitigate climate and ecological change. It will require a fundamental alteration in how we live our lives. It will mean a sacrifice in lifestyle. We will have to make concessions and behave differently. That’s a tall order, especially for people in poorer nations who are already struggling to survive. You tell the taxi cab driver in Mumbai that he can’t drive that fuel wasting, carbon emitting, 1980s Toyota. And then tell his family who depend on that income. Will India buy electric cars for all? Will the United States government? And then, guess what? Your electric car is most likely fueled by a coal power plant. Figure that out.

I believe that the best hope for humanity is a “critical mass” event. Critical mass in this sense is “…a size, number, or amount large enough to produce a particular result.” We need something that can change the human perspective in a way that is stronger than all of the forces of complacency. It may happen someday due to cataclysm, or more likely a series of cataclysms, but perhaps a push from outside our little world could do the same? If an extraterrestrial civilization were to make itself known and give us advice, perhaps we would take action? That advice wouldn’t need to be some brilliant new technology. It could just be an acknowledgement that we have massive problems here on Earth. Extraterrestrials could take the data we have already collected and spit it back to us in ways we have not been able to do. Humans will need to solve their own problems, but we could sure use an objective point of view.

In the meantime, step outside and enjoy nature. Our days with our current ecology may be limited.


Thursday, May 2, 2019

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Those Who Scream the Loudest

There will be plenty of conversation in the wake of alien First Contact. It could range from simple debate to heated confrontations. If there is one thing we have learned about discourse in the last 30 years, it is that those who scream the loudest are often given the most attention by the news media. The reason is simple: controversy. Controversy is the life blood of the news business and the parts of social media not dedicated to cats. Take a look at what is trending on Twitter. It is most likely a controversy. Do a check list next time you watch TV news- aside from murders and disasters, what takes up the most TV time? Controversy. We love the stuff. Controversy can usually be seen on a spectrum with poles on either end. Let’s take the Colin Kaepernick football kneeling debate. People with opinions on one pole support his efforts, believing that it is important to highlight police shootings of black Americans. Individuals on the other pole think that kneeling during the National Anthem is an affront to Veterans and the entire nation. Both sides scream quite loudly. And it is a legitimate debate. I am not implying that the people on opposite sides of an issue should not be paid any attention. However, I do think that their rhetoric often drowns out more moderate viewpoints. Those moderate considerations could provide a better path to understanding, and perhaps a resolution.

Alien First Contact is likely to be controversial. At the very least, there would be people who are concerned about such contact, fearing an alien attack or extraterrestrial dominance of humans. Others would likely consider Frist Contact our salvation and welcome aliens with open arms. The people at both of those opposite poles would likely scream their view points, perhaps in public protests. Violence could erupt. Many parts of human society could be brought into the debate, including politics, religion, culture, and economics. That would make for quite a bit of noise. What would happen to moderate, perhaps majority, opinions in such a situation? They would likely be washed away in the flood of controversy. Media outlets won’t want to cover the quiet majority. They will focus on the raucous polar extremes.

In the wake of high-information First Contact, there would need to be an effort to find out majority and minority nuanced views. It will have to be an intentional process, since there is no ready mechanism in place for gathering such information. The media usually responds to the latest debate laid out before them. Journalists are not very good about applying introspection and context. Taking the pulse of humanity would be a job for survey science and sadly, survey science is dying. The primary culprit is changing communication mediums. Telephones were once the established base of survey science. However, as cell phones took over, the public listing of phone numbers disappeared, taking away access to contacts that could easily be randomized. Human attitudes towards opinion polling also suffered from abuse. Politicians began using push-polling to influence voters under the guise of a survey. Web polls are tough to make scientifically accurate. The old method of telephone polling was done in a way to ensure a representative sample. It is tough to do that via the Internet. There are very few opportunities for random selection of subjects.

Academics would need to rally in the wake of alien First Contact. It would be critical that humans know what other humans are thinking. And not just for one country or a few countries. We would want to know what humans across cultures and geographical areas are thinking about alien First Contact.  Colleges and universities can be found in just about every nation on Earth. Academic leaders could take the opportunity to conduct emergency surveys in whatever methods could best be used. Data mining of the Internet could be a huge help. Research groups could monitor search words and other Internet data. What is trending on Twitter could be a good guide for what needs further study.  I have often said that social science would need to lead the way if Direct First Contact does occur. Political leaders would need to know what their constituents are thinking. World leaders could use the information to listen to the people, and then take the steps to carry out the public will.  We could even use the results to better communicate with humans. There would likely be a great deal of misinformation After First Contact. Polling could help determine where there was misinformation, confusion or unnecessary worry. Once identified, a plan could be developed to respond with factual information.

Listening will be critical if First Contact does occur someday. For social science academics, this would be a drop everything and respond moment of emergency research. That’s not how higher education institutions and research think-tanks usually operate. To be relevant, they would need to adopt the position of emergency research first responders. Get the data and get it out to the public. Peer reviews, and the resulting debate, would have to be done on the fly. I understand that is problematic, but in the first weeks, months and years of First Contact, a necessary evil. We won’t want crappy research, but simple and effective research done quickly. That quick response doesn’t preclude social scientists carrying out more careful long-term research that would follow the usual route of academic journals and peer review. That will still be important.

The reputation of those colleges and universities could cause the media to pay attention to these quick response studies and surveys. Perhaps then, a balance could be restored. Listening to extremists would be important. However, not at the expense of drowning out the majority of humans. Knee jerk responses and dangerous actions could harm humans for many generations to come. A rational discussion would be necessary to plot a path forward.

I have suggested that the United Nations, and each individual nation, would need to have a group of professionals assigned to listening to the public. They could bring in such poll results and other research to help the UN, Security Council, and individual General Assembly nations set the agenda for response.

We won’t be able to rely on our usual ways of doing things in a high-information First Contact situation. We will have to respond quickly to immediate needs and also keep looking forward. That will take both organization and significant effort.

Photo by Iñaki del Olmo on Unsplash

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Extraterrestrial Contact: Annoying Movie Aliens

Judging from the movies, aliens are a real pain in the butt. If they aren’t busy destroying our planet they are annoyingly mysterious, designing puzzles for us to ponder, and scaring us half to death in the process. The latest rendition is courtesy of the TV show “Nightflyers.” An extraterrestrial spaceship is found in deep space and it doesn’t respond to any messages. Humans send a spaceship to meet the ship, in hopes that the aliens or artificial intelligence running the ship will provide us the technology to help Earth cope with widespread illness and other issues caused by over-population and climate change. Throughout the first episodes, the aliens remain an enigma. They sometimes present challenges, such as sending back a probe the Earthlings have sent to them, and combining it with biological material, but with no word of explanation. Such a plot makes perfect sense for television. It builds suspense and gives the characters some challenges to overcome.  In reality, those type of actions would be a waste of time and energy.

It seems hard to believe that aliens would arrive in our solar system or make contact without a specific reason for doing so. Now, perhaps the aliens would want to be left alone. If they didn’t have the technology to stay unobserved, one would figure they could at least simply push us away or blow up our spacecraft? It seems like a lot of work to torture humans with riddles.

The movie “Arrival” had much the same premise- mysterious aliens and challenges for humans to understand. However, that film explained it quite neatly. The aliens presented the challenges to bring humans together and to help us understand their language, which also taught us a whole different way of understanding the universe. I can accept that aliens might have a different way of reaching out to us than we might expect, but deliberately trying to confuse us seems like a lot of work. Why couldn’t the aliens in “Arrival” have simply told us they had a message for the whole world, and then explained their way of language and thinking? I can’t imagine we wouldn’t listen to such an explanation.

If aliens have developed the technology to come to our solar system or contact us in some other manner, they would be good problem solvers. You don’t conquer interstellar travel by being obtuse. The idea of an elegant solution, the simplest and most direct way to solve a problem, seems likely to be a universal goal. Thus one would imagine that if aliens set out to greet humans someday they would do so in the most effective way possible. They would find the most elegant solution. They would have a reason for wanting to make contact. They would do the planning needed to meet their goals as efficiently as possible. It would be easy to research human beings. A probe in Earth orbit could link to our Internet by tapping into a satellite. The human web would provide all the information necessary to learn our language, understand our society, and investigate human psychology. Now there could be some culture gaps along the way, but a basic understanding of humans would seem to be a pre-requisite for saying hello, if aliens are the ones who reach out. If we reach out first, via a long distance communication, then it could be a very complex and involved process of learning languages and establishing even basic understanding.

Weird aliens are great for drama, but not for getting things done. I would imagine that if we do make alien First Contact someday, the aliens will be very, very different from us. However, if they have the technology to travel to our solar system, it would seem likely they would have the smarts to do research and acquire an understanding of humans before saying hello. Let’s hope so. I hate riddles.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Extraterrestrial Contact: Climate Change Response

Climate change is occurring on planet Earth. The only question is how we should respond. I suggested in a previous post that there is a need to balance our society. That includes creating a Steady State Economy that is bound by environmental necessities. Here are some steps that would need to be taken.

Move Military Budgets to Climate Change Response

The top 15 military nations in the world spend a combined $1,739 billion on defense. The defense budget of the United States is one third of that total: $610 million. The cost of climate change response will be staggering and every nation on the planet will be impacted. It makes no logical sense to spend money to defend ourselves against each other, when there is a much greater threat in climate change. Military budgets should be turned to carbon reductions, climate resiliency, and disaster response. Military service people could be moved to those areas of need. Their expertise would be valuable in many situations. Climate change should be declared a national emergency by every nation on Earth. Arms and technology companies can turn their business towards environmental response. There would be much money to be made. This would be disruptive to the economy at first, but quite simply we have no choice. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to implement. Instead of gradual change, waiting would create the need for immediate change, and that would be much more disruptive.

Manage the Movement of Humans

Climate change will render some geographical locations uninhabitable due to temperature, sea level rise, and famine. Humans will need to leave some areas and settle in new locations. That may sound like a negative for regions not suffering as much from climate change, as they would likely receive the refugees. But it doesn’t have to be a negative. There is concern over the decline in population growth in developed nations. Leaders are worried that there will not be a working population large enough to support the aging population in developed countries. Immigration is an obvious solution. That fuels fears because immigration is a mess in much of the world. However, it is not problematic by its very nature. It is problematic because we lack an effective system for migration on a large scale. Denying entry to immigrants and creating huge refugee camps hurts everyone and it is not sustainable. Developed nations need a workforce and immigrants from high-impact climate change areas could provide that workforce. The key is to have a fair system for resettlement that doesn’t have negative consequences for the native population, and ensure that immigrants are treated equitably and not exploited.
Share the Response to Problems

People love to tout their country’s role in the global economy and yet if you mention a problem in a far-off nation it is someone else’s problem. National borders often can’t constrain issues in a country. The refugee crisis in Europe is a prime example. Syria and other nations experience violence and economic collapse. People flee. They have to go somewhere. That leads to illegal immigration and refugee camps.  If we don’t think of these conflicts in a broader context we hurt ourselves. It’s the same in the United States, where migrants are flooding the border as they escape troubled nations in South and Central America. A thoughtful and effective response would engage the cooperation of all countries involved. And yet we respond with unilateral patches to the border.

Control Waste
We are drowning in our own waste. It is floating in giant patches in our oceans. It contaminates our drinking water and food sources. Developing nations are the most responsible for wholesale dumping of waste in oceans, but developed countries are just to blame. The United States is the number one waste creator in the world. We have sent our so-called recycling overseas for years, not wanting to know what is done with it. Now China no longer will take the world's recycling. Humans have a huge waste issue. We must develop more biodegradable materials and advance recycling in terms of technology and infrastructure. There is no reason for the United States and other developed nations not to have a robust recycling system that actually works. It will take disruptive government action and a lot of effort.  

Support Education for All 
Education has become a necessity in the global workforce. The number of low-skill jobs is declining and the need for skilled workers is great. While this has been most studied in the United States, it seems likely to be an issue worldwide as technology grows in developing nations. The Brookings Institution examined the issue. The authors suggest educational solutions. They also point out the need for equal access to education. A more responsive educational system could train workers for future employment, but it needs to be affordable and easily accessed by most people.

These suggestions may sound like science fiction right now, but they won’t for long. Climate change problems are growing worse. Environmental circumstances will soon make these actions inevitable.

And once again, why discuss this on an extraterrestrial contact blog? We can’t have much of a relationship with aliens if our world is a mess. And while we may look to extraterrestrials as saviors who can fix all of our problems, that is both naïve and dangerous. We face these issues no matter what the reality of intelligent extraterrestrial life. If we are alone in the universe we need to solve our own problems. If there are alien civilizations inhabiting far-off planets we need to solve our own problems. If aliens are watching us we need to solve our own problems. If aliens visit our solar system someday we will still need to solve our own problems.
Photo by L.W. on Unsplash

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Dangers of a Growth Based Society

I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Cranes dot the horizon and construction is everywhere. We take pride in that growth. And yet we know what comes with it- increased traffic, higher rents, and congestion. Part of the joy in seeing a city grow is knowing that the growth is linked to the economy of the region and thus employment opportunities are abundant. We also like having a wide range of medical care; a choice of schools; skilled professionals in many fields; more restaurants and amusements. Inevitably we compare ourselves to other cities and decide that we are winning. But is that rational in the long-term?

The economic health of any region is currently judged by growth: growth of the workforce, growth of wages, growth of domestic product, and growth of trade. Countries need to keep growing to survive in the global economy. And it’s not just nations. Individuals want consumption growth to support a better lifestyle.  We live in a growth-based society. Sadly, there are indications that uncontrolled growth is killing the planet that supports us. Climate Change is a dire emergency as we deal with extreme weather and sea level rise. We are facing an ecological disaster as we lose species at an alarming rate. Growth and consumption are causing many severe problems. Exploiting fossil fuels without control may produce short-term monetary and employment growth for an economy, but what about the long-term impact of fossil fuel use to climate change? And that is just one example of growth causing damage.

A few economists are debating the value of uncontrolled growth. Michael Spence, the Nobel Prize winning economist at Stanford University, questions if measurements of growth can capture the thing humans most care about: well-being.

So, what do we do next? Over the years, environmentalists have suggested that we need moderation in consumption and increased control over waste. Not using straws at a restaurant and recycling are two small examples. The idea is that if we increase efficiencies and reduce waste we can have less of a negative impact on the environment. That makes sense, but does the traditional environmentalism go far enough? The world population continues to grow. That means more consumption and waste.

Given that we are a growth-based society, how can we achieve population control and not suffer economic collapse? We need more people working and consuming to fuel our economy. And besides, there is a matter of equity. People in Third World nations just want to participate in the lifestyle that many people in First World countries enjoy. They want better food, cars, electronics, and larger homes. They want to consume more. And who are we to deny them the benefits of growth?

The answer may be in balance. Humans need to find a way to live healthy and rewarding lives while preserving the environment to whatever degree is still possible. We need to make radical technological changes to respond to climate disruption and ecological issues. We must learn to live within our means.  We need a balanced society.

The term Steady State Economy is often used in connection with this idea of balance. It is a society where population and consumption are stabilized to be sustainable. Balance may sound like a passive response, but at the scale we are discussing, it would require a great deal of effort and ingenuity to achieve. Balance is currently discussed in many different ways, including sustainability and low-impact living, but it should include all facets of life including economic, social, and familial considerations. The balance comes from determining what we need, not what we want, and how to achieve that in a way that does not harm the Earth.

Economist Kate Raworth with Oxford University proposes Doughnut Economics. It is graphic representation that shows the reconfiguring of the world economy within the framework of our environment. Simply put: proper consideration of economic development means taking into account the consequences of those actions, both in terms of the environment and the impact to humans. The Raworth balance comes in the form of a circle or doughnut with an ecological ceiling that we should not go beyond and a social foundation that we don’t allow people to fall beneath. She shows the spikes that certain human activities entail, taking us beyond the ceiling of sustainability. One example she uses is the production of beef. There is a staggering amount of resources required to support cattle (land, feed, chemicals) and pollution (nitrogen primarily) that production creates. Cutting back on beef consumption could help to re-balance the situation. If you don’t think that’s a radical idea, just ask the cattle industry.

Laurie Kaye Nijaki at the University of Michigan also calls for a green economy.

“The green economy aims to widen the view of economic growth or progress through an integration of environmental considerations in the development process. It reframes growth as “green growth” and thus limits development by taking into account quality of life considerations that are hinged on environmental quality today and into the future. In this way, the metrics for evaluating development choices and their successes is changed to one that seeks to reference the long-run environmental effects of economic action and inaction.”

Big ideas always face hard realities. There is currently a world-wide recycling crisis. China stopped taking recycling and they were the primary market for the entire planet. More and more municipalities are dropping recycling because they can’t find anyone who will take it. Traditional economics won’t work. Recycling likely needs intrusive government action to make it profitable. And that would increase costs for consumers and irritate the large waste companies. Not an easy challenge. And that is one of many issues a green or Steady State economy would face.

What does all of this have to do with extraterrestrial First Contact? Our Earth-bound problems make us a much less attractive candidate for an extraterrestrial relationship. Why should aliens waste their time contacting a species that is driving itself to extinction? If we can’t manage our own planet, why would they want us out in the universe exploring and perhaps wrecking other planets? Solving these problems may be an essential milestone for civilizations to overcome and other beings may be waiting to see how we do. Or it could take extraterrestrials intervening to help us consider a new way of living here on planet Earth. The history of an extraterrestrial civilization could provide insight for moving forward here on Earth.

Photo by Shea Rouda on Unsplash

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Four Levels of an Extraterrestrial Relationship

This title may sound like a funny article about dating aliens, but please consider it in a different way. We hope to make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization someday for one primary reason: we, as the human civilization, want to communicate with them. That would be a relationship, albeit a really complex relationship. A relationship sounds cozy, but in reality it should not imply any positive or negative attributes. We would need to be careful at any level of contact with members of an extraterrestrial civilization.

That given, aliens may want nothing to do with us. Or they may not want to disturb our fragile human institutions by making contact. If they did decide to talk to us, communicating with them could be quite complicated. However, if we were able to communicate well, such interaction could be categorized in terms of how much information they are willing to share, and the impact that information could have on the human civilization.

Level One- This would be the most basic form of relationship. An extraterrestrial civilization would simply tell us their intent in contacting us, and whether they come in peace or with a threat. That intent could just be to say hello. Perhaps they would also inform us if there are any other extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe. In this level of interaction they may not share much beyond those basic points. This would be tough for humanity to handle. Speculation would run wild. The lack of information could fuel reactionary behavior. Some form of preparatory defense may make sense.

Level Two- In this scenario, the level of information flow increases as the extraterrestrials share their history. They could also have a more substantive reason for contacting us. This means they are trying to accomplish something in the relationship. They could be warning us about another civilization or giving us advice on how to handle our current environmental challenges. And with greater information we would need to use greater caution. We would always want to ask ourselves why extraterrestrials are doing something. That would involve a close examination of their stated reason and an investigation as to what might be a hidden agenda.  I am not suggesting full paranoia and a reactionary response After First Contact, but a little paranoia is quite practical in unknown situations. As in Level One, some form of preparatory defense may make sense.

Level Three- This would involve extraterrestrials actively sharing science and technology insights, perhaps at a rudimentary level at first. It would necessitate the gatekeeper framework for communication that I recently discussed in the Initial Working Groups posts. One would assume that at this level of information sharing there would be less of a direct threat from traveling extraterrestrials. However, the possibility of manipulation through cooperation would increase. We would also need to be careful about what information we receive and how we disseminate it to the world population. The impacts to our society, both positive and negative, would increase with each bit of information we receive, even if extraterrestrial intentions are benevolent.

Level Four- This level would be an expansion of Level Three. It would necessitate the need for a much more robust framework of gatekeepers. It could start with the Initial Working Groups, but eventually need to expand to include long-term solutions. This type of communication could have a significant impact on the human civilization, perhaps leading us in new directions as a species. Humanity would need to be aware of this dynamic and create safeguards for how that information sharing would progress. With a high degree of extraterrestrial involvement in our civilization, we could become very different beings in a few hundred years. We need to think about that now.  There would be a high risk of reliance on extraterrestrial intervention. We would need to decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing for the human civilization, and take measures. The possibility of extraterrestrial manipulation of humans would increase dramatically in a Level Four relationship. 

The use of words such as sharing and relationship may make this discussion seem warm and fuzzy. It is not. The decisions humans make in the very first days of alien First Contact could have a profound impact on humans for generations to come. Human beings would need to start an extraterrestrial relationship with eyes wide open, and that means applying critical thinking to each and every step we take.
Photo by Guillaume Jaillet on Unsplash

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Extraterrestrial Contact: Do It Ourselves

I think one reason people hope for alien contact is the possibility that humans could receive technological help, especially scientific ideas that would allow us to solve big challenges, such as climate change and the need for clean, high-power energy sources.  Such information sharing sounds great at first glance, but if you consider the possibilities, it becomes a more complex issue.

Why would we want alien information? If we discover a far-off signal, extraterrestrials could be of advanced technological development, at our level of technology or even lower. No matter what, they would likely have a unique take on the workings of the universe and that alone could prove interesting, if not helpful. If aliens come to our solar system then they would clearly be more technologically advanced. That is the scenario I am considering here.

There is no reason to think that visiting aliens would want to help at all. Giving us their technology could make us a threat. But let’s say the extraterrestrials were willing to share, would we want to take them up on the offer of technological help? I think there are two good reasons to turn down, or at least closely examine, such a proposal. Receiving alien technology could make us dependent on their technology. Unless they take a lot of time to explain their entire system of science from the ground up, we would simply be receiving devices and processes. We would have no foundation, which would provide the tools to fix or change such technology. We would be dependent on the aliens. I don’t think that would be a safe or practical position for humanity. Extraterrestrials could use such methods to keep us constricted in development and confined to our solar system. They could even use it as leverage to control our society.

The other reason to be wary of technological help from aliens I have discussed previously. The human system of science builds on itself. Our current level of scientific knowledge comes from the work of hundreds of thousands of humans throughout history. Observations have been made. Questions have been developed. Hypotheses have led to experiments. Results have been analyzed, communicated and refined. That scientific process, for any specific hypothesis, can involve many researchers and many institutions working for many years. Along the way, we use the data to discover new ideas and follow new paths. Science rarely travels on a direct route to success and it’s not easy or pretty in the making. Receiving spoon-fed knowledge from extraterrestrials could threaten to undermine our system of science and weaken the entire structure. Unless each and every piece of alien knowledge was deciphered and then carefully integrated into our scientific system, alien knowledge could create holes in our disciplines. A flood of alien scientific information could wash away our scientific foundations all together.

Receiving information about alien history, and the history of other civilizations in the universe, could be safer. We could even learn about the make-up of the universe from the extraterrestrial perspective in such a way that we could adapt their ideas into our scientific system. But we would want to be very intentional about that process and carefully evaluate each step. And we would have to judge whether the aliens were telling us the truth. Another possibility for rendering humans less of a threat would be sharing incorrect or confusing information.

This entire train of thought is based on the premise that aliens would be in a physical position to share a great deal of information with us. That type of communication would most likely require close proximity. In reality, if an extraterrestrial civilization is discovered in a far-off galaxy, communication could be difficult, taking many years to send even a single message. However, at this point the entire question of extraterrestrial intelligence is pure conjecture, so I do think it’s helpful to consider many different possibilities. If close-proximity, high-information alien First Contact does occur someday, humans will be quite excited, and we could make decisions before thinking them through. Not that we ever do such things. It would seem prudent to take a deep breath and ask ourselves some important questions before reacting. The welfare of future generations could depend on our caution.

Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Extraterrestrial Contact: Trust

“Trust is one of the most pervasive - and perhaps for that reason least noticed - aspects of social life. We need it in order to live at all. As the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has remarked, 'A complete absence of trust would prevent [one] even getting up in the morning.” – GeoffreyHosking (2002).

“Trust is a big part of human interaction. It is perhaps so big a part of how we deal with each other that it may be taken for granted. Trust is seen to include both emotional and cognitive dimensions and to function as a deep assumption underwriting social order.” Lewis and Weigert (1985)

Trust is important to humans. And that begs the question: what role would human trust play in interactions with extraterrestrials, if we make alien First Contact someday? These authors argue that trust is a social reality. What happens when our human reality collides with an alien reality?

Perhaps the closest we have come to considering the matter of trust in a non-human scenario is a discussion of Artificial Intelligence. Researchers Cristiano Castelfranchi and Yao-Hua Tan (2001) pioneer that concept in “The Role of Trust and Deception in Virtual Societies.” This is from the abstract: “The authors argue that it is important to analyse the role of trust and deception in interactions between agents in virtual societies. In particular, in hybrid situations where artificial agents interact with human agents it is important that those artificial agents can reason about the trustworthiness and deceptive actions of the human counterpart.”

Developing a trust framework for AI to interact with humans can help us better understand trust from an alien perspective. There is the possibility that aliens would value trust. It is an integral part of the development of the human civilization. It would make sense that trust could be an important part of an alien civilization. Humans use trust for essential parts of our society: trade, communal living, and governance. Could aliens have developed a complex society without trust? The answer is yes. Just one Star Trek example: Aliens could have a hive mind, which unlike individuals resorting to trust would involve an implicit understanding of each creature as part of the whole hive. Trust may seem odd to such extraterrestrials. Even if aliens do value trust, the concept of trust may be quite different from ours. Trust expectations change from human culture to culture here on Earth. While both Chinese and Americans value trust, they act on it in different ways.

This goes to the issue of alien thinking. Many researchers argue that our biology helps to define our way of thinking and posit it would likely be the same for aliens. Very different biology could mean a very different way of thinking. That could have a big impact on the concept of trust. And even if the aliens we meet some day are of artificial intelligence they are likely to have been influenced by the biological creatures that created the AI. Humans are currently designing AI to imitate human thinking. It seems plausible that aliens would do the same.
I could sort out these various possibilities for some time, since we have no idea what intelligent aliens might be like or if they exist at all. But there are some key points we can glean from this discussion.
If aliens contact us first, hopefully they would take the opportunity to examine our psychology and sociology before doing so. Those insights regarding trust would be important. They could help aliens design communication to meet human needs.
That then leads to another issue: Humans need to be wary in any First Contact situation. Just because aliens understand how to build trust with us, doesn’t mean they are not deceiving us. We would have no history of extraterrestrial culture to consider and, in fact, no data at all. We would have to learn as we go. That means caution would be necessary at every step. Crafty aliens could find a myriad of ways to deceive us and control us. I prefer to stay optimistic in considering alien First Contact, but cautiously optimistic. That means moving forward slowly and with great deliberation. Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
Ultimately, anything we do in an alien First Contact situation would require some level of trust on our part and on their part. We will have to do what humans have done for thousands of years: observe, learn, take action, evaluate results, and refine. We can only hope the aliens will be doing the same. Perhaps then we can develop a real trust together.

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