Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: Climate Change and Hard Decisions – We Need Help

If there are members of an extraterrestrial civilization studying planet Earth, we need their help. We have reached a crisis point with our environment and we are not taking the needed actions. Alien assistance doesn’t have to be technological. We need a massive kick in the collective human behind to take climate change seriously and take action. Communication and insight from extraterrestrials could change human priorities.

The UN International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) issued a report this week that summarizes the effects of global climate change. We are currently experiencing a one degree Celsius global temperature increase since 1880. The UN report forecasts the potential effects of a 1.5 degree increase. The findings are alarming. At 1.5 degree increase, the report estimates 10 million more people will suffer from permanent flooding. Another several hundred million will experience climate related risk and poverty. That’s what we are facing in the next 22 years. It could be even worse. That temperature rise by 2040 could be higher.

While many nations are taking the threats posed by climate change seriously, few are taking action at the levels needed. It is a low priority in the budget considerations for countries across the globe, including the largest and wealthiest nations. The world appears to be waiting for the United States government to take significant action. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Humans need to take action on two fronts. The first is preparation. The second is mitigation.

Climate change preparation is most often thought of as flood control for coastal cities. While that would certainly be part of the needed action, it may not be the greatest need. We have the technology for flood control. The Dutch have been trying to prepare us for the inevitable by sharing their expertise (and paving the way for huge Dutch private industry contracts). Hoboken, New Jersey is one of the first American cities to put Netherlands technology into action. Dozens of other cities will need to follow. But let’s face it- the cost involved will be enormous. It is not feasible that all coastal cities and villages across the globe be saved. Some people will need to move and it shouldn’t just be the poor moving out of sea rise inundation zones. People in expensive homes will need to move. We will need to prioritize funding for the greatest impact to the largest number of people. That will take hard decisions. The primary United States disaster agency, FEMA, is currently in a cycle of disaster response and rebuilding. Many are questioning the wisdom of that process. The fact that we are just starting to consider these initial steps of change, and facing stiff opposition even then, is an indication of the enormity of the human dilemma.

Climate Change could force millions of people to move. A 2015 UN report shows that between 2008 and 2015 more than 26 million people were displaced by climate and weather-related disasters. Those numbers are expected to increase dramatically. Where will these people go? How will we take care of them? Those will be hard decisions and they need to be researched and planned for now. Nationalism, a trend in many nations, decreases international cooperation, and thus the ability of humans to combine resources to tackle climate change issues. Mass migration is likely to intensify those strains and lead to conflict. This is the warning for those who favor nationalism: it is in your best interest to tackle climate change now, before the masses are forming at your borders.

My point is that humans currently don’t have the collective will to get this done. It seems likely we will wait until the next crisis and respond singly to that event, and the next one, and the next, and so on, for many years to come. As those crises pile up, the overarching problems will only grow worse. We need to make hard decisions and we need to make them now.

Mitigation is similarly troubling. It involves decreasing the burning of fossil fuels and the human caused emissions of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. The cutting down of trees is also a cause of global warming. Trees absorb carbon dioxide. Without mitigation, we could be facing a 2 degree global temperature rise. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference, but it would have a massive impact to our world, far beyond that of a 1.5 degree level.

So, why do we need aliens? The answer is simple: to encourage humans to take climate change seriously. We apparently don’t want to listen to human scientists and environmentalists. Perhaps an alien voice could help. I am not suggesting we hope for extraterrestrial intervention that will solve our problems. We will have to solve our own issues. We have lived on this planet for thousands of years. We have hundreds of years of scientific research and technological development- specifically designed for the conditions on planet Earth. Aliens would have none of that experience. Humans can’t prevent climate change. We are experiencing it now. However we can prepare for the impact and mitigate the severity of that change. We need a massive shift in perspective to get us moving.
Photo by Tom Strecker on Unsplash

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Initial Working Groups Defined

In my last post, I proposed that high information extraterrestrial First Contact would require safeguards. I suggested a set of working groups. These would be composed of experts in many different areas who are charged with learning alien science and alien history. They would then figure out ways to incorporate that information into the human sciences and the wider human society. These Initial Working Groups would need to be implemented immediately. They should be made up of people from across the globe and from many different backgrounds. However expertise would be the primary measure of appointment. The appointees should not come from United Nations staff or be employed by any government. They would need to take a leave of absence from whatever business or institution they worked for. They would need to be paid to avoid influence and corruption. The groups should be only temporarily active, perhaps for a term of two years, while the United Nations General Assembly worked on a long-term framework.

Here is a list of the Initial Working Groups that I think might be needed. I break them up into two sections- internal groups and external groups. Internal groups are focused inward at the information coming from aliens, and external groups focus on the bridge with human society.

Internal Groups:

The Appointment Group: This would be the committee on committees, charged with reviewing and appointing members to the other groups. I suggest that this could be done by the UN Security Council, joined by scientists in each of the critical fields. Science would be at the forefront of the discussion and it would be important for scientists to be well-represented.

The Relationship Group: This would be the primary communication group to interact with aliens, involved in all of the top level actions of information exchange. This should be made up primarily of scientists and not just from the physical sciences, but also the social sciences. The members would need to be generalists, able to consider issues over a broad areas of general expertise.

The Science Bridge: A group that decides which information should be reviewed by the different field groups, as discussed below.

The Field Groups: They should be formed to represent each of these physical sciences: Astronomy & Astrophysics, Chemistry, Crystallography, Mathematics & Statistics, Nanotechnology, Physics and Polymer Science; along with some of the social sciences, specifically economics, religion, and history.

The Future for Humanity Group: These appointees will examine any information that the field groups deem safe to communicate with the human public. They will look at the long-term impact to humanity of such disclosures, outside of the impact to the particular field in question. The hope is that they may spot problems that the more focused scientists might miss. This group could be made up of anthropologists and social scientists considering current human opinions and possible reactions in human society.

The Watchdog Group: This group would be charged with keeping an eye on the other groups. That would include rooting out leaks, corruption and influence issues. This Watchdog Group would have much power, which means it needs to report to the UN Security Council, but also maintain a measure of independence.

External Groups:

The Governmental Group: This group would be charged with direct contact with the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.

The Security Group: They would work with the governmental group, paying particular attention to issues that could impact human security.

The Communications Group: This group would consider how best to relay information to the public, when the other groups have determined what information should be shared. Appointees should come from social science fields, such as communications, international relations, economics and also communicators (reporters or media members) well-versed in the physical sciences.

The Listening Group: They would keep their attention focused on the reactions of humans and work closely with the Future for Humanity Group. They would consider individual and group concerns with First Contact, including fringe viewpoints. They would hold listening sessions and, if necessary, public hearings.

The groups must be allowed to act independently once they are filled with appointees. They should be small groups, perhaps no more than 11 people, designed in odd numbers for voting. There should be a chair of each group, decided by the appointees themselves. Once set into place, the United Nations would need to work with the Governmental Group on ideas and issues. There should be no contact allowed with the groups by governments, higher education institutions and businesses. Independence must be protected.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: The Initial Working Groups

High information extraterrestrial First Contact would require safeguards. It would be unwise to simply open the floodgates and let alien information flow freely to all of humanity. Why? Aliens with advanced technology would likely have a very different perspective on the workings of the universe. We would need to be taught to understand their system of knowledge. Once we did have the information, in a form we could understand, we would need to consider the impact that information would have on our sciences; our academic institutions; and our business community. Alien information could be very disruptive to human society. Now granted, aliens may not want to share their information. If they did share, though, we would need a system in place to handle that information transfer. Such a framework would require a bureaucracy.

The term bureaucracy is often used in the pejorative sense because it can make things in our daily lives much tougher than they need to be.  Anyone who has dealt with city zoning or codes can understand the frustration. However, there is a positive form of bureaucracy. Things cannot be done on a mass scale without some form of organization. It would be frustrating to come up with a novel solution for each and every need. We establish bureaucracy to carry out a process with efficiency and fairness. There are rules and guidelines that are followed. That helps to protect us from unwanted outcomes.

Extraterrestrial contact would require some form of bureaucracy. Initially it could be as simple as determining who carries out basic communication with aliens. It would need to grow from there, especially if there is high information transfer planned between aliens and humans. The initial bureaucracy would need to be established quickly. The United Nations is the only human institution designed to represent most of the world nations. As such, it would be integral in any alien First Contact situation. And yet some of the most criticized bureaucracy on Earth is United Nations based. So, how can the UN provide a platform for alien communication without creating a bureaucratic monster? That would be something for humans to consider in the long term. It would be a matter for the General Assembly and representing nations, to determine. In the short term, we would need an effective and efficient system of communication, and safeguards to protect the human civilization. I suggest that a set of working groups should be implemented immediately After First Contact. Those groups would consist of temporary appointments of experts in specific areas. They would be alien first responders, of sorts. The key would be to create these groups and appoint these experts quickly. That would need to be done by a small group of people; perhaps the UN Security Council? It would be important for the expert groups to be diverse. Clearly expertise would need to lead the way, but sex, race, age and background would need to be considered. It would also be easy to appoint people just from the world superpowers, and ignore smaller or less established nations. I have formed a list of experts that could be called upon. However, it is a very narrow group of those most involved in extraterrestrial intelligence, and human technology development issues.

These temporary groups, let’s call them the Initial Working Groups, would consider the information extraterrestrials offer, determine what was safe and ready to be communicated, and then how best distribute that information. I must, once again, stress the temporary nature of such a framework. Having the Initial Working Groups would provide time for a more robust system to be developed, subject to vigorous debate, and eventual approval by the UN General Assembly.

There would be those who argue against alien information control and that viewpoint is understandable. Transparency and openness is often the best route in many human circumstances. However, this particular circumstance would be unlike anything we have previously encountered. It comes with high risk and many potential threats. Going slowly doesn’t mean that the wider population of humanity won’t eventually receive all of the information aliens are willing to share. It simply gives us the framework to consider the impact of such information before it is released. 

Appointees to the Initial Working Groups would be subject to a great deal of pressure. You can imagine the power an individual would have with access to alien information before the rest of the world. It would be important for members to take a leave of absence from any business or academic employment. They would need to be paid to prevent corruption. The appointees would need to sign non-disclosure papers. That may concern some people, but the emphasis on non-disclosure would be to prevent the release of alien information in leaks. Any debate about the make-up or actions of such a working group would need to be open to full public scrutiny. Appointees should have the ability to comment on organizational issues. There would also need to be a separate watchdog group formed, to make sure the rules were being followed.

In my next post I will provide some thoughts as to what Initial Working Groups would be needed.

Photo by geraldo stanislas on Unsplash

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: Human Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) could be a big issue in extraterrestrial First Contact. The first aliens we meet may be mechanical creations controlled by artificial intelligence. Thus far on this blog I have considered primarily the alien side of artificial intelligence: but what of human AI developments? Tad Friend has an excellent piece in the New Yorker that explores worries over the rise of human designed AI.

Researchers use three primary terms to describe human AI:

-Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI) is the term used to describe technology such as Apple’s Siri and self-driving cars. We have this in varying degrees of intricacy now.

-Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is defined as being at the level of human intelligence. It is the goal of many companies and institutions currently working in the field. It is generally agreed that AGI has not yet been accomplished, although the boundaries are being pushed daily.

-The ultimate level of AI is called Artificial Superintelliegnce (ASI). It would be intelligence beyond any human capabilities, even for the most gifted of humans.

Defining AI based on human intelligence could be tough in the future, especially if we find ways to boost our own intelligence artificially. One could argue that your smartphone is a first step for that intelligence boost. What happens when your smartphone is directly connected to your brain? Of course AI researchers would say that access to information is not intelligence. Intelligence in the narrow definition is the ability to solve problems. Some would argue that a true test is the ability to understand shadings of meaning in language and use imagination to solve problems. Our decision to base AI levels on a comparison to human intelligence is perhaps a symptom of our anthropocentric thinking. However, it is also the only measure we currently have. Other definitions are not human based, but rather scale based- weak AI versus strong AI. This of course, would create problems as technology progresses. What is strong AI one day could be weak a few years later.

There is further debate with the suggestion by pioneering AI researcher Judea Pearl that we not use reasoning by association to rate AI (simply looking for correlations in data) but rather causal reasoning; inquiring how causal relationships would be altered if there is intervention.  Kevin Hartnett has a story explaining this in the Atlantic Monthly.

So, let’s get back to the aliens. I have said before that there could be two basic types of alien AI machines exploring the universe: Biologically Originated Intelligence (BOI) and Artificially Originated Intelligence (AOI). The difference is simple: did biological beings create the intelligent robots cruising through space or did other artificial intelligence create those mechanical explorers? The answer has big implications for humanity. We worry about the rise of AGI and ultimately ASI. Will humans become extinct? Will we morph into increasingly mechanical beings? Will ASI decide to get rid of us or perhaps leave us behind to explore the universe while we struggle here on Earth? Those questions are far-fetched considering our current level of technology. But the concern it would raise in First Contact could have a direct impact on our relationship with alien AI. We could well understand a sophisticated alien probe controlled by biological creatures. However, a probe with AGI or ASI capabilities would be a concern. There would be an inherent threat involved in any alien machine visiting our solar system. The worries would increase as a direct correlation with the differences exhibited by that visiting alien life form. A big question could be the relationship between the original alien biological creatures and their created AI. Do they exist together in harmony? Or did the AI grow to supplant the biological beings? If the later is the case - that would likely create a great deal of concern among humans. We could find ourselves with some major issues to consider, ranging from what kind of contact we would want to have with alien AI to how much further we want to go with the development of human created AI. One could imagine quite a bit of angst on the part of humans. Certainly it would be a tough way to start a relationship.

And perhaps that is the reason aliens have not said hello yet: they are in fact advanced AI and don’t know if we can handle the idea or the threat. Alien AI might be better off waiting until we are further along on the evolutionary scale, if that is indeed where it leads.

I think the best message to humans under such a First Contact scenario would be this: we don’t have to follow the historical path of aliens. We are early enough in our AI development to choose a different road, perhaps with more closely controlled AI. Before freaking out we should carefully study alien history. It could show that the biological creatures moved willingly, over time, to increasingly mechanical based bodies. Perhaps AI merely assisted the biological intelligence until the two became indistinguishable? We would certainly want to request a timeline of alien history as part of our initial contact.

In the meantime, we need to keep using that human imagination. We can create more fictional stories that explore these issues. It is our best way to conceptualize such matters. One can scoff at books and movies as mere entertainment, but when the idea behind such stories has weight, and the ideas are thoughtful, it may be our best way of considering how we want to proceed with AI.


Monday, July 2, 2018

Extraterrestrial First Contact: President Trump and First Contact

If for some reason aliens thought now was a great time to make First Contact with humans, they would have to consider international relations. The international relations climate is impacted by the actions of the President of the United States. So, how would aliens feel about President Trump?

President Trump Pros:

-President Trump prides himself on bucking the political establishment. That could be attractive to aliens who are worried that our institutions will move towards a defensive posture.

-He seems to care about making history and alien First Contact would certainly make history.

-President Trump values business growth and long-term alien contact could create many new opportunities for businesses, depending on what knowledge we gain.

-He seems to care less for precedent in his decision-making, which would be important for First Contact, because there are no human precedents.

-While he has concerns about the United Nations bureaucracy, he does seem to value American power in the United Nations.

-The threat of America being left out of the alien relations process could cause him to push for interaction and American involvement.

-He would likely welcome the distraction from the many issues challenging his administration.

President Trump Cons:

-Nationalism is by its very nature protectionist. The President might default to a protectionist stance when considering a response to alien First Contact.

-The President is currently waging a trade war with many nations, alienating members of NATO, and annoying longtime allies. He might not be in the best position to unify an international response to First Contact.

-President Trump is known for changing his mind on issues, sometimes quickly and in dramatic fashion. That could create instability in alien relations.

-After expressing an independent view on an issue he tends to fall back to Republican Party lines, which could be protectionist.

-He could try to seize complete control of the First Contact process and attempt to keep the benefits of alien contact for America.

-He could be distracted by the many issues challenging his administration.

Hopefully, the American President, and other world leaders, would realize that alien contact would require careful consideration. Human political factions would have to work together to determine a path forward. Differences between human groups would seem rather silly considering the enormity of meeting members of an extraterrestrial civilization. I hope that perspective would be clear to all world leaders if such a situation ever arises.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: A List of Experts

It would be essential for humans to review the situation After First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization and develop a framework for moving forward. This may not be a priority if First Contact comes from the discovery of a far-off signal. There would be plenty of time to consider what to do next. However, it would be important, and need immediate attention, in a high information First Contact scenario, where aliens visit our solar system. 

There is no one with expertise in such matters. Very few people have even considered the issue. What follows is a list of people who have considered First Contact and the implications. While there are many SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers represented, the people on this list were chosen not only for their experience in SETI exploration, but also their consideration of the larger issues likely to become challenges After First Contact. These radio astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists have thought about First Contact and are among the best prepared to consider how to move forward. There is also an effort to include members of the social sciences, which may have the most important role After First Contact. Some of the largest space agencies are represented at the administrative level. They may have First Contact oriented experts within their ranks that should be added. The list also includes science fiction authors. Their ideas and imagination would be critical to developing a path forward After First Contact.
This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list. I am most likely missing some important people. I did my best to search for international representatives and women. However, as I am sure the women can attest to, this has been a male dominated field for many years. The United States has the most active SETI research and thus is dominant in representation. The final tally in this list is 60 people total, 43 men, 17 women, 32 USA, and 28 international.
Frank Drake, Emeritus Professor, University of California at Santa Cruz
Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research, SETI Institute board member
Paul Davies, Arizona State University, and SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup - International Academy of Astronautics
Dan Werthimer, Berkeley SETI
Andrew Siemion, Berkeley SETI
Bill Diamond, SETI Institute
Seth Shostak, SETI Institute
H. Paul Shuch, SETI League
Richard Factor, SETI League
Simonetta Di Pippo, Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs
Claudio Maccone, Chair, International Academy of Astronautics Permanent SETI Committee
Michael Garrett, University of Manchester, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, UK
Leonid Gurvits, JIVE, the Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC, The Netherlands
Douglas Vakoch, president of METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence)
Catharine Conley, NASA Planetary Protection Officer
Carol Oliver, Australian Centre for Astrobiology, University of New South Wales, Australia
Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, UK
Alan Penny, University of St. Andrews, Scotland, UK
L.M. Gindilis, Moscow State Forest University, Russia
M.Yu. Timofeev, SETI Science and Culture Center of the Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics, Russia
Kathryn Denning, York University, Canada
V. Radhakrishnan, Raman Research Institute, India
Hisashi Hirabayashi, JAXA Space Education Center, Japan
Lori Walton, Tigerstar Geoscience Research, Canada
Sun Kwok, Dean of Science, University of Hong Kong, China
David Raitt, European Space Agency
Nathalie Cabrol, Carl Sagan Center
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, School of Earth & Space Exploration, Arizona State University
Iván Almár, Konkoly Observatory, Hungary
Bruce Jakosky, NASA Astrobiology Institute, University of Colorado at Boulder
Jim Bridenstine, Administrator, NASA
Dmitry Rogozin, Roscosmos State Corporation (Russian Space Agency)
Tang Dengjie, China National Space Administration
Johann-Dietrich Wörner, Director General, European Space Agency
Kailasavadivoo Sivan, Indian Space Research Organization
Guillermo A. Lemarchand, UNESCO Division of Science Policy and Capacity Building
Jim Pass, Journal of Astrosociology
Kathleen D. Toerpe, Journal of Astrosociology
Michael Varnum, Psychologist, Interplanetary Initiative, Arizona State University
Debra Fischer, Astronomer, Yale University
Shannon Lucid, Chief Scientist, NASA
Eugene L. Tu, Director of NASA Ames Research Center
Renee Kraan-Korteweg, University of Cape Town, South Africa
Elisabeth Piotelat, SETI League Regional Coordinator, France
Bill Nye, Planetary Society
Heidi Hammel, Planetary Society
Bijal (Bee) Thakore, Planetary Society
Nick Bostrom, Future of Humanity Institute
Anders Sandberg, Future of Humanity Institute 
Jann Tallinn, Future of Life Institute
Michael A.G. Michaud, Author
Jame Funaro, Anthropologist, Cabrillo College; board member, Cultures of the Imagination
Penny Boston, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; board member, Cultures of the Imagination
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City
Michio Kaku, Professor of Theoretical Physics in the City College of New York
Yuri Milner, Breakthrough Initiatives
Cixin Liu, Science Fiction Author
Connie Willis, Science Fiction Author
Ted Chiang, Science Fiction Author
International Academy of Astronautics
SETI Permanent Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics
International Astronomical Union
International Institute of Space Law
Committee on Space Research
Royal Society
SETI Institute
SETI League
SETI Science and Culture Center of the Tsiolkovsky Academy of Cosmonautics
SETI Section of the Astronomy Council, Russian Academy of Sciences
Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

Monday, June 4, 2018

Extraterrestrial Contact: Six Questions for the First Communication

If we make First Contact with members of an extraterrestrial civilization someday, it would be good to remember the basics of journalism: who, what, where, why, when and how. That handy reminder has been drilled into the brains of reporters for generations. And it could be the start of a conversation with aliens, whether it be through signal based communication with a far-off civilization or a meeting closer to Earth.

Who: Who are you? Are you an artificial intelligence or a biological being?

Why: Why are you making contact with humans?

Where: Where are you from and where are you located now? Are there any members of your civilization in our solar system and if so, where?

What: What do you represent: a nation, civilization or federation of civilizations?

When: Is this the first time you have contacted humans? If not, when was the first time and what was your purpose then?

How: How do you hope this contact with humans will proceed? What do you think should happen next?

These are, of course, quite simplified questions for what would likely be a complicated conversation. But it could be a starting point. It would be easy to get lost in the enormity of such a situation. Starting with the basics could help.

Most of these questions are self-explanatory. The last two, however, are more nuanced than they may appear. The question about when human contact was first made will be important for context. If the aliens claim that this is the First Contact with humans, we could set aside (for a while) the questions of what they have done on Earth previously. I don’t believe in alien conspiracies, but given the number of people reporting abductions over the years it would be important to get aliens on the record immediately, especially if they are visiting our solar system. The question goes to issues of trust and fear. Humans will feel some threat with the revelation of an alien civilization. That concern would grow if the aliens are in our solar system. Of course, aliens could lie, just as humans do. No matter what the initial answer given we would have to be cautious moving forward.

What do you think should happen next? It seems like a conciliatory question for aliens and one that puts us in a position of subservience. But the wording is important: What do you think should happen next?? It doesn’t say that we will agree to what aliens would like to happen. It does explore the intentions of aliens on a long-term scale. The answer to why could be quite simple: we are here to say hello. The how question gets at their long term interest. Would they like to have a relationship with humans? Are they inviting us to be part of a federation? Are they warning us to stay in our solar system?

It would be easy to get excited and focus solely on who they are and where they come from. If First Contact comes via communication with a far-off civilization that focus would be fine. There is much less threat to humans from a far-off civilization. However, in the event of First Contact in our solar system, safety and security would be of primary importance. We would need to establish ground rules for further contact, and communicate our intention to protect our autonomy. Once a set of procedures for contact was agreed upon we could have some breathing room to explore the rest of the questions in depth. Oh, and don't forget to snap a few pictures. People always forget to do that when they're chatting with aliens.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Extraterrestrial First Contact: Impact on the Human Civilization

Wikipedia uses this definition to describe a civilization: “…any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification imposed by a cultural elite, symbolic systems of communication (for example, writing systems), and a perceived separation from and domination over the natural environment.”

I would imagine social scientists argue a fair amount about what determines a civilization. But let’s use the above definition to discuss the impact of extraterrestrial First Contact on the human civilization.

Urban development is exploding on planet Earth. Humans are drawn to cities and those cities are growing huge. It seems unlikely alien contact would have much influence over urban development. If we are given new technology by aliens it could help us to better sustain our massive population growth through more efficient cities. But as I will get to in a moment, there could be a high cost if we receive such help.

Social stratification is a source of conflict within all nations on Earth. The forms of stratification and the ability of people to move from strata to strata seems to be constantly changing. It is also different from culture to culture and nation to nation. First Contact could have an impact on social stratification. If we receive information from aliens that introduces us to how other civilizations in the universe organize themselves- we could gain a new perspective on our social stratification. That could lead to conflict and change. And social stratification could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Our forms of communication would certainly have to evolve if we had to learn new symbolic systems to talk to alien representatives. Even if extraterrestrial visitors spoke human languages, we would likely want to learn about their forms of communication. There could even be some adoption of alien terms into human languages.

And then there is the perceived separation and domination over the natural environment. Would aliens consider domination of the natural environment to be a good thing or bad thing? They could have advice for us about how to manage our domination without destroying our planet; or for us to better integrate our development with the natural environment.

The impact to the above mentioned parts of our civilization, in the wake of extraterrestrial First Contact, seem manageable.  Other elements of our civilization may not be as easy to manage. Science has become a major facet of the human civilization and under a certain set of circumstances the impact to science could be a serious concern. It all comes down to information. If we do meet aliens some day, how much information will they share with us? Will they discuss their version of science? Will they reveal flaws in our conception of physics, chemistry and biology? This would, of course, require communication and understanding. Even if they have the skills to communicate with humans there could be such a vast difference in our scientific understanding that teaching us their science could be beyond our comprehension. But if they decided to take the time to teach us, and put things into terms we could understand, would this be necessarily be beneficial to humanity? The popular answer has been yes. We imagine that aliens could help us solve our environmental challenges, perhaps by providing insight into clean energy sources or even assisting us to transform our planetary atmosphere by using technology. However, I believe there is a danger inherent in that line of thinking. Such assistance could put humans into a position of technical subjugation and that could be dangerous even if the aliens had altruistic intent. Human science is not an easy process. We imagine key discoveries just popping up every few years, propelling us forward to a better life. The truth is much grittier. We have to work hard for those discoveries. Scientists head down paths before a discovery is made. That is how the human scientific process works. The good news is that sometimes the research involved in even the dead end paths provides a bit of insight that helps us change direction or refine a process. Mistakes can even lead to new ideas, never before conceived. It is how human development works. The crazy part of it is that humans often need conflict to move the scientific needle. Wars, disputes and competition drive us forward. Consider the many scientific discoveries that have come from our wars. And not just the actual combat experiences, but also non-combative cold wars. For every weapon created there is so much knowledge achieved, that it spills out to other uses. I am not encouraging war. The threat of nuclear annihilation is so negative that it would seem to outweigh the benefits of nuclear physics thus far. My point is that we need the gritty human scientific process to keep us moving forward. If we are spoon fed information, without working for it, we could destroy our scientific system and dissipate our natural curiosity. One would hope that aliens would realize this and help us come to some safe method for sharing information. But we would be wise to find that method on our own.

There is another important aspect of humanity that is inherent in our civilization, but perhaps not as readily seen: perspective. Human perspective is behind much of our actions. A shift in perspective can create major changes in our society. An example can be seen in the #metoo movement. Sexual harassment and sexual assault has been a concern in the human civilization for a long time. But the perspective of people in a society makes a big difference in terms of how such things are handled. There have been individual reports of sexual harassment of decades. It first became a major workplace issue in America in the 1990s, largely due to perspective change sparked by allegations brought up during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. But that didn’t change what was happening behind the scenes in some industries. It was the Harvey Weinstein case in 2017 that proved to be the latest catalyst. The high profile sex harassment accusations against the Hollywood studio mogul gained attention because celebrities were involved. Brave women had reported sexual harassment for years, but once a group of celebrities came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein, himself a celebrity, the media paid more attention. This in turn helped to catalyze the wider movement so that more women came forward with allegations, in even more fields. Perspective change often requires conflict in the human society. When women stand up to be heard they are confronting the current power system. When other women and men join in that confrontation, the movement gains speed and weight. Eventually the overall perspective, of the majority of humans in a nation, begins to change. Has it changed that far yet when it comes to sexual harassment? Perhaps not. There is a long way to go in America and even farther to go in other nations. But many American men have taken a critical consideration of their workplace interactions with women, and that is a positive step forward. It’s sad that it takes the risk of shaming to do such things, but conflict is necessary for change.

My point is that perspective change can often lead to direct changes in the human civilization. The big question is: What happens if we have a massive and sudden worldwide perspective change? The discovery of extraterrestrial life, even microbes on a planet in our solar system, would be exciting and certainly spark a human perspective change. But the discovery of active and communicative, intelligent extraterrestrial life would be much more dramatic. It would not only provide a scientific shift in thinking, but also a religious shift. The discovery of traveling extraterrestrials could also change our perspective on safety. Right now we don’t worry about threats from outside of our solar system. The discovery of aliens would change that, depending on their ability to travel, and their proximity. The human perspective shift caused by alien First Contact could take place in many different ways. And the reaction could be problematic. It could create fear. It could disrupt the order of our institutions, including government and religion. It could create conflict between nations.

If alien First Contact does occur some day we will need to be very cognizant of what the revelation is doing to our civilization. We will need to quickly assess human thinking with surveys and polling. We will need to consider risks and benefits. We will need to put a process into place that protects our civilization while also allowing us to move forward. There will be a natural conflict between advocates of protectionism and those embracing change. This conflict could lead to the physical dangers of civil unrest and war between nations. The best way to manage such a situation would be through the academic social sciences working in alliance with local, state and national governments. These would be our first responders: political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and economists. I know this is a shift in thinking. We most commonly think of physical scientists as our alien first responders. That would certainly be the case if we discover a far off signal and need to decipher it’s meaning. However, Direct First Contact would be an entirely different animal, with a different set of challenges. My fear is that we are not considering this scenario with enough rigor. It is currently just fodder for fiction in movies and books.

The human civilization may seem monolithic from our individual perspective. But take a philosophical step off the Earth for a moment and have a new look. Human civilization is actually a fragile assemblage of process, agreements, and traditions. One massive change in human perspective could rock our foundation. If high information Direct First Contact does occur some day, we will need to take swift action to protect our civilization and help it to develop in a positive way for generations to come. Otherwise First Contact could be like a tsunami hitting a house of cards.
Photo by: Serge-Kutuzov-501664-Unsplash