Monday, March 1, 2010

Black Swan Revisited

We have no evidence that any intelligent extraterrestrial life exists. We have not received any messages. Our messages have not been returned. Does that mean it isn’t worth worrying about?

There is an area of thought that considers the unlikely and the unexpected. It has become quite popular in the last few years, due in large part to the groundbreaking ideas presented by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book “The Black Swan.” Taleb says that most of the important events in human history were unexpected. He calls them Black Swans. Black Swan events have these primary attributes:

1. It is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.

2. It carries an extreme impact.

3. In spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

As Taleb wrote in the New York Times: “A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives."

Taleb presents a complex philosophical case for skepticism: Don’t trust what you think you know and worry about what you might not know.

I have mentioned the Black Swan idea before in this blog. I believe it describes First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. If such an event occurred it would be clearly outside the realm of regular expectations. It would have an extreme impact. And afterwards academics would find a way to make it explainable and predictable.

Preparation for the unexpected would seem to be tough, unless of course the event itself could be conceptualized and a basic protocol established. Extraterrestrial First Contact would fall into that category, and yet it is a topic left for the most part to SETI researchers, a handful of brave academics, and the conspiracy theory fringe elements.

We have a real problem considering the outliers. Consider the possibility of asteroid impact. While it is highly unlikely that a large meteor or asteroid will impact Earth, causing severe damage, the threat is still very real. Astronomical groups do have an organized strategy for trying to predict such an event and monitoring is part of regular scientific research in several countries (by groups that include NASA and the Russian Space Agency). The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs is also involved in the discussion. However, aside from the Russians, most governments and even the larger United Nations have not taken preparation to prevent a strike seriously. It may be an outlier (one recent alarm of a potential strike predicted a one in 909,000 chance, until the strike was shown to be impossible) but the impact of an asteroid strike could not be more extreme. Even a moderately sized object would unleash a force many thousands of times stronger than a nuclear bomb.

The problem of near Earth objects has been discussed for years and yet there is no organized international protocol. We may track the objects, but taking steps to prevent a strike would require worldwide planning. Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently held a conference to take up the issue.

The concerns of Dr. Frans von der Dunk sound very familiar. We have the technology to respond to such threats. What we lack is international planning and an international protocol.

So, if we don’t plan for a potentially catastrophic Black Swan event such as an asteroid strike, why prepare for alien First Contact? I suppose I would advocate some degree of response planning for both possibilities.

It really is a matter of money and manpower. How much money do you spend planning for the unlikely? For extraterrestrial First Contact the answer might be nothing, and you could still accomplish quite a bit. A robust and thoughtful extraterrestrial First Contact protocol could be designed with very little cost. NASA could convene a yearly meeting of scientists, writers and thinkers to discuss First Contact and possible impacts. They already have such a meeting in the Contact: Cultures of the Imagination Conference. While the primary mission of the conference is space exploration, in a more focused approach, for even just one year, this could be the ideal forum to develop ideas for serious First Contact planning. From that framework a protocol could be developed. The United Nations could adopt such a protocol. At least then we would have a plan. SETI researchers, as I have mentioned before, have a simple protocol for response in a SETI based contact situation. If we can expand that to include Direct First Contact scenarios, and even more importantly, the scenarios we have not yet considered, we would be much better off.

The only real cost is the risk of embarrassment. Someone needs to take the lead. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs seems on the cusp of taking this seriously. It is time for the United Nations to have some guts and show some leadership on the issue.

Given decades of science fiction renderings of the subject, this Black Swan could be the one we talked about for decades, and never did anything about.

Extraterrestrial Contact

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