Monday, May 3, 2010

Hawking and the Real Threat

Stephen Hawking recently made headlines in the promotion of his new Discovery TV show “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.” The bits I’ve seen of the show have been fun, but only moderately informative from a First Contact perspective. Hawking is trying to cover a vast range of issues in the show, so the First Contact portion is relatively limited. The comments that received media attention were about the risk of alien contact. Mr. Hawking raised the age-old concern that we might not want to contact extraterrestrial civilizations. He pointed out that the vast distances between stars means that any alien civilization able to reach us would likely be nomadic and in search of natural resources to support further travel. Hawking raises the comparison of European explorers discovering and then dismantling the native societies they encountered. This idea is nothing new. It’s the same ground Dr. Hawking covered in his classic 1988 book A Brief History of Time.

It’s hard to disagree with the idea, it’s a much of a possibility as any of the other First Contact scenarios. What bothers me is that it fails to address the most pressing need: we are vulnerable because we have not prepared. That vulnerability would seem to come in two primary areas: space defense and international response. I’ll save space defense issues for another writer. I do believe international preparation is a huge problem when it comes to security issues during a First Contact scenario.

Writer Michael Michaud has been tackling this rather unpopular topic for years. His book Contact with Alien Civilizations
is one of the few widely distributed publications to discuss the diplomatic problems with First Contact. Michaud points out that in 1956 Andrew Haley was one of the first to consider the need for legal concepts to govern relations with other civilizations. The idea of “Metalaw” presents legal principles that could apply to many different first contact possibilities. Michaud states the most important principal behind this approach: “We will need imagination and flexibility of mind.”

The possibilities are limitless. We can’t hope to prepare for exactly what will happen in regards to First Contact. It could be SETI based. It could take years to trade messages, it could happen much quicker. It could be Direct First Contact through an alien landing or an alien craft sending a signal as they arrive in our solar system. The only way to deal with the range of possibilities is to approach the problem with broad principles that can cover a variety of situations.

No matter what the scenario we will need to have a diplomatic system. We will need to know which international bodies will be responsible for diplomacy and which agencies within those entities should be in charge. There is no doubt in my mind that the entity that should be in control of the diplomatic response is the United Nations. While this idea may seem obvious, it is likely to provoke an intense amount of debate if First Contact ever occurs. Powerful nations, such as the United States, will probably feel threatened by the idea of United Nations control. Certainly there will be political groups that would protest such a move; many are already opposed to United Nations activity.

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is the agency that has the expertise needed to deal with the initial study of world response to First Contact. The U.N. Security Council would be the obvious body to handle defense and security issues raised by First Contact.

In 1993 Peter Schenkel said that the collapse of the U.S. –U.S.S.R cold-war rivalry has lead into an increasing role on the world platform for the United Nations, putting the international body in a better position to deal with extraterrestrial issues. In his paper to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific Conference Schenkel makes a powerful argument for an international legal framework, lead by the United Nations.

Kudos to Schenkel for calling for a wider approach to First Contact speculation. In a guest editorial to the SETI League in May of 1998 Schenkel said: “Since the impact and consequences of this contact scenario would be incomparably greater than [radio contact], ...mankind should be prepared politically, legally, communicationally and psychologically for all contact scenarios, not just for one.”

Are we any better off in 2010? It doesn’t seem so. While the good folks involved in worldwide SETI efforts continue to make steady inroads with the scientific community, not much has been done in regards to international response and protocol in a First Contact situation.

This Mr. Hawking is the real dilemma. I agree- beaming specific welcome signals into space looking for extraterrestrial contact may be ill advised. Still, we cannot take an approach of sticking our heads in the sand. If we discover a signal or if the aliens come to visit earth we will need a quick and effective strategy for response. Without it we truly are a weak and defenseless society just waiting to be overrun.


Marlo said...

I question whether the scenario of aliens engaging with us in a hostile manner to access our resources is a sensible one. Personally, it always baffled me that a mind of the breadth of S.Hawkins would entertain such an idea. As far as I know, Earth posses nothing as far as mineral resources that is not readily and much more easily available all over the solar system. The exception to that is obviously fossil fuel but... well, no need to dwell on the ridiculousness of a coal powered interstellar engine.
Whether it is hydrogen, radioactive materials, water or metals they are after, all of these can be obtained all over the solar system without the trouble of wiping out an entire civilization.

It is not unfathomable that first contact might be hostile in nature but it doesn't make sense that it would be over resources. I can think of 3 contexts for first contact. The first and most likely I think would be of anthropological nature. Ask any sample of population why they would want to meet being from another star system and most answer will revolve around "just wanting to get to know them, see what they are like". Then, tho unlikely, I can also fathom however that the alien visitors could be religious missionaries. Tho this would be disappointment redefined, it was indeed the context for 1st contact between human groups in many occasions. One would hope that such ambitions would be shed along the way by a civilization that develops the capacity for interstellar travel, but I dont see any way to be certain of that. Finally, it also seems possible that a space faring specie with a particularly powerful survivalist strand and somewhat skewed moral standard would view other technological species as future potential aggressors and thus seek to preemptively destroy them before they may develop the capacity to threaten them. I think the logic behind this hostile encounter scenario is more solid that the fight over resources. And tho I think this is not the likeliest context for encounter (might be a good time to point out that I do not believe that physical encounter is ever likely to happen, but it is fun to contemplate :)Its true that being as prepared as possible, just in case, would be desirable.

Eric said...

Thanks Marlo...I think your 3 contexts for First Contact make sense. I agree that the threat of aggression is unlikely for any of the reasons humans would likely be aggressive (location or resources). The religious concern is an interesting one as it covers not only what we might term religion, but could also take into account a wide variety of motivations we simply don't understand. Thanks for reading.