Monday, May 16, 2011

Ambiguous First Contact

SETI researchers have pointed out that First Contact is likely to be an ambiguous event in many respects. The reception of an alien signal would take much study to determine the origin, with plenty of debate along the way. Even once confirmed as being engineered, what the signal means could take many years to decipher, if that’s even possible. Yet, there are issues that even an ambiguous signal, once confirmed to be of extraterrestrial intelligence in origin, raises for humans here and now. The problem comes in what we don’t know. The discovery of an engineered signal would only show that there is possibly intelligent life out there in the universe. We would have a specific origin of the signal to study for further evidence of life. But is that location necessarily where the intelligent beings are from and where they are now? Perhaps they were just passing through or have a relay of some sort? Perhaps it’s a leftover remnant of a civilization long passed?

The mere fact that there is extraterrestrial intelligence out there would raise a series of troubling questions: exactly where are they? Do they have the ability to get here? Are they already in the neighborhood? Once again, proximity becomes a major issue.

Even an ambiguous signal raises the need for a unified, United Nations led effort to provide a framework for response. Developing a diplomatic framework, even before we know what we might be dealing with, actually makes sense. Having a framework in place means that you have thought through the possibilities and you can respond much quicker to challenges when the need arises. Developing a working relationship between scientists, politicians and diplomats would be important in such a scenario. Groups like the SETI Institute could provide the knowledge and background to help lead United Nations officials in developing a planet-wide response.

The trouble may be far off or may even be something we never confront. It may not even be trouble at all, simply pleasant space aliens with whom we conduct a decades-long conversation across light years of space. Considerations of our defense and safety are still a cautious and practical reaction in the wake of an ambiguous First Contact. It certainly shouldn’t be a panic driven rush to put nuclear weapons in space. It could simply be a series of what-ifs leading us to consider making some long-term changes to make us safer. Perhaps just monitoring our solar system for evidence of visitors? Or a manned observation system in Earth orbit?

The SETI Institute and the United Nations should begin the basic discussions now. It can be an informal and zero-dollar conversation to start. And perhaps it is already occurring and I’m just out of the loop. I know that United Nations officials, such as Mazlan Othman, the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, have attended scientific conferences that have involved SETI researchers and astrophysicists. I hope they have had an opportunity to sit down over coffee, at the very least, to have a reasonable discussion. It could grow into a volunteer task force that reports to COPUOS (the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space). Developing a working relationship now would be quite advantageous if First Contact ever does occur. But please, let’s keep it quiet. The media has proven that they can’t handle the excitement when people talk about reasonable approaches to First Contact.

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