Monday, June 6, 2011

Extraterrestrials, Hawks and Doves

If extraterrestrial intelligence is ever discovered in the universe, we may very well think back on these days as a time of relative ease of mind. The very notion that extraterrestrial civilizations exist could bring about a sudden fear. What we don’t know at all doesn’t seem to bother us, what we know only slightly could scare us half to death. The primary driver is of course that lack of knowledge. How many civilizations are out there? Can they travel? Do they plan to visit? Are they friendly? Even the slightest proof that extraterrestrial intelligence exists would inspire all of these questions and many more.

Scientists are quick to point out that given our current understanding of the physical world interstellar travel is quite impractical- both expensive and time consuming. Thus any relationship with extraterrestrials would likely be via communication. The vast distance between stars would provide a ready-made insulation of sorts, ensuring our safety. Given that our understanding of the physical world has changed rapidly over the last couple of hundred years though, it also seems likely that our science will progress and we will learn new things about the laws that govern actions in the universe.

First Contact would bring the issue of safety to the forefront of discussion and it seems likely that humans will fall into the same divisions that we currently do. The hawks and the doves will have a grand debate.

Planetary defense has been considered primarily for a much more likely threat: asteroids and other objects coming near the Earth. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics has held yearly conferences about the issue of near Earth objects (NEO), including one conference just a few weeks ago in Romania.
NASA and several other agencies participate in these conferences and they are perhaps the best gauge of current thinking in regards to planetary defense. Still, deflecting a near Earth object would be much different than trying to defend against intelligent beings. The NEO, probably being an errant asteroid, can’t plan countermeasures or use stealth technology. 

Planetary defense against alien invaders has been discussed in the world of science fiction and raised as a realistic concern by only a handful of authors. Travis Taylor, Bob Boan, Charles Anding and Conley Powell have written one of the few ETI oriented planetary defense books, calledAn Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion.” These engineers have been involved in aerospace research for many years and they raise several thoughtful ideas in the book about the issue of defense against extraterrestrials. The problem is that Hollywood has also weighed-in, and those special effects driven spectaculars do little to examine the real issues. This month the National Geographic Channel takes a closer look with a show called “When Aliens Attack.”
Most of the show is based on the usual television silliness, framed around an animated portrayal of an alien attack. We ponder how humans could use balloons to drop onto alien ships to stage an attack. We get animated examples of how F-18s would fare against alien fighter ships. We make assumption, after assumption; go through scenario after scenario and reveal, well…basically nothing. It isn’t that much different from what you’ve already seen in the many movies on the subject.

There is a glimmer of hope for substance in the TV show, as the issue of the U.N. protocol for extraterrestrial contact is raised. Researcher and author Michael Michaud pops up with thoughtful, albeit brief, commentary and then he’s gone and it’s back to the dramatics. Michaud is also allowed to discuss the problem of communication with aliens; however it’s also a short break from the silliness. The show does talk about the need for a global army in the case of an attack and some other interesting issues, but they are merely raised and then gone as the cheesy animated attack continues.

Okay, fine. I understand it’s just a television show. The producers are attempting to amuse middle aged men drinking a beer after mowing the lawn. But couldn’t they have spent just a few more moments hearing from this rather esteemed line-up of interview subjects? I’m sure Mr. Michaud, Seth Shostak and Travis Taylor had much more interesting things to say. Those comments are probably lost on the proverbial cutting room floor.

All of these issues would come to the forefront in the wake of First Contact. The hawks will demand a robust defense with an emphasis on new technology. The doves will say that it’s pointless to prepare and we would be better off sending positive messages to signal that we are not aggressive. Both groups will have valid points. Preparation could be tremendously important or it could be of no use at all. Aggressive actions could send the wrong message, or they could let an adversary know we won’t go down without a fight.

The problem with all of it? The unknown. Even if we intercept a signal and even if we start a conversation (likely to be decades long conversation as the messages travel back and forth) we would have many more questions than answers. We need a debate here on Earth because the answers are not clear cut. With so many variables and so many unknowns every view should be taken seriously, at least at first. Then the United Nations will need to lead the way and put together a plan of action. That will be perhaps the biggest hurdle of all. The hawks versus doves debate will bring out international squabbles and Earth-bound security concerns. Each nation will be looking not only to space for a possible confrontation, but also to their neighbors here on Earth. Will China be interested in sharing its latest military technology with the United States and vice-versa?
Without strong United Nations leadership, and a recognized body to take up the issue, it would be a debate beyond anything that we have experienced on Earth thus far. There is at least one thing we can do now- prepare ourselves for how we might handle the diplomatic and international issues of First Contact. It’s something that could reside entirely on paper and doesn’t require a big expenditure of money. Imagine how much further along we would be if we did some planning before panic strikes.

Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, Michael Michaud and others tried to get the United Nations to take action. Michaud details the actions in his excellent book “Contact with Alien Civilizations”. They presented an International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) position paper to the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 1996 in regards to First Contact protocol. They followed up with a briefing on the documents in 2000. Both of these were accepted by the UN and then ignored.

The issue of First Contact has so many implications that it deserves a serious treatment. The details of a defined First Contact diplomatic and response protocol might not be of much interest to a guy watching TV and drinking a beer on a Saturday afternoon. However, such a robust protocol could be a good starting point if we ever do make First Contact.

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