Monday, July 11, 2011

Foundational Information versus Application Specific Information

I advocate for tightly controlled interaction with an extraterrestrial civilization After First Contact. Not that I think alien First Contact is likely to happen soon, but if it does I think there are many reasons to suggest a conservative approach to information sharing.

That said, I think it’s important to note the different types of information that might be involved. Foundational information is the type of knowledge that involves the fundamentals of who they are and what they know about the universe. It can include everything from their history and biology to the nature of the cosmos and even the basic features of particle physics from their perspective. I think foundational information could be shared in the very first weeks and months After First Contact. While the information revealed might be startling, and even revelatory, it would still require humans to do some work before anything concrete in terms of technology could be obtained from those revelations.

Application specific information however, would be an entirely different prospect. If aliens were to tell us how to build a more efficient and environmentally sound form of energy generation, that knowledge would have a profound and immediate impact on our private industry, economic systems and scientific structures. It would bypass the human process of discovery and create a short cut to a new technology. While that short cut would be exciting in some respects, it could create havoc in the world economy as nations and companies scramble to take advantage. One could hope that the United Nations would try to control such information, to perhaps create a global non-profit to develop the new technology, but that would fall so far outside of  our current realities of government and business that it would prove nearly impossible to control in the initial months and years After First Contact. In the long term, it could prove even more disastrous- undermining our frameworks of scientific discovery and technological development.

Foundational information could certainly lead to new technology and innovation, but it would require work on our part and work within the context of our current systems of science and business. Doing that work would keep our scientific efforts alive and force us to earn the reward.

What might foundational information reveal? I’ve been reading two books lately that examine the furthest reaches of what we know, and would like to know, about the universe. Lee Smolin suggests, in his 1997 book “The Life of the Cosmos,” that it could be nature of universes to reproduce via black holes, creating a multiverse.
The idea of multiple universes with differing physical constants points to a larger vision of the cosmos than previously imagined. It’s been a popular idea among astrophysicists and cosmologists for some time now. Paul Davies explores the many possibilities, including multiple universe theories, in his book “Cosmic Jackpot”.
These may sound like esoteric discussions, but at the fundamental level they struggle with the nature of our reality. It would seem likely that an extraterrestrial civilization would, at the very least, have a different view of reality than us and perhaps, especially if they are thousands of years more developed in intellectual thought, they might have revelations to offer us about the organization of the universe. This information could transform modern human cosmology and astrophysics and yet it would not have an immediate impact on the basic human societal functions. It would likely be a catalyst for new thinking in many scientific fields and cause changes in paradigms over many years and in a wide range of areas. However, the impact would be blunt and not specific. In contrast, information about specific technology would be sharp, focused and potentially disruptive.

This argument assumes much. Certainly extraterrestrials could say that they would rather not share any critical information with us at all. They might decide that we are not to be trusted with such knowledge. It seems likely though, that if we do make First Contact, the question of what information we ask for and what we receive will be of paramount importance. It’s essential to our future as intelligent beings in the universe that we make the right choices and take the hard road forward towards our future- an earned future.

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