Monday, October 17, 2011

Extraterrestrial Contact Scenarios: Getting Beyond the Media Hype

As usual, the media distillations of journal articles are rarely a good judge of the actual content of the article in question. Such is the case with the media hubbub caused by the article in Acta Astronautica by Baum, Haqq-Misra and Domagal-Goldman titled “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis.”

While Acta Astronautica requires a subscription, Dr. Baum has now placed the article on his website. It’s a worthy read for many reasons. As I have discussed before, the article is a series of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) First Contact scenarios, organized according to the possible impact on humanity. It’s loosely divided into categories: negative, positive and neutral. Most of the scenarios might seem quite familiar: ETI that enslaves us; outright destruction of Earth by ETI; helpful ETI that helps us solve problems; ETI that ignores us; ETI that spreads biological threat etc. The media had a field day with the negatives and the right-leaning media had fun with the scenarios that were based on environmental concerns. The primary ecological scenario involves ETI destroying us because of what we are doing to our environment and what we might do to the rest of the galaxy. Snickering media or not, it’s an interesting set of questions: at what point would ETI consider us a threat and what might they do to eliminate the threat?

Yet, it’s the extrapolation behind the rather general scenarios that provides the real meat to the article. The authors raise the idea that ETI might have a diverse population making up their civilization, with many competing, and perhaps conflicting, cultures and views. This possibility of ETI heterogeneity is of course based on our only possible study group: humans. If we were to land on another planet and meet another civilization, it seems likely that there would be a raging debate over what we should do. Some may advocate taking any advantage we can get. Others might say that we should have a policy of non-interference and only study the newly discovered civilization. So, if that’s how humans would react, who’s to say an extraterrestrial civilization visiting Earth wouldn’t have exactly the same situation? The authors point out that power shifts and changes in attitudes in ETI leadership could be dangerous for humans. We could receive mixed signals from competing ETI interests. This is an important point and it examines First Contact with a complexity that I think has been lacking. It seems likely that extraterrestrial First Contact will be extremely complex and nuanced, perhaps in ways that we do not understand at first.

Baum, et al. tackle many of what I would call the more subtle scenarios. Hollywood is fixated with marauding aliens or beneficent ones. In reality, the reaction of humans could be the most significant concern in a First Contact scenario. The authors point out that the detection of ETI could make existing conflicts here on Earth much worse, as nations compete for control. Religious groups could find a challenge to their beliefs and react quite negatively and perhaps even violently.

There is a primary way that Baum, et al. seek to define ETI: Universalist versus selfish. What this means for us would seem clear at first glance, but once again the authors examine the shadings of these definitions. For example, ETI could seek to destroy us for Universalist reasons- they want to save the rest of the galaxy from us. I would provide additional shading to the selfish end of the spectrum, not examined in the paper. Perhaps we offer ETI something significant that would not require our destruction. Perhaps it is in their best interest to befriend us?

The authors call for more in-depth study in their conclusion. With any scenario being possible and no data of any sort, it’s quite difficult to put together a quantitative risk analysis. However, they argue that we should work in that direction, as it would prove invaluable in the case of First Contact. They call for a development of scenarios, free from pre-conceived notions about what we expect ETI to be like. They also suggest that we should carefully consider whether we should send signals into space or respond to an engineered signal that we might find.

I would agree that caution and careful consideration are essential parts of any response to any type of First Contact. We quite simply have not examined this issue enough. The existence of ETI may be completely unknown to us now, but if we do discover an extraterrestrial civilization, the impact to humanity could be dramatic.

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