Monday, October 3, 2011

Higher, Higher Education

High-information First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization presents many challenges. One would expect that aliens with advanced technology would easily be able to communicate in our languages. In a Direct First Contact scenario, you would assume that they would have done research to figure out who we are and how our cultural, governmental and scientific institutions work. If their motives are altruistic, the primary reason for offering us information would be, presumably, to help us along. However, we can’t assume altruism, even that’s what they profess. A healthy dose of critical thinking would be essential in our decision making.

The first challenge would be the nature of the information itself. If our new alien friends are thousands, if not millions, of years in advance of us in terms of technology, understanding their social and scientific systems could be complicated, if not impossible. The only solution would be for the extraterrestrials to act as teachers. They would have to integrate their knowledge with our way of thinking and our current development. In more blunt terms: they would have to dumb it down for us.

High-information contact provides plenty of opportunity, but it also presents clear dangers. It could cause hostilities here on Earth as countries fight to take advantage. It could leave third world nations even further behind in development, as they lack the scientific structure to take advantage of such information. Without control, alien information could lead to dangerous new weapons and encourage us to create technology that is damaging in ways we might not be able to foresee.

The biggest challenge comes in devising a system that might work for such a teaching experience, that can also be controlled to protect us. Gatekeeping is probably the best method for high-information dissemination. The first gatekeeping would have to be done by the extraterrestrials themselves. They would need a plan to educate us without endangering us. Once they have determined what information they are willing to share and how they might teach us that information, it would be up to us to decide who leads the human part of the effort. One could imagine a system of higher, higher education. It would need to be conducted in specific academic areas, let’s say biology, for example. You could gather 40 of the top scientists in the field of biology and they could be taught the basics of alien biology and what aliens know about manipulating biological systems. Biology is a very wide field, with many specialties. However, being general at first would be important. We would want to start at a macro level, with experts representing the many specific specialties within biology, and then have more teaching sessions in those specific areas. Working from a macro to micro view would be important. We would have to understand the big picture of the alien knowledge system before we could hope to understand specifics.

Another challenge comes in deciding who gets to be in this prestigious group of scientists. Needless to say, membership in the exclusive club would be highly prized. More so, nations would consider it a necessity to have their scientific leaders involved in such efforts. That presents an even bigger problem: the pressure on scientists to share information with their country, exclusive to the rest of the world. There would be immense pressure on a Chinese or American scientist to make sure that what he or she learns would be brought back to their government to help in technological developments. This would be especially significant in physics and other scientific areas that could have a bearing on weaponry and space travel. So how do you prevent the teaching system from becoming an information grab by powerful nations? How do you ensure that the top scientific minds are in those valuable higher, higher education seats, without leaving the rest of the world behind and providing unfair advantage?

Selection could come based on a formula decided by some outside system. One possibility: each of the G20 nations could select one scientific representative. However, that could leave some top scientific minds out of the picture. Perhaps the other 20 members of the higher, higher education group could be chosen by a non-profit group representing that area of scientific study? In our biology example the group leading the selection could be the Society of Biology. With 80,000 members it represents many of the world experts in biology. Clearly the selection of the group would be controversial and there would be much debate. The Society of Biology was created in Great Britain and Russian scientists might see this as not representative of the larger world group. IEEE is another possibility for such an organization dealing with engineering information. It has 395,000 members in 160 countries in fields ranging from electrical engineering to robotics and computing.
The groups would need to be non-profit and not controlled by industry or government. They would have to be true scientific communities, with members from many different countries and well-respected within the academic field.

Once the 40 scientific representatives are chosen they would attend class of some sort, probably needing to last many months or years. This would be a critical juncture. There would have to be absolute secrecy as they are being taught. A member who fed juicy information back to their home country, or perhaps a corporation, could cause major global turmoil. The group of scientists would have to do more than just learn. They would have to decide how the particular information could be aligned with our current knowledge. They would also need to consider the implications of dissemination. Would the information provoke major disruptions in our global economic system? How would academia incorporate the new information? The scientists would need to work with human gatekeepers in deciding how the information should be released and make preparations for reactions to the news. This would have to be done behind closed doors at first. However, it would be important to document everything, including all of the classes and each step in the decision making process. When the proper precautions had been taken and a plan put together, then everything could be released to the public. All of the information that the extraterrestrial teachers provide would become common human knowledge. In this way, there is no unfair advantage. Gatekeepers might have to work with nations to set up treaties and controls for usage of new technology. Perhaps it is realized that specific information could be used to create weapons, or if not carefully pursued, present a physical risk of some sort. Some global group or world body would need to oversee such treaties to make sure they are being followed.

If this sounds like an unwieldy and complicated structure, I agree. But it would be necessary. Humans have often considered the positive aspects of high-information First Contact. We tend to be naïve in our thinking, dwelling on the exciting benefits that might be derived from gifts of knowledge. Such thinking belies the true nature of human civilization. We strive for advantage and support our own interests. It is part of human nature. Even the best of intentions are often wrapped up in self-interest.

There have been very few in-depth considerations of just how high-information dissemination might work. I know that it seems crazy to discuss the specific elements of something that might never occur. We may be very alone in the universe. However, if we do experience high-information First Contact, the plan of action for information dissemination may be the most important series of decisions in the history of humanity.

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