Monday, December 5, 2011

Extraterrestrial Contact: Negative Scenarios

My cat is quite jumpy. He was born feral and even though he lives in the house, even I can cause him to jump from time to time. It’s for good reason. There are plenty of things out there that would like to eat a cat. Caution is what keeps him alive. Caution is also what keeps humans alive. I suppose you could call it reasonable fear. So, it’s hard to fault anyone for having concerns about extraterrestrial First Contact. If it ever does occur, alien visitors could just as easily harbor ill will towards us as they could practice beneficence. As I have mentioned before, I think it is even more likely that aliens would have a complicated mix of motives, many of which could be hard for us to understand. Even good intentions on their part could be quite harmful to the human civilization. So, caution on the part of humans would be important for keeping our human civilization alive and healthy. A group of researchers published some scenarios for First Contact recently in Acta Astronautica. They point out that developing scenarios is important in preparing a risk analysis for First Contact. They also delve into the more complex side of scenarios, points that most writers ignore. So, in the spirit of the article I suggest these possibilities, on the negative side:

-Outright aggression: This is the Hollywood classic attack on planet Earth. It seems unlikely we would get any advance notice.

-Extreme hidden deception: A favorite of conspiracy folks, this scenario involves a secret alien invasion of the covert type that subverts our government and other institutions.

-Extreme outright deception: In this event the aliens would come out and say hello, but in reality have a destructive hidden agenda. Think of the television series “V.”

-Hidden manipulation: A bit different from hidden deception. This would involve the aliens making secret treaties with one nation or group of nations, to the detriment of others.

-Outright manipulation: A public welcome aimed at one particular nation or group of nations. It would be designed to show open allegiance to one particular style of government, religion or culture. It could be used to support a wider agenda.

-Subtle manipulation: A public welcome for the entire world and then a slow and subtle move towards supporting particular governments, religions or cultures on Earth. This might be the most dangerous, because it would be hard to recognize at first.

-Agenda setting: In this scenario, the aliens want us to behave in a certain way. It could be benign, as in encouraging us to take better care of our environment, or intrusive, perhaps supporting a religious or philosophical view they have.

-Galactic political manipulation: If there are many extraterrestrial civilizations out there, and if they have regular contact with each other, there could very well be political conflict between those civilizations. First Contact with Earth could be a first step in trying to influence humans in a much larger political arena; one that we never knew existed. This would be extremely dangerous for us in the long-term. We could be forced to get all of our information about galactic politics from the one set of visitors, with no access to objective information. This scenario could be much worse if active warfare is waged as part of that galactic political conflict. We could get drawn into a military conflict that we do not understand and without the technology to protect ourselves.

-They don’t give a damn about us: This might seem like a neutral scenario, but it could have negative consequences. Perhaps we discover an extraterrestrial civilization, even one passing nearby, and yet they want nothing to do with us (there is a classic science fiction story with this exact premise: Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama”). We are left with the information that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are out there, with very little knowledge about their intentions or numbers or level of technology. That would be scary. How would we react? Would we go into a frenzy of planetary defense building? See the own worst enemy entry coming up for the rest of the story.

-Good intentions, bad results: The aliens could come with perfectly noble intentions, such as providing us with the technology to solve our energy problems and helping us protect our environment. However, that information could be damaging to our systems of science, research and discovery. We could become dependent on alien knowledge and flaccid in the areas of research. Such a process could undermine human civilization in ways that we cannot imagine.

-Our own worst enemy: I’m going to call this the most likely negative scenario. In this event, the aliens don’t do anything negative and yet we have dangerous conflict between nations on Earth, as we attempt to deal with the new reality and as we fight for advantage. Conflict of some sort between nations is inevitable After First Contact. The true question is if we will allow that conflict to grow and be destructive, or whether we will use the conflict as a thoughtful debate that helps us to make better decisions and move forward.

These scenarios are not pretty and in some circumstances they could cause an early demise for humanity.  So, what do we do? I propose that we act exactly like my cat. He knows that there are plenty of things that would like to eat him. He faces threats each and every day. Yet, every morning that cat goes running outside with his tail up and heads straight into the woods to face his fears. He’ll probably be rather jumpy out there and hopefully cautious in where he goes and what he does. I think that humans will need to do the same. The reality of extraterrestrial life should not cause us to isolate ourselves, smother our quest for knowledge or freak out with a massive arms buildup. If First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization ever occurs, we must face it with equal parts of excitement and caution. We should proceed with optimism and skepticism. We must think critically and act boldly. We must make the changes needed to strengthen the human civilization and prepare ourselves for a challenging future- a future full of risk and opportunity.


Laser Guided Loogie said...

About the best that can be hoped for is that they just ignore us and leave us alone. If they take any interest in use, for "good" or bad, then we are screwed.

Eric said...

Possibly so Laser, still I'd rather know what I am dealing with in the universe, especially if it's much more complicated then we imagine. Thanks for the post.

Carl (from UK) said...

Based on the fact that the only identified scientifically intelligent species known are humans, when considering the motives of contacting ETs, I often base my thoughts on my perception of how we would react to finding a lesser intelligent species.

That thought generally seems to worry me, based on our arrogance and disregard for other species that we share our planet with. On earth a number of species have become extinct because of the actions of mankind and many more are being pushed towards extinction in the 21st century. Our wishes, or need for consumption are given more importance than any other species on this planet.

If we were to find a race with the similar intelligence to say chimps on Mars (obviously not going to happen) would we think twice about damaging their environment, displacing them or taking their resources? If we don’t consider the needs of species on our own planet I don’t think we would be more sympathetic to those on other planets.

My hope is that as technology develops so does the responsibility and sense of right and wrong. Hopefully any advanced civilization that may contact us would not have the same faults that we have and would not be driven by the fascination with economy and consumption.
Our (mankind’s) understanding is limited by our own experiences. I am in agreement with the post that we must embrace any contact with careful consideration, whilst trying to think outside of the box and realize that we don’t have all of the answers.

Eric said...

Carl: I agree that any intelligent extraterrestrial life of lesser technological development than us had better be careful, because we don't have a good track record here at home. Hopefully an alien civilization of advanced technology would also have an advanced sense of altruism and treat us better than we treat our fellow creatures here on Earth. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one that has excited thoughts about aliens visiting Earth and then attacking us? I'm sure it's because of all the movies I have seen, but still I kind of think it would be exciting for it to happen. We would all end up in some kind of Mad Max world trying to survive....seems kind of fun. Love your blog.

Jimmy C :)

Eric said...

That's funny Jimmy...never thought of it that way. I don't know, alien invasion probably wouldn't be half as much fun as Hollywood makes it out to be...but I'm with you, always up for a good fight!