Monday, December 12, 2011

Extraterrestrial Contact: Their Rules

We like to think of extraterrestrial First Contact, at least in the most positive form, as a knowledge grab of sorts. We expect that upon meeting members of an alien civilization they will simply open up the floodgates and tell us everything they know. This doesn’t seem very likely.

First Contact will probably not occur in such a straight forward manner anyway. The discovery of a signal would lead to years of research, a return message of our own and perhaps decades later a reply of some sort. But if we are lucky enough to experience high-information First Contact, in some timely manner, it would likely be with a civilization far in advance of our own in terms of technology. That means we would have to play by their rules.

Let’s take the alien perspective for a moment. Why would they want to give us the sum of their many years of collected knowledge? We haven’t earned it. Secondly, it’s hard to say what we would do with it in the first place. Even if the extraterrestrial civilization in question was just hundreds of years in advance of us, it seems unlikely we could even begin to comprehend their understanding of science and technology. After all, science as we know it is a system of building blocks with each discovery leading to many more years of dedicated research and in laborious, painstaking turn eventually leading to new discoveries. Alien knowledge would likely be built in the same fashion and in a set of circumstances probably much different than ours. What could we make of the end result? If one could go back just 90 years and drop the latest version of the iPhone in the lap of Thomas Edison what would we expect him to do with it? Sure, he might find some inspiration to create a new technology based on something he learned from the iPhone, but without a cell network and the internet it wouldn’t be very exciting. Perhaps Edison would only manage to create a primitive version of Angry Birds? Not very useful. In reality, the technology in the iPhone is so advanced that Edison might not get much out of it at all.

It seems to me that beneficent aliens would have several concerns (the ones harboring us ill will would be unlikely to share much at all, and if they did it would be trouble). The first concern is understanding. I have said before that an extraterrestrial civilization would have to educate us, so that we could begin to understand basic knowledge from their perspective. That could take many years. Then, there would be the dangers associated with outside knowledge so quickly gained. We could develop technology that we don’t fully understand and end up harming ourselves and our environment. We could completely wash out the foundation of our systems of scientific research, becoming unable to move forward in a substantial way. We could become completely dependent on alien knowledge. We could lose our independence, our resourcefulness, our drive and eventually our culture. We would be like fat natives sitting on a beach while the colonials spoon feed us. We would come to realize, some years down the road, that we had lost everything we cared about. Sounds pretty negative, right? Well, it’s something to consider, not matter how outlandish it may seem. 

Ultimately though, in a one-sided high-information First Contact event we will be playing by their rules. They will determine what they want to let us know and how they will communicate that knowledge. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should go along with their wishes. It’s our planet and out culture. We need to be protective of who we are and what we are. We need to determine our future. That means that there should be a careful balance between alien desires and human actions. One would hope beneficent aliens would have considered all of this and be a bit stand-offish. They may only give us a few simple guiding ideas and let us explore the resulting insights. They may not want to tell us anything at all about technology and science. They may simply explain who they are and where they came from and leave the rest for us to determine. No matter what, the process won’t be easy. I don’t think anyone on this planet has fully grasped the enormity of what it would mean to meet an extraterrestrial intelligence far in advance of us in technology. There would be a thousand different considerations and pitfalls at every step. We would have to tread lightly going into the new era After First Contact, and we would need to hope that our new extraterrestrial acquaintances had thought it out thoroughly, before ever saying hello.

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