Monday, January 30, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Discovery and Response

I’ve been discussing recently possible scenarios for First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. It’s a wide-ranging discussion, since it could happen in many different ways, if it ever happens at all. That may sound like the end of the story. But in reality First Contact itself just leads to a bigger question: what happens next? The response to First Contact could perhaps be more important than the discovery. The response will have a large role in determining our future as a civilization.

Most scientists work on the discovery and rightly so; it is undoubtedly the first step. However, the danger lies in the response. If we don’t have a road map to move forward after First Contact we could make knee-jerk decisions and those decisions could be harmful in both the short-term and long-term. First Contact would bring about many challenges across a wide-range of human institutions and endeavors.

It would be impossible to project a plan of response going very far into the future, primarily because much of our response would be determined by the nature of the extraterrestrial civilization, their intentions, the type of First Contact, the degree of impact and the areas of impact. First Contact could simply be a mysterious engineered signal that takes us dozens of years to understand. Or First Contact could be easily understandable and high-information in content, providing many new ideas and many challenges resulting from those new ideas. First Contact could be indirect, as in a long-term conversation across space. First Contact could also be direct, with many immediacy issues, such as threat and diplomacy.

With so many questions it’s easy to suggest that we put aside these considerations and focus on the discovery. I recognize that from a physical sciences perspective that makes sense. However, I believe there is value from a social science perspective in trying to better understand how humans perceive First Contact. That information can help us prepare some initial steps in our response to First Contact. There are many questions unanswered, even in those very first steps. What body should speak for planet Earth? Who should decide what we would say to an extraterrestrial civilization? How can we ensure that all humans are represented in that process? Should there even be representation or should it be controlled by experts in science or government? If researchers in one country make a discovery should it be shared with the world? Should decisions be made in secrecy or should the process be out in the open for all to see?

If you have been reading this blog for very long you can already predict my answers to those questions. I firmly believe that the response to First Contact needs to be determined by a body that represents all of the nations on the planet. All humans have a right to be represented in the process. I don’t think that scientists and government officials should be allowed to work in a vacuum or in secrecy after a signal is confirmed. We need an immediate response by an assigned body with, at the very least, an outline of what parts of that body should be involved in the response. I am speaking of the United Nations. It’s the only world body that represents the great majority of nations on Earth. I think the United Nations needs to have an outline for the first steps after the discovery of a signal. Those steps need to provide for a number of possible scenarios, ranging from the discovery of a mysterious engineered signal, all the way up to Direct First Contact here in our solar system. The U.N. needs to assign specific parts of its organization to the task of response and have a clearly defined decision making process. This needs to include input from the General Assembly along with some organized form of conversation and debate. Each of these steps needs to be completely transparent and open to all humans. There needs to be a mechanism to ensure that the process moves forward, even if the debate is extreme. It is unlikely that everyone will agree to any First Contact response process. Still, decisions will have to be made and humans will need to be able to react quickly, if necessary. The immediacy of the First Contact scenario will be the primary factor in this consideration. The discovery of a mysterious engineered signal could give us years to debate a response plan. Direct First Contact would require an immediate plan.

What we need is a vision for our future After First Contact. We would be entering into a new era of human history. We can either leap into an unknown abyss or take steps down a rough path of our own design. It’s our choice. The decisions need to be made now.


Álvaro Cardoso said...

Every day that passes, less and less I believe something such event will be announced, or really happen.

If "Crisis" was one of the words most used last year, "Censorship" is the most used this year of 2012...

It laws and politics like the ones that are being approved by our leaders and governs, why should such event/knowledge be shared? Or why a Civilization from other planet would want to contact us?

What do we have to offer them? Our Humanity? Our respect to the other life forms or human beings? Our respect to our "Home", Earth? :)

To be able to contact us, they must be at least in the same level of evolution and technology, right? What would you do, contact a planet and civilization like ours? Interfere with their problems?...

But congratulations for your post. ;-)

Eric said...

Alvaro: You're right...aliens would have to have an important reason to contact us. I don't think they would neccesarily have to interfere in our problems...but just saying hello would have a huge impact on us. They could certainly be worried about us, quite understandable given how awful we are to each other and animals on our planet.

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric said...

This post by Carl from the UK disappeared somehow in Google...I thought it was quite good so here it is:

Carl (from UK) has left a new comment on your post "Extraterrestrial Contact: Discovery and Response":

The lack of any formal response to any first contact scenario is becoming worrying, given the increasing number of exosolar planets we are discovering and the improvements in technology used to identify planets/life.

A program called 'Stargazing' live aired in the UK on the BBC earlier this month and they pointed the country's biggest radio antenna towards Keplar 22b to listen for signals of ET life.

This wasn’t expected to detect life, but it was discussed on the after show that the BBC had tried to find guidelines of what to do in the event of picking up an intelligent signal. Other than an health and safety form there was no formal guidance.

One of the presenters confirmed that the UN would not talk to them – but the Vatican had a 20-minute chat. I think it is strange that an organisation with a lot to gain from first contract (UN) would not play ball, but an organisation with potentially a lot to lose (Catholic church) were willing to listen.

My reply: Carl, it's interesting that the Catholic Church has been out front on the issue for several years now, primarily thanks to a very creative and forward thinking astrophysicist at the Vatican. Why the UN won't take it seriously probably comes back to reputation. They struggle for respect from nations and perhaps they feel that giving any thought to extraterrestrial contact would hurt their reputation. I still think they could do such in the background and quietly and perhaps they are...I hope anyway. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.