Monday, March 19, 2012

Extraterrestrial Contact: Are We Ready?

The popular media, and in many respects the popular imagination, likes to portray aliens as either positive or negative. The beneficent extraterrestrials want to save us and the malevolent ones want to hurt us. Needless to say, the negative portrayals are much more frequent. Angry aliens can blow stuff up and Hollywood loves to blow stuff up.

There is another possibility in extraterrestrial First Contact: aliens that don’t act like humans. I know this is a shocking suggestion, but it seems likely any aliens we meet won’t behave like humans at all. They will behave like aliens. That’s not as much fun for us to portray because that type of speculation can get really complicated. For the most part the complicated considerations are left to the science fiction writers, science fiction fans and SETI scientists.

If an extraterrestrial civilization has the ability to travel the stars it seems likely they will have some sort of science, a framework for how they build knowledge. That logical approach (their logic, not ours) could lead to another motivation for aliens to say hello to humans: benchmarks. Let’s say that an alien civilization has been studying us for some time (and I’m not saying this is the case, it’s a scenario folks). They watch our development and wait until we meet certain criteria. I call them benchmarks because they could be a set of technological or sociological measures. Why would they care about our society and technology? It could be the point when they regularly decide that contact should be made with an up and coming civilization. It could be a point where our society is ready to handle the challenges of First Contact. It might be a situation where they decide we are on the brink of discovering the truth of extraterrestrial intelligence ourselves, through astronomy and other sciences. It could be something we have never even considered, something important to them and obscure to us.

So, we reach the benchmarks and they decide to say hello. What does that say about them? The answer could in many respects be more unnerving than the good or bad aliens. How about the dispassionate, logical aliens? Think of Spock in Star Trek but ramped up several levels. Perhaps they are actually machine intelligence and over the course of evolution they have lost the emotions that we might recognize. That truth would be troubling to us because we would have a hard time feeling connected to such beings. Whether you love them or hate them the good and bad aliens are forms that we can understand. There are plenty of good humans and far too many bad humans. And, of course, the essence of humanity means that every one of us has plenty of good and evil wrapped up inside. Purely logical aliens would be hard to warm up to, one way or another. And if they’re machine based there will be plenty of suspicion based on that characteristic. We have decades of popular fiction dedicated to the notion of our machines taking over the Earth. Would we be able to conceive of machine intelligence as having “being”? I suppose that might depend on how they communicate with us. If they have studied us well, they would want to do their best to communicate in a way that we would understand and also in a way that we would be comfortable. It could be as simple as adopting our colloquial language style and paying attention to sociology. If the aliens are bright enough to travel the stars it seems likely they could come up with a solid public relations campaign.

I think the dispassionate aliens are the most likely scenario if they do travel the stars. Human emotions can be debilitating for both individuals and society as a whole. Emotions may drive us in the survival stage of existence, but with the advent of technology emotions can prove dangerous, not just on a local level, but on a global level. Humans 200 years ago could get mad and perhaps kill 100,000 in a horrible, long-lasting war. Today war can end human civilization and destroy the planet in a matter of hours.

Have we reached the benchmarks and are there aliens out there ready to say hello? Who knows? They could just as easily be too busy with their own matters to even care.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think that emotion is something that can be automatically dismissed, just as logic cannot be automatically accepted as the more advanced mode of thought. I will premise this on the fact that basic instincts, (survival, reproductive drives, etc.), are present in all species. Failure equates to extinction. Hence, our furtive aliens have instinct in their past and present or extinction has or will follow.

Now emotions can be seen as extensions of instinct, (more complex, consisting of an aggregate of instincts, or instincts and emotions.) Reason, in the form of dualistic rationality is a late development and sits upon the foundations of instinct and emotion. If space traveling aliens exist it is reasonable to infer that they are not without instinct and hence have emotion. If nothing else, fear would exist with respect to risks that could kill them. Fear may morph into anger at being threatened, and result in an aggressive response.