Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Extraterrestrial Contact: Who Controls Alien First Contact?

It’s a simple question and a question for which there are probably no simple answers. In many respects, though, the question of who should control alien First Contact comes down to whom you trust more- individual governments or humans as a whole. That may sound like a generalization and I agree, those are very broad terms. But at the heart of the issue is a simple philosophy that would be the subject of great debate: I believe that all humans should participate in alien First Contact. How could this happen? Through international representation and vigorous debate.

Government control is the most popular scenario in books and movies. It seems to stem from 1950’s post-nuclear fears. In the movies, we humans look to the military for expertise and leadership in the wake of alien contact. Interestingly, in many of those plot lines, the military leaders eventually screw-up the mission, by trying to exert too much control. And that’s the problem. We would likely have some degree of anxiety in alien contact and having the military in charge is a way to protect ourselves. But eventually we could question the motives of the military. Will they keep the event secret and try to gain technological advantages though alien contact? Will the government deem alien contact too dangerous for the public to know about?

These are simplistic scenarios, but I think they do mirror our fears and concerns. We want someone to be in control and to protect us, however we worry about what that might mean in the long-term.

This is something astrophysicists involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence have been considering for some time now. The most well-known protocol comes from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA).

The protocol calls for scientific confirmation of the signal discovery before any public announcement is made. The next step involves notifying other scientists of the discovery and confirmation. The next level is scientific associations and governmental leaders. The United Nations is listed, as well, with perhaps the strongest role in the protocol and the specific mention of a UN Committee- the Committee on the Peace Uses of Outer Space.

Such a protocol is relatively straightforward. It is supported by well-regarded scientific associations and it follows procedures that might be used for other astronomical discoveries. There is a ready-made system for the first level of extraterrestrial signal detection. Best of all, the instruments (radio telescopes) used for such signal detection are controlled primarily by scientists and academic institutions. There is a certain amount of openness built into their usual process of communication.

Direct First Contact would be different. In such a case, the most likely first responders would be law enforcement and the military, in whatever jurisdiction a craft landed or made direct contact with humans. That provides a level of institutional control. The authorities may support transparency and public observation of such an event. They may also choose to hide the event and subsequent interaction.

That’s why I suggest a sudden, media-based First Contact scenario. If done correctly, transparency and openness would be an integral part of the event. Institutions could seek to gain control of the situation, but the media scrutiny would create pressure on law enforcement and the military to be transparent in actions and accountable to the public.

There is no doubt that First Contact needs to be led by someone. It could be a coalition of scientific, governmental, and academic groups, as suggested in the IAA protocol. The obvious group to lead such an effort would be the United Nations, as it is the largest and most robust international agency on the planet. The UN provides a system of representation for the great majority of nations on Earth. It has built-in systems of bureaucracy that could be applied to First Contact. Most importantly, it is a body that is designed to foster discussion and debate among nations. That exists nowhere else on the planet to such a degree.

Direct First Contact is an unlikely event, due to the vast distances of space and the constraints of physics, as we understand the field currently. It is not, however, entirely out of the realm of possibility. If it were to occur there will be an inevitable conflict between the public right to know and the governmental mission of protection. There will need to be careful thought given to each and every step.
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