Scientists Are Gaming Out What Humanity Will Do If Aliens Make Contact

Will the monumental moment of first contact fuel division among war-hungry humanity, or will it inspire our better angels and unite us?
Scientists Are Gaming Out What Humanity Will Do If Aliens Make Contact
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Do intelligent aliens exist somewhere out there in the universe? It is a grand mystery that has captivated humans for generations, fueling ever-more sophisticated searches of the skies for signs of advanced civilizations. But while aliens have taken many forms in our imaginations—from hostile invaders to inscrutable ciphers—we have absolutely no idea what extraterrestrial life-forms might look like, how they would communicate, or even if they exist at all.

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We can, however, make some assumptions about the only intelligent space-faring species that we know of—humans—and how we might react to contact with an alien civilization. Indeed, people have spent decades developing protocols that attempt to anticipate this momentous event and all of the extraordinary potential consequences it could have on our civilization. It’s an especially important question now, as the world appears more strongly divided than at any time in recent memory, with major powers taking on increasingly antagonistic stances toward each other. 

In 2020, a pair of researchers dug into this question in an article in Space Policy by suggesting that humans might pose as big a risk to ourselves in the aftermath of alien contact as any extraterrestrial species. The study views the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through the lens of “realpolitik,” a term that describes the kind of gritty power plays and practical maneuvers that nations pull to enhance their own positions. 

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Authors Kenneth Wisian and John Traphagan, a geophysicist and cultural anthropologist, respectively, at the University of Texas at Austin, envision nations monopolizing contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, a move that could spark escalating conflicts, including possible attacks on astronomical facilities. For this reason, the team said scientists might need to enlist personal security to protect them and their families from state actors, or even terrorists, in the wake of a such a momentous event, among other concerns raised in the study.

“What might we do to ourselves? Let's not just think about what they might do to us, or vice versa, but what are the threads internally?”

“The SETI academic field is focused on looking out, and the main issues and concerns that have been brought up throughout the history of SETI development have been: what threats could the aliens present to us, if any?” said Wisian, who is a retired Major General in the U.S. Air Force, in a call with Motherboard. “I hadn't seen any thought about, well, what might we do to ourselves?” 

“From a grounding in military and international affairs history, it seems pretty obvious to me that a lot of times people act on perceived interest and perceived threats,” he continued. “That's what germinated the idea—what might we do to ourselves? Let's not just think about what they might do to us, or vice versa, but what are the threads internally?”

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When the study came out two years ago, it caught the attention of Jason Wright, an astronomer and SETI researcher at Penn State University. Wright disagreed with many of Wisian and Traphagan’s conclusions, and published a blog post at the time expressing his thoughts on what he called the “very dubious assumptions” underlying the study. 

“I felt like it was misguided,” Wright said in a call with Motherboard, referring to the 2020 study. “I understood why they were writing what they wrote, but I thought it really would have benefited from a better understanding of how SETI and radio astronomy works, because it was based on a lot of misunderstandings about that.”

“Then, taking my own medicine, I said I’d love to write a rebuttal, but I'm not an expert on philosophy, ethics, geopolitics, and space law,” he added. 

For this reason, Wright connected with Chelsea Haramia, a philosopher at Spring Hill College, and Gabriel Swiney, a senior policy advisor in NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy, and Strategy. 

The team has now presented a comprehensive rebuttal to Wisian and Traphagan’s article, arguing that some of the study’s suggestions could backfire by sowing distrust and confusion, among many other scientific and ethical critiques presented in their new work, which was published this month in Space Policy.  

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The disagreements between the teams are a microcosm of the kaleidoscopic diversity of views about the possible outcomes of a successful contact event with aliens, especially what it would mean for humans here on Earth. So, what do these perspectives reveal about what might happen if humanity finally makes the ultimate discovery? 

Could a nation monopolize communication with aliens?

Imagine an intelligent alien species sends a decipherable message to Earth that is received by a sophisticated astronomical observatory. In another scenario, a piece of alien technology could actually fall to Earth and be recovered by people on the ground. Though this is a far-fetched possibility, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb believes that alien artifacts may have already reached Earth; he is currently planning an expedition to search for any surviving fragments of what was likely an interstellar meteor that hit our planet in 2014, which he thinks could be artificial in origin (Loeb’s views about alien artifacts have received substantial pushback from other scientists).

Regardless of the odds of such an event, Wisian and Traphagan argue that state officials who receive a message or artifact of this kind might conclude that they could exert a geopolitical advantage by monopolizing communication with the extraterrestrials, or by siloing information about alien technologies. To support their case, the team presents many historical examples of nations using this type of realpolitik approach.

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“Pretty much by definition, if we make contact with some other intelligence, they're going to have a time advantage on us and therefore, probably, a significant technological lead,” Wisian said. “That is the driver. It's the information, and what it could provide as far as an advantage in international affairs and power and diplomacy, that would drive countries to take strong action to try to monopolize that channel.”

“I could definitely see world leaders acting on that perceived reward,” he added.

Wisian and Traphagan speculate that these perceived rewards could make radio telescopes targets for espionage or cyberattacks—or perhaps even real physical attacks with air strikes or weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Morever, extremist groups that might be threatened by the reality of alien contact “would have the ability to launch small-scale raids (i.e., terrorist attacks) or possibly WMD attacks…aimed at destroying the critical infrastructure for [extraterrestrial intelligence] communication or the key personnel involved,” Wisian and Traphagan said in the study. 

With that in mind, the researchers suggested that astronomical facilities and personnel might need to be defended by military or other security forces, citing the kind of protection often seen around nuclear power plants, biowarfare research institutions, or American abortion services providers.

Wright and his colleagues raised several objections with these arguments in their new study. On a practical technical level, the team said that it is very unlikely that any nation or group would be able to monopolize communication with an alien species. While an initial detection of an extraterrestrial message might be captured by a premiere observatory, such as China’s Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope (FAST) or the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia, other facilities—and potentially even amateur sky watchers—could quickly start listening in, as well.

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“If there are alien signals landing on Earth that contain this kind of information, then anyone can pick it up,” Wright said. “Once you know the frequency and the location on the sky, you could use satellite dishes and no one would know you were doing it because satellite dishes are pointed at the sky for all kinds of reasons. So, sending a bunch of troops to Green Bank isn't going to accomplish anything.”

In fact, Wright and his colleagues propose that hardening security around astronomical facilities might actually backfire and exacerbate the very tensions that Wisian and Traphagan sound alarms about in their study.  

“If we start locking down all the SETI facilities and getting all the SETI people personal security to protect them against state-level actors, it's going to look like something happened,” Wright said. “It's going to look like you need to do that; that it was necessary for some reason. That's what we're trying to avoid. We're trying to avoid that escalation.” 

“So, we were worried that their recommendations would take something that's a remote possibility to be guarded against, and make it happen, basically, by treating it as a foregone conclusion that we just go ahead and start protecting against. Our argument is that you have to fight that misperception by explaining what's going on.”

Both teams agree that this type of contact scenario—which involves a clear intelligible message with some kind of advantageous information—is extremely unlikely. It stands to reason that our first experience with extraterrestrial life in the universe would be much murkier in content and interpretation. For instance, Wright pointed out that humans cannot even speak the languages of other intelligent animals on Earth, such as dolphins or elephants, which casts doubt on our ability to decode any message from another civilization. 

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Wisian and Traphagan, however, note that it is worth thinking about dangerous situations even if the odds of them materializing are astronomically low.

“I hope for the best, but as a military guy, you look at the range of possibilities and you may not focus on the worst, but you have to at least take into account those potential options,” Wisian said. “If something has severe consequences, you can't just dismiss it. Neither one of us said that this is likely—it's just that it's a possibility that needs to be considered.”

Would alien contact promote conflict or cooperation among nations?

Given that monopolizing access to aliens is unlikely, it’s worth widening the aperture to consider some of the general concerns raised by Wisian and Traphagan under their realpolitik analysis of an alien contact event. 

The researchers were partly inspired to write the 2020 study because they believe the protocols surrounding first contact are “limited in scope to aspirational thinking” and are not yet equipped to address the “thorny political ramifications of a discovery,” according to the study. By weaving in historical examples of power plays that span the Peloponnesian War, the Renaissance era, and the Cold War, among others, the team argue that governments are often unconstrained by international laws and deaf to the calls of scientists to adhere to existing protocols and treaties. 

“The scientists may think they are in charge, but as soon as something like this happens, the governmental bodies are going to take charge, and it will go outside of scientists’ hands,” Wisian said, though he added that “scientists have a pretty good network and an ability to subvert controls, which gives me cause for some optimism here.”

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While Wright and his colleagues said that there is value in viewing SETI through a realpolitik lens, they note that this is one of many possible geopolitical perspectives that need to be considered when developing post-detection protocols. For instance, if a nation were the first to receive an alien signal, it might want to shout the news from the rooftops—as opposed to shroud the discovery in secrecy—due to the “incalculable prestige that would accrue to the state that made arguably the most significant scientific finding of the modern era,” Wright’s team said in their study.

In much the same way, Wright and his colleagues suggest that even if nations are primarily motivated by self-interest, their realpolitik posture to an alien message could very well be collaborative rather than combative. 

“Most interactions between nations are not driven by the threat of force,” Wright said. “There are so many other, probably more likely, outcomes that we can see, and so many other successful ways that nations manage sensitive science and technology in a peaceful cooperative way—even among rivals—that it's clear that we have a framework other than just hardening security for managing that sort of thing.” 

“We're having this discussion because we don't really have a good post-detection protocol yet”

“The example we give is fusion research,” he continued, referring to the international effort to derive power from nuclear fusion reactions. “It’s a sensitive topic that involves nuclear materials and nuclear technologies, but it's primarily driven towards trying to develop peaceful civilian uses for nuclear power generation. We have these international agreements that rivals sign onto and, basically, obey, that allows for constrained international collaboration.” 

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For his part, Wisian does not dispute that outcomes beyond the realpolitik mold are possible. Indeed, he hopes that any first contact scenarios inspire our better angels and promote more scientific curiosity to counter ascendant anti-science attitudes and distrust in research institutions. 

Moreover, while Wisian said that many of the points raised by Wright’s team seem valid, he objected to what he saw as “straw man” arguments in their new study that misrepresented his original work with Traphagan. Wisian also acknowledged that the SETI field is not his academic specialty—he is an expert on geothermal energy—but suggested that interdisciplinary input will be essential to a robust post-detection plan.

“I've worked and served in multiple wars,” Wisian said. “I've seen how humanity actually behaves—not how it theoretically should.” 

How should we prepare for first contact?

To that end, both teams also agree on another important point: As the search for life elsewhere in the universe continues to mature, people from all walks of life should be involved in the preparations for a successful detection of alien life, and what it might mean for all Earthlings.

There should be “a ‘big tent’ approach to this, not just a few disciplines and academics—and not just the academic world,” said Wisian. “There's a whole bunch of areas that are ripe for exploration here that could move from the science fiction world into the practical planning world, like SETI has moved, over the last 50 or 60 years, from science fiction to a major scientific discipline now.”

Wright also pointed to the need to enlist diverse perspectives in the conversation about alien contact, and our own human reaction to it, though he emphasized that these efforts should involve researchers who are steeped in SETI history and technologies.

To that point, the basic post-detection protocol, as it stands today, is centered on making sure a detection is accurate, disseminating the news to the public as soon as it has been unambiguously confirmed, and refraining from responding to the alien civilization—not necessarily because of any inherent danger, but because a reply would need to emerge on behalf of our entire civilization, which is no simple task. 

Both teams think that there are many nuances and gaps within, and around, the existing guidelines that will need to be addressed by future discussions between people with different views and backgrounds. To that end, the United Nations, the International Academy of Astronautics, and other organizations have been working for years to harness the talents of people with a wide range of expertise—including sociologists, philosophers, policy makers, and scientists—to game out the various ways in which we might first encounter alien life. 

That work will have to keep pace with the exciting pace of the search for aliens in the skies, as well as the dizzying geopolitical and cultural shifts that we are experiencing right here on Earth.

“Our paper is not supposed to close the book on this topic,” said Wright. “We're having this discussion because we don't really have a good post-detection protocol yet. We have protocols that are old and they're probably insufficient, given all of the ways that we can do SETI these days.” 

“The response has to represent humanity and we don't know how to do that,” he concluded. “It should not be the purview of the people who make the discovery to be the ones to respond. That's a bigger decision that needs to be made at a larger collective level. That’s the essence of the protocol.”