While we haven't seen any signs of extraterrestrial beings on the galactic horizon just yet, some scientists have mounted a serious effort to prepare for their arrival. One of the biggest conundrums post-encounter, and one that a raft of sci-fi movies seem to fail miserably at solving, is how to avoid a Mars Attacks-style bloodbath and the potential end of our civilization.
One solution might be: Instead of engaging in warfare, why not try trading with aliens instead? That's the idea put forth by Daniel Helman, professor of Labor Relations and Trade Unions at Ton Duc Thang University in Vietnam. We've even got a commodity here on Earth worthy of an intergalactic trade agreement, Helman says: DNA—from animals, plants… even us.
Helman proposed the idea at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles in May. When I talked to him on the phone afterward, he explained why the usual Earthling trading goods—tools, weapons, or technology—just wouldn't cut it with extraterrestrials. Any alien civilization that makes contact with Earth is probably way more advanced than us, and wouldn't be interested in our technological relics, he said. They might, however, be interested in sharing some of their cutting-edge technologies or scientific insights in exchange for something they couldn’t get at home.
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Helman said what makes genetic information so unique is that it is the result of millions of years of evolution and interaction with Earth's particular environment. Essentially, it's a record of everything that's happened on Earth up to this point, from mass extinctions to the industrial revolution. “Our environment is unique, hence the genetics of all the organisms here and in the solar system are unique,” explained Helman.
Here's how a trade deal with aliens might go down, explained Helman. First, you would need to collect DNA from the wildlife in question—blood, spit, hair... anything that contains the building blocks of life as we know it. Then, all the genetic information of a particular organism would need to be decoded by scientists (such as the Human Genome Project, which concluded in 2003). That genetic information would be parcelled up with the organism's life history: pictures of it, maps of where it lives, charts of its evolution, and details of how the environment affects the expression of those genes (epigenetics). What you would get is a neat little package of pretty much everything that constitutes a living being, aside from the actual being itself.
Trading DNA comes with the added benefit of preserving genetic information elsewhere, said Helman. It's like a conservation insurance policy for Earth, in case we wipe out life all by ourselves through nuclear war or climate change. The possibility of a civilizational insurance policy might also drive people to try harder to conserve creatures now, reasoned Helman.
“You can’t form the basis for trade if you don’t have the goods,” he told me. “If we’re destroying biodiversity then we’re limiting the unique goods we have. It's a utilitarian reason to promote biodiversity.”
The idea of aliens landing on Earth, let alone us trading with them, might sound far-fetched. After all, of the more than 3,700 planets we've discovered outside our solar system, only about 50 of those have even the remotest chance of housing life.The organic molecules on Mars that NASA discovered earlier this month could have been from a volcanic explosion or meteor rather than a googly-eyed Martian life form.
But Dr Nikola Schmidt, a political scientist from Charles University in Prague, thinks it’s hardly strange to be contemplating life on other planets, or our potential interactions with them. Schmidt works in planetary defense—the field of research tasked with figuring out how to protect Earth from things outside its own sphere, be that asteroid or foreign being. Our relative isolation in our galaxy and the pace of technological and social evolution—alongside our destruction of the planet,—drive our desire to look elsewhere, he said.
Schmidt’s concern with Helman’s idea is what alien intelligent beings might do with the genetic information we give them. “It might be a threat to us,” he told me over the phone. “They might, for example, make diseases targeted to us.”
Daniel Ross, a PhD candidate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who’s interested in how we might decode alien languages, said it’s not so much about finding definitive answers to questions yet (we don’t have the means to), but rather theorizing on potential scenarios. If contact is made, he said, “It’ll basically be a game of interstellar poker. If you’ve never played poker before you’re probably not very good at it.”
Ross notes that how we might interact with alien civilizations is similar to how we interact with other cultures: understanding their language, seeking common ground, and finding fair and equal ways to co-exist without one culture being suppressed by another.
Helman likened the discussions around alien contact to those conversations people are having around the ethics of artificial intelligence. A sentient, autonomous AI doesn’t exist yet but scientists are theorizing around what moral values it may possess, its rights as a sentient being, and how our relationship with it might function.
Helman's theories are part of a group effort by ethicists, planetary scientists, linguists, and other scientific and arts scholars to prepare for extraterrestrial contact. His presentation at the conference was among those put on by Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) International and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute—international groups of scientists trying to figure out how to write and send messages out into the universe, and how those messages could be interpreted—for better or worse.
Helman sees an international, non-profit, scientific advisory group as a way to take discussions, and potential plans, further. There’s no group like this discussing intergalactic trade yet, although METI and SETI could take it on; Helman is hoping the academic paper he’ll publish later this year will get the group started.
It’s time to discuss the possibilities, Helman said. “Humanity is at a wonderful time right now for available technology and scientific advances, and so it makes sense to look at the options for various futures—before decisions have been made [that] will commit civilization to any one path.”