From The Guardian:
NASA Paper Speculates On Alien Contact - Here's Your Guide to Surviving the Alien Invasion
Scientists from NASA's Planetary Science Division & Penn State University have authored a report (pdf) that analyzes various "First Contact" scenarios with an intelligent alien species. The report goes through various approaches to Fermi's Paradox, interstellar communication, the possible effects to Earth & humanity, as well as the possible reaction of an alien civilization to human societies
The paper is highly speculative, and there's no sign that there's any threat from a fleet of Klingon Battle Cruisers appearing in orbit anytime soon (although, according to Paul Krugman an Ozymandias Plan might actually help us get out of the economic slump).
So I thought I might have some late-night fun & go through some of the paper's arguments while mixing it with some of the better known TV shows, video games & movies in science fiction.
It may not rank as the most compelling reason to curb greenhouse gases, but reducing our emissions might just save humanity from a pre-emptive alien attack, scientists claim.
Watching from afar, extraterrestrial beings might view changes in Earth's atmosphere as symptomatic of a civilisation growing out of control – and take drastic action to keep us from becoming a more serious threat, the researchers explain.
This highly speculative scenario is one of several described by scientists at Nasa and Pennsylvania State University that, while considered unlikely, they say could play out were humans and alien life to make contact at some point in the future.
The paper goes through various hypothetical answers to Fermi's Paradox. (i.e. "the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.")
- Option 1 - Life &/or Intelligent life are rare in the universe, and Earth & humanity are one of very few places it exists. There are too few intelligent species, spread too far apart across the galaxy & universe, for contact to ever occur.
- Option 2 - The "sustainability solution" (pdf); as a basic concept of biology, exponential growth with limited resource is ultimately unsustainable for a species. The sustainability solution argues that even if a group of alien species in our part of the galactic neighborhood had a 10,000, 50,000 or 100,000 year "head start" on humanity, that would still be no guarantee that they're in a position to contact/be detected by Earth, since a) they may have attempted to expand & their society collapsed due to a lack of resources to sustain themselves or b) they may be advancing, but at a much slower rate in order to exist.
- Option 3 - There are many alien species, and we are either unable to detect them or some of them choose not to be detected (aka the Zoo Hypothesis).
"As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes the introduction of superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely."
— Starfleet's General Order no. 1 (aka The Prime Directive from "Star Trek")
Even if intelligent aliens exist somewhere nearby, that's still no guarantee we would understand each other if we detected each other. Plus they would probably need very large rabbit ears to pick up our TV signals, since they're diffuse and not targeted at any particular star system.
From the Report (pdf):
Advanced extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) within 100 light years could receive our earliest radio transmissions; those less than 50 light years away could watch our television shows; and those less than 10 light years away could receive our earliest intentional messages to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) attempts. Thus, the radiation that has been unintentionally leaking and intentionally transmitted from Earth may have already alerted any nearby ETI to our presence and may eventually alert more distant ETI. Once ETI become alerted to our presence, it will take at least as many years for us to realize that they know we are here. During the intervening time, ETI can respond to our presence or prepare for contact in ways that we would have no knowledge of or influence on.
Even if humanity can successfully exchange signals with ETI, there is no guarantee that the information will be successfully communicated. In order for information to be exchanged, it is also necessary that humans and ETI understand the contents of each others’ messages. It will likely be difficult at first to communicate anything subjective about human experience, emotions, and expressions, so mathematical conversation may comprise our first few exchanges with ETI.
A major theme of Stanislaw Lem's work is communication & understanding.
- In "Fiasco," attempts to forcefully establish contact with an Alien civilization end in disaster when Humanity fundamentally misunderstands why the Aliens don't respond.
- In "His Master's Voice," all attempts to understand a suspected Alien message to Humanity fail. The novel is not as much about Aliens, but examining the perspectives of Humanity & what each character believes the message to be.
- I always thought "Solaris" had the most intriguing question. If we have problems communicating with each other as Humans, or coming to terms with our own internal feelings, how do we expect to talk to & understand something Alien?
The next aspect the report discusses is what possible ethical & worldview stances an extraterrestrial species might take, as well as what the implications of a divided alien society might be. In much of science fiction, alien species are monolithic. They all wear the same uniform. They all serve the same leader. And they all have the same philosophy? What if they're divided like us? Does it make a difference if a nation from Omicron Persei VIII attempts contact, instead of the entire planet?
This also gets into questions of who speaks for Earth in any sort of communique? What if an alien species only wants to speak to the representatives of the UN Security Council, but 14 or 15 countries object? Can the Security Council still legitimately claim to speak for humanity?
Human ethics is often anthropocentric in the sense that it places intrinsic value only on human phenomena, such as human life, human happiness, or other human factors. Such anthropocentrism is selfish on a civilizational scale because it involves humans only placing intrinsic value on the interests of their own civilization. In contrast, a universalist ethical framework would place equal intrinsic value on certain phenomena regardless of which civilizations possessed these phenomena. For example, a universalist civilization that places intrinsic value on life will place equal intrinsic value on all life, regardless of which civilization (or non-civilization) the life is part of. In this case, the civilization will try to maximize the total amount of life, regardless of whose life it is maximizing. If instead it places intrinsic value on some phenomenon other than life, then it will try to maximize that phenomenon wherever it occurs.
It is possible that an ETI would have a heterogeneous population instead of a homogenous one. Evidence for this can be found in the human population, which features a highly diverse mix of technological abilities, ethical views, national identities, and other attributes. For example, in the event of an ETI encounter, humanity may be fiercely divided on whether to respond peacefully or with protective aggression. ETI may be similarly divided. At a minimum, humanity’s diversity provides proof of the principle that intelligent civilizations can be heterogeneous.
The possibility of ETI heterogeneity suggests that an encounter might not follow one general trajectory but instead could have multiple trajectories in series or perhaps even in parallel. For example, an encounter could rapidly change form if a shift in power occurred within the ETI leadership. Or, we might receive mixed signals from the ETI if it lacks a single unified leadership structure; perhaps several ETI factions or nations that originate from the same home world will make contact with us, each in pursuit of different objectives.
The paper then gets into possible societal effects to Earth, ranging from inconsequential to beneficial, and all the way to high octane nightmare fuel.
Before getting into all of the shitty things that have been thought up by science-fiction for what a hostile species might conceivably do, there is an argument that if tomorrow Aliens landed in Central Park & peacefully said "Hello," or played the five tones from 'Close Encounters Of The Third Kind," the effect to the planet could be disastrous.
In this scenario, contact with ETI serves as a demoralizing force to humanity, with strong negative consequences. In human history, contact between modern society and stone age culture usually leads to the demise of the more primitive society. Likewise, in the event of contact with ETI, humanity may be driven toward global cultural collapse when confronted with ETI technology, beliefs, and lifestyle. Even if the ETI are friendly toward us and give us the choice to accept or reject their knowledge, the vast differences between our respective societies may force the more primitive one (ours) into a demoralizing state of societal collapse. For this reason, if ETI do already know of our presence and if they wish to preserve the integrity of our civilization, then they may choose to reveal themselves to us slowly and gradually in order to avoid a calamitous response.
But what if the aliens are assholes?
Back in April, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warned against being too quick to make contact with an alien species if the opportunity ever presented itself. His argument being that it's entirely possible it would be like Native Americans making contact with Columbus. It didn't work out too well for the Native Americans in that exchange.
If I remember correctly, Carl Sagan had the almost exact opposite position. His argument was that any species capable of interstellar travel would more likely than not be benevolent. Sagan reasoned that a Nazi-like fascist or authoritarian alien civilization bent on interstellar domination would destroy itself (i.e. be unsustainable) before it could reach that level of technical ability.
However, let's just hope there are no aliens that think we're cute like seals (or, on the other hand, treat us like Canadians & beat us over the head).
A selfish ETI is one that places intrinsic value only on properties of itself: its lives, its welfare, etc. The idea of a selfish ETI is quite prominent in discussions of ETI. For example, geographer Jared Diamond, drawing from his expertise in encounters between different intelligent populations on Earth, argues that astronomers are often overly optimistic about ETI encounters:
The astronomers and others hope that the extraterrestrials, delighted to discover fellow intelligent beings, will sit down for a friendly chat. Perhaps the astronomers are right; that's the best-case scenario. A less pleasant prospect is that the extraterrestrials might behave the way we intelligent beings have behaved whenever we have discovered other previously unknown intelligent beings on earth, like unfamiliar humans or chimpanzees and gorillas. Just as we did to those beings, the extraterrestrials might proceed to kill, infect, dissect, conquer, displace or enslave us, stuff us as specimens for their museums or pickle our skulls and use us for medical research. My own view is that those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naïve, even dangerous.
A core concern is that ETI will learn of our presence and quickly travel to Earth to eat or enslave us. Predation is common among life forms on Earth because it can be more efficient to prey upon other biota than it is to independently utilize autotrophy for energy, carbon fixation, and other nutrients for cellular material. This may be less of a concern if the chirality of organics on Earth is poorly suited as a universal food source. Additionally, an advanced society capable of interstellar travel may be less likely to turn to humans as a source of food or labor because they should have already solved these problems through some combination of machine labor, artificial synthesis, and conservation. Nevertheless, other selfish motives may cause ETI to harm us, such as their drive to spread their beliefs through evangelism (akin to the spread of Christianity or Islam) or their desire to use humans for entertainment purposes.
As Iosif Shklovskii and Carl Sagan [have] discussed:
Or perhaps human beings have some relatively uncommon talent, of which they are themselves entirely unaware. J. B. S. Haldane once pointed out to me that sea lions and seals have a remarkable ability to balance a rubber ball on their noses, which is part of the reason we maintain them in captivity.
In the Halo video game franchise, humanity has been attacked by a group of alien races united under a theocracy called the Covenant. The leadership of the Covenant has declared humanity a demonic abomination & affront to their religion. A decades long war commences, with one of the goals being the complete & total genocide of the human race. Billions of humans die as the Covenant "glass" world after world. However, the exact location of Earth is kept a secret, with any ship and/or personnel being expendable to preserve the information.
In the conclusions to the report, the authors make a similar suggestion. They recommend that all future messages seeking contact be more careful about the information it offers up about Earth & humanity.
The Golden Records aboard Voyager I and II contain detailed information about Earth's biosphere & human biology (the images below are among those included on the Golden Record). The report sees this as a potential threat.
It's also argued that current global climate change patterns could possibly be interpreted as a threat to an alien civilization that might be worried about an expansionist species.
Our analysis suggests some immediate practical recommendations for humanity. One recommendation is that messages to extraterrestrials should be written cautiously. For example, prior messages have included details of human biology, such as the numbers one through ten (our base ten system is likely derived from the number of fingers on our hands) and the form and structure of the DNA molecule. However, details about our biology, though seemingly harmless, may actually help certain ETI to cause us harm. A malicious ETI listener may use a message about human biology to design a potent biological weapon for use against Earth. Since these messages will ultimately be sent toward unknown ETI, we cannot know whether or not they might be received by such a malicious ETI. Therefore, caution is warranted. For example, initial communication with ETI may be best limited to simple mathematical discourse for security purposes until we have a better idea of the type of ETI we are dealing with. In our view, decision making regarding messaging should factor in the probabilities and magnitudes of possible message scenarios through a formal risk analysis that could draw on the scenario analysis presented here.
Another recommendation is that humanity should avoid giving off the appearance of being a rapidly expansive civilization. If an ETI perceives humanity as such, then it may be inclined to attempt a preemptive strike against us so as to prevent us from growing into a threat to the ETI or others in the galaxy. Similarly, ecosystem-valuing universalist ETI may observe humanity’s ecological destructive tendencies and wipe humanity out in order to preserve the Earth system as a whole. These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets. We acknowledge that the pursuit of emissions reductions and other ecological projects may have much stronger justifications than those that derive from ETI encounter, but that does not render ETI encounter scenarios insignificant or irrelevant.