A recent “scenario analysis” paper — originally thought to be from NASA — considers various scenarios centering on contact with Extra-Terrestrial beings and how said ETs might view us, help us, or deal with us.
A certain paper entitled ‘Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis’ has been making the rounds and causing a bit of a hullabaloo this past week. The “controversy” stems from an erroneous attribution of the paper to NASA (originally by the UK’s Guardian, now retracted), when in fact, the paper — a “thought experiment” — is only co-authored by an intern at NASA’s Planetary Science Division; NASA did not commission nor official “approve” of the paper.
Regardless, the paper is newsworthy for what it is willing to consider, which is the fate of humanity post first contact…or even, without a formal first contact (like, “Hey, we found you! or, “We come in peace!”). By this it is meant that a first contact might be the last contact; we might be viewed as a threat to other alien civilizations.
The authors (Baum, Haqq-Misra, and Domagal-Goldman, the latter being the NASA intern) consider what an advanced alien species — monitoring us remotely — might conclude (and act upon) after detecting changes in the Earth’s atmosphere. Such changes, such as a build-up of greenhouse gases, could be detected through spectral analysis of the Earth, much as human astronomers and astrophysicist make deductions about habitable planets based upon spectral analysis (i.e., spectral lines indicating presence of certain gases).
Optimists or idealists may prefer to believe that the aliens would recognize the signs of a hothouse planet in-the-making, realize that we were in trouble, and come and save us (somehow, as in Starman). Pessimists may be compelled to believe the opposite: that, having so imperiled our own planet, we would then have to move out to other planets — spreading our wasteful/destructive ways as we go — and destroy us before we could do so (like we kill invasive weeds before they spread all over our nice lawns).
Quoting from the paper’s abstract:
“Contact [with Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, ETI] could occur through a broad range of scenarios that have varying consequences for humanity. However, many discussions of this question assume that contact will follow a particular scenario that derives from the hopes and fears of the author. In this paper, we analyze a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI would benefit or harm humanity.”
Starting with discussions of the famed Fermi Paradox*, the challenge of interstellar communication, the putative advanced nature of ETIs, the motives of ETIs (selfishness, universalism), and the possible heterogeneity (diversity) of ETIs, the authors then proceed to consider four general, ETI contact scenarios:
1]contact that is beneficial to humanity,
2]contact that has a neutral impact on us,
3]contact that is intentionally harmful to us,
4]contact that is unintentionally harmful to us.
In the first scenario, “benefit” could result from simple detection (without actual contact) of an ETI as this would prove that we were not alone in the galaxy (and perhaps create a unified human identity). Additionally, there is the possibility of any given ETI being cooperative (in regards to our goals) or uncooperative (our goals may not be viewed as necessary or “good” to an ETI; we might see the error of our ways, etc.)
In the second scenario, any ETIs that exist “out there” could remain invisible to us (perhaps by choice) indefinitely, or, they may in fact be noticeable to us (and we to them), but remain “indifferent to us”.
In the third scenario (the most troubling), the ETIs are of one of two kinds: selfish or universalist. In the former case, much like the Vogons in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we would either be deemed a nuisance/obstacle (selfish), and eliminated, or, be deemed a threat to others (universalist), and eliminated (or perhaps just “caged in”).
Finally, in the fourth scenario (which sounds like a movie title), contact with ETIs proves hazardous — either through being a physical hazard (alien germs anyone?), or, perhaps an informational hazard (you think you’re suffering from info over-load now, just wait until the ETIs download their data files into our computers!).
There is also (not mentioned in the paper) the Zoo Hypothesis which asserts that ETIs would regard us much like conservationists here regard a biologically rich ecosystem, or rare species; the putative ETI would thus tend to keep us isolated so as to preserve/protect us from interference, or contamination, by other ETIs. It is akin to the Prime Directive espoused by the Federation on Star Trek.
In any event, until the day verifiable first contact happens, it is all so much fascinating speculation. But it is speculation that has a purpose and perhaps great value to us. Again, quoting from the abstract:
“This type of broad analysis can help us prepare for actual contact with ETI even if the details of contact do not fully resemble any specific scenario.”
Well, dear readers, what do you think about future contact with ETIs? I welcome your speculations and scenarios.
* The Fermi Paradox (or Fermi-Hart Paradox) refers to the apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations.
The paper ‘Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis’ was published in the (Direct Science) in the June-July 2011 edition of the journal Acta Astronautica.
Images: (War of the Worlds illustration) Frank R. Paul; (Earthlights) NASA; (Arecibo Message) Arne Nordmann (norro) ; CC – By – SA 3.0