What should we do if aliens make contact? Scientist reveals the first 4 steps to take

What should be our response to the first contact with extraterrestrial civilizations? We speak to the scientists who analyzed current SETI approaches.
Paul Ratner
Aliens showing up on Earth.
Aliens showing up on Earth.

michal-rojek/iStock 

  • A new paper looked at how we should respond to first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.
  • The analysis is a response to a 2020 paper that argued some nations might want to monopolize contact with aliens.
  • The authors propose that more openness and cooperation are necessary to avoid international conflicts on this issue.

While the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, the proverbial “aliens,” hasn’t turned up much just yet, a day may come when suddenly we will make contact. What happens at that point could be transformational for how humanity understands itself and the cosmos it inhabits, and quite possibly whether it will survive at all.

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The aliens that reach out to us are likely to be more advanced, perhaps with much more powerful technologies and weapons. One would hope they’d also be more intelligent and peaceful. But let’s face it; if our own history is any indication, the first groups that explore new worlds tend to be cutthroats and mercenaries in search of new resources to exploit, like the pillaging conquistadors or the Vikings, for example.

So when the ETIs, Extraterrestrial Intelligences, come calling, what should be the first steps for the humans of Earth to take? A paper titled Geopolitical Implications of a Successful SETI Program has been recently published in the journal Space is adding to this important conversation. The new analysis comes from Jason T. Wright, who teaches astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University, and his co-authors Chelsea Haramia, professor of philosophy at Spring Hill College, and Gabriel Swiney of NASA and Harvard Law School.

Their new paper is a response to a 2020 paper by geophysicist Dr. Kenneth W. Wisian and anthropologist Professor John W. Traphagan of the University of Texas, which maintained that we should look at possible responses to alien contact based on the history of international relations through the lens of realpolitik or “realist political thought.”

Realpolitik is defined as politics based more on practical concerns and power dynamics rather than theoretical or ethical objectives. In other words, basing diplomatic or political policies on considerations of existing circumstances and factors - on what works in the existing circumstances - rather than on beliefs, doctrines, ethics, or morals. For example, Nixon opened communication with the communist Chinese government because he felt diplomacy was important, despite Americans' distrust of communism.

If realpolitik is considered, we might conclude that when ETIs decide to communicate, there is going to be “a measurable risk of conflict over the perceived benefit of monopoly access to ETI communication channels,” as the 2020 paper states.

In other words, the first country to hear from aliens might want to keep that information to itself, to make sure they are the exclusive channel of such communication. They might do it to gain a strategic advantage, especially if there’s a chance to acquire advanced alien technology. Suffice it to say such manipulations by state actors could lead to eventual international conflict and possibly disastrous consequences.

In their response paper, Wright and his co-authors argue against some of the flaws of the realpolitik analysis and lay out what they call “security protocols” that SETI program scientists and facilities should adopt to avoid contact monopolization. For one, the authors believe that while some may try, no nation would truly be able to monopolize ETI communication because of the widespread international cooperation in scientific institutions and the general openness of the scientific community.

Another argument against the possibility of one nation monopolizing ETIs is that the possible advantages are hard to establish — the chances are alien technology would be too advanced for anyone on Earth to understand. It’s also true that we already have the potential for mass destruction in weapons such as nuclear weapons. The need for a superweapon beyond that is more science fiction than fact, contend the authors, although it is also possible that a nation would want to monopolize the economic benefits of contact rather than military.

Instead of state policing and additional security, they argue for more openness between SETI scientists around the world. “The existence of hardened facilities and locked-down information flows could itself be interpreted by outsiders as evidence that some world-altering activity was occurring within that community or facility, thus leading to exactly the kind of espionage and conflict that [Wisian & Traphagan] are trying to avoid in the first place, even if nothing had actually been discovered," the paper reads.

Interesting Engineering (IE) spoke with the paper’s lead author Dr. Jason T. Wright about the new paper and what should be our response to the aliens.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Interesting Engineering [IE]: What would be the first steps to take if we suddenly receive a signal from an ETI?

Dr. Jason T. Wright: There already exist a set of protocols widely known and accepted by the community [referring to Protocols for SETI signal detection adopted in 2010 by the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics].

They include:

1. Verify the signal is real before going public

2. Get confirmation from an independent group

3. Widely disseminate information about the signal worldwide

4. Do not send any immediate response 

I think the protocols need to be updated for the way SETI and the world work in an age of social media (the press will report candidate signals before they are confirmed and verified, whether we like it or not), but overall these guiding principles are sound.

IE: Is it possible, given the current geopolitical climate, that some nations would hold off on announcing that they received an ETI signal?

Wright: That's certainly possible, of course. 

But we argue it's certainly not forgone that a country like China would keep a signal a secret: SETI is a primary science driver for the Chinese FAST telescope, and it advertises this loudly, so one would expect that they are in this for the prestige, not the (very remote possibility) of using a SETI detection as a way to get a military advantage.  Successful SETI feels more like the Apollo 11 moon landing—a way to establish geopolitical prestige—than a clandestine military operation. Certainly, the US government shows virtually no interest in it outside of NASA (which is very ambivalent about it).

Also, keeping something like this a secret will be hard.  SETI practitioners generally know the protocols and want to follow them. The data SETI projects collect are often placed in shared repositories, if not made public outright, even before they are analyzed. In order to confirm a signal, one needs to share the coordinates and frequency with an outside group.  All of these things make it difficult and unlikely that a government could suddenly bottle up the detection after it's made.

IE: Are there ways that we should already prepare for a potential ETI contact?

Yes, under the International Academy of Astr,onautics there is a permanent committee on SETI that works to do this. It's important work and we hope our paper will be a useful part of that.

Study Abstract:

We discuss the recent “realpolitik” analysis of Wisian & Traphagan (2020) of the potential geopolitical fallout of the success of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). They conclude that “passive” SETI involves an underexplored yet significant risk. This is the risk that, in the event of a successful, passive detection of extraterrestrial technology, state-level actors could seek to gain an information monopoly on communications with an extraterrestrial intelligence. These attempts could lead to international conflict and potentially disastrous consequences. In response to this possibility, they argue that scientists and facilities engaged in SETI should preemptively engage in significant security protocols to forestall this risk.

We find several flaws in their analysis. While we do not dispute that a realpolitik response is possible, we uncover concerns with Wisian & Traphagan’s presentation of the realpolitik paradigm, and we argue that sufficient reason is not given to justify treating this potential scenario as action-guiding over other candidate geopolitical responses. Furthermore, even if one assumes that a realpolitik response is the most relevant geopolitical response, we show that it is highly unlikely that a nation could successfully monopolize communication with ETI. Instead, the real threat that the authors identify is based on the perception by state actors that an information monopoly is likely. However, as we show, this perception is based on an overly narrow contact scenario.

Overall, we critique Wisian & Traphagan’s argument and resulting recommendations on technical, political, and ethical grounds. Ultimately, we find that not only are Wisian and Traphagan’s recommendations unlikely to work, they may also precipitate the very ills that they foresee. As an alternative to the Wisian & Traphagan recommendations, we recommend transparency and data sharing (which are consistent with currently accepted best practices), further development of post-detection protocols, and better education of policymakers in this space.