I think there’s something to be gained from thinking outside the human box. It’s tough to do- everything we know is from the human perspective. At the very least, though, I think we can try to view our current society from an outsider perspective. It may provide some small insight into how extraterrestrials might view us if we ever make alien contact. By taking a critical view of our own society, essentially an outsider’s view, we might get a better indication of how an extraterrestrial civilization may view us.
I recently watched the movie “12 Years a Slave.” It is an unflinching view of American slavery that is in equal measures powerful and horrifying. The audience during my viewing, many of them African-American, gasped and cried out. A few folks even had to walk out during some of the more brutal scenes. Slavery is reviled in most segments of human society now. It still exists in some nations and underground on the black market. Still, much has changed in the last 150 years.
Every generation has something to regret: WW II atrocities for the Germans and Japanese, segregation, and apartheid, to name just a few. These, as with slavery, were supported widely throughout society at the time and ingrained institutionally. That begs the question: what do we support as a society currently that might be viewed negatively in future generations? Perhaps the inequitable treatment of women; homophobia; the poor treatment of animals; the use of environmentally damaging machines and technology; or our refusal to respond to global warming evidence? Clearly, this list is from my perspective. Your perspective could be very different. An extraterrestrial perspective would likely be very, very different. One would imagine that extraterrestrials would find many things flawed about our society. They may also see strengths that we might not even recognize as such.
Some of these concepts are easier for us to understand now than others. Environmental damage, while a matter of debate, is a concern for many on the planet. The treatment of animals interests me because it takes us out of the anthropocentric human perspective. Aliens could view dolphins and whales as equal with humans. We may be the dominate species, but that doesn’t mean aliens would necessarily side with us. The documentary "Blackfish" is a pointed message. The primary goal of the movie is to show how humans are doing animals a great injustice. It follows the SeaWorld capture and confinement of killer whales. I dare anyone to watch the documentary and not feel a sense of wrong when the whales are initially separated from their pod in the wild. What would aliens think of this? How would they view the slaughter of cows and pigs? Sure, this is just speculation, so you could argue that they might think such activities were great. I think there is value, though, in taking a critical look at who we are and what we do as a society, certainly for our own sake, but also to consider how outsiders might view us. It’s better to have pondered such things than to be blindsided if First Contact with extraterrestrials does occur someday.
What do you think? Join me on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Many of us are excited by the planetary discoveries in other star systems that have become so frequent recently, thanks to the hard work of dedicated researchers and some amazing technology. These discoveries have led to an increasing number of possibly habitable planets. Even more exciting- what about the chances of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe? We would like to extrapolate the number of possibly habitable planets to support an argument that it increases the chances of intelligent life in the universe.
There are those who would like to throw cold water on this speculation and they often provide very good reasons for skepticism. One of the more interesting arguments recently ties a popular social theory to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Dr. Michael West is the director of the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Massachusetts. He points out, in a recent USA Today column, that the Peter Principle might apply to the chances of extraterrestrial life occurring in the universe. The Peter Principle, as originally put forth by author Laurence Peter, says that humans rise to the level of their incompetence. If this is taken to an evolutionary level, could humans be at the apex of our competence and soon to fall due to our incompetence, in areas such as environment and warfare?
The danger of civilizations collapsing due to technology (or rather, a lack of control of technology) has been suggested for years. Given our dire set of circumstances (global warming and nuclear weaponry) it is quite possible that there is some sort of technology ceiling, that when reached, leads to catastrophic collapse of that civilization, and thus preventing the civilization from becoming more technologically advanced than humans.
This argument comes down to one big question: will humans be able to solve our current technological problems, create new technology to fix our mistakes and continue to move forward, perhaps one day turning into a space-faring civilization.
Human resilience is an amazing thing. Humans overcome all sorts of challenges in life. It’s something we notice individually and resilience can be seen on a larger level. Think how quickly Europe and Japan came back from the devastation of World War Two. Of course, there are many instances of civilizations disappearing, for one reason or another.
Does the Peter Principle imply that humans are headed for catastrophe? I suppose that will be up to future generations to decide.
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Monday, January 13, 2014
This blog is entirely speculation. I may refer to scientific research, but in the end it is just ideas and ideas are only a starting place. Science pushes and pulls us forward as a species. And it is science that is driving the study of possible extraterrestrial life and intelligence.
It is a much slower process than many of us would hope. The funding is tough to come by, often requiring private donations to sustain the work. Still, brave astrophysicists, astronomers and astrobiologists are getting the work done. They risk professional ridicule and the constant threat of de-funding.
Recently, astrobiologists testified before the U.S House Science Committee. They included Mary Voytek, the NASA Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Sara Seager, professor of physics and planetary science at M.I.T., and Steven J. Dick, from the Library of Congress. They agreed on one important point: that life does exist elsewhere in the universe. News that members of Congress are at least willing to hear from scientists about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life is refreshing. Scientists at the SETI Institute in California are carrying out the search for possible intelligent life in the universe. Their work has encountered a number of funding issues over the years. It is Congress that cut the most significant funding in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It does not seem likely that Congress will restore that government funding any time soon.
Speculation and science fiction are important for engaging our imaginations. But it is science that will move us forward. If you believe in this effort, please support the scientists doing this work. Encourage proper funding for the important work of NASA. Consider a donation to the SETI Institute.
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Sunday, December 15, 2013
When it comes to extraterrestrial contact speculation there is a disturbing middle ground between the negative First Contact scenarios of alien invasion and the positive scenarios of a welcome into a larger universe. First contact could leave us confused, full of questions and worried.
Confused: Aliens would likely be far different from us. They may have an indecipherable language and an agenda that we could not understand. Unless they were willing to teach us, First Contact could be one confusing set of actions after another.
Full of questions: A lack of explanation about their civilization and intentions would dash our hopes for First Contact. When we speak of contact we are really talking about information. We hope that aliens would teach us new things about the universe. If the aliens can’t communicate or choose not to communicate, we could be left with only questions.
Worried: Any extraterrestrial civilization with the ability for significant space travel would be a threat to humanity. Such ability would show a higher level of technology than ours, and that would suggest that they have the skills needed to build weaponry that we might not be able to match. If we don’t know the intentions of the aliens we would be left with only the possibility of threat.
SETI researchers often warn of this disturbing middle ground in part because most things that humans experience are at first confusing and worrisome. We would like life to be black and white, but as we well know, life is seldom so. Our hopes for a warm and fuzzy First Contact experience and our concern about alien invasion each seem rather unlikely. What is much more likely would be a murky mess that may take years of study to unravel. And even then, there may be very few definitive answers.
Can we handle such uncertainty? Would we spend our time and money building space defenses? Would we become a more cynical society out of constant worry? Perhaps the most important step in the maturity of the human race is not some sweeping step into a wider universe, but merely the ability to handle radical ambiguity? It’s not all sad. Such events could leave us even stronger as a civilization in the long run and perhaps better able to handle the next murky moment.
What do you think? Is this cynicism on my part or a strong possibility should First Contact ever occur. Chime in on the Alien FirstContact Facebook page.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Intelligent aliens may or may not exist. They may be too far away for us to contact. There are myriad possible reasons for why we haven’t made First Contact. I offer one more: a knowledge threshold. What if aliens are aware of the human civilization, but waiting until we reach a certain threshold of scientific or cultural knowledge before they intend to make contact? This isn’t an original thought on my part. It’s been the subject of many science fiction stories.
What could that threshold be? Perhaps it is related to physics. Humans are working hard to figure out what hypothetical dark matter and dark energy might be. These postulates can be measured and even quantified, in a sense, and yet there is still not an understanding of what they truly are and of the relationship to our more common matter and energy.
The other big question in physics concerns particles. Work with the Large Hadron Collider is attempting to advance human knowledge of elementary particles, such as the Higgs boson. Perhaps this scientific inquiry will lead us past the knowledge threshold? Aliens might be concerned that their scientific knowledge is far in advance of ours. Perhaps we need to be at the right level of knowledge to be able to handle further truths about our universe?
The threshold could also be the biological-machine divide. Human science is developing new machine devices to assist the human body. At some point those devices could lead to bionic humans, at a point far beyond what we experience now. Discoveries could also eventually lead to machine intelligence- human intelligence housed completely in a machine. One could also call this virtual life. These things seem like the stuff of science fiction, but they are quickly becoming reality.
There could be another type of threshold: civilization maturity. Let’s face it- humans are rather raw beings: we battle each other, we kill, we tear up the natural environment and we treat other creatures on our planet poorly. We still have a tense situation with nuclear weapons. We have a long way to go in maturing as a human society. Perhaps aliens are simply waiting for us to grow up?
The dangerous thing about threshold speculation is that it is never-ending. We could use this as an excuse for why we haven’t made First Contact and that could go on for however long we wanted. It may simply be another human coping mechanism. I think many of us long for extraterrestrial contact.
It’s easy to find comfort in excuses. I’ll put my trust in the scientific process being carried out by the folks involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. I donate regularly to the SETI Institute, which has suffered setback after setback from budget cuts and defunding. If you believe in the scientific effort to search for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence please consider making a donation. Action is always more powerful than speculation.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Timing is everything, and as I have suggested before, extraterrestrials who want to make contact with humans would be advised to choose their moment carefully. One would imagine that it would be best to make contact with humans who can properly focus on the challenges of First Contact with an alien civilization. Distractions may seem like a minor point when it comes to the enormity and significance of First Contact. But there have been periods in human history during which aliens would want to avoid making contact. Examples? How about during World War Two? You have many nations involved in horrible conflict and technology developing that promises new ways to kill people on a mass scale. As a visiting alien do you really want to step into that? Nations involved in the conflict could hardly take the time to properly handle such an interaction. Most likely, they would want nothing more from the relationship than technology to better kill people on the other side of their conflict.
Here’s another example: the Cold War. During the darkest days of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union were on a hair-trigger response to threat. A visiting extraterrestrial craft could provoke a dangerous response. Paranoia would enter into the picture. Each side could believe that extraterrestrials were a ploy on the part of the other.
These are extreme examples. Others may appear quite mundane in comparison, and yet still provide a significant reason for aliens to stay away. The latest would be the battle in the United States Congress over the budget and the debt ceiling. At first blush this might seem like a national issue. But in the larger scheme of things, the US Government defaulting on it’s debt obligations would have a huge impact on world economic markets, both in reality and perhaps more importantly, psychologically. Instability is a dangerous thing, no matter how it comes about. Instability requires hard work on the part of humans to solve specific challenges. Those efforts would make it tough to respond to significant new challenges. Extraterrestrial First Contact of any type would be a significant world challenge.
Now it would be easy to claim that all sorts of issues on planet Earth are a reason for aliens to leave us alone. And one could then jump to the conclusion that this could be the reason for the “Eerie Silence” as Paul Davies has put it. But, as in all speculation, there is no evidence. Intelligent aliens may be too far away to even realize we are here. Or they just might not care to make contact. Or they may be waiting for us to make contact.
If that changes, and some day extraterrestrials decide to say hello, they might be well advised to keep an eye on the news of the day. Sometimes humans just have too much on their collective plate to handle. And in those moments it might be best to just leave us alone for a while until we can get it sorted out.
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Tuesday, October 8, 2013
First contact with an extraterrestrial civilization raises a few questions about how we perceive ourselves as humans. Where goes anthropocentrism in the wake of extraterrestrial contact? Are we forced to challenge our belief that humans are superior to other creatures on Earth? How about our role in the wider universe?
Anthropocentrism is another way of expressing the idea of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is most often used these days in the American context. American politicians refer to exceptionalism as a way to show the American government and society as unique in history and something that other nations should aspire too. Most recently, Vladimir Putin criticized the concept of national exceptionalism in an op-ed in the New York Times, in reference to planned American actions in Syria.
Human exceptionalism is understandable. Currently we stand along in the universe, at least from our perspective. We dominate our planet in many ways. We could, and often do, change the environment to suit our wishes. If this has a detrimental impact on other species- oh, well, sorry, human needs come first. There has been a backlash against such thinking. The discovery of a rare spider in Texas recently caused a $15 million highway project to come to a screeching stop. Environmentalists across the globe are engaged in battles to protect the habitats of other creatures. But if First Contact with an alien civilization ever did occur would we be inviting dolphins or whales to share in the experience? Would we bother to consult dogs? Laugh if you want, it’s our anthropocentrism that drives the humor. Aliens wouldn’t necessarily think the same way. They might not care about dogs or dolphins or they could care very much, even taking the time to learn how to properly communicate with such creatures.
It seems to me, though, that the biggest question of human exceptionalism in the wake of high information First Contact is how we will react. We can lord over cats and chimpanzees, but how about intelligent aliens? If they could reach us, or communicate with us, they would likely be quite intelligent, perhaps much more so than us. If that’s the case, where goes human exceptionalism? Into the waste basket?
And perhaps that’s a concern for life forms considering a visit to Earth. Will humans be threatened by visitors and react with violence? It seems unlikely, but we have lots and lots of weapons. Anything could happen if we’re scared enough.
This larger existential question is what interests me. Who will we be, in our own minds, when we discover that there is at least one other intelligent civilization out there? How will we place ourselves in this new understanding of our universe? I think in some respects we might be better off if it was revealed that there are dozens of civilizations out there. At least in that case we would not automatically compare ourselves solely with our new visitors. It might be easier being just another fish in the pond, than an inferior fish to the only other fish in the known pond.
There is also the question of how aliens would view human exceptionalism. We may very well hold our views even after other intelligent civilizations are revealed. We could feel that the human way of life is superior to the way of living for other intelligent beings. After all, many Americans consider their country exceptional and there are plenty of other countries on planet Earth. What ramifications would such a thing have on a long term relationship with extraterrestrials? Would aliens consider that way of thinking a threat? And then there is the flipside- alien exceptionalism. Would they feel superior to us? Would they expect us to take on their characteristics? That could be an extremely disturbing turn of events.
Most people would not worry about such things in the wake of First Contact, and certainly not in the immediate, heady days of discovery. However, I do think it’s an important topic for social scientists to consider, as it could have profound implications for our long-term human development After First Contact.
What do you think? Join the conversation on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.
Monday, September 23, 2013
First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would be a major historical event and perhaps, depending on our level of interaction with aliens, a catalyst for paradigm shifts and revolutions across the spectrum of human sciences. There is no doubt that, in some degree, there would be a change in human perspective as a result of evidence that we are not alone. Once again, that degree would depend on the level of interaction with aliens and the type of information we receive. If it’s the discovery of a mysterious, far-off signal, First Contact would have less of an impact on human perspective than if we can actually converse in some way with aliens.
But those are the merely the passive results of First Contact, the things that will change due to the nature of the information we receive. What about the active endeavors? One could argue that changes in science are not passive, in that they require a great deal of work on the part of researchers and academics. My point is that reactions in science would be reactions to new information. We would not necessarily be actively using the situation to change things in our society. The information we receive about aliens would undoubtedly change us, but we won’t necessarily control the change.
Controlling the change is essential. The change will help to decide the path for human development for generations to come. If we merely react to the information we are given, we are not controlling the change. Humanity needs to see First Contact, in any form it might take, as a challenge that requires a much broader response and a response that would take well-considered, proactive measures. We would need to perceive First Contact not as something that is happening to us, but something that has happened, and that in turn we are determining our course of action. It‘s a big difference.
First Contact provides possibility for the human race. It will give us a new perspective on our role in the universe. It can also be a catalyst for change in the human civilization. If we truly embrace the greater challenge, we could see First Contact as a call for a larger discussion of what we want for human civilization, in both the short-term and long-term. What kinds of things should be discussed? Clearly, First Contact would require us to immediately consider the nature of our world organizations- how nations interact and how we will make decisions as a civilization. International relations are, at best, rather muddled currently. If we find out that alien civilizations exist, the need for some new form of organized discourse between nations, and ultimately better methods of determining action, will be immediate. Other changes could include better economic cooperation, global intervention in developing conflicts and global support of human rights. In the wake of First Contact, humanity will have the opportunity to finally take these issues seriously, on an international level, above and beyond what is happening today in the United Nations and with international diplomacy. First Contact could provide an impetus to action on a new level.
Does First Contact necessarily mean humans will rethink national interactions and come up with solutions to world problems? Of course not- we could easily dissolve into disputes between nations under the pressure of First Contact. It will take hard work and determination to make substantive changes. First Contact would be an opportunity for an evaluation of our civilization. It is an exciting opportunity to chart the course for generations to come. And perhaps we shouldn’t wait around for aliens. Whether anyone else is out there or not, we are one planet, one people- citizens of the universe.
What do you think? Join the conversation on the Alien FirstContact Facebook page.
Monday, September 9, 2013
Why do I waste my time contemplating extraterrestrial First Contact? There is no evidence that intelligent aliens exist. We may not have the proper technology to discover them ourselves. It could be decades, if not centuries, before First Contact occurs, if it ever does at all. Aliens could be so far away in the universe that we may never even know they are there, let alone make contact. Pretty depressing.
My thought is this: why not bet on the long shot? The odds are long; incredibly long in this case, but the importance of the race cannot be understated. Direct Contact with intelligent aliens would change our civilization. Even long-term, far-away contact would change our perspective on the wider universe and our own society. In a way, it’s a reverse payout. If First Contact does occur, instead of there being some big prize for humanity there may be incredible challenges. So, to not bet on the long shot, to not prepare for the long shot, opens us up to danger. The lack of consideration and planning for this subject is a real problem. If First Contact were to happen, human society would not have a response. Hopefully, it will take years for us to transmit back and forth with aliens, due to the distances between star systems. That would provide plenty of time for the inevitable discussion, debate and action to take place. But what if it is Direct First Contact, where aliens visit our solar system to say hello? Such an event would leave us no time for planning and little time to take action.
The big problem with considerations of extraterrestrial First Contact is that everything is speculation. If it’s impossible to define what might happen, how do you prepare for it? I would agree. Trying to plan details for a First Contact response would be a waste of time. Our conjecture would likely be wrong and thus a detailed plan not of much use. However, we could have a general plan that answers a few important questions. First, who will represent Earth if we make First Contact? I’m not talking about one person, but rather a group. Which group will lead contact messaging? While scientists would be the ones setting up the transmission it would seem logical that people who are trained in diplomacy should decide the message, with plenty of input from governments across the planet. Hmmmm… that sounds like the United Nations. Indeed, SETI scientists have tried for many years now to have the United Nations take First Contact seriously. Unfortunately, that has not happened. So, there is a first step that could help in just about any First Contact scenario. Perhaps the United Nations could allow the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to take up the issue and develop some basic protocol.
What would be the reaction to such planning? Undoubtedly there would be snickering in the media, and as UN officials probably fear, ridicule of the UN and its mission. From the UN perspective reputation is everything. And if you’re trying to handle civil war in Syria, prevent starvation in Africa and join nations together in environmental causes, why would you jeopardize your reputation for something that may never occur? It’s a very practical point of view. And in a sense, it’s just another bet. The UN folks are betting that First Contact will not occur and putting their entire wager on our current human challenges.
I get this. I even understand the snickering of the media. We haven’t taken issues of extraterrestrial intelligence seriously in our popular culture. What makes us think that we will take it seriously in the realm of international relations? Action by the UN will take guts and determination. It will take courage and vision.
So, why do I waste my time on what some might call a childish pursuit? Well, I actually agree that it is a childish pursuit. What child doesn’t wonder, at some point or another, about what might be out there in the universe? Those people often grow up to be astrophysicists or science fiction writers. We can’t lose the childish wonder that fuels our passion to discover new things. I’ll keep embracing that wonder as I continue writing for this blog. It’s a high stakes race, if the race is ever run. I’ll keep betting on the long shot and perhaps someday the UN and governments may put down their own small wager as well.
What do you think? Are we wasting our time contemplating First Contact? Join the conversation on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.
Monday, August 26, 2013
If an extraterrestrial civilization designed intelligent machines to roam the universe those machines would likely have an important characteristic: the ability to adapt. Learning is part of intelligence. The ability to adapt would be combined with the learning process for active endeavors to overcome challenges and respond to new problems as they occur.
Machine extraterrestrial intelligence is a topic worth pursuing. Considering that humans send probes into space to explore, it seems possible that extraterrestrial civilizations might do the same. Paul Davies and Seth Shostak have talked about this idea for years now.
There would be possible benefits and many issues in such an extraterrestrial First Contact.
What would the adaptability of intelligent machines mean for us? It could take away many of the barriers in terms of communication and cultural understanding if extraterrestrial machines were to visit our solar system. Why? If they wished to make contact, they would learn and adapt to do so. An intelligent machine wanting to make contact would likely spend some time learning about us- our languages, our cultures and our technology. This would make sense for any intelligent extraterrestrial visitor. It’s probably what we would do if we discovered an extraterrestrial civilization in our travels. There would not be much to gain by charging in without knowing languages or understanding the cultures of the beings on the planet you wished to contact. Alien machines would want to learn human languages, they would be interested in how we might react and, perhaps most importantly, they would have a game plan, a process for undertaking an introduction.
Could alien machines be better able to adapt than biological visitors? They probably wouldn’t be hung up with the prejudice of biology and culture, perhaps making them less judgmental and more open to other ways of being. However, their programming and base intelligence would probably be very different from ours. Sorting that out could be difficult for us. Also, our conception of machine intelligence might be very different from the type of advanced technology we might encounter. Our machines serve us. Alien machines could be self aware and have their own agenda, different over time even from their creators.
There is certainly plenty of fun science fiction on this topic. And all of this imaginative speculation would have positive and negative impacts if a real situation was to develop some day. There could be fear of machines on our part, thanks to the Terminator movies, the TV show Battlestar Galactica and other popular fiction that features computers taking over the world. This alone would force adaptive alien machines to consider human public relations and carefully study how we interact and how we would best respond.
It all comes back to motives. Intelligent machines, just like biological extraterrestrials, would have a reason for coming to our solar system. Perhaps they are designed to explore, much like our probes? Perhaps they are designed to make contact? We could hope that would be the case, because then the need to understand human culture could be built into the machine programming. Any help we could get in First Contact would be a good thing. If the machines were not designed to adapt or even care about human interaction it could be a mysterious alien encounter that we would never fully understand. And that could be the most frustrating scenario of all.
What do you think? Join the conversation on the Alien FirstContact Facebook page.