Washington Post: “Contact with aliens could end all life on Earth. Let’s stop trying to make contact with them. Both ways – looking for alien signals or trying to summon them by sending our own signals into space – have reached the point where they require a broader public debate to develop rules and strict regulation of such attempts at the national and international levels.”
Whatever the UFO report says, it’s time to establish some rules for communicating with aliens
In April 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense released infrared camera footage on U.S. Navy aircraft that captured aircraft encounters with various “unidentified aerial phenomena.” The pilots reported seeing objects flying across the sky at hypersonic speeds and changing direction almost instantaneously – capabilities far beyond any known aircraft.
So what did the pilots see? Bizarre atmospheric phenomena? Alien spaceships? Something else? Several branches of the government are investigating these events, in part because of fears that adversaries such as Russia or China may have made impressive technological advances, and the government plans to release a report later this month revealing all it knows. According to sources, the government will state that there is no evidence of extraterrestrial activity, but that these incidents remain unexplained.
However, there is a chance that we should all be thankful that we do not yet have any evidence of contact with alien civilizations. Attempting to communicate with aliens, if they do exist, could be extremely dangerous for us. We need to find out if it is reasonable–or safe–and how to make such attempts in an organized way.
There are already discussions in some scientific circles about whether to try to make contact with other civilizations. This is a topic of great importance to the entire planet. For 60 years, scientists have been searching with radio telescopes, listening for possible signals coming from other civilizations from planets orbiting distant stars. These efforts have largely been organized by the California-based SETI Institute–the acronym stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence–and so far they have been unsuccessful. Tired of impatience, some other scientists are now pushing for a more active program, METI (Messaging ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence), which would not just listen, but send powerful messages to other stars, trying to make contact.
The search for aliens has reached such a degree of technological sophistication and associated risk that it needs strict regulation at the national and international levels. Without oversight, even a single individual with access to powerful transmitting technology can take actions that affect the future of the entire planet.
The military continues to encounter UFOs. Why doesn’t the Pentagon care?
Because any aliens we encounter are likely to be far more technologically advanced than we are, for a simple reason: Most stars in our galaxy are much older than the Sun. If civilizations arise quite frequently on some planets, there must be many civilizations in our galaxy millions of years more advanced than our own. Many of them would probably have taken significant steps to begin exploring and possibly colonizing the galaxy.
So it remains a deep mystery–known as the Fermi paradox, after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi–why we have not seen such aliens until now. Many solutions to the paradox have been proposed, including the assumption that all civilizations, having reached sufficient technological capacity, eventually destroy themselves. Or perhaps aliens are so alien and unlike humans that we simply cannot interact with them.
More troubling is the possibility that alien civilizations don’t communicate because they know something: sending signals is catastrophically risky. Our history on Earth has given us many examples of what can happen when civilizations with unequal technologies meet–usually the technologically more advanced one destroys or enslaves the other. A cosmic version of this reality could convince many alien civilizations to remain silent. Exposing oneself is an invitation to become prey and be eaten.
Many scientists warn that such activity involves enormous risk with very little gain. But these fears do not persuade proponents to make contact – to try it and they have several counterarguments.
Douglas Wakoch of METI International argues that worrying about the danger of alien invasion is unrealistic. After all, we have been sending radio and television emissions into space for a hundred years, and a civilization far more advanced than ours has probably already detected them. If they wanted to invade, they would have done so already.
He also argues that when assessing risks, it is important to consider not only the risk of taking an action, but also the risk of not taking that action. Our world faces a number of potentially existential threats, including global warming and environmental destabilization, and it is possible that much more advanced civilizations have already faced these problems and found solutions. If we don’t send signals, writes Wakosz, we risk “missing clues that might increase the resilience of our own civilization.” He also suggests that we are making a colossal mistake by not trying to make contact first and some super-advanced alien civilization may attack us precisely because we have not made contact.
For obvious reasons, much of the speculation on these topics is rather speculative. Perhaps the best way forward is to broaden the discussion. If all of humanity learns about the possible consequences of trying to make contact with alien civilizations, more people should be involved in deciding what is reasonable and what is not. It should not be the preserve of a handful of radio astronomers.
The search for extraterrestrial life breaks new ground
One of the vocal critics of the idea of actively searching for extraterrestrials, astronomer John Gertz of SETI, has developed proposals for broader public scrutiny of this activity. In his view, we need laws and international treaties that will regulate explicit attempts at contact. Without the prior broad consent of some global representative body, Gertz says, contact with aliens should be seen “as a reckless threat to all mankind and should be absolutely banned with criminal consequences, presumably at the national level or under the authority of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.”
No such bans currently exist. Some informal protocols for interaction with alien civilizations have been adopted by SETI researchers, but they are far from legally binding government regulations. This is mainly because, until now, talk of encounter or contact with extraterrestrials has seemed widely speculative – if not a little abnormal – despite the obvious scientific plausibility of such an event.
It is not easy to weigh the pros and cons of an activity about which so much is unknown. We don’t know if aliens exist. They could be friendly. They could be unfriendly. Given the potential risks involved in trying to make contact, it might be safer and wiser to just wait — we can always reach out later, and in the meantime our passive listening capabilities are rapidly becoming more powerful.
In 2015, SETI launched a new ten-year program called Breakthrough Listen, funded by a $100 million donation from Israeli-Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. As a result, SETI is now recording more signals than ever before, in a frequency range that is about ten times larger, and bringing in more computing power to analyze the recorded signals. There’s no telling how close or far we are from discovery, but Hertz thinks our chances are at least 100 times better than before.
Astronomers’ knowledge of exoplanets — planets orbiting stars other than the Sun — also helps in the search. Since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, we have identified nearly 5,000 others, and the pace of discovery is accelerating. Each one gives SETI researchers promising new objects to study.
Many researchers are vehemently opposed to any experiment to make contact with other civilizations. Why take a cosmic risk when we have a much safer way to detect them if they exist? Of course, even eavesdropping involves potentially dangerous control issues: If and when someone does detect an alien signal, we will need to decide whether and how we should respond. Of course, such an act, putting all of humanity at risk, would have to be the result of some kind of collective decision. But right now there is no mechanism to facilitate this. Any individual or state can take humanity’s answer into its own hands.
Both paths–watching aliens or attempting to summon them–have reached the stage where they require a broader public discussion in order to develop a sensible regulation. This will require the efforts of leaders of many nations, presumably coordinated through the United Nations or another similar international body. It needs to happen now. Or soon. Before it is too late.