What would be the geopolitical fallout of a successful Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)?
A major growth area in astronomy is the study of exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars outside the solar system. This is not likely to yield a discovery of aliens any time soon. After all, the new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is at best only going to reveal the most basic of biosignatures in the atmospheres of these planets.
However, radio telescopes are right now being pointed all over the night sky as astronomers investigate distant galaxies and stars. What happens if they accidentally detect extraterrestrial technology? Or receive a message from an alien civilization?
A new paper published online and accepted for a future issue of Space Policy considers the “realpolitik” of that scenario—not what should happen, but what would happen.
It makes for fascinating reading.
The authors—affiliated with the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center as well as NASA—come up with three recommendations for how the world should deal with the detection of intelligent life:
- transparency and data sharing between organisations and nations.
- development of “post-detection” protocols.
- education of policymakers.
They are in response to a number of worrying scenarios that could arise if aliens were detected.
Their major worry was that nations may seek to gain an information monopoly on communications with any alien intelligence. They point out that such attempts could lead to international conflict.
This is an issue that’s been looked at before. In 2020 a paper was published in Space Policy that identified similar worrying outcomes of successful SETI, but prescribed different solutions.
Both papers argue that if one nation could monopolise communications with an alien race it could receive—or be perceived to receive—the advantages of alien technology. However, the authors of the new paper argue that this would be very unlikely. Largely because scientific knowledge is gathered gradually and in a nonlinear way. They offer an example of mediaeval scholars receiving a textbook on nuclear weapons design, which in the absence of an education in nuclear physics would merely tell them that making nuclear weapons was possible in the future.
The authors also point out that a nation able to make use of alien technology to develop sophisticated weapons would not, in practice, mean very much in a world already saturated with nuclear weapons. The same deterrent would apply.
Instead of security and information lockdowns post-detection, the new paper prescribe openness and transparency. After all, if there is a detection that shocks the world and the scientists involved then go quiet it could be misconstrued as being secretive. There could be accusations of scientists, or states, hiding the truth from the world. That alone could lead to conflict between nations if the stakes were judged to be high.
However, it’s also suggested that the realpolitik response to a contact scenario could actually be more global cooperation.
The successful detection of an alien civilisation or any form would be truly revolutionary for science. However, would it really affect our everyday lives? In practice many of us would quickly overcome initial post-detection anxiety and/or enthusiasm and return to our normal lives.
It’s not the aliens themselves that we have to worry about, but the reactions of our leaders to such a discovery—and to one another. Perception always trumps reality, and it could be the misconceptions, misunderstandings and suspicions of secrecy that cause post-detection unrest. After all, unless we’ve got basic physics completely wrong there’s no way aliens—detected or not—are going to appear in our skies anytime soon.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.