TCS Daily

E.T., Phone Glenn

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 3, 2002 12:00 AM

Searching for extraterrestrial intelligence is a popular sport. It's even one that can be played at home -- and is, by millions of total users. Radio telescopes listen across the sky, while computers, big and small, process the results in the hope of finding signals. So far, nothing. But what will we do if we find something? What if we hear a deliberate message - or simply the leakage from an advanced civilization?

If we do, we have three options: (1) answer; (2) do nothing; or (3) try to stop our own broadcasts, if what we hear is sufficiently disturbing (e.g., "if you can receive this, you are food.") It's probably too late for option (3) in any event: No matter what we do, those old broadcasts of Star Trek, Gilligan's Island, and The Gong Show are expanding across the universe. We can only hope that one way or another, those who receive them might be deterred from invading. ("These earthlings seem very advanced, as their spacecraft violate the known laws of physics. But why haven't they invented seatbelts or circuit breakers?" "Yes, and it's strange because they are very inventive -- just look what that professor guy can make from coconuts!" "And why does that earthling have a paper bag over his head? They're insane! Better leave them alone.")

But options one and two are still open. The natural tendency would be to answer, but there are some concerns: Is answering wise? And who gets to decide?

Interestingly enough, these are the subjects of international agreements: Not treaties, but agreements among the researchers in the field. The most important is called the "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Intelligence. There are the obvious provisions concerning making sure what you've got, and getting others to listen, too. Then comes the real meat. Here's an excerpt:

8. No response to a signal or other evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place. The procedures for such consultations will be the subject of a separate agreement, declaration or arrangement.

9. The SETI Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics, in coordination with Commission 51 of the International Astronomical Union, will conduct a continuing review of procedures for the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence and the subsequent handling of the data. Should credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence be discovered, an international committee of scientists and other experts should be established to serve as a focal point for continuing analysis of all observational evidence collected in the aftermath of the discovery, and also to provide advice on the release of information to the public. This committee should be constituted from representatives of each of the international institutions listed above and such other members as the committee may deem necessary. To facilitate the convocation of such a committee at some unknown time in the future, the SETI Committee of the International Academy of Astronautics should initiate and maintain a current list of willing representatives from each of the international institutions listed above, as well as other individuals with relevant skills, and should make that list continuously available through the Secretariat of the International Academy of Astronautics.

So there's already supposed to be a team set up, just in case. Operators, in a sense, are standing by. But how will they think about what to do? Well, there's another agreement on that: the "Protocol for the Sending of Communications to Extraterrestrial Intelligences." It contains a few key points. First, no one should initiate communications with extraterrestrial intelligences without a lot of consultation: there's no room for any nation or group to try to speak for all humanity.

Second, we should be cagey about whatever we do send: "The drafters of a communication to extraterrestrial intelligence will consider detailed information about mankind to be a commodity of high value which will not be transmitted without due attention to human security and well-being, and to reciprocity." Indeed.

Most of the work on these subjects was done a decade or more ago. Since we've failed to find alien life, interest in what to do if we find it has tapered off. But is that such a good idea?

Consider: Even as government support has dried up for SETI, advances in electronics and distributed computing have allowed searches to go ahead at a fairly impressive pace. Thus, the likelihood of detecting alien transmissions continues to grow. Meanwhile, transmissions from Earth that might be detectable elsewhere have been expanding outward for fifty years. Since volume is a cube function, the number of additional stars that might harbor listeners will grow at an ever-increasing pace - meaning that the likelihood that someone will detect us also continues to grow. Perhaps it's worth giving this subject some additional thought - especially as the excitement that would accompany such a discovery might make clear thought after the fact difficult.

In a future column, I'll talk about conjectures concerning possible space aliens and their characteristics, and what those conjectures suggest our responses ought to be. Until then, stay tuned - for my transmissions, at least.



TCS Daily Archives