Should We Be Preparing for First Contact?

First Contact. It’s a topic guaranteed to inspire a mix of emotions in people. It’s also one of the most fascinating SF scenarios we can imagine. What will people do when “they” appear? Or when we find evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe? For answers, one suggestion is to turn to a discipline called “exosociology”.

According to a paper released recently by German researcher Andreas Anton and his partners, exosociology tackles the big questions that first contact raises. Will we be ready? What will we do when ET appears? And, what can the world’s societies do to prepare themselves? That paper delves into the answers and reviews the many ways humans will act when we discover we’re not alone in the cosmos.

You’d think that with all the signal hunting and exoplanet discoveries in the news, we would be ready for visitors from beyond. Anton and his colleagues suggest that with all our scientific expertise in space exploration, we still don’t have what it takes to prepare completely for “first contact”. We need to learn to communicate with those aliens. And, even more important, we need to understand our own reactions when they do appear. What we do and say will be part of the social and political response not only from scientists, but from world leaders and others who will deal with people’s reactions.

Communication is Key

Now, as it turns out, humanity isn’t totally without experience in communicating with alien “others”. Our entire history is one of learning to send messages between cultures that don’t always speak the same language (with variable results). But, that supposes that we have humans trying to talk to each other. What about communications with beings who don’t share our body type, brain abilities, or even sensory apparatus? There’s precedent. Very recently, scientists reported some success in communicating with whales—an entirely different species. And, there have been other efforts, such as simulating a message from aliens as practice. Can we apply what we learn in those efforts to communications with “alien cultures”? It’s possible, but we need a whole new research discipline to do it.

Andreas Anton and his colleagues suggest that communicating with aliens is very much a part of exosociology. Starting with other life forms here on Earth is a great idea. “Communications with other species on Earth is a topic of interest to exosociology”, he wrote in an email. “Communication with extraterrestrial entities could present us with enormous challenges, contrary to what is often depicted in science fiction. We could have to deal with entities for whom we cannot even begin to assume similar sensory channels, perceptual spaces, spatiotemporal orientations, etc. We refer to such a situation as a confrontation with the “maximum stranger”. The more we learn about interaction and communication with species on our planet, the better communication and interaction with extraterrestrials could succeed.”

What Will First Contact with Aliens Be Like?

Anyone who reads or watches science fiction can cite their favorite stories about the inevitable meeting between ET and humans. They range from evil aliens in “War of the Worlds” and “Mars Attacks” to benevolent beings like those in “Childhood’s End”, “E.T.”, and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (to name a few). SF is one way to imagine what it will be like. However, Anton and his team looked beyond science fiction and analyzed a few more likely scenarios for first contact.

The first one they looked at is the “signal” scenario. Essentially, this is the “intercept a signal from far away” that forms the basis of current SETI search programs. Someday we’ll pick up a signal from outer space, similar in content to the one in the movie “Contact”. The chances are pretty good that it traveled a very long distance. That means any kind of “instant communication” back and forth is going to be tough. But, it would signal to us in a very clear way that we’re not alone, even if ET is thousands of light-years away. It would probably spur scientists to ramp up their searches for more signals from other civilizations. Not only that, but a whole cottage industry would spring up of people trying to decipher the messages. Maybe they’d even figure out a way to reply.

Radio telescopes monitor the sky at the Allen Telescope Array in California. Finding a signal from a distant civilization is one way we could experience first contact with ET. (SETI Institute Photo)
Radio telescopes monitor the sky at the Allen Telescope Array in California. Finding a signal from a distant civilization is one way we could experience first contact with ET. (SETI Institute Photo)

Of course, if the signal is from a nearby civilization, Anton, et al, write, “On the one hand, this could lead to national and international efforts to establish a dialog or even direct contact through space travel. On the other hand, fears about the consequences of contact among the terrestrial population are likely to increase with decreasing distance. A signal from a comparatively short distance would add an element of uncertainty to individual and collective (political, economic) planning for the future.”

First Contact and Technosignatures of ET

Another scenario doesn’t involve any kind of active contact. Instead, it assumes that we find evidence of past or present technological civilizations. That could be the discovery of a Dyson sphere around a distant planet, for example. Or, perhaps signals from weapons used during a long-ago war in a faraway stellar system. Like the “signal” scenario, the social and societal effects of technosignatures would also depend on distance. Finding evidence of something many thousands of light-years away isn’t likely to excite as much interest as one made fairly close by. But, the paper makes clear that the mere existence of these technological “clues” would affect our science and sociology in many ways. The authors write, “The scientific community would go to great lengths to learn more about the nature and capabilities of these extraterrestrial civilizations.” And, of course, there would be political and social ramifications.

Artist's impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a "first contact" scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar
Artist’s impression of a Dyson Sphere, an proposed alien megastructure that is the target of SETI surveys. Finding one of these qualifies in a “first contact” scenario. Credit: Breakthrough Listen / Danielle Futselaar

Let’s say that somebody spots a Dyson sphere around a world. As a result, it’s possible that floodgates of funding would open up to help us understand that discovery. Whole new branches of science could develop as we figure out if we, too, could create one of these objects. Exosociology would benefit, too, as the authors point out. “In addition, the discovery of a technosignature would also have a strong impact on the social sciences and humanities and lead to new fields of research and questions. One of the central questions here is likely to be: What reasonable conclusions can be drawn about the extraterrestrial civilization from the discovered technological markers?”

An even bigger question deals with the political sphere. How will the leaders of Earth’s civilizations communicate the discovery of alien tech to their people? If the discovery was of a Dyson sphere, it could lead our political leaders to involve the military. Or, they might give more funding to science institutions to understand it. Of course, there’s always a question about whether the civilization that created the sphere poses a threat to us. That engenders another set of questions, along with planning for an “evil alien” scenario.

Meeting Aliens and Finding Spacecraft

Then there is the scenario of aliens showing up here on Earth. One of the more endearing traditions among Trekkies (fans of Star Trek) is to celebrate “First Contact Day” each year on April 5th. It commemorates the future date (in 2063) when humans and Vulcans first meet. It’s a lovely idea and presents a much-dreamed-about fictional interpretation of a benevolent meetup. We can only hope that it will happen that way. Certainly, such an encounter will also have incredibly profound effects on human societies.

If we DO end up having extraterrestrial visitors land on Earth for a visit, that brings us back to some important questions. How do we communicate with them? Should we fear them? Can we take advantage of their knowledge to improve our own science and societies? The communication challenge is something we’re working on now, with the whale project. However, beyond that, humans have shown throughout their history that communicating with “others” is problematic. It often leads to misunderstanding, wrong assumptions, and in the worse case, war. So, we need to focus on the “contact” part of “first contact”. That means improving our methods of communication and understanding among ourselves (and other species on THIS planet) if we want to have any hope of doing the same with ET, when and if they get here.

Zephram Cochrane makes first contact with a Vulcan explorer in the Star Trek" The Next Generation episode "First Contact." Credit: Paramount Global.
Zephram Cochrane makes first contact with a Vulcan explorer in the Star Trek” The Next Generation episode “First Contact.” Credit: Paramount Global.

In recent years, another type of “contact” has been touted by a Harvard scientist who is convinced that an interstellar asteroid is, in fact, an alien spaceship. There’s little evidence to support that idea, and rather more scientific data to show that the rock (called ‘Oumuamua) is a rocky alien asteroid taking a trip through our solar system. But, it certainly excited a lot of talk and scientific interest. So that raises the question: what if we did find an alien artifact in our solar system?

There’d be a cultural impact as people rush to understand what it is, how old it is, and where it originated. And, that would ripple out through the science, political, and social science communities. The spacecraft would represent a technology that we’d like to have for ourselves and our own future space travel. Its existence would probably spur a race among countries to be the first to exploit that information.

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Evidence points to its origin as an asteroid from another system, not necessarily an alien seeking first contact. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, `Oumuamua, as it experiences outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Evidence points to its origin as an asteroid from another system, not necessarily an alien seeking first contact. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

So, How Do We Prepare for First Contact?

Right now, we’re lucky. We don’t have any solid evidence of life elsewhere or aliens on this planet. That lets us be a little bit ignorant about what to do since we haven’t had to worry about it. But, we should be prepared because everything will change when first contact is made. So, we need to be ready. Anton and his co-authors suggest the following: we think of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as a high-risk research project that needs to be discussed openly. It’s a global risk, not just confined to one country. It’s also not just a scientific endeavor and any research done to discover other civilizations needs to be shared across all governments and political systems.

If first contact takes place, it’s going to be a global concern and international institutions will be involved. They’ll likely want to draw up policies and regulations, probably at the level of the United Nations. However, that doesn’t mean it becomes a secret. The first contact of any kind will be an incredibly extraordinary event. It will change the way we think about ourselves, our societies, and our planet. And, if history is any guide, we can either do it right, with advance preparation. Or, we can muddle through and hope that Mars doesn’t attack, or aliens with a hunger for more than knowledge of other species don’t see us as a tasty smorgasbord in space.

For More Information

Meeting extraterrestrials: Scenarios of first contact from the perspective of exosociology