"...To enable a responsible response, impact assessments, protocols, procedures, and treaties will be developed by bringing together diverse expertise from the sciences and the humanities."
Are we ready to meet with ET? Are We ready to communicate with advanced alien civilizations? Is the planet prepared? Are we as a society? In order to prepare humanity for the discovery of life beyond Earth and how to respond, the University of St Andrews will launch an international center to coordinate global expertise. Who knows if we will ever find life beyond Earth? Are there advanced, super-intelligent aliens out there? There might be. There is a chance that we will be able to detect aliens sooner rather than later. Are we prepared, though?
An international effort to coordinate SETI post-detection, hosted by the University of St Andrews Center for Exoplanet Science and Center for Global Law and Governance, will be facilitated through the new SETI Post-Detection Hub. To enable a responsible response, impact assessments, protocols, procedures, and treaties will be developed by bringing together diverse expertise from the sciences and the humanities.
Coordinating expert knowledge
“Science fiction is replete with explorations of the impact on human society following discoveries, and even encounters, with life and intelligence elsewhere,” said Dr. John Elliott, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Computer Science at the University of St Andrews and Hub coordinator. “But we must think about more than the impact on humanity. Dr. Elliott explains that as our understanding progresses, and what we know and what we don’t know is communicated, we need to coordinate our expert knowledge. This is relevant for assessing evidence and for considering the human social response. There is no better time than now to take action.
A learning process
Additionally, Dr. Elliott notes that scanning signals of extraterrestrial origin for language structures and attaching meaning takes some time. As we learn more about extraterrestrials, our knowledge will advance in many steps. It will also address responsible science communication in the age of social media, which will help close substantial policy gaps. In 2010, the Royal Society held a Scientific Discussion Meeting on the topic of ‘Detecting extraterrestrial life and its implications for science and society.’ It was followed by the then-Director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), Mazlan Othman, debunking a news story about her being appointed as an alien ambassador.
Earth has procedures in place to deal with the threat posed by asteroids impacting the planet. However, there is no such procedure in place to detect an ET radio signal. Aside from SETI’s own 1989 ‘contact’ protocols that were last revised in 2010, there are no other currently agreed ‘contact’ protocols. In focusing solely on general scientific conduct, they are not enforceable aspirations and cannot be used to manage in practice the entire search process, handling candidate evidence, confirming detections, interpreting and analyzing post-detection results, and responding to potential incidents. SETI Post-Detection Hubs, for the first time, provide a permanent ‘home’ for coordinating the development of comprehensive frameworks.
Are we ready?
To work on topics ranging from message decipherment and data analytics to regulatory protocols, space law, and societal impact strategies, SETI and other academic communities, as well as policy experts, will gather interested members from SETI and larger academic communities and policy experts. Dr. Elliott said: “Will we ever get a message from E.T.? We don’t know. We also don’t know when this is going to happen. But we do know that we cannot afford to be ill-prepared – scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless – for an event that could turn into reality as early as tomorrow and which we cannot afford to mismanage.”