Extraterrestrials: A Reply from Earth?
October 5, 2010 8 Comments
As the science and technology of the SETI have emerged over the past thirty years, so there has been a gradually increasing interest in examining the consequences of the detection of a signal transmitted by an extraterrestrial civilization. As a result of many years of discussion in the SETI Committee of the IAA, a “post-detection protocol” was drawn up as a draft international document. After revisions, a final docu-ment entitled “Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence” was approved by International Academics of Astronautics and IISL and COSPAR. The Declaration draws attention to the importance of unambiguous confirmation that the signal is indeed of extraterrestrial intelligent origin, of proper dissemination of the details of the discovery, and procedures for reporting and archiving the data.In addition, Principle 8 of the first Declaration of Principles states that:
“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.”
The detection of extraterrestrial intelligence could take many forms, and the exact scenario of such a detection may be unpredictable. In many potential scenarios, however, the same questions would arise. Should the human species send a message to the extraterrestrial civilization? Who decides? Are there reasons why Humankind should not reply? Who decides?If we decide to reply, what should we say? Again, who decides?
These questions lead to others. Should humanity respond as a unit, rather than as separate nations or organizations? Should we attempt to design a generic response, or await the circumstances of the detection before drafting a more specific response?Can we design a reply without a signal to analyze? A transmission from them that we detect could vary all the way from a continuous wave carrier signal toa very complex message. So the decision as to whether or not to reply and the decision on the content of our message will depend to a considerable degree on the nature of their signal. It might be argued that it is fruitless at this time to even think about the content of our message in view of this unknown. However, it might be useful to assume, for example, that their signal has no message but is indisputably generated by a radio transmitter. What would we do if we if we detected their interplanetary radar? Conceivably our reply, should we send one, could vary all the way from the simple message transmitted by Drake from Arecibo, or the time consuming shipment of physical artifacts such as those carried abroad the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, to a lengthy description of the Earth, its history and our civilization. This question can be studied now.It could also be argued that this whole exercise is premature since the date of detection of the of the signal is unknown and could be many years into the future. We do not agree with that position,.and feel that the opposite is true;namely, that SETI searches of some magnitude are now underway or planned for in the near future. There have already been 50 searches, albeit with limited coverage of search space and therefore a low probability of success. Many of the questions raised by a potential response are not primarily scientific in nature: they are more philosophical,social, and political. While scientists can make important contributions to the decisions that must be made, a response from humanity must be, in our view, more broadly based. But how do we achieve that?
We believe that the most fruitful way to begin addressing these issues is to focus on the process by which the human species as a whole might react to the detection of an extraterrestrial civilization. We suggest the development of an international agreement or declaration of principles that would establish procedures enabling all humans, through appropriate representatives, to participate in the making of decisions on a reply from Earth. Of existing international bodies, the United Nations would appear to offer the most inclusive and legitimate framework for such procedures. The draft agreement or declaration of principles, when completed, be provided to the UN for its consideration, through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. As a starting point for discussion,we propose that the draft agreement or declaration include the following principles:
1. A response to the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence should be on behalf of all Humankind. If Humankind decides to respond, it should do so with one voice, not many.
2. The decision on whether or not to respond should be made by an appropriate international body, broadly representative of Humankind.
3. It should reflect international consensus.
[Credit: Michael Michaud]