ST. ANDREWS, United Kingdom — Many believe aliens have been visiting our planet for quite some time, while others are more skeptical when it comes to flying saucers and little green men. Wherever you fall on the extraterrestrial belief scale, the day may come when humanity officially discovers we’re not alone in the universe. The big question is: what happens next?
Scientists have created a new international research hub at the University of St Andrews to tackle that very question and coordinate global expertise to prepare humanity for such an event and how we should respond.
The new SETI Post-Detection Hub, hosted by the university’s Centre for Exoplanet Science and the Centre for Global Law and Governance, will serve as a coordinating center for efforts to combine a diverse array of expertise across both the sciences and the humanities for planning out impact assessments, protocols, procedures, and treaties — all with one goal in mind: designing a responsible response to alien contact.
“Science fiction is awash with explorations of the impact on human society following discovery of, and even encounters with, life or intelligence elsewhere,” says Dr. John Elliott, Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Computer Science of the University of St Andrews, in a university release. “But we need to go beyond thinking about the impact on humanity. We need to coordinate our expert knowledge not only for assessing the evidence but also for considering the human social response, as our understanding progresses and what we know and what we don’t know is communicated. And the time to do this is now.”
“Scanning signals of assumed extra-terrestrial origin for structures of language and attaching meaning is an elaborate and time-consuming process during which our knowledge will be advanced in many steps as we learn ‘Extra-Terrestrial’,” he continues.
Humans haven’t updated their first contact rules in 30 years!
The SETI Post-Detection Hub will address a long-time glaring policy gap, and also consider responsible science communication in the social media era. Officials have taken very little action regarding this topic, besides the somewhat infamous occasion in 2010 when the Royal Society held a Scientific Discussion Meeting on “the detection of extraterrestrial life and the consequences for science and society.”
After the meeting, then-Director of the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) Mazlan Othman had to debunk the emerging rumor that she received the title of an official “alien ambassador.”
Fast forward to today, and there are now procedures and entities put in place within the U.N. for responding to the potential doomsday scenario of asteroids hurdling toward Earth. However, there is no such U.N. plan for picking up a radio signal from an alien spaceship or civilization.
Right now, the SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) community has drawn up the only existing agreed upon “contact” protocols for alien life — and those date back to 1989! Those plans haven’t been revised since 2010 and focus exclusively on general scientific conduct. That means these plans constitute non-enforceable aspirations and nothing else. They would fail to provide any meaningful guidance if it came time to enact a full process of searching, handling candidate evidence, confirmation of detections, post-detection analysis and interpretation, and potential response.
What will the new Hub do?
Now, for the first time ever, the SETI Post-Detection Hub will provide a permanent headquarters for coordination efforts aimed at developing a fully comprehensive alien response framework. The Hub will enjoy access to interested members of the SETI and wider academic communities, as well as policy experts, to work on topics such as message decipherment and data analytics, the development of regulatory protocols, space law, and societal impact strategies.
“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,” Dr. Elliott concludes.