Science fiction is the realm where people traditionally wrestle with the idea of contact with an ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence). But now, those discussions are migrating from science fiction to more serious realms. Scholars come and go, one article at a time, regarding the response and geopolitical consequences of possible contact with an ETI.
The discussion is interesting if you think it’s likely or even remotely possible that humanity will ever contact an ETI. And it could tell us more about humanity than an ETI.
A new article titled “Geopolitical Implications of a Successful SETI Program”
is the latest salvo back and forth between professional thinkers. The paper’s three authors are associated with institutions including NASA, the Penn State ETI Center, the Spring Hill College Philosophy Department, and Harvard Law School. The lead author is Jason T. Wright of Penn State University. The article has been accepted for publication by the journal. Space Policy and is currently available on the preprint site arxiv.org.
This paper is a response to a previous article published in 2020 called “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: A Realpolitik Consideration.” That article was also published in Space Policy magazine, giving new emphasis to the discussion of possible contact with an ETI. . The authors are Kenneth Wisian and John Traphagan. Wisian is from the University of Texas Space Research Center, and Traphagan is from the Department of Religious Studies and the Human Dimensions of Organizations Program, also at the University of Texas. We will refer to your article as WT 2020.
At WT 2020, the two authors noted that much thinking about ETIs focuses on the risks of seeking extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and sending messages to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI). What if the ETI is technologically advanced and threatening? What if they’re like conquerors or something? Stephen Hawking expressed this fear well in 2010 when he said: “Those advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, seeking to conquer and colonize whatever planet they could reach.”
Those kinds of alien invaders bring in millions of dollars for Hollywood, but the authors of WT 2020 focused on a different risk, one that doesn’t attract as much attention. What is that risk? “Specifically, the risk of simply detecting an alien signal from passive SETI activity is generally considered negligible,” they write.
What’s so risky about simply detecting a signal? We and our realpolitik.
If you are not familiar with the term realpolitik, history is full of examples. Merriam-Webster defines realpolitik as “Politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical goals.” In WT 2020, the authors use this definition of realpolitik from historian John Bew: “…the view of interstate relations where ‘the notion that the state could be regulated or controlled by law [is] vitiated’ and that ‘power obey[s] only greater power.’”
Realpolitik is vulgar and dirty politics between political groups, usually nations. Realpolitik is separate from the prayer that political leaders use in elections and public situations, where ideology and virtue signaling run amok and leaders use political theater to influence the population and further their causes. Realpolitik is about the mechanics of power in our world.
Because human nature has not changed.
If we passively detect a signal of an ILI, it could be of concern to religious people. Their worldview could be severely threatened, and there may be significant upheaval in religious countries or even religious extremist violence. But it would go out, it is thought, and people would return to their daily lives. It would be revolutionary for scientists, but most people would go on with their lives. This is how the WT 2020 document summarizes the thinking. But how would the nations and their political leaders react?
But whenever nations compete with each other, there will be some measure of realpolitik. And when it comes to contacting an ETI, monopolizing that contact presents potential benefits to the nation that monopolizes it. “The history of international relations seen through the lens of the realpolitik tradition of realist political thought suggests, however, that there is a measurable risk of conflict over the perceived benefit of monopoly access to ETI communication channels,” they write. the authors in WT 2020. “This possibility should be considered when analyzing the potential risks and benefits of contact with ILI.”