From the Chief Advocate
In the realm of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) discourse, much consideration has been given to the religious and cultural ramifications of receiving a message from space.
Carl Sagan’s Contact, perhaps the best-known treatment, portrays a range of cultural reactions: fanaticism, terrorism, fear, hope, and, of course, an expansion of secular and religious faith. While the book posits growing global comity and denuclearization, the movie adaptation ignores the geopolitical implications completely.
That’s a big omission from our consideration of a potential successful SETI signal. But two recent papers provide some fertile ground for consideration.
The first proposes a realpolitik reaction: nation-states operating in a zero-sum, competitive environment; scrambling to monopolize a signal so as to gain a technological advantage and gain power. Given this possibility, the authors argue, we should work to harden and secure SETI institutions and radio telescopes to protect them from possible espionage or sabotage.
The second paper is a response to the first, rejecting the realpolitik framework as both simplistic and unlikely given the range of possible technosignatures we are likely to encounter. It argues that nations are motivated by many factors including prestige, which confers a cultural soft-power advantage to cultural and scientific feats — like discovering the first cosmic intelligent civilization. Instead of monopolizing a signal, which is nearly impossible given the nature of radio waves, nations are instead incentivized to share this information widely to both gain status and engage in mutually-beneficial cooperative activities. Preemptively securing SETI institutions, they argue, contradicts this principle and could itself spur distrust that would lead to a more combative and divisive response.
I largely agree with the arguments made in the second paper. However, I do sympathize with the realpolitik analysis. Not so much for its conclusions, but because it considers that the mere perception of an advantage conferred by receiving an alien signal can motivate an extreme response. In addition, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine reminds us that international actions can be irrational, self-destructive, or beholden to the whims of autocrats and strongmen — not generally the most quietly rational or disposed to cooperation. I also see the potential for political ideology to drive conflict for which nation (or group of nations) is perceived as dictating a global response to such a signal.
The latest episode of Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition features Professor Jason Wright, one of the authors of the second paper, and we go into much more detail. If nothing else, this topic reminds us how SETI can be used as a unique tool to analyze geopolitics and to consider how our global order would respond to a “stress test” like receiving a signal from another civilization.
Until next month,
The Planetary Society
Space Policy Highlights
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NASA subsequently announced November 14th as the next launch attempt.
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Space companies face difficult investment environment (spacenews.com) "Rising interest rates are making it more difficult for space startups to raise money, some warn, forcing them to seek alternative sources of funding. A series of rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, intended to halt the post-pandemic spike in inflation, could have the side effect of driving funding out of risky venture investments, such as space, because of the higher rates offered elsewhere."
SpaceX is dominating the launch market for NASA's science missions (arstechnica.com) "it seems likely that at least the last three awards under NASA's Launch Services II contract have all seen SpaceX bidding against itself. United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno confirmed this after NASA's announcement in September 2021 that the GOES-U satellite would launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket. Bruno said his company had "withdrawn" its bid after all of its Atlas V rockets were sold out."
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
What would nation-states do in response to a signal from an alien intelligence? Would they compete for status and control of the message, or hope to gain some technological advantage from its contents? Or would the world shrug its shoulders and move on? Professor Jason Wright, director of the Penn State Extraterrestrial Intelligence Center, joins the show to discuss a new paper proposing a more nuanced and positive view of world behavior given a potential SETI detection, and how the most likely message we receive may be more ambiguous than we imagine.