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Public Communication in Close-Up Contact
by Allen Tough, Ph.D., University of Toronto
email tough @ ieti.org


The first contact between extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and human society could be remote, occurring across several light-years of space as radio and optical SETI expect. But first contact could just as easily be close-up. If alien technology is at least 1000 years ahead of ours, it could easily send a small smart probe to study our society. If we detect such a probe on or near our planet, we will immediately face several questions concerning public communication and dissemination in close-up contact. This paper focuses on five aspects of this situation. (1) THE PROTOCOLS. The two declarations of principles (protocols) need to clarify just what situations they cover and do not cover, (2) VERIFICATION. A team of experts may be needed to seek unassailable methods and evidence for confirming or disconfirming the probe's authenticity. Otherwise most people will not pay much attention to the probe's messages because each year many messages in our society claim to be of extraterrestrial origin. (3) WORLDWIDE DIALOGUE. Public dissemination might use the World Wide Web, radio, television, and print. These media could also be used to collect questions and other responses for the probe from a wide range of people. A committee of experts in public communication and learning might oversee this dialogue. What role will ETI itself play in communication and dissemination? In the remote scenario, all public communication is handled by humans, but the close-up scenario is quite different. A probe that is smarter than any human being may well interact directly with the public. (4) SETI PERMANENT STUDY GROUP OR A NEW FORUM? To foster and prepare for close-up contact, the SETI field needs fresh ideas and strategies. Will the SETI Permanent Study Group move beyond its present chilling stance - move toward policies that are highly creative and helpful? Or do we need a new policy forum - perhaps a Human-ETI Communication Council? (5) PROFOUND SURPRISES. Because the characteristics of ETI are totally unknown by us at this stage, because the probe will likely be much older and wiser than us, and because we may find its thinking patterns and values deeply alien, we should expect profound surprises. An extremely smart and knowledgeable probe will likely have its own ideas about proof of authenticity and about public communication.

A Neglected Scenario

Almost all SETI scientists agree that any extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) we detect will be at least 10,000 years older than we are - quite possibly 10,000,000 years older or even 2,000,000,000. But many of these scientists fail to think through the implications of this situation. For instance, a highly advanced intelligence with highly advanced technology is unlikely to just sit at home and send beacons across the galaxy. No, they will use their technology to study us up close - to monitor our civilization, and its communications media, and its worldwide web of computers.

After all, the one civilization that we know sends probes as far as it can. But only rarely and briefly does it send out radio or laser messages or beacons. If we follow the data rather than our prejudices, we would search for probes inside the solar system rather than radio or laser signals from many light-years away.

The Protocols

We see then that it is quite possible that our first contact with ETI will be a close-up encounter with a super-smart, perhaps miniature, robot probe.

Consequently it is important to re-examine the two current international SETI agreements, called declarations of principles, to see how well they fit this situation. These two declarations, widely discussed in the SETI community over the past 17 years, cover confirmation of authenticity, public announcements, the dissemination of data, and the question of replying to the source of the signal. Because these two declarations never state explicitly which sorts of detection situations they apply to, and which they do not, they could create enormous confusion if the detection occurs in some unexpected way.

Such an ambiguous situation is unfair to innovative scientists. Even if one of the principles in the international declarations is inappropriate or irrelevant in a particular scenario, the scientist who decides not to follow that principle could face censure and even sanctions from peers.

In order to avoid this confusion, it is extremely important that the relevant parties make an explicit statement that these two international agreements apply only to the detection of a signal that comes from a distance of several light-years or more. The documents themselves, and the concerned parties, should state clearly that they do not apply to any other situations, such as the detection of a probe or spacecraft near our moon or planet.

The first agreement is officially called "Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence." It has been widely discussed, and most radio search efforts have agreed to follow it (or a set of similar principles).

This first declaration was designed primarily for a detection scenario involving a distant radio or optical signal that comes from an extraterrestrial civilization many light-years from our solar system. This is the standard SETI detection scenario--the one that everyone thinks of when they think of SETI. Recent progress in computers, robotics, nanotechnology, and space exploration, however, now make it obvious that another scenario, too, is a lively possibility--the detection of a miniature, highly intelligent probe close to Earth. This second scenario is never mentioned in the document; the document fails to state whether it is intended to cover it or not.

It is important, consequently, to examine each of the principles in this international agreement to see how well they fit the probe detection scenario. Two of the basic principles fit quite well, but the third does not fit at all. The first basic principle emphasizes the importance of verifying that the source is genuinely extraterrestrial before making a public announcement. Vigorous thorough verification is an extremely important principle that fits both scenarios very well. (The detailed arrangements and personnel will vary from one scenario to another, of course, but the fundamental principle remains valid.) The second basic principle emphasizes the importance of collecting and archiving all possible data, and making all of it promptly and freely available to other scientists. This basic principle, too, applies to both scenarios, though again the details will vary depending on whether it is a remote astronomical phenomenon or a nearby probe.

The third principle, however, does not fit the probe detection scenario at all. The third principle basically says, "Don't reply." To be more precise, it instructs that no reply be sent until the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has met, followed by a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to decide whether to reply and to decide the content of the reply. The next section analyzes this clause in some depth.

Verification and Dialogue

The third basic principle that we have been discussing is listed in the first declaration of principles and is spelled out in detail in the second declaration, which is called "Draft Declaration of Principles Concerning the Sending of Communications to Extraterrestrial Intelligence." Most members of the SETI community would wholeheartedly agree that "the content of such a message should reflect a careful concern for the broad interests and well-being of Humanity." However, many of the specific procedures and arrangements in this document make little sense if a scientist or research team is faced with an immediate message from a nearby intelligent probe. That is not the time to ask the United Nations General Assembly to compose a response: the probe would probably be miffed or gone by the time an answer was completed. If a probe begins a dialogue and then is met by weeks of silence while the United Nations composes a reply, the probe might interpret our lack of an immediate response as uninterested, unfriendly, or even hostile.

Indeed, the whole concept of a single lengthy reply fails to fit the probe scenario at all; instead, a lively quick back-and-forth dialogue is much more likely. The probe has presumably already monitored our radio and television broadcasts, learned at least one of our languages, and learned about our culture and history. It does not need a lengthy reply containing language lessons and an encyclopedia, unlike the other scenario where a reply is being sent to a source several light-years from us.

Both declarations of principles assume that verification and reply are two discrete procedures, perhaps separated by many months. With a probe, however, it may turn out that verification and reply are intertwined, not discrete. A fairly quick back-and-forth dialogue may be required as part of the verification process. The research team might ask the probe to prove its extraterrestrial origin by giving us new scientific knowledge or some other demonstration of its extraordinary ability. Indeed, responding and engaging in a dialogue may be absolutely necessary for verification. The only other option, surely not one that those drafting the declarations would intentionally encourage, might be to capture the probe and dismantle it to see where the parts were manufactured.

If a message is received that claims to be from a nearby extraterrestrial probe, three stages may occur. First, the discoverer may find out what sorts of evidence the probe wants to provide in order to prove that it is genuine. The second step could be the establishment of a small flexible team of scientists and skeptics with expertise to assess the particular sort of proof that will be provided. If this team concludes that the probe is genuine, a dialogue between the probe and all of humanity might be the third step, perhaps supervised partially or totally by appropriate global organizations. At that stage, of course, the probe itself may well have its own ideas of how to proceed; these may well conflict with our preconceptions.

SETI Permanent Study Group

In October each year, a longstanding international committee meets to set policy for the SETI field. It functions within the International Academy of Astronautics. Called simply "the SETI Committee" for many years, it is now called the SETI Permanent Study Group. As an active member of this committee, the author of this paper has become enthusiastic about its overall value but critical of some particular decisions and perspectives.

This key international committee should re-examine its policies that discourage and restrict human-ETI communication. In particular it should explore whether the widespread chilling effect of its two protocols ("Declarations of Principles") is rooted in the Cold War and is now counter-productive.

Indeed, the basic underlying assumptions should be re-examined. When these protocols were developed, it was assumed that (1) only SETI scientists would be communicating with ETI, (2) the SETI field must never make a detection announcement that turns out to be unfounded, (3) no unauthorized responses can be allowed to a genuine signal, and even in other circumstances perhaps no one should be allowed to send any sort of message to ETI by any means, and (4) international legal and diplomatic channels are the most appropriate way to achieve #2 and #3. Are these assumptions valid today?

Those assumptions were mildly challenged at the 1995 Oslo meeting by Bobbie Vaile and Allen Tough (they favored a grassroots campaign to encourage students and citizens around the world to draft messages to ETI). In the nine years since then, they have been re-examined only rarely - perhaps never.

Because of assumption #4, the SETI Permanent Study Group is trying to get its policies approved by a powerful and prestigious United Nations committee. But this committee, faced with many urgent and difficult space issues, has very little interest in SETI. The International Council for Science (ICSU) and other organizations might be more congenial.

Perhaps it is time to put the two out-of-date Declarations of Principles (protocols) on the shelf for a while and start afresh. Trying to create a set of guidelines or principles to guide the entire range of human-ETI communication efforts might be an interesting and helpful exercise. The two out-of-date protocols focused largely on just one scenario - detecting an intelligent radio signal from a distance of several light-years. The authors of those protocols may have hoped that their protocols would cover ETI in the solar system, but they did not in fact examine this scenario nor adapt their protocol to fit. Likely it would be more useful to develop a protocol to cover all forms of communications with ETI, whether close-up or distant, and whether initiated by humans or by ETI.

A new forum?

Will the SETI Permanent Study Group prove capable of such fundamental re-thinking? It has in its favour many good thinkers among its members, a new chair, and an established niche. But it may not be able to overcome the weight of its traditional views and procedures. If so, a new policy council should be created and vigorously supported.

I propose a worldwide free-standing Human-ETI Communication Council. It would provide policy and guidance (and censure if required) concerning communicating with ETI. In order to keep expenses down, its members could interact electronically rather than bringing the whole council together for a face-to-face meeting.

This independent Human-ETI Communication Council would consist of two members chosen by each of the following:

Although the members would presumably remain faithful to the broad views of their nominating organizations, no member would be bound by detailed instructions. This rule promotes freer discussion and faster decision-making.

A new group such as this Human-ETI Communication Council might create fresh policy approaches and fresh strategies. These could be very useful when close-up contact with a super-smart alien probe finally occurs.

Profound Surprises

Because the characteristics of ETI are totally unknown by us at this stage, because the probe will likely be much older and wiser than us, and because we may find its thinking patterns and values deeply alien, we should expect profound surprises. An extremely smart and knowledgeable probe will likely have its own ideas about proof of authenticity and about public communication.

About this paper

Copyright 2004 Allen Tough. All rights reserved. Feel free to download and print one copy of this paper for your own personal use. This paper will be included on the papers CD included in each conference participant's bag at the International Astronautical Congress, Vancouver, Canada, October 2004. It is paper number IAC-04-IAA. To make it available to concerned and interested individuals in the meantime, it is posted at http://www.ieti.org/articles/close.htm.

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