Imagine, if you will, James Bond stalking the dark corridors of some hostile foreign power.
Or maybe the secret underground lair of some crazed (aerospace?) billionaire, searching for secret technology that threatens the world. Only this time, the technology came from a neighbor in the cosmos.
This depiction may be sensationalized and considerably campy, it highlights the concerns of two researchers from the University of Texas at Austin. Anthropologist John Traphagan and geothermal physicist and former United States Air Force Major General, Ken Wisian, published a paper in the journal Space Policy, suggesting that SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, could be dangerous. However, the threat wouldn’t come from invading aliens, but from ourselves and our messy geopolitics.
The modern expectation is that if SETI does succeed, it will be through something nondescript: overhead radio leakage, raw energy from power beaming, an indecipherable technosignature. If we’re really lucky, however, the detection of a signal might carry more information than just a simple sign that there’s somebody out there. Maybe we’ll catch a deliberate signal, an encyclopedia galactica, loaded with information about advanced technology, extraterrestrial culture, and science way beyond our current knowledge. Or maybe we won’t. It matters neither way, say Traphagan and Wisian. What is important, they argue, is the perception that a signal could be valuable, and that nations may seek to co-opt and monopolize it to gain a strategic advantage over others.
“It’s perception that matters,” says Wisian. “The perception that a signal could contain important information, that’s the driver. The actual facts are almost irrelevant.”
If Traphagan and Wisian are correct, then the momentous moment of first contact could ultimately be overshadowed by human paranoia, selfishness and suspicion, potentially leading us down a very dark road. Even more so now that the world is currently a powder-keg just waiting to explode.
“I’d worry if we received a message tomorrow,” adds Traphagan. “I don’t see how it wouldn’t lead to increased tensions and, in the worst-case scenario, could even end up in World War Three.”
That sounds dramatic, but it’s the fear of this existential risk that has driven Wisian and Traphagan to issue this stark warning. However, before we panic and down tools and radio telescopes, we need to put things into context. Even Wisian and Traphagan accept that it is an unlikely scenario.
“I am an optimist at heart,” says Wisian. “But the key point is that we don’t say it will happen, or even that it’s a likely scenario, but only that it’s a possible scenario. And because of the risk level it must be taken into account and thought about in a serious way.”
To protect from the espionage that might ensue if one nation thought another nation or organization was holding something back about SETI, Wisian and Traphagan suggest that those in the SETI community, and the facilities that they use, should take security precautions, but not everyone has welcomed their suggestions with open arms. Some have reacted with umbrage.
Leading the criticism of Wisian and Traphagan’s viewpoint is Jason Wright, a professor of astronomy and a SETI researcher at Penn State University, who issued a sharp rebuttal of their work. He’s now returned to the topic with a new paper in Space Policy, co-written with professor of philosophy Chelsea Haramia of Spring Hill College and Harvard lawyer Gabriel Swiney, who is the Senior Policy Advisor in NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy.
What Wisian and Traphagan see as important security precautions, Wright, Haramia and Swiney see as far-reaching intrusions that will prevent radio astronomers from going about their business.
“They’re recommending locking down radio observatories like you would lock down a nuclear facility,” protests Wright. “That would make radio astronomy much harder, maybe even end it as we know it.”
Wisian feels this reaction is overblown; perhaps it simply highlights the difference between a civilian and a military mindset. Wisian does think that it’s possible to reach an appropriate level of security that doesn’t interfere with the regular lives and jobs of scientists, and points out that we take these precautions all the time.
“Any government building or function takes basic precautions like active-shooter training, and stand-off distance from your building so people can’t just drive right into the lobby,” Wisian says. “Unfortunately in our world today a lot of these things have become standard operating procedure. Any large organization now should have some sort of liaison with local law enforcement agencies, they should have basic procedures for locking down and being able to account for everybody.”
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In their paper, Wisian and Traphagan do suggest taking measures such as perimeter guards, but Wright points out that if guards suddenly appear at the gates of Green Bank Observatory, it could create the perception that something has been detected, creating the very paranoia that Wisian and Traphagan hope to avoid.
It would also be redundant, thinks Wright, since there is already guidance in place about what to do if a real extraterrestrial signal is detected, in the guise of the First SETI Protocol. More properly known as the Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, the protocol states that if you detect a possible alien signal then the first thing you need to do is try and confirm that it is real and not local terrestrial interference. This involves getting the message out to other radio observatories all around the world to track the signal.
“The protocol is to share it, and you share it before you’ve confirmed it because that’s the point of sharing it, to confirm it,” adds Wright. “Once you’ve shared the location and frequency, which is what you need to confirm it, then there’s nothing else to protect. You can take over the observatory but you can’t guard the coordinates and frequency with guns.”
It means well, but the problem with the First SETI Protocol is that it has no teeth in law. It’s not a signed document or international treaty, and no one is forced to adhere to it. So while it describes how to act responsibly in the aftermath of a detection, until it becomes signed into international law, Wisian and Traphagan believe that it is inadequate in the face of geopolitical ructions.
Wisian and Traphagan are worried about China, for instance. China is the location of the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, called FAST (Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope). FAST is doing SETI, and its sensitivity is so great that it could very well be the first to make a detection.
At present there is no grounds to worry about China locking things down. Western radio astronomers, among them the group at UC Berkeley as well as at Jodrell Bank in the UK, are working closely with Chinese radio astronomers and form a tight-knit bunch.
“They’ve helped the Chinese develop the hardware and analyze all the signals, and most importantly had access to all the data,” says Wright.
A concern is that this state of affairs might not last forever. If one day China decides to boot out all western involvement in FAST, then red flags might be raised, but until then Wisian and Traphagan argue that it’s wise to be prepared, just in case. Tensions are high and recent relations between China and the US have been strained over the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty and the threat that China will invade the island nation.
A more immediate problem could be the geopolitical situation between Russia and the rest of the world. Historically Russian, or Soviet, scientists were a powerhouse in SETI, although in recent decades this seems to have scaled back. But consider this hypothetical situation: were Russian scientists to detect an extraterrestrial signal tomorrow, given the current international situation and sanctions against Russia, would that information be shared with the rest of the world?
While space cooperation and cohabitation of the International Space Station remains stable between the US and Russia, there’s no guarantee that goodwill will extend into a SETI discovery, especially if any party sees it as a national security issue.
“Geopolitics could certainly get in the way,” says Michael Michaud, who for three decades was an officer of the US Foreign Service, where among other things he served as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Science and Technology, and the Director of the State Department’s Office of Advanced Technology. “If the Russians or the Chinese were the first to detect the signal, they might not inform everyone else until they had extracted what was most useful to them.”
It’s not just Russia and China that we need to be concerned about, says Michaud. Western military and intelligence agencies might also want to keep the information to themselves if one of their sophisticated listening programs coincidentally picks up an extraterrestrial signal.
“Officials in charge of classified defense and intelligence programs may withhold the discovery because they might not know what to do with it and don’t want to reveal their technical capabilities,” says Michaud, who has also worked extensively in SETI, sitting on the IAA’s SETI Permanent Committee and helping to draft the First SETI Protocol.
Let’s remind ourselves that it’s a narrow range of possibilities that could lead to such outcomes. If a multitude of nations can access the signal then there’s no way for a single nation to monopolize it.
“It crucially depends on how faint the signal is,” says Wisian.
This is a somewhat vague statement. How faint is faint? How narrow a range of signal strengths is there that FAST, for example, could detect but that no other telescope could? For their part, Wisian and Traphagan have acknowledged that quantifying this could be a next step for them.
There’s also the fact that detection and follow-up on any signal are two different beasts. “We have to bear in mind – and this is our main point regarding our ability to detect signals – that after detection, the resources required to receive a signal shrink dramatically in comparison to what was needed before detection,” counters Chelsea Haramia. Once you know where to look in the sky and on what frequency, you don’t necessarily need a telescope as large as the one that discovered the signal – you just need to listen carefully for longer. “This means that many more parties are in a position to potentially detect and communicate once we know where to look.”
Many more parties, yes, but not everybody, because not every country has the resources or technical know-how to do SETI work.
“SETI is one of many illustrations of technological inequality, since the vast majority of nation-states don’t have SETI programs,” says Michaud.
You can count the number of countries that currently actively do SETI on the fingers of one hand, with digits to spare. There are numerous other nations that have the technology to do SETI, but choose not to. But there are many more nations that don’t have the capability, so even if all the information from a signal is shared, these countries would not be able to directly access that information and would have to rely on trusting other nations.
The proof, though, is in the pudding. Every now and then, amidst all the radio static that it detects, SETI does occasionally come up with a false alarm, a signal that promises much but turns out to be something very down to Earth. One example is the fabled signal from Proxima Centauri that Breakthrough Listen picked up between April and May 2019, and reported in December 2020. While SETI scientists were highly dubious that it was real, to the outside world it appeared that this could be it. Eventually a team led by Sofia Sheikh of Penn State University were able to confirm that the detection was terrestrial interference.
“Many people knew about the signal, and the coordinates and the frequency ended up in the press before any confirmation had taken place,” says Wright.
Another example was the claim of a signal detected by FAST earlier this year, which was publicized in both a press release and a scientific paper, and which involved astronomers at Berkeley. The claim quickly turned out to also be false, but “both examples are empirical evidence that the situation is more like what we describe than what Wisian and Traphagan imagine it to be.”
Yet even Wright admits there’s a caveat. “The situation could change, of course, but even then, a communication monopoly would not really be possible unless it’s a one-way ‘encyclopedia galactica’.”
The encyclopedia galactica is an old concept in SETI; the idea that extraterrestrials would beam out information-rich signals from powerful beacons with the intent of being heard. Because of the vast light delay between the stars, two-way conversation is impractical unless you’re lucky to have another civilization on your doorstep, within a dozen or two light years. So, it seemed to make sense that aliens would want to cut to the chase, and load the signal with all the knowledge and valuable information that they have. However, years of searching have failed to find any bright beacons, and the idea of receiving an encyclopedia galactica isn’t so in vogue as it was in the 1960s and 70s.
“It’s a logical possibility that we could still find an encyclopedia galactica, and it’s the most exciting possibility, but there’s no reason to think that it’s likely,” says Wright.
Let’s remember, though, that Wisian and Traphagan are arguing that perception is more important in the geopolitics of the situation than actual facts; it only requires someone to believe that such a signal has been found. Perceptions often spring from the base cultural knowledge, and the idea of an encyclopedia galactica is still prominent among the public when they think of SETI.
The discussion revolves around radio SETI, but there are other types of SETI. Optical SETI – that is, looking for laser signals – is far more democratic in the sense that all you need is an off-the-shelf amateur telescope of medium aperture and a tailored photometer. Searches for technosignatures – that is, technological artifacts such as Dyson swarms – and biosignatures such as disequilibrium gasses or pollutants in the atmospheres of exoplanets, are passive methods. Hunting for alien probes in our own Solar System is more problematic, and possibly a more immediate danger, since a detection would be there was alien hardware in our backyard, and an almighty race to be the first to retrieve it might ensue. Both sides of the argument agree that such a discovery could cause a dangerous scenario.
“That does worry me,” says Wright. “But it’s totally different to what Wisian and Traphagan are talking about.”
For decades scholars and scientists have debated the pros and cons of contact; this discussion is another round at it. But is there any hope for agreement?
For all their differences, both teams agree that as a civilisation, our various nations are wholly unprepared for meaningful contact.
“Acknowledging the worries that arise from misperceptions is a place where we are in agreement with Wisian and Traphagan,” says Haramia. “Where we diverge significantly is in our recommendations of what to do about it.”
Haramia, Wright and Swiney argue that the best way of preventing misperceptions from creating geopolitical strife around any detection is to dispel those misperceptions before they cause a problem.
“Correcting current misperceptions about how contact is likely to occur is one important way of lowering the risk of a realpolitik scenario,” Haramia adds.
Wright sees Wisian and Traphagan’s solutions to the problem as playing on those misperceptions about, in particular, the technical capabilities of radio SETI. That’s why Wright felt so compelled to write his response paper.
“We were concerned that [Traphagan and Wisian’s] paper would be the last word on it,” says Wright. “Some general somewhere might use that as a roadmap, and see it as a peer-reviewed paper on what SETI is like and what concerns they should be having as someone in charge of national security. We wanted to make sure that the misconceptions in their paper were corrected.”
Cynics, and possibly realists too, would argue that Wright and Haramia are being too optimistic. Misperceptions, and sheer ignorance, can be hard to shake. Case in point, look at how epidemiologists warned governments of the dangers of pandemic, and how those warnings mostly fell on deaf ears when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Wisian and Traphagan are more skeptical that governments and intelligence agencies will listen and be prepared to be educated. For them, the solution is to not take any chances that common sense will prevail.
Wisian thinks that the best solution to avoid draconian measures such as locking down a radio observatory is if there are “rock-solid methods of making sure that the information is not locked down by a single entity or country.” This would involve simultaneous data sharing to all countries around the world. As we have seen, the sharing of data in an informal manner between collaborating scientists already happens, but even if there were more formal rules placing the responsibility for looking after and analyzing the data into everybody’s hands, it still wouldn’t solve the problem of a military or intelligence agency detection not being shared.
“I’m puzzled by the statement that all relevant information gets shared automatically,” says Michaud. “I know of no universally accepted practice that achieves this, especially since radio astronomers might not be the first to detect an interesting signal."
Meanwhile, work continues by the IAA SETI Permanent Committee to keep updating the First SETI Protocol. Perhaps one day it will get the attention of someone at the UN and get signed into international law, but so far there has been a complete lack of interest, a fact greatly lamented by the SETI Institute’s Jill Tarter, who has worked tirelessly but ultimately futilely to enthuse politicians of the value of SETI.
We should be careful, too, to not allow these discussions to create their own misperception that SETI is inherently dangerous. It is not. The problem, if one exists, is with ourselves, which would be entirely in our power to fix. And certainly, despite what he sees as risks, Wisian is of no doubt that it is imperative that we continue doing SETI.
“I strongly favor continuing SETI of all types,” he says. “I think it is vitally important to know if anybody is out there, but I think we can do a lot better job of planning for it.”