Sunday, March 18, 2012

Bad Assumptions We Always Make About Extraterrestrial First Contact

Whenever I see a guide to what to do in case of first alien visitor contact (like this one), I always see the same stupid assumption made: the alien flew here in a big shiny ship, so obviously it's a highly advanced species compared to our own.


Then there's a section instructing you on how to scurry around trying to communicate with the aliens to show off how smart you are. You know, to prove we're sentient, and hence "worth getting to know".

Right there, there's some bad assumptions:
  1.   Who says they wouldn't eat a smart species? Maybe they consider sentient species a rare delicacy.
  2.   Maybe they actually aren't seeking out other sentient species. We humans, social animals, assume that the prime motivation for intergalactic travel is to party with some friends. Maybe the aliens want to think of themselves as the only sentient species in the universe, and they're just here to strip-mine the planet and leave.
  3.   Maybe they're looking for slaves. If they're just out to snap a remote control onto your spine and make you do their bidding, extra IQ points just make you that much more useful.
  4.   Maybe they met something else, like bats or dolphins, before they met you. And since it might turn out that bats or dolphins are smarter in their own way than humans are and if the aliens just happen to jive more with the other critters than they do with us, maybe all your showing off is for nothing.
  5.   Maybe they rate intelligence on a different scale from us. Perhaps, like bees and termites, the aliens are born with instinct already in place so they intuitively grok math and engineering, but they judge intelligence based on how well you can juggle or how well you can sing in the 20-40 kHz range.
  6.   Who's to say we don't scare the daylights out of them? There might be something about us that's horribly disturbing to them, like how we smell or the fact that we have hair. They'd be unable to see us as anything but hideous monsters and no matter how much smarts we show off, they'd just be consumed with the thought that anything as repulsive as us must die.
  7.   You know how we humans have religions that make us expect crazy things to happen and react in bizarre ways? Now imagine aliens with some unfathomable dogma which dictates that Earth is Hell and everybody living on it is a demon. How do you P.R. your way out of that one?
We have to be lucky enough to have avoided all of those scenarios before we even have a chance of making a good first impression and having it do us any good. Now back to our first bad assumption: That the aliens, themselves, are advanced, or even sentient!

The first argument I usually find is "But they got here, so they obviously must be smart!"

Well, even an animal can float on water on a raft. Primitive tribe people rowed out to islands on boats. Maybe they got here by accident.

That's usually followed by "But they crossed interstellar space, so they must have invented faster-than-light travel!"

Please, if this was your first thought, sit down before you hurt yourself! Maybe the aliens have lifespans in the hundreds of millions of years, and so a trip of 17,000 years is just a relaxing nap to them. We humans have pathetically short lifespans, you know, even compared to many other species right here on Earth. It could turn out that we got stuck with the shortest lifespans of any sentient species in the universe, and so we are unable to conceptualize traveling to other stars without breaking the laws of physics in order to reach our destination before we die. Every other species can just launch a soapbox with a pile of TNT, pointed in the right direction, then patiently sit there waiting 17,000 years to reach their destination.

Or they could have a generation ship. Or they could just clone new bodies and use them for personal organ banks. Or maybe they've embraced technology to the point where they're cyborgs who effectively can just turn themselves off to save energy and have their extremely reliable electronics turn them on when they get here. Or maybe the big, shiny flying saucer is actually a scout ship built and launched from their space station out past Pluto.

See how humans have a hard time thinking outside of their tiny little frame of reference?

But beyond all of this, who says that we're talking to the smart alien race at all?

  1.   Maybe we're actually talking to a robot. If you went across space with the responsibility of contacting aliens who, for all you know, might be hostile, would you rather send a robot avatar to test the water first, or just boldly charge out the hatch and risk becoming the first human victim of the disintegration ray?
  2.   Maybe we're talking to an enslaved race, or the domestic pets of the race which built the spaceships. Same reasoning as the robots, and who says we're the first species the aliens have ever contacted? Maybe they've been setting up franchises all over the galaxy since before the tiny speck of dust we call home even formed?
  3.   Since when do the engineers who designed the ship also become the ones assigned to drive it around? If an alien encounters your average human driving a car, should they assume that said human understands the intricacies of an internal combustion engine? You drive, but you have to take your car to a mechanic to be repaired (excepting those of you who are mechanics themselves), do you not?
  4.   Think military: What invading army puts its head general at the front line? Maybe we're talking to the dumb grunts sent to scout us out for invasion and report back.
  5.   We might be dealing with a hivemind. Like bees and ants, no individual member of a hivemind will have any noticeable intelligence; it's only together with its 100,000 sisters that it starts looking sentient.
  6.   One more thing: Who says that anything built their ship at all? Maybe the ship itself is a life form, like a giant space turtle, or an asteroid covered in coral that steers it around. Maybe what we think of as the ship is actually the intelligent life form, and the beings we see riding on it are just parasites. We could go on all day here. It is impossible to think of every possibility - even our scientific exploration on Earth has rebuked us again and again with the stunning diversity of life and the unexpected ways it gets by!
I don't know what the rest of you have planned. Given all the unknowns, it may not matter at all what we do when that momentous first contact happens. The safest bet that I'm considering, should I be in the position of human race ambassador, is to turn the tables on them: make them prove their sentience to me first. I'll just start inspecting everything about them, and record and document everything I can. If they really are interested in meeting other smart species, they'll recognize this as a sign of my own sentience - maybe it will even be better to put them off-guard and feel a little intimidated, just in case they have hostile intentions.

But there is simply too much we humans assume about everything all the time to ever have the slightest idea what we should do when that moment comes.

Humans actually suck at trying to conceptualize in non-human ways. We have a hard enough time empathizing with our own next-door neighbor now.

Update: Over a year later, Why We'll Never Meet Aliens makes it to the front page of Slashdot. Note the backlash: I always see hate and ridicule from commenters when it's not starry-eyed utopia news. Apparently the Internet only reveres science if science is a big jolly guy handing out presents.