If, and when, we establish contact with alien civilizations, we need to be prepared to redesign the way we see the world.
After the publication of his third book, The Search for Extra Terrestrial Life, Bangladeshi writer Obaidur Rahman set out to discuss with UA Magazine the possibilities of life beyond our planet, the best strategies to successfully establish contact with alien civilizations and the role of Artificial Intelligence when dealing with Extraterrestrial contact.
[Read the first part of the interview here.]
Contact with extraterrestrial life forms can happen via two main routes: interstellar travel or interstellar communication, being the last one the easiest to achieve. What channels of communication can we use and to what extent can we exchange detailed messages with extraterrestrial beings?
The interstellar communication strategy is indeed less complicated and, at least at this point in time, should be prioritized. Contact with extra-terrestrial beings can be made either by a) sending probes to space, where information can be transmitted back to Earth; b) the use of radio signals, and lastly c) through the use of optical signals.
Radio technology is the most suitable form of establishing contact with extraterrestrial beings. Radio signals travel in waves through space and at the speed of light within a vacuum, much like outer space. Thus, although it is an expensive method of communication and it takes a considerable amount of time to receive messages sent by the probes, radio technology has proven to be very effective in terms of accuracy of message transmission.
As I wrote in my book, “radio signals can travel for fairly long distances, although they need to be rather well-directed and focused. In this regard, one needs to build very large-based telescopes and point them in the general direction of the planet where the message needs to be sent. So sending radio waves from one planet to another would not be that much of a problem. But here is the main catch: these messages would take years to get from one star to the next, so any chance of instant communication is out. We’d be able to send messages, but it would take years for a reply (edited)”.
Recently, a team of Russian scientists allegedly captured signals coming from a star located 94 light-years from the Solar System. However, astronomers were quick to deny that this was an extraterrestrial signal since the band measurements used to capture it were too broad. What are the requirements for a signal to be considered extraterrestrial?
An extraterrestrial signal is a direct reply to one of many radio signals that were sent into the space by Earth. Besides, it has to reach us in such a manner that mankind understands it and is able to open up a line of communication with an E.T. civilization.
Radio signals sent from Earth may pick up activities or signs of E.T. life on other planets, but those extraterrestrial lives may not have the means to contact back. Therefore, E.T. life may have already been discovered but no back and forth contact was established.
On the other hand, if someone answers to the information that we sent out in space, then surely that signal could be considered as extraterrestrial of intelligent kind. Also, if a signal with special characteristics, like mathematical pattern or linguistically, visually and technologically comprehensible, reaches us, then we can say that the signal probably has extraterrestrial origin.
What are the possible dangers or unexpected contamination that may come from material from the outer space?
We understand Interplanetary Contamination as the introduction of biological material from one planetary body (planet, moon, asteroid) to another. Such biological material can be everything from simple organic carbon molecules, via parts of genetic code or proteins, up to full microbial life forms.
There are two types of contamination: forward and backward. Forward contamination is the artificial delivery of biological material from Earth to a planetary body with space probes or human space missions, while backward contamination is the introduction of alien material, through extraterrestrial probes, on Earth.
Bringing sensitive biological material from another planetary body can severely damage Earth’s environment, if not carefully handled or if the material is particularly sensitive. And those damages on the Earth’s ecosystems can be irreversible.
The discovery of extraterrestrial life may bring significant revolutions in the way we see life as we know it. For instance, in biology we might learn new forms of life that are not based on carbon structures or DNA. Do you think we, as a civilization, are prepared to deal with such structural changes in the way we have formulated our knowledge so far?
I think as far as E.T. life-forms or civilizations are concerned, the majority of the human population is not prepared to deal with the issues that might come with such discovery. Astrobiologically speaking, there are many arguments on what extraterrestrial life might be like. There are some who believe that all life is like life on Earth, that is, carbon-based lifeforms. Others believe silicon and even ammonia-based lifeforms could exist in other planets.
Regarding the origin of extraterrestrial life, there are two main accepted theories. One proposes that it may have emerged independently from different places in the universe while the other, the panspermia hypothesis, says that life emerges from one specific location and then spreads between habitable planets.
As human beings, we grew habituated to see things and matters in our own image, in our own perceptions that we are familiar with and grew comfortable with, so anything different makes us uncomfortable. And E.T. life and E.T. civilizations are expected to be very different, both biologically and psychologically. In that respect, we ought to properly prepare ourselves, both in the scientific as well as non-scientific communities, in such a way so that we are able to understand and accept the possible structural changes resulting from findings concerning E.T. life-forms and E.T. civilizations.
Is there any protocol to be followed in case of proved alien contact?
There should definitely be some sort of protocol to be followed in the case of a proven alien contact. It will allow us to do exactly what is proper, while leaving the other party, on the other side of the communication, comfortable, at ease and confident to continue the process of communication. That requires an appropriate system, where messages are more likely to come back and forth, in a proper manner. Besides, it is wise to have a protocol, in the case of hostile alien contact.
Who should be responsible for dealing with the information obtained from contact with aliens and eventually contact back?
If the extraterrestrial being makes contact with a particular party here on Earth, let’s call it Base-A, then it is important that Base-A maintains exclusive contact, up to a certain point. Because, if the E.T. wanted to communicate with every country here on Earth, then they could have done it instead of only reaching out to Base-A. So, for a matter of respecting privacy and safety, it is important that Base-A is responsible for dealing with the information obtained from contact with aliens and eventually contact back.
However, in the case the E.T. is hostile in any way, it is important for Base-A to share the information with other concerned parties here on Earth as well. And, at the end of the day, whoever has the technological know-how and the right wisdom should definitely be responsible for communicating with E.T. And I don’t mean members from only one particular country, but a team of international experts, who can appropriately and establish and maintain contact with E.T. life-forms.
In recent years, the development of Artificial Intelligence has reached a high point. Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute even argues that, by 2100, AI will become the dominant species on Earth. Do you think that if AI machines “take over the world” they might achieve much faster results in terms of space exploration and, maybe in the near future, we might talk about AI- ET contact, rather than human-alien contact?
It sure is a great possibility that alongside human beings there might be AIs who will be doing the same sort of work as ours. Even though I do not think AI will become a dominant species by 2100, I think AI will certainly have great applications in various matters of Earth by that time. AI will also have a very active role in space exploration research and might be able to achieve much faster results than man-borne machines.
But I also think that, ultimately, humans will have the control over AIs. Even if there is AI-E.T. contact, human beings are the ones who will steer and program the AI on how to approach the E.T. So, in that regard, I think AI will be there to further facilitate human research on the quest for alien life, not to take over the research itself.
Life in the Solar System
In one of the chapters of your book, you mentioned Europa and Titan as two of the most likely places to bear life on our Solar System. What are the challenges in analyzing the existence of life forms on these locations?
Technological challenges seem to be the greatest ones, aside from the budgetary matters. There are two ways of analyzing the existence of life in those planets: either through unmanned or manned missions. Unmanned missions already gave us some ideas of the possibilities of life in those planets. Now, it is time to send better equipment to directly study the planets, and that requires sophisticated spacecrafts. And new questions arise, in terms of how to send them at the first place into those planets, how those machines are going to do their research by being stationed at those planets and how they are going send back real information and return safely to Earth with proper proof. The challenge lies on the making of technologies that will survive all these trials.
There are also other factors, such as whether the mission will be an unmanned one or a manned mission. Manned missions are highly complex, since astronauts need to land on these planets, analyze them and safely return to Earth. But I think within few decades mankind will be ready to send manned mission to those planets.