University of Toronto
This paper was originally
published in the 'Journal of the British Interplanetary
Society', Vol. 39, pp 491-498 (November, 1986). Thanks to
Robert Bradbury for creating this version in 1998 and
for serving as its HTML Editor. Some of the ideas also
appeared in 1991 in a chapter of my book Crucial
Questions About the Future, but most of the ideas in
sections 4 and 5 (below) did not appear in the book and
have never appeared anywhere else.
Because their capacities
are probably highly advanced, some extraterrestrial species may be
using unobtrusive methods of observing humankind and other fledgling
civilizations in this Galaxy. The amount of help they want to give
to such civilizations is probably quite significant. Their help
could be of three types: instant intervention to avoid a nuclear
holocaust or other imminent catastrophe: long-term help in reducing
grave dangers; and help in improving non-dangerous spheres of life.
Sooner or later, unless we extinguish ourselves first, advanced
extraterrestrials will have an enormous impact on humankind. Even
during the next 30 years, the probability of contact of interaction
may be one in four.
Given these conclusions, what should we do next? Thirteen possible
strategies are outlined. The likelihood and benefits of success are
estimated for each strategy, then its overall priority is rated. At
present, seven of the eight highest priority strategies remain
neglected and unfunded.
What role will highly advanced extraterrestrials play in our future?
In particular, what forms of contact will occur, when, and with what
impact on us?
We cannot answer these questions with complete confidence, nor with
a wealth of accurate detail. We can, however, gain major insights
through thoughtful, disciplined inquiry into such questions. Such
insights can, in turn, alter our current priorities.
Indeed, the final section of this paper points out a strange
imbalance among our current priorities: a single strategy is
reasonably well funded while five higher priority strategies (and
two that are equal) receive virtually no attention and funding. The
advanced life in our Galaxy is an incredibly important
field for a variety of reasons, such as the significant context it
provides for understanding humanity's meaning and purpose, the
practical benefits from contact or Interaction with an advanced
civilization, and the major role that such contact will probably
play in the unfolding of humanity's future.
At present, much of the
literature and funding in this field is devoted to a single strategy
(searching the electromagnetic spectrum for distant messages). At
this early stage in the development of the field, it seems strange
to plunge ahead with only one form of data collection, even though
it is an attractive and potentially beneficial approach. Sending
radio messages may not be an alien civilization's first choice of
method for interacting with us. Examining the likely behaviour and
capacities of extraterrestrials can lead us to add seven other
reasonably high priority strategies to our efforts, as we will see
in the final section.
We begin this paper with the assumption that there are some advanced
extraterrestrials beings in this Galaxy. That is, at least one
nonhuman species has evolved into one or more advanced civilizations
and perhaps even beyond into some post-civilization form. We will
return to this assumption in Section 6.
Our central question is the role that these advanced
extraterrestrials will likely play in humanity's future. Before we
can tackle that question, however, we must first tackle two other
questions that provide a necessary foundation. First, what
capacities are advanced extraterrestrial beings likely to possess?
Second, what is their likely behavior toward us?
Most extraterrestrial civilizations in our Galaxy today have
advanced at least 10,000 years beyond humanity's current level of
development. A thorough search of recent literature did not discover
any claim that many extraterrestrial civilizations are less advanced
than that. In fact, the specific numbers in most calculations of the
number ("N") of technological civilizations in the Galaxy indicate
that some civilizations are 100,000 or even millions of years more
advanced than we are.
This should not surprise
us, since several species (though not civilizations) on our own
planet are 300,000,000 years older than we are
civilizations presumably fail to survive once they discover nuclear
weapons or other means of extinction, but surely others learn to
cope successfully with this problem and then survive for a very long
We cannot at present be certain about the particular capacities of
highly advanced civilizations in the Galaxy. We can, however, make
some thoughtful guesses based on established human knowledge (such
as history and futures studies) combined with intelligent
Our own progress in several areas of life has been very dramatic
over the past 10,000 years. If we survive another 10,000 years, it
is highly likely that we will again make dramatic progress in
several areas. When we turn our attention to other civilizations
that are 10,000 or perhaps even a million years older than we are,
there can be little doubt that some of them will be far beyond us in
their biological, mental, technological, psychic, communication, or
Also, because they
originated in bodies, physical environments, and social environments
that are highly different from ours, their patterns of perceiving,
thinking, and relating may be vastly different from ours.
It is highly likely, therefore, that many of the capacities in the
flowing list have already been developed by one advanced
civilization or another in our Galaxy. It is unlikely that any one
civilization will have all of the listed capacities: it is quite
probable, though, that each of these capacities (with one or two
exceptions) now exists somewhere in our Galaxy.
We ourselves will
probably possess many of these capacities someday if we continue to
develop for another 10,000 or 1,000,000 years. Indeed, the list is
based partly on the thoughtful writing of various authors about the
long-term future of humankind, which has been one of the author's
professional interests for the past ten years.
Probable capacities in one civilization or another include the
unlimited energy (solar, nuclear, etc.)
know-how that are so advanced that they would appear to us
evolved individual brainpower linked with an implanted
the capacity to
live and travel anywhere in space, probably approaching and
perhaps surpassing the speed of light
individual and collective behaviour that is violent,
destructive, or harmful
cooperation, altruism, and compassion combined with sensible
self-understanding, self-acceptance, and mental health that
are very high, along with the skill of relating effectively
and harmoniously with members of one's own species
(at least among the members of specially trained
intercultural teams) at interacting with vastly different
species and cultures
wisdom unimaginable to us
control over biological reproduction and evolution,
including very healthy long-lived bodies and super-capacity
technological and/or psychic ability to send information,
receive information, detect, and observe across vast
distances at the speed of light or even faster
technological/psychic ability to covertly influence an
individual's thoughts, images, motives, and experiences
technological/psychic ability to influence virtually any
object, and to transfer one's body or consciousness
instantly from one place to another
psychic connections to other members of the species, or to a
central organism or brain
accurate, versatile, and powerful weapons.
Such a list may strike
us as unbelievable when we first read it. Would a human being 10,000
years ago, though, have reacted any differently to a list of our
present capacities? Airplanes, astronauts, Moon-walks, telescopes,
selective breeding, television, electricity, microbes, hospitals,
DNA, computers, universities, skyscrapers, cordless telephones,
nuclear weapons, the United Nations, taxes, and many other aspects
of today's world would have been dismissed 10,000 years ago as
ridiculous or impossible.
That was the time when
the Ice Age ended, humanity's main crops became domesticated, and
the world's first town arose. Pigs, cattle, and horses bad not yet
been tamed 10,000 years ago. Weaving, wagon wheels, and writing had
not yet been invented. The Bronze Age and Iron Age had not yet
begun. Stone buildings, philosophy, and science still lay in the
. No wonder the people of 10,000 years ago could not have
anticipated today's capacities. For us, in turn, the actual
capacities of a civilization 10,000 or a million years beyond us
will probably make my list seem unimaginative.
Will surveillance, communication, or travel ever be faster than the
speed of light? As our understanding of the laws of physics is
expanded, we may discover physical principles far beyond what we now
James Trefil has declared,
"It is presumptuous
of us to suppose, on the basis of three hundred years of
experience with science, that barriers that appear
insurmountable to us will remain insurmountable 30 million years
Peter Sturrock, too, has
"The laws of
gravitation and motion have been known for only about 300 years,
electromagnetism for about 100 years, and quantum theory and
relativity for only about 50 years. Why should we believe that,
if scientists were to continue working for another million
years, there would not be comparable revolutions or
In 2010 Arthur C. Clarke
gives us a glimpse of the transformations that may occur in a highly
advanced civilization (or whatever succeeds a civilization as its
next stage). One species in that novel, beginning as flesh and
blood, eventually learned to transfer their brains and then their
thoughts into shiny new homes of metal and plastic. Then they
"to store knowledge
in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts
for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become
creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.
Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed
themselves... They could rove at will among the stars and sink
like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space"
BEHAVIOUR TOWARDS US
Two key conclusion: emerged in the previous sections of this paper.
One, it is highly likely that at least one group of advanced
extraterrestrials knows about our civilization. Two, it is highly
likely that they have the capacity to interact or intervene in a
variety of ways if they choose to do so. They can interact or
intervene, but will they?
We must now turn our
attention to their likely behaviour toward humanity.
In order to wrestle with these questions,
I have used a combination of four methods.
One method was
an extensive search of potentially relevant literature,
located through abstracts in three fields (astronomy and
astrophysics, aerospace,. and physics) and through nine
other bibliographic tools.
As any writer
does, I spent many days thinking about the various issues
When alone in my
home. I held two lengthy tape-recorded mock meetings in
which a variety of advanced extraterrestrials expressed
their views on how to relate to fledgling civilizations,
particularly humankind. The purpose of these two mental
exercises was to empathetically generate ideas about
extra-terrestrial behaviour. In these two meetings, I
spontaneously created the various voices and views myself.
Because each view arose in response to the previous one, a
surprising diversity of views emerged on some of the issues.
University of Toronto, I also conducted two tape-recorded
meetings in which all the people present took the part of
advanced extraterrestrials with remarkable ease. A printed
agenda for "The Galaxy-Wide Association of Advanced
Civilizations: Special Meeting to Discuss Fledgling
Civilizations" focused the discussion on several major
decisions about helping humankind.
undergraduate students at the final session of a
science-oriented course on "Life on Other Worlds"
participated for one hour at one of these meetings. About
ten mature graduate students at the final session of a
course on "Potential Futures" participated for two hours at
the other meeting.
4.1 They Avoid Harming
Probably the cardinal principle guiding extraterrestrial behaviour
toward all other civilizations is this: avoid unnecessary harm and
interference. Do not hurt any other civilization, nor hinder their
development. Avoid exploitation and other interactions in which
their losses outweigh their benefits.
If another civilization is clearly about to break the cardinal rule
(through a powerful attack or through spreading a plague, for
example), and if this poses a definite and immediate threat to the
survival or further development of an advanced species, then it is
permissible to intervene powerfully and even harmfully in order to
prevent this. Under any other circumstances, however, an advanced
civilization will not interfere harmfully in the development of any
There are several reasons for concluding that advanced beings are
helpful or at least benign, and are unlikely to harm humankind and
other fledgling civilizations.
Here are the main reasons:
They still recall
their own early history, including their primitive stages, their
dark periods, and their follies; therefore, they may feel
sympathetic toward us.
Anyone bent on
capturing our planet would have done so long ago, before we
despoiled it so much.
civilization with advanced technology would have programmed its
robot Replicator probes to eliminate any potential civilization
long before reaching the stage at which it could attack the
Replicator, that is, long before our present stage.
are probably letting us develop freely, without interference, in
order to maximize the amount of information they gain; if they
interfere and control us, they will learn less.
forms that are destructively aggressive and irresponsible will
usually eliminate themselves or revert back to primitive
conditions before they achieve interstellar travel. If an
aggressive species does manage to avoid the usual consequences
of natural selection at the planetary level, and then prepares
for an interstellar voyage, it may well be terminated by the
more advanced beings in the Galaxy. ("How this is done is a
matter of more than academic interest to the human race in the
next few centuries"
extraterrestrials agree on the cardinal principle, their
advanced capacities will enable them to detect and deal with any
would-be outlaws, pirates, plunderers, or mavericks who are
tempted to interfere with life on Earth.
Carl Sagan and
 have concluded that most or all advanced
civilizations are likely to have benign intentions, to live with
other groups in mutual respect, and to be sensitive to a
civilization as young as ours.
 has concluded that civilizations older than ours are likely
to choose intellectual values over materialism, to achieve a
high level of ethical and moral development, and to be highly
4.2 How Much Help Will They
Extraterrestrials may hold somewhat divergent views concerning the
amount of effort and resources they will donate to helping fledgling
and early-stage civilizations. Their views may well range along a
continuum, with zero at one end, low-budget efforts somewhere in the
middle, and high-budget efforts at the other end.
Let us discuss the zero-help approach first. Perhaps some
civilizations simply have no desire to help anyone else, nor even
interact with them. They may have plenty of other things to attend
to, both positive and negative. Proponents of zero effort and
resources may well say, as one person did in the mock meetings of
civilizations alone. Don't try to influence or help them. Live
and let live. Let them develop freely, autonomously, naturally,
in their own ways, even to the point of making an enormous or
fatal error. The development of fledgling civilizations is not a
high or even medium priority for us, we have nothing to gain.
Instead we must devote our efforts and resources to the survival
and development of the most advanced features in the Galaxy.
Let's follow an isolationist policy for our sake and for theirs.
Let our anthropologists unobtrusively study their arts and
knowledge and customs for us, and let it go at that."
"extraterrestrial," who had recently been on an anthropological
expedition to Earth, said at one of the meetings:
"Our main aim and
enthusiasm is to study human culture: we want to understand them
better and thus understand ourselves better. Occasionally, when
we encounter ordinary people who seem willing to listen to a
message from us, we give them basic advice about what their
species should do. But we'd never think of seeking informed
consent and offering major sorts of help, let alone approaching
one of their governments!"
At all four meetings,
various low-budget approaches were proposed. One suggestion was to
donate one team of ten extraterrestrials to each fledgling
civilization, at least during certain crucial periods in their
Another low-budget view emphasized selectivity: only the most
promising civilizations should receive help. Occasionally a
fledgling civilization will show exceptional promise of someday
attaining and contributing to the extraordinarily advanced level of
development achieved in the Galaxy at that time. Or, at least, it
may have a 5 or 10 per cent probability of developing into a wise,
compassionate, advanced civilization. Extraterrestrials might well
limit their help to such civilizations.
Another "extraterrestrial" proposed that they donate one-sixteenth
of their public resource: to all charitable causes outside their own
species ("thus leaving the rest for ourselves; that should be
plenty!"). That total amount would then be divided among Earth and
all other competing possibilities according to their needs.
The most generous voice at the four mock meetings of
extraterrestrials took the following stance: "We ought to do
everything we can to foster and help good, delightful, intelligent,
wise, compassionate, fascinating life develop in great diversity
throughout this Galaxy. We should help it wherever it shows signs of
positive potential. We can do this without hindering our own
development, which X agree is an even higher priority."
Even this generous view indicates that our progress and well-being
are not the central goals for an extraterrestrial civilization.
Their efforts to foster our development are only one small sphere of
activity within their total societal activity. They may have some
caring and altruism, yes, but their own concerns and well-being are
probably far more salient to them. They probably have two
One is biological and
cultural survival. They want to retain the knowledge, wisdom,
culture, compassion, and beauty that they have already achieved.
Their second fundamental priority is further development of their
knowledge and culture. No doubt they are vigorously pursuing certain
projects or directions that they hope will lead them to an even more
advanced level. (The comparative study of civilizations in the
Galaxy could be one of those projects.)
In addition, as long as
it does not jeopardize their first two priorities, they may have a
third major priority: the survival, evolution, and flourishing of
other advanced species throughout the Galaxy. The further
development of knowledge, wisdom, insight, love, harmony,
effectiveness, goodness, and beauty in our Galaxy may be very
important to some highly advanced beings. Fostering a rich diversity
of life and cultures throughout the Galaxy and Universe may be one
of their highest aims.
Consequently, they may
devote some effort and resources to our welfare, although this will
not overshadow their first two priorities. If humanity blunders,
deteriorates, fails, or even extinguishes itself, however, no
extraterrestrial civilization will mourn this as the worst possible
tragedy. They might be about as upset as humanity would be if all
whales became extinct or if an earthquake sent Toronto to the bottom
of Lake Ontario.
POTENTIAL TYPES OF HELP
It is useful to distinguish three potential types of
protection from some ultimate catastrophe
us reduce major dangers over time
(3) help in
various other spheres of human life
5.1 Instant Protection
In this section we will discuss instant protection, which is often
an early-stage type of help. If a human toddler is about to run on
to a busy street or fall into a campfire, we instantly grab the
child. Explanations and education can wait for a moment! Similarly,
if a promising civilization is about to trigger a nuclear holocaust
or collide with a giant asteroid, a team of extraterrestrials may
take instant action to avoid the catastrophe.
would unobtrusively monitor the civilization and act only if needed,
probably extremely rarely. They would continue providing instant
protection until it is no longer needed, either because severe
dangers no longer exist or because the civilization becomes able to
cope on its own.
Putting into place the means for instant protection will often be
the first and moat common type of help provided to fledgling and
promising civilizations. If an all-out nuclear war were suddenly
about to begin here, for instance, the team of extraterrestrial
engineers assigned to Earth would take instant action. Having been
monitoring each nation's code signal for banning a nuclear attack,
they might jam those signals or immediately issue the countermand
("I changed my mind") code.
World leaders would thus
find themselves unable to launch their missiles. Alternatively,
extraterrestrials with highly developed psychic capacities could
probably avoid the launch by monitoring the mental processes of the
key world leaders and then directly influencing their minds just
before they would otherwise order the missiles launched.
A third possible method
is to defuse the missiles in flight or have their navigation systems
send them far away from the planet. If all of this sounds too
far-fetched for you to accept, ask yourself how your
great-grandparents (when they were your age) would have reacted to
today's actual nuclear, navigational, espionage, and space
If measures for instant protection were in place, they would
certainly be used to prevent the extinction of a promising fledgling
civilization. The data concerning a "nuclear winter" on Earth
indicate that even one-fifth of our present nuclear weapons could
possibly eliminate humankind completely within a year after
team might, or might not, take action if they predicted that at
least a handful of human beings and some basic knowledge would
"Our compassion is very long-term," said one
extraterrestrial at the mock meetings. "We care about the ultimate
destination of humanity, but we do not want to interfere with their
present journey unless they are about to eliminate all human life
5.2 Helping Us Reduce
Dangers Over Time
reduce (over time) our worst risks and dangers is a second type of
potential help. In the childhood analogy, we might build a fence or
gate so that the child cannot reach the busy street or we might
teach the child to stay off the road. Extraterrestrials are very
likely to provide this type of help when they cannot handle a future
danger cheaply and easily through instant protection.
They also may provide it
when the civilization becomes mature enough to accept and implement
extraterrestrial suggestions. As human youngsters: mature, for
example, we gradually help them gain more and more of the knowledge,
skill, and responsibility necessary for independent safety. There is
less and less need for our constant monitoring, our alert readiness
to intervene, and our efforts to safely "child-proof" their home.
Three sorts of approaches might be used to help us, over time,
reduce our worst risks and dangers:
extraterrestrials may perform some invisible action:
the scenes in order to eliminate certain risks. Human beings
might be unaware that extraterrestrials were influencing
certain events, phenomena, miracles, objects, widespread
beliefs and feelings, or key decisions of world leaders. We
might not notice if they rendered inoperable the detonation
or navigation system of every nuclear weapon at the time of
We might not
realize why our experiments to develop one particularly
deadly agent for biological warfare always seemed to fail.
We might not know that a giant asteroid or comet abruptly
changed course long before astronomers realized that it was
on a collision course with Earth. Highly advanced beings
could produce these various sorts of influence in several
ways: electronically from a great distance, directly through
their presence here in our Solar System, or indirectly by
changing the minds or behaviour of certain key individuals.
approach emphasizes informed consent.
following this light-handed approach would obtain informed
consent from humanity (or at least from its international
associations or leaders) before intervening. After hearing
about the help we were being offered, we would be free to
accept or reject it, or to try to negotiate certain
This second approach requires a reasonably rapid method of
two-way communication. They have to outline their potential
contributions and their consequences, we have to choose our
preferences and give consent, and they then have to deliver
our choices. Such two-way communication can probably occur
best if they come to Earth physically.
An individual or
team could come in a spacecraft or through some other sort
of physical travel. An extraordinarily intelligent computer
capable of sophisticated interaction with aliens might
perform as well as a team. Their communication might be kept
a secret among a few key government or international
leaders, or might be publicly known.
Their actual presence here on Earth would have enormous
advantages for diagnosis, rapid two-way communication, and
action. Their actions might include giving advice and
information, physically fixing or changing something for us,
building or demonstrating a better way of doing things, or
eliminating nuclear warheads or making them inoperable.
A much more
would force humankind (and other
early-stage civilizations on other planets) to correct our
worst risks, dangers, flaws, errors, and follies. For
instance, extraterrestrials might force us to eliminate all
risks (or reduce them to a probability of 1% per century)
that could irretrievably wipe out 90 per cent of our
culture, knowledge, arts, values, environment, and so on.
Such risks could
include humanity's arsenal of nuclear bombs, rapid
population growth, wars and violence, biological warfare or
accident, and rapid degradation of the environment. We would
be threatened with severe punishment if we did not
cooperate, or we might simply find that many things were
dramatically changed regardless of our wishes and choices.
This approach, too, would probably require extraterrestrials
to actually come to Earth (or to have some other way of
communicating and acting rapidly with us). In order to
diagnose, negotiate, command, coerce, threaten, or make
direct powerful interventions, they themselves or at least
their awareness and power would have to reach our planet.
5.3 Help in Nondangerous
In a third type of help, extraterrestrials may help another
civilization develop or improve certain nondangerous spheres of
their culture. Presumably this sort of help is not offered or
provided until serious dangers and risks are already eliminated or
clearly being reduced.
This third type of help is most likely
offered when the civilization is stuck or stagnant far short of its
potential, at least in certain important spheres, or is choosing a
nonproductive path within certain major spheres.
Help with the positive, nondangerous aspects of a civilization would
probably be given only after informed consent.
During a mock
meeting, one extraterrestrial's view was this:
"We should not
influence or help any other civilization without their informed
consent. If certain of our individuals, missionary groups,
charitable organizations, benevolent societies, governments, or
federations want to voluntarily help a fledgling civilization,
they're free to do so. Such projects are free to offer aid with
the positive aspects of their culture, such as further
development of fundamental knowledge, deep wisdom, philosophy,
compassion, thoughtful aims and values, arts, and conflict
They are free to
offer diagnoses, suggestions, priorities, principles, knowledge,
effective procedures, skills, information, beliefs, music,
rituals, social organization, laws, and so on. But such projects
must not use threats, coercion, punishment, or misleading
information in order to influence whether their offer is
accepted. In order to obtain informed consent, the project must
accurately spell out the possible consequences, both positive
and negative, and their probabilities."
In certain spheres of
activity, a fledgling civilization might show some promise of
developing something useful and fresh, something different from all
other civilizations in the Galaxy. In such a sphere, intervention
would be inappropriate. However, if a civilization is on a wrong or
useless path in some sphere, unlikely ever to develop anything of
use to other civilizations or even to itself, the advanced
civilization might make available their total store of knowledge and
techniques in that sphere.
Alternatively, in order
to encourage diversity, they might simply point out certain errors
or dead ends, inspire people to try certain fresh paths, or
generally provide a hopeful vision of potential development and a
highly positive future. Sensitive advanced species will presumably
be careful not to squelch the portions of our culture that are
positive and effective; they will not want our culture to become a
carbon copy of theirs.
It is also conceivable, though unlikely, that some extraterrestrials
take a heavy-handed approach to helping and influencing others, even
within spheres that are neither dangerous nor urgent. Because they
see their technology, knowledge, beliefs, and morals as highly
advanced, they may see no need to seek consent from us in order to
spread their superior culture.
Some may even advocate the use of
force or coercion:
"For their own good,
let's go in there and straighten them out. Intervene forcefully
to improve their goals, strategies, morals, arts, and sciences."
One speaker at the
tape-recorded meetings went so far as to point out that the low
level of consciousness on one planet, manifesting itself in violence
and hatred and evil, can disturb or lower the level of consciousness
in other parts of the Galaxy: "Immediate and massive change is
clearly necessary." A heavy-handed approach is highly unlikely
within nondangerous spheres. Because advanced aliens are probably
peaceful and well intentioned, a: we saw in Section 4.1, they are
unlikely to use a distasteful, intrusive, coercive, heavy-handed
It also seems highly
likely that advanced extraterrestrials would at least begin with
informed consent or some other light-handed approach, and then
perhaps move on to use power and coercion if necessary. A
combination is also possible, of course: heavy-handed coercion to
force us to eliminate our worst dangers, combined with informed
consent (or no help at all) in all other spheres.
5.4 Methods of
Communication and Help
For the first
type of help (instant protection), it is obvious that detailed
ongoing monitoring is essential, along with the power to act
swiftly. The second type of help (reducing dangers over time)
requires these same capacities and/or rapid two-way communication.
For these two types of help, then, it is unlikely that
extraterrestrials will choose a method that provides only one-way
communication or extremely slow two-way communication.
Radio messages from a
distant source, for instance, would be ineffective for providing
these two types of help. A highly advanced civilization, with a
repertoire of rapid and powerful techniques for interacting with
beings on other planets, is unlikely to choose the incredibly slow
interaction provided by radio. Diagnosis, informed consent, two-way
communication, and action are not feasible by radio messages over
use radio messages (just as we could still use smoke signals or
bonfires for communication from one hilltop to another) but surely
they are unlikely to choose such a cumbersome form of communication
and interaction. The same reasoning rules out the use of an
automated probe parked in the Solar System's asteroid belt,
preprogrammed to release a long, significant, detailed message when
we approach the probe or direct certain radio waves or laser beams
Radio messages are, however, a possible method for extraterrestrials
to choose for providing the third type of help (nondangerous
spheres). Advice, information, know-how, techniques, principles,
knowledge, values, ethics, social and political organization, and
even religious beliefs could be conveyed by radio messages from a
Radio could even
communicate instructions for building a machine to travel millions
of times faster than the speed of light through black holes or
wormholes, as fantasized in Carl Sagan's recent novel.
At least at one stage of
its development, a civilization may choose radio as a cheap
broad-gauge way to disseminate whatever it considers valuable and
useful. As the civilization's capacities increase, though, and as it
clarifies the three potential types of help, it will probably move
on to more rapid and effective methods. Searching the sky for
automated probes and far distant messages within the electromagnetic
spectrum is definitely a worthwhile endeavour for us, but it should
not overshadow several other higher priority strategies presented in
the final section.
6. THE GREAT
We began this paper with the assumption that at least one nonhuman
species that has evolved to an advanced level is present in our
Galaxy today. Among some scientists in recent years, a phenomenon
called the Fermi Question or the Great Silence has been a stumbling
block to accepting this assumption. These scientists reason that if
we have never seen nor heard from any other civilizations, despite
their capacity to send us radio messages and to colonize our Solar
System with spacecraft or self-replicating probes, then they
probably do not exist.
Various counter-arguments have been presented
. Some of the
ideas in this paper support the counter-arguments. One reason we
have not seen them nor heard from them, for example, is that they
may be using unobstrusive methods to observe us. They may not want
to colonize our Solar System nor intrude upon our fledgling
Although they may offer
help or interact with us in other overt ways in the future, perhaps
they are choosing not to do so at present because we are not in
desperate need of help (except perhaps they have put in place
invisible measures for instant protection in case they are suddenly
7. THE NEXT 30
During the next 30 years, what are the chances of significant
contact or interaction with advanced extraterrestrials?
What are the
chances that at least one type of help will be provided or offered?
All in all, taking into account a wide range of factors, the chance
of some sort of significant extraterrestrial impact or help during
the next 30 years is probably about one in four. Clearly we must
strive wholeheartedly to solve our global problems ourselves since
the chances of outside help are not reassuringly high.
At the same time, odds
of one in four are sufficiently high to make most of the strategies
in the final section definitely worth betting on. Compared to our
total human resources and efforts, only a tiny fraction devoted to
several strategies could pay off with stunningly high benefits to
We have seen that advanced extraterrestrials probably are monitoring
us, willing and able to help us, and waiting for the appropriate
time to do so. It seems highly likely, then, that they will
eventually have an enormous, significant, central impact on
humanity's future developments. Whether this impact occurs this year
or 100 years from now, it will likely affect our civilization
profoundly at that time and for many centuries afterwards.
The general picture
presented in this paper indicates that extraterrestrial impact will
likely be highly positive rather than harmful, and will foster or
speed our development in beneficial ways. (I am assuming in this
paragraph that we do not extinguish ourselves in the next few
decades through our extraordinarily risky gamble with nuclear
What will the specific effects of extraterrestrial messages,
interaction, or intervention turn out to be? This is a common theme
in the scientific literature about ETI (as well as science fiction,
of course). Few nonfiction writers treat the question with much
thought or depth, unfortunately, nor even go beyond one paragraph.
There are stimulating and useful exceptions, however, such as
 and Thatcher
If we accept the knowledge and other help that will someday probably
be offered to us, here are some major sorts of impact that might
advances in technology, know-how, medicine, levels of
consciousness, spiritual growth, social organization,
decision-making, and governing may occur.
We may eliminate
nuclear weapons and other threats to humanity's survival.
understanding of the Cosmos, its creation and ultimate fate,
and even its meaning or purpose may increase.
Our view of
ourselves, our place in the Universe, and our ultimate
destination may shift dramatically.
We may receive a definitive answer to our questions about
the existence and nature of a supreme supernatural being
and scientific fields of knowledge may be outmoded or
priorities, and projects may supersede our present ones.
taboos, motivations, and emotional patterns may be deeply
influenced or even shattered.
norms may be turned upside down as we interact with highly
intelligent gigantic snails or other beings even stranger in
appearance and manner than the creatures in various science
We may thoughtfully choose to have our genes and/or our
culture mixed (partially or completely) with those of one or
more nonhuman species.
our identity as human beings, we may join
information network, a political or trade federation, or a
Galaxy-wide pool of consciousness.
collectively, many human beings may join galactic projects
to solve fundamental mysteries of the Universe, to help
other species and civilizations develop and flourish, and to
spread harmony and wisdom throughout the Universe.
Compared to the various
sorts of impact in this list, the impact of a brief message that
simply reveals the existence and location of one nonhuman
civilization might be fairly minor. After all, millions of people
already believe that extraterrestrials exist, or have at least
become used to the idea through films, television, and novels.
Before leaving the topic of eventual impact, we should note one
particular galactic or intergalactic project that may eventually be
the most significant project of all. If advanced beings do not
prevent it, probably this physical Universe will either expand and
cool down until there are no temperature differences (heat death) or
else collapse inward in a "Big Crunch."
In either case, an
enormous project will be needed to avoid the extermination of all
life, knowledge, wisdom, and genetic information. Perhaps this
project will find a way to avoid the end of life in this Universe,
possibly by altering the physical Universe (or one portion of it) in
some powerful and massive way, thus avoiding its physical death.
Alternatively, some way may be found to break out of this Universe
into another one, either existing parallel to it or arising
subsequent to it.
That is, perhaps the
best of our knowledge, consciousness, and genes can somehow be
transferred to this other universe. As the time approaches when such
a project is needed, intelligent life may have reached such an
advanced stage that this project no longer seems absurd or
impossible. Indeed, Freeman Dyson
 has already explored some
possible ways of achieving it.
9. WHAT WE CAN
What should our responses be to all of this? During the next few
years, what strategies and projects will most likely prove highly
beneficial to us? If the general picture presented in this paper is
correct, major implications arise for humanity's immediate
Our overall approach should take into account our level of
uncertainty about the number, characteristics, capacities, and
motives of advanced life forms in our Galaxy. At this stage, we
clearly need to pursue a variety of directions, a mixed strategy, a
multi-path approach. We certainly have not reached the stage at
which it makes sense to focus all our efforts on only one or two
strategies while neglecting the rest.
Thirteen possible strategies, directions, and projects are listed in
Table 1 below. Three assessments are provided for each of these.
First, what is the probability of success if the project is funded
at a reasonably adequate level? The judgments in this column are
based largely on the conclusions in this paper.
Second, if the given project is successful, how great will the
benefits be for humankind's future? The judgments in this column are
based on the extensive literature on potential human futures as well
as on this paper.
TABLE 1. What We Can
Possible Strategies and Projects
Benefit to Humanity
Study the likely capacities, aims, projects,
help and methods of advanced extraterrestrials
Develop a broad interdisciplinary field of study
re advanced life in the Galaxy
to detect intentional detailed messages (radio,
etc.) from outside our Solar System
to detect astro-engineering projects, high
energy consumption, byproducts, or other distant
evidence of technological civilizations
to detect in our Solar System a probe that can
be triggered to release a message to us
to detect a staffed spacecraft parked in our
to detect other signs of extraterrestrial
artifacts in our Solar System
Study claims of experiences with
extraterrestrial spacecraft, visitors, and
messages since 1940
to detect on Earth any other evidence of current
monitoring, presence, or instant protection
Study possible evidence of extraterrestrial
visits to Earth (or other influence) before 1940
Prepare for successful interaction with
Improve our technology for sending distant
messages that give and request information and
Consider other human actions that might
encourage extraterrestrials to interact with us
In fact, our society will probably not choose to fund all 13
projects at an adequate level. Consequently, the right-hand column
sets priorities among the various possibilities: it is based on the
other two columns, on costs compared to benefits, and on an overall
If we cannot do all 13
projects, which ones are highest priority for our efforts and
resources? The eight strategies rated HIGH and MEDIUM-HIGH
fully supported and funded at an adequate and reasonable level. The
lower priority projects should also receive some funding, if
Five strategies in the table are particularly high priority
("HIGH"). All five are incredibly neglected and under-funded at
present. We will now look briefly at each of these high priority
strategies in turn.
The first high-priority project in Table 1 involves thoughtful study
and discussion of the likely capacities, aims, principles, projects,
help, and methods of advanced extraterrestrials. I hope the current
literature (including this paper) will stimulate a great deal of
further individual study and critical dialogue. Paying some of the
brightest people on Earth to spend several years thinking about this
area would be a wise use of public resources. Futurists, historians,
psychologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists should
be involved, as well as astronomers, biologists, etc.
Second, the highest priority strategy of all may be to develop a
broad interdisciplinary field of study focusing on advanced
extraterrestrials. If research, thoughtful writing, symposia,
graduate programmes, academic associations, high-level research
teams, an ongoing research centre, a clearinghouse, journals, and
integrative books in this field were all funded adequately, the
benefits to humanity's future could be enormous.
Such a field should
examine data, thoughts, and suggestions from a wide variety of
sources and disciplines: being unduly narrow in our questions and
data sources is a far greater danger at this stage than being too
broad-minded. We need fresh views and approaches.
Third, many people over the past 40 years have claimed that they
have seen and even interacted with extraterrestrial spacecraft and
occupants. A few people have claimed that they have received
messages from these visitors (directly or while in a psychic
trance). Most sightings turn out to be the result of erroneous
perception or interpretation
A few reports, however,
remain unexplained. It could be very useful, therefore, to study the
most promising claims with an open-minded scientific approach. Until
we do so, carefully and thoughtfully, we cannot be sure that all the
claims are erroneous. It is highly likely that some advanced
extraterrestrials are observing us one way or another, as we have
already noted in Section 3: perhaps someone occasionally manages to
perceive them or receive a message from them.
Efforts to detect any other evidence on Earth of recent
extraterrestrial monitoring, presence, or measures for instant
protection are also rated "HIGH" in the priorities list. Earlier in
this paper we saw that it is quite likely that we are being observed
or monitored somehow and quite possible that measures for instant
protection are already in place or soon will be. Consequently, it
definitely seems important to create and try several methods of
detecting these. If one of these methods succeeds, we would then
know for sure about one actual form of highly relevant contact.
Preparing for successful interaction with extraterrestrials is the
other high priority project in the table. This should be a public
world-wide effort, involving a wide range of people. We should
become clear on our goals and requests. For example, one priority
for us might be the maintenance of our own unique culture and gene
pool unless we thoughtfully choose to merge with another species.
We might want to prepare
a group of people to be a flexible, effective, trusting, caring,
comfortable, non-military welcoming party or negotiating team. We
need to develop a genuinely peaceful, ethical, cooperative approach
(and a set of clear principles and laws) in which our overriding
motivation is harmonious interaction for mutual benefit. We need to
study the "Deadly Probes" scenario
, but we also need world-wide
agreement that we will not wage war with any extraterrestrial group
unless truly necessary for self-defense.
Some thinking about
metalaw and effective interaction with alien cultures has already
, but much remains to be done.
As Michael Michaud
has pointed out,
"We are not ready
for contact. We have not yet created the philosophical context
for a calm and rational relationship with aliens. That
relationship will require a broad view of life in the
Universe... It will require a long perspective on our own
history, and a sure knowledge of our own purposes... We may not
have much more time to put our house in order before contact
Our further thinking and
preparation should be done soon, instead of waiting until contact
occurs. After all, as we noted in Section 7, there is a reasonably
good chance that contact will occur within 30 years (or is already
All three of the MEDIUM-HIGH projects, too, should certainly be
funded adequately. Searching appropriate portions of the
electromagnetic spectrum for distant messages has already begun and
will no doubt continue with vigorous effort. Although its funding is
not overwhelmingly generous, it is at least receiving far more funds
than any other strategy on the list.
Very small efforts are already underway with some of the other
strategies on the list. Compared to the potential payoffs for
humanity, however, at least seven of the strategies are grossly
neglected and under-funded. Because of the enormous benefits that
might well result, humankind should certainly devote one per cent of
its total effort and resources to these strategies.
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