A new paper positing some scenarios for first contact between humans and extraterrestrials, whether it’s Megyn Kelly erroneously saying that NASA funded it or Dan Foster mocking the authors for assuming that more advanced societies will naturally be progressive. Ignored in all this hoopla is that the paper’s chock-full of scenarios that would make for awesome alien movies that go beyond the derivative invasion scenarios that were so popular this year. Here are five of my favorites:
1. Some of us discover we’re being kept under alien observation, and we reach out to make first contact, with…interesting results. The Prime Directive has the Federation refraining from messing with new societies, but what if we’re the society someone else is trying not to interfere with? Contact was the last major movie to explore what would happen if other species are waiting for us to grew up, but stopped short of exploring the implications of humanity reaching out in the universe:
The intentional form of this solution is sometimes known as the Zoo Hypothesis because it implies that ETI are treating Earth like a wildlife preserve to be observed but not fully incorporated into the Galactic Club…The Zoo Hypothesis thus implies that ETI could make contact with humans at any time. Perhaps such stealthy ETI will reveal themselves once Earth civilization has reached certain milestones. They may be waiting until we have reached a sufficient level of sophistication as a society such as the start of a METI program or the discovery of light speed travel, or they could be applying a societal benchmark such as sustainable development or international unity.
2. A two-sided story about two groups of people trying to get in touch with each other. Flip the perspective, and show both human and alien societies stumbling towards each other. Would require actual creative world-building to make the aliens, their society, and motivations feel as rich and compelling as our own, but those are good things to strive for:
Even if ETI exist in the nearby galactic vicinity, this does not necessarily imply that communication with them will be possible or straightforward. One major challenge is selecting the frequency at which to broadcast and listen. The electromagnetic spectrum consists of a continuum of wavelengths for communication that includes radio, microwave, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and x-ray bands. Searching this entire range is a monumental and nearly impossible task, so we choose particular wavelengths that seem more probable for interstellar communication.
3. Humanity as battleground in alien rivalry. District 9 leaned in the direction of showing us a segmented alien society, but what happens if such a society was divided against itself? And what if those different factions managed to divide humanity, using those factions to bolster their respective positions? If you’re worried about military contractors, what happens if they team up with alien military-industrial complexes? What happens to religion if human and alien faiths cross-pollinate and produce new movements?
It is possible that an ETI would have a heterogeneous population instead of a homogenous one. Evidence for this can be found in the human population, which features a highly diverse mix of technological abilities, ethical views, national identities, and other attributes. For example, in the event of an ETI encounter, humanity may be fiercely divided on whether to respond peacefully or with protective aggression.
4. Forbidden fruit. What happens if extraterrestrials have tremendous benefits to offer humanity? Do we accept? Under what terms and conditions? What does it mean for society if we’re able to dramatically speed up progress in certain areas before we have the infrastructure to handle the repercussions?
Depending on the nature of information shared through communication with ETI, there could also be more in the way of practical, non-intellectual benefits. An advanced ETI may be capable of solving a great many of humanity’s problems, such as world hunger, poverty, or disease. Benevolent ETI may even design their first message to contain information on how to avoid technological catastrophe in order to help less developed civilizations succeed. From humanity’s perspective, this is the best-case scenario for ETI contact. However, while we suspect that the basic principles of physics and chemistry apply across the universe, it is somewhat less likely that ETI knowledge would be useful in addressing social issues on Earth. The usefulness of ETI knowledge, combined with the willingness of ETI to employ it on our behalf, plays an important role in the benefits that a cooperative ETI would bring to humanity
5. They’re just not that into us. What happens if we discover aliens, we think that contact and exchange would be beneficial to us — and the extraterrestrials don’t care? How do we persuade them to open up to us? Is there momentum to invade? What kind of emissaries do we send? What kind of agendas do we have to negotiate?
It is also plausible that nearby ETI simply have no desire to communicate with us. Nonexpansive ETI that pursue a sustainable development pattern may also find all the contentment and meaning they need on their own planet so that they have no desire for interstellar communication. They may have taken up transcendental spiritual practices that focus their efforts inward rather than outward, or they might limit their space exploration to passive interstellar probes [31,67-70]. Perhaps ETI actually do inhabit nearby star systems and detect our radio leakage but have no plans to send a response until we send them a more intentional message. They may be unimpressed with the quality of our broadcasts, or they may choose to conserve their resources and decide that interstellar communication is too expensive.