politics and practice of CETI

Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI) is one of the most fundamental political issues facing humanity.

CETI is at a crossroads

Every year astronomers confirm more exoplanets and become better at finding smaller ones with Earth-like characteristics. Within a generation we will likely detect planets beyond our solar system with temperatures and atmospheres similar to Earth. We may even observe signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. As a result, CETI (sometimes referred to as METI) is undergoing a revival not seen since the heyday of the Space Age in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are many fundamental questions concerning communication with potential extraterrestrial intelligence: Should we initiate contact? If we detect a signal, should we reply? What type of message, if any, should we send? Most importantly, who has the right to decide whether and how to communicate with intelligence beyond Earth?

The International Academy of Astronautics proposes that the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space make these decisions. However, if we detect extraterrestrial intelligence, the reality is that many others will claim precedence: the home country of the observatory that detected the signal, the home country of the astronomer(s) who detected the signal, the astronomers themselves, various scientific organizations, political and religious leaders, etc. CETI is currently politically dormant, but in the event of signal detection, it will become one of the most important issues.

CETI is a global existential threat

The most fundamental political questions concern global existential threats: events that could destroy human civilization or disrupt the delicate ecosystem of our planet. Some existential threats are beyond foreseeable human control. Massive volcanic eruptions could release carbon dioxide and start runaway global warming. Conversely, the solar system could pass through an interstellar dust cloud, attenuating sunlight enough to tumble us into another ice age. Our Sun’s output could increase or decrease unexpectedly. The Earth’s magnetic field could collapse, wiping out many species. A small black hole could wander through our planet.

On the other hand, some global existential threats might respond to human intervention. We may be able to detect and deflect the next asteroid before it initiates waves of mass extinctions. By continuing to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, we prevent a hypothetical nuclear winter that would cause worldwide starvation. If we can wean off fossil fuels and become more efficient in our energy use, we can mitigate global warming. If we understand our impact on the environment more thorougly, we can head off crises such as the collapse of agriculture from declining bee populations, or the return of the Black Plague or rise of other global pandemics.

In order to solve these events, we might harness the power of developing technologies such as CRISPR  and artificial intelligence. However, these solutions could bring their own problems. The widespread ability to alter genes makes it easier to create bioweapons. The motivations of intelligences with inhuman speed, knowledge, and control will become opaque to us.

Communication with potential extraterrestrial intelligence is clearly a global existential threat. Throughout our own history, more technologically advanced humans often display little regard for other species and cultures on first contact.

the need to practice ceti

Despite the global existential threat, many will want to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence because the exchange of knowledge could bring great benefits to humanity. Furthermore, we humans thrive on and crave connection with others. It may simply be impossible to prevent every individual on the planet from attempting to send a signal.

However, we are not politically ready to face the important decisions surrounding CETI. In this sense, we are fortunate that we have not yet detected extraterrestrial intelligence, because we still have time to build cultural infrastructure to prepare ourselves.

Science fiction in print and on screen provides a great start, imagining possible consequences of communicating with other intelligences. However, narratives alone are insufficient. We need people to engage in decisions that resemble the ones they would make for CETI. We need as many such models as we can dream and develop, to provide alternative perspectives. These models can prepare us for making CETI decisions in the future.

One of my projects, Earth Tapestry, invites visitors to identify locations that are delightful, awe-inspiring, ingenious, information-rich, durable, famous, irreplaceable, and noble. Earth Tapestry’s process of democratic deliberative curation invites the user to consider what to include and what to exclude in a message to unknown future recipients. I created the project so that anyone — not just experts — can participate in determining the most important places on the planet. I will store this data on the Moon: the current limit of humanity’s sandbox, as well as the traditional boundary between ourselves and the heavens.

Just as I hope we are not alone in the universe, I hope this project will not stand alone. Musicians practice before playing on the big stage. Likewise, we must practice CETI in advance of the real thing.