How Would Humanity Handle the Events of "Arrival"?

Thursday, 17 November 2016 - 5:36PM
Alien Life
Science of Sci-Fi
Thursday, 17 November 2016 - 5:36PM
How Would Humanity Handle the Events of "Arrival"?
Last weekend, sci-fi blockbuster Arrival opened in theaters, thrilling audiences with beautiful action sequences of alien spaceships landing on Earth, and asking the important question of how we should attempt to communicate with an extraterrestrial species.

In Arrival, the world is thrown into disarray as countries try (and often fail) to work together to decipher the aliens' motives. But what would really happen if humans did make first contact with an intelligent alien civilization? Are we prepared? Do we have a plan? Astronomer Seth Shostak, who leads efforts to detect extraterrestrial radio signals at SETI, thinks the answer is not so black and white. 

Opening quote
"There are some protocols, but I think that's an unfortunate name and makes them sound more important than they are," Shostak told Live Science.
Closing quote

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The so-called protocols he's referring to are more like guidelines for governments and scientists, rather than a global action plan for dealing with alien contact. "They say, 'If you pick up a signal, check it out... tell everybody... and don't broadcast any replies without international consultation,' whatever that means," Shostak explains. "But that's all the protocols say and they have no force of law." 

The guidelines were first drawn up in the 1980s to help scientists in the U.S. and the Soviet Union share information about any potential SETI signals. Then, in the 1990's Shostak actually chaired the committee of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) that prepared a revised version specifically directed towards SETI researchers using radio telescopes. Shostak said, "The United Nations took a copy of the early protocols and put them in a file drawer somewhere, and that's as official as they ever got." 

Opening quote
"If the government could afford the 'Men in Black,' then they could afford to support SETI," he joked.
Closing quote


Shostak also makes sure to note that any aliens who could travel here in a spacecraft would need to be centuries more technologically advanced than us, so in the off chance that a real-life visit happens, we would have no basis for creating a viable plan. "It would be like the Neanderthals having a plan in case the U.S. Air Force showed up," he said. And though the aliens in Arrival travel to Earth, ready and willing to talk, a more likely first contact scenario would be the detection of a SETI radio signal from hundreds of thousands of light years away, and not an immediate threat. So - at least for the immediate future - the loose protocols are enough.
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