What does humanity do when we discover we are not alone in the Cosmos?
Science fiction is awash with explorations of the impact on human society following discovery of, and even encounters with, life or intelligence elsewhere. But we need to go beyond thinking about the impact on humanity. We need to coordinate our expert knowledge not only for assessing the evidence but also for considering the human social response, as our understanding progresses and what we know and what we don’t know is communicated. We have contemplated life on other Worlds for countless generations; the search for extra–terrestrial intelligence and their technology has now been an ongoing endeavour for decades. Our own technical resources have since improved significantly, and with those the chances of detection are therefore continually increasing. Social interest has risen considerably recently, due to the detection of thousands of planets around distant stars in our own galaxy and, closer to home, through the exploration of nearby worlds such as Mars and Venus, looking for signs of life, present or past. The potential discovery of microbial life will likely raise different types of concern that would follow the discovery of intelligent life – we are as yet entirely unprepared as a species for the latter. The time is thus right for consideration of humanity’s response – and responsibility – following the detection of both life and intelligence in the Cosmos. We should plan now for this eventuality by setting out impact assessments, protocols, procedures and treaties designed to allow humanity to respond responsibly.
The SETI Post-Detection Hub is an initiative of the UK SETI Research Network (UKSRN), and is jointly hosted by the St Andrews Centre for Exoplanet Science, the Centre for Global Law and Governance, and the Durham Law School.