Should we approach intelligent aliens by actively sending messages into space?

Should we send messages from Earth out into space telling intelligent aliens, if any exist, that we are here and would like to say “hello”? Would such a move benefit humans or destroy us? Is our civilization sophisticated enough to deal with an alien visit?

A call was made at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAI) in San Jose, California, for us to try actively to contact intelligent life in distant star systems.

Scientists at the SETI Institute, who have been listening for signals from the Universe for more than three decades, say that so far they have received no compelling evidence of alien life.

Aliens responding to our message

What if super-intelligent aliens did respond to our messages, but meant us harm? What could we do about it? Very little.

Step up the search, says SETI

SETI stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute.

SETI’s senior astronomer and director, Dr. Seth Shostak said at the AAAS meeting that he believes we should step up the search.


Dr. Shostak said:

“Some of us at the institute are interested in ‘Active Seti’, not just listening but broadcasting something to some nearby stars because maybe there is some chance that if you wake somebody up you’ll get a response.”

Dr. Shostak believes that the risk of aliens coming along and destroying, enslaving or experimenting on us is not a reason to refrain from sending message, because any such civilization would already know about our existence.

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Shostak said:

“A lot of people are against active Seti because it is dangerous. It is like shouting in the jungle. You don’t know what is out there; you better not do it. If you incite the aliens to obliterate the planet, you wouldn’t want that on your tombstone, right?”

“I don’t see why the aliens would have any incentive to do that. Beyond that, we have been telling them willy-nilly that we are here for 70 years now. They are not very interesting messages but the early TV broadcasts, the early radio, the radar from the Second World War – all that has leaked off the Earth.”

One wonders why we should bother sending active messages if, according to Dr. Shostak, we have already been doing so willy-nilly for seven decades.

Alien police force

What would an alien inter-galactic peacekeeping force think of us? Mightn’t they consider wiping us out after deciding we are too violent and a potential threat to the Universe?

Many believe it would be unwise

Science fiction writer David Brin also spoke at the AAAS meeting and argued against sending messages inviting aliens to come and visit us.

Mr. Brin said:

“Historians will tell you that first contact between industrial civilizations and indigenous people does not go well. (Pro-message people have been) railroading the public into sending a message without a wide and detailed discussion of what the cultural impact might be.”

Mr. Brin thinks the chances of receiving a response to any messages are pretty remote, but insists that despite this, the risks of awful consequences to humankind are too high.

“The arrogance of shouting into the cosmos without any proper risk assessment defies belief. It is a course that would put our grandchildren at risk,” said Mr. Brin.

As the pace of exploration into nearby planets such as Mars, Jupiter and Saturn speeds up, as well as private companies now entering the space scene, Dr. Shostak believes we should address the ethical and policy implications of these endeavors.

Traditional SETI vs. Active SETI

Dr. Shostak explained the difference between Traditional and Active SETI experiments.

Eavesdropping on either radio signals or flash laser pulses are examples of Traditional SETI activities, while Active SETI involves deliberately transmitting messages into space in the hope of getting a response.

Over the past forty years there have been some attempts at reaching out to extraterrestrials. In 1974 a message was transmitted from the Arecibo radio observatory in Puerto Rico. Some of the Voyager probes contained messages that were sent out.

Stephen Hawking warning

English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author, Professor Stephen Hawking, is fearful of what might happen if we invited intelligent aliens to come and visit us.

In the TV series “Into the Universe” Prof. Hawking reminded us of what happened to the American Indians after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World.

“It didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans,” Prof. Hawking said.

If an alien civilization did respond to our message, they would clearly be more advanced technologically and more intelligent than us, for several reasons. For a start, if they were able to come and see us, it would mean their space travel technology was centuries ahead of ours.

Why would a more intelligent civilization not harm us? We are more intelligent than other life forms on Earth – and how do we treat them?

We eat them, carry out scientific experiments on them, when some are considered as dangerous to our well-being we exterminate them (pesticides), we hunt them, have them as pets, display them in zoos, occupy their habitats, drive many of them to extinction … the list of the harms we bring to them is a long one.

BBC Video – Interview with Dr. Seth Shostak