Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity? A scenario analysis

An analysis of a broad range of possible contact scenarios in terms of their impact on humanity.

Seth D. Baum, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra, and Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, 2011. Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity? A scenario analysis. Acta Astronautica, vol. 68, no. 11-12 (June-July), pages 2114-2129.

Pre-print: Click here to view a full pre-print of the article (pdf). * Click here for the arXiv page.

Translations: Italian (pdf). I cannot confirm the accuracy of the translation.

* Rated #1 "Hottest Article" in Acta Astronautica in 2011, ranked by article downloads on SciVerse ScienceDirect.

Media coverage: This article attracted a bit of a media frenzy, prompted by the article Aliens may destroy humanity to protect other civilisations, say scientists published in The Guardian. For further details, see this article's Media Page.

While humanity has not yet observed any extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), contact with ETI remains possible. Contact could occur through a broad range of scenarios that have varying consequences for humanity. However, many discussions of this question assume that contact will follow a particular scenario that derives from the hopes and fears of the author. In this paper, we analyze a broad range of contact scenarios in terms of whether contact with ETI would benefit or harm humanity. This type of broad analysis can help us prepare for actual contact with ETI even if the details of contact do not fully resemble any specific scenario.

Non-Technical Summary: pdf version

Background: Extraterrestrial Encounter
To date, humanity has not made any form of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). But we cannot rule out the possibility that one or more ETI exist in our galaxy, or that we could detect, communicate with, or in other ways have contact with them in the future. There have been many analyses of how contact would proceed, but these tend to focus narrowly on one possible contact scenario. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the broad range of possible ETI contact scenarios in terms of whether the contact would benefit or harm humanity. Such scenario analysis helps train our minds to recognize patterns in actual outcomes, which can be valuable in the event of an encounter.

Scenarios That Would Benefit Humanity
There are several ways contact could benefit humanity. Merely detecting the existence of ETI would be beneficial because it would be such a monumental discovery - arguably the most important discovery in human history. Or, if ETI cooperate with us, then they might be of assistance to us on many of our intellectual and social challenges. Or, if they are uncooperative but we defeat them, then we gain a major moral victory and the opportunity to reverse engineer ETI technology.

Scenarios That Would Be Neutral To Humanity
There are also several ways contact could be neutral to humanity, meaning that we are indifferent to contact with ETI. If the ETI are invisible to us then they could have no impact on us. The invisibility could be intentional (they are hiding) or unintentional (they are too far away or are of a form that cannot interact with us). But they could seem invisible but covertly impact us. Another neutral scenario is if the benefits of mere detection are offset by undesirable aspects of the encounter, such as a drain on our resources or a dispute over how to respond.

Scenarios That Would Harm Humanity
There are many ways contact could harm humanity. This is because ETI are likely much stronger than humanity, which is in turn because humanity is a young civilization relative to astronomical time scales. ETI could harm us intentionally in several ways. ETI could attack and kill us, enslave us, or potentially even eat us. ETI could attack us out of selfishness or out of a more altruistic desire to protect the galaxy from us. We might be a threat to the galaxy just as we are a threat to our home planet. ETI could also harm us unintentionally. ETI might give us a biological or computer disease that our defenses cannot handle. Or, ETI might mechanically crush us while attempting some unrelated maneuver. Or, ETI might accidentally unleash some major destructive force into the galaxy such as a runaway artificial intelligence or an effect of a poorly-executed physics experiment. This major force might destroy the ETI too. Finally, ETI could demoralize humanity, if we learn that we are not special or not even particularly strong within the galaxy.

Created 14 Oct 2010 * Updated 29 Jul 2013