Scenarios on contact with ETI



Scenarios are used for many different purposes and in all types of organisations. One of the most surprising and inspiring scenario studies I ever came across is the NASA & Pennsylvania State University study on whether contact with extra-terrestrials would benefit or harm humanity.

The scenarios were published in 2011 and aimed to ‘prepare for actual contact with extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI)’.  They might become more relevant and more well known, now that the discovery of alien life and the possible consequences to our world were a crucial agenda item on the 2013 World Economic Forum (WEF).

From a ‘foresight experts perspective’, I believe this study to be a great example of scenarios created not only to discuss strategy, but also help stimulate a ‘new debate’ on a societal topic that is not easy to put on the public agenda, but might have a huge impact when (or ‘if’) becoming reality.

The authors present us with a total of 7 scenarios representing 3 categories:

Scenarios on possible effects of contact with ETI for humankind. Source: Baum et al, 2011
Scenarios on possible effects of ETI for humankind.
Source: Baum et al, 2011

The categories consist of scenarios in which contact with ETI would somehow benefit humanity, scenarios in which humanity is indifferent (neutral) to contact with ETI and than there are the scenarios in with contact with ETI is harmful to humanity. The analysis is meant to serve as a step towards developing a comprehensive strategy for responding to contact with ETI. I will not go into describing the scenarios in detail (although I absolutely think they are worth reading). I would like to summarize some of the conclusions of the study, by presenting some quotes:

  • ‘The possibility of a neutral ETI encounter, then, is just as worthy of consideration as a scenario with friendly or hostile ETI.’
  • ‘Our recommendation is that messages to extraterrestrials should be written cautiously. Initial communication with ETI may be best limited to simple mathematical discourse for security purposes until we have a better idea of the type of ETI we are dealing with.’
  •  ‘Another recommendation is that humanity should avoid giving off the appearance of being a rapidly expansive civilization. If an ETI perceives humanity as such, then it may be inclined to attempt a preemptive strike against us so as to prevent us from growing into a threat to the ETI or others in the galaxy. Similarly, ecosystem-valuing universalist ETI may observe humanity’s ecological destructive tendencies and wipe humanity out in order to preserve the Earth system as a whole.’
  •  ETI contact could proceed in a wide range of ways. It is inappropriate and inadequate to blindly assume that any one specific scenario would result from contact. Until such contact occurs, we simply do not know what would happen.’

And finally, for the sceptics who do not consider contact with ETI an option, there might still be some benefits from reading this study, even if you do not want to consider the existence of ETI:

 ‘Even if contact with extraterrestrials never occurs, our scenario analysis still acts as a set of future trajectories for human civilization. Our thinking about the nature of extraterrestrials and intelligent life in general is really an exercise in imagining the ways that future humans could exist under different circumstances or in different environments.


Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis. By Baum, S; Haqq-Misra, J.D.; Domagal-Goldman, S.D. (2011)

About Silke de Wilde

I am a foresight-expert and practitioner. As a freelancer, I help organisations think about the future and how to get there, for example by trendanalysis and scenarioplanning. As a facilitator I give workshops to inspire and help people think out of the box. I'm one of the co-founders of the Dutch Future Society. I also organise training in foresight at the School for Foresight. And in the time that's left I like getting into science fiction and working on my phd-research: Cities constructing futures. Yes, you might say I'm a future-fanatic, and I'm grateful that I'm able to make a living out of doing what I love. Thank you for visiting Futurista and please don't be a stranger!
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