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What will humans do if we discover extraterrestrial life?

Although we may never learn about the existence of life beyond Earth or other intelligent civilizations, there is a significant chance that extraterrestrial life could be soon detected. But what will humanity do when we discover that we are not alone in the universe? The new SETI Post-Detection Hub, hosted by the University of St Andrews will act as a coordinating center for an international effort bringing together expertise across both the sciences and the humanities for devising impact assessments, protocols, procedures, and treaties designed to enable an efficient and responsible response.

 “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. And the time to do this is now,” said John Elliot, the coordinator of the SETI Post-Detection Hub.

“Scanning signals of assumed extra-terrestrial origin for structures of language and attaching meaning is an elaborate and time-consuming process during which our knowledge will be advanced in many steps as we learn ‘Extra-Terrestrial.’”

While there are many procedures and entities established by the United Nations for dealing with the possible threats posed by asteroid impacts, nothing similar is in place for the detection of extraterrestrial life. At the moment, the only existing “contact” protocols are those drawn up by the SETI community itself in 1989, which were last revised in 2010. However, these protocols focus solely on general scientific conduct, and constitute non-enforceable aspirations that fall short of being useful for practically managing the full process of searching, handling evidence, confirmation of detections, post-detection analysis and interpretation, and possible responses.

Fortunately, the SETI Post-Detection Hub now provides a permanent “home” for coordinating the development of a fully comprehensive framework for dealing with extraterrestrial life, drawing together an international community of scientists and policy experts to work on topics such as message decipherment, data analytics, and the development of regulatory protocols, space law, and societal impact strategies.

“Will we ever get a message from E.T.? We don’t know. We also don’t know when this is going to happen. But we do know that we cannot afford to be ill prepared – scientifically, socially, and politically rudderless – for an event that could turn into reality as early as tomorrow and which we cannot afford to mismanage,” concluded Dr. Elliot.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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