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At the Edinburgh International Science Festival: Aliens as Revealed by Hollywood

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Janne Korhonen from the Department of Organization and Management at Aalto University in Finland has just published an academic paper exploring whether we should really be trying as hard as we currently are, to make contact with extra-terrestrial intelligences; our assumption that aliens 'out there' would be benign, could be wrong.

The history of our own planet is that civilizations boasting advanced technologies have subjugated and exploited the vulnerable. Should that guide our thinking on how aliens might treat us?

The paper, published in an academic journal, 'Acta Astronautica' (sponsored by the International Academy of Astronautics and devoted to the scientific study of space) advocates that we should be getting inside the minds of extra-terrestrial intelligences, before we naively continue to send probes, and high powered communications, out into space, attempting to make contact with whoever, or whatever, might be out there.

The possibility that extra-terrestrial intelligences (ETIs) could be hostile means we should be lying low, and not signalling our presence to the universe.

One theory as to why when we currently peer into deep space, we can't see any evidence of other civilisations, although statistically speaking just our own galaxy should be teeming with life, is that everyone else out there is camouflaged, and hiding.

All except us in the universe have already calculated the inherent risks of making contact with strangers.

The paper entitled, 'MAD with aliens? Interstellar deterrence and its implications' contends that the risks of an extra-terrestrial attack are not properly debated because of an assumption that we cannot analyse the decision making of an alien civilization.

Janne Korhonen argues, however, we can draw some inferences from the history of deterrence and war on our planet. The acronym 'MAD' in the title of the paper comes from 'Mutually Assured Destruction' - which was the poker game that appeared to keep the Soviet Union and the USA from blowing the world to bits during the Cold War.

In particular, Korhonen advocates special caution for proposed interstellar missions, as star-faring capability itself might be seen as a threat. Paranoid ETIs might also consider the possibility that our messages are a deception designed to lure out hostile civilizations, and pre-emptively destroy them. This would explain why no one has been answering us back, as we try ever harder to make contact.

Even if a superior civilization found our technology appeared puny compared to theirs - it's possible they might be wary - considering this a classic military deception strategy. We could be appearing weak and vulnerable to draw out the enemy, before striking with overwhelming previously concealed firepower.

Novels and movies have portrayed aliens as compassionate and helpful (eg ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but extra-terrestrials don't have to be particularly paranoid or xenophobic, according to Korhonen, for it to be simply logical to preventively destroy other species, before they can pose a threat.

Korhonen analyses the risks of the most disquieting scenario: that an ETI would, upon detecting advanced civilization on Earth, launch an unprovoked preventive attack, aimed at destroying humanity.

The paper points out an expansionist civilization which is busy 'strip-mining' solar systems for resources, is unlikely to be interested in our fragile globe, as the resources available across galaxies are so vast.

However, a species of extra-terrestrial confined to just a few planets would likely feel more vulnerable.

Korhonen assesses that just ordinary interaction between two inter-galactic adversaries could inadvertently destroy or seriously damage one of them, through transmission of diseases, invasive species, computer viruses or even, merely undesirable information (there is no God).

Also any spacecraft capable of interstellar voyages in reasonable time becomes an inadvertent weapon of mass destruction through sheer momentum. Relatively simple interstellar probes -within our capability soon - would be devastating warheads.

To illustrate this argument Korhonen calculates the kinetic energy for each 1000 kg of spacecraft mass at different velocities, demonstrating how easily one simple probe could exceed the entire global nuclear stockpile. So even primitive interstellar probes, travelling at an appreciable fraction of light speed, could be extremely dangerous to planet-bound civilizations.

Given human history's tendency for 'cock up' as a cause of killing, it is easy to imagine a scenario where a human 'fly-by' probe to a supposedly uninhabited system accidentally damages a civilization that had chosen to remain quiet, perhaps due to paranoid fear of detection. Said civilization might strike back in order to stop further ''attacks.''

But Korhonen contends it's the possibility of retaliation which renders preventive attacks a flawed strategy. Interstellar civilizations would be disinclined to knowingly initiate hostilities using this logic.

Yet this reasoning appears to have escaped those here on earth who are currently planning a pre-emptive strike against Iran, and who launched these against Iraq and Afghanistan. The psychology of war-mongering governments is to persuade the public to sanction pre-emptive strikes. This is achieved by avoiding considering post attack consequences in the propaganda for war.

Korhonen acknowledges his analysis does not cover irrational attacks - including those motivated by ideology or xenophobia - but why might alien civilizations not be prone to the same irrationalities as we have been?

Korhonenn relies on previous calculations from astronomers and planetary scientists that there may be between a hundred thousand to one million other civilisations in our galaxy alone. In which case the key question is not why have we not detected other civilizations out in space, but how come we haven't yet been eradicated?

He believes the aliens have made a critical calculation - which is around fear of retaliation. This is the essential deterrence and also explains why no state has yet initiated a preventive nuclear attack against another on our own planet. Deterrence is reliable if it can inflict ''unacceptable'' damage to the attacker.

Apparently in the poker game of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' between the Soviet Union and the USA, it was the capability to destroy any ten cities in retaliation after a surprise attack, which was seen as reliable and adequate nuclear deterrent.

However, the miscalculation of those who advocate pre-emptive strikes is that survivors and witnesses, in the longer term, take revenge and eventually strike back. This is why we must discourage our leaders from the irrationality of pre-emptive strikes. We are still alive today, and have not been wiped out by a bolt from the sky, because intelligence in outer space has already calculated the foolhardy nature of the pre-emptive strike.

If Korhonen is right, we do have something to learn from the silence of the aliens.

If you are interested in taking part in a brief on-line psychology experiment in collaboration with the Edinburgh International Science Festival, exploring how Hollywood handles science with the implications for us - plus attend a talk on the subject - visit this link here www.sciencefestival.co.uk/whats-on/categories/talk/creating-a-monster-geeks-on-film