First Contact Scenarios – Espionage

Imagine that intelligent alien life exists, that its discovered humanity, and that it has the technology to reach us. What would first contact between humanity and aliens be like?

In the first post in this series I looked at the idea that advanced alien civilisations might be totally indifferent to our existence and would simply choose to ignore us.

In the other scenarios in this series I’ll assume that they are interested in us, and in this post, that they arrive on Earth, but in a rather covert fashion.

In lots of Sci-Fi stories alien visitors make a big entrance, gliding over our cities in gigantic flying saucers or crashing into the Earth in a blaze of fire and glory.

Aliens, sometimes not so subtle

But this may not necessarily be the most likely scenario (if any scenario for alien contact can be called likely). Perhaps alien life would make a much more subtle entrance into our society, rather than revealing themselves right from the start, aliens may choose to remain hidden for a time. We may make first contact without even realising it.

I can think of a number of reasons why extraterrestrial visitors may choose to do this. One is that they may wish to learn more about our species before they make a formal contact with us, purely to make sure they have a good understanding of us, such as learning our languages and customs. This would be done most effectively if the aliens remained hidden, as we could be studied behaving normally in our natural habitat. This scenario is comparable to scientists studying other animals in the wild, such as Dian Fossey studying mountain gorillas, the less obvious the observer is, the more likely the subject is to behave normally.

A great example of this scenario in science fiction is the Prime Directive in Star Trek, in which the Federation studies pre-warp civilization, but does so covertly in order to avoid influencing the development of the civilisation. The Federation may choose to infiltrate and study a society, but this is done for noble reasons, such as aiding in the understanding of the structure and development of other cultures.

A bit of Prime Directive wrangling

More disturbing scenarios can also be imagined though. An alien species may choose to infiltrate our civilisation for a number of nefarious reasons, they may seek to understand us in order to better exploit or even conquer us.

Call me an optimist, but I think this is less likely. If an alien species has the technological sophistication required to travel to Earth, I’m sure they would have little trouble in conquering our planet. If they desired our destruction then I see little point in them taking the time to carefully infiltrate our society to study us. Why not simply “glass” our planet from orbit, or release a swarm of flesh-eating nanobots? (Yep, I know, I’m straying quite far into the bounds of speculative Sci-Fi here).

To me, it makes much more sense that an alien intelligence would spy on us in order to decide whether or not to make first contact and how best to do this. First contact with an alien race would likely be traumatic for our society, and I’d like to thing an intelligent alien would realise this, and would seek to learn as much about us as they could before revealing themselves.

I know many people believe that aliens have already infiltrated our civilisation and that they are amongst us today. These beliefs range from simple reports of alien abduction, to vast conspiracy theories claiming aliens have covertly conquered our society and are running our world through puppet governments. This includes David Icke’s belief that we are ruled by a reptilian alien race called the Anunnaki, and that the Queen of England is a reptilian-human hybrid.

Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second? Probably not.

I’m not convinced by any of these claims. Quite simply, I’m a rationalist, and I base my beliefs and worldview on evidence. And there’s no evidence for alien activities on Earth, not for abductions, or for an alien influence amongst our rulers. As enthralling as some of these stories can be, they aren’t real.

But what if an alien civilisation has infiltrated our society? What affect could this have on humanity?

If the hypothetical alien race remained undiscovered then obviously it wouldn’t mean anything for us, as we’d be ignorant. But if an alien species has infiltrated us, and then reveals that it’s amongst us and had been for some time, then I imagine the reaction would be a mix of excitement and fear.

Some of us may understand why such a visitor would remain hidden for a time, and would probably see the sense in this, but still, it would raise a lot of suspicion, and I imagine most people would be quite scared that we had no idea that they were amongst us. Many may be distrustful; as they may feel the aliens have acted dishonestly and probably shouldn’t be trusted. This may well put a strain on relations between humans and the visitors, but a certain degree of caution on the side of humanity may be a sensible mindset.

Hint, they want to eat us!

A more disastrous scenario would be if an alien race had infiltrated our society and was then discovered before they chose to reveal themselves. To say that this would make us suspicious of their intentions would likely be a colossal understatement. It could lead to an attitude of anger, resentment and fear towards the aliens, and could even spark conflict with them, or between different nations on Earth, as the global political climate descended into suspicion and panic. This would likely be a foundation-shaking discovery for humanity, and one with very dangerous implications.

Throughout this post I’ve make one huge assumption though, that alien life would be able to understand us. If an alien species is ancient and far more scientifically advanced than ours, it may be easy for them to penetrate and study our civilisation in terms of the technology required, but penetration and surveillance may not be so simple in terms of culture. The actual spying may be straightforward for aliens, but understand what they are seeing may be much more complex.

Dude… Wait, what?

If the hypothetical alien infiltrator is biologically and culturally similar to us, then achieving an understanding of our behaviours and society may be within their grasp, but if this race was more exotic and significantly different from ours then we may always remain an enigma to them. I plan to expand on the idea that we would be difficult to understand in the next post in this series, but its an idea worth considering for this group of scenarios, as it may mean that an alien surveillance of our civilisation could last for a long time, if not indefinitely.

It’s a depressing idea that alien’s could make a covert contact with our species, but that they would never reveal themselves to us, because they found us too confusing. This may sound unlikely, but I believe it all depends on how biologically similar they are to us. If all life is carbon-based and evolved in liquid water then maybe this eventuality is less likely?

However, I do think the espionage scenario is one of the more likely versions for first contact with extraterrestrials.

In the next post, more confusion!

PS. Please let me know if you have any ideas or reactions to this post, as I think its a fascinating topic that’s great to debate, and please let me know if you can think of any good examples of such espionage scenarios in science fiction?

8 Responses to “First Contact Scenarios – Espionage”

  1. 1 Alexander October 3, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    I really like this series! The most interesting things in this Universe are dinosaurs, aliens and the Universe itself.

    I cannot think of any espionage examples just like that, and my mind is going in a different direction right now – if aliens were amongst us, spying on us and studying our behavior, that means they are somewhere. And since they, as you mentioned, might not understand us (although if they’ve been spying on us for many years they may have come to understand us by now, but let’s assume they don’t) and that means that even though they may have the technology to make human-like avatars, they won’t be able to act like us. So that means that either they would stand out as humans we would look down upon, or otherwise stare at an extra time. But if they don’t have such avatars, that means they must be amongst us in their natural form. But we haven’t seen any? So either they’re really good hiders (think Predator), or constantly revisiting and leaving our planet – that would certainly explain UFO sightings from what we like to refer to as “lunatics”. But are they really lunatics? If the aliens are as technologically advanced as you like to think they are, maybe these few thousands of people are right.

    Then again, maybe we’re living on the only planet with life. Although the chances are extremely small of that, given that there are billions of solar systems out there. I’m sure there are other life somewhere.

    The Universe is such an exciting mystery. If I was given the chance to visit space, I would go immediately.

    • 2 Dan G Swindles October 10, 2011 at 6:20 pm

      That’s a great reference to Predator, its a totally different type of surveillance that I’ve not thought about, hiding amongst us purely for the fun of hunting us!

      It is a possibility that these “lunatics” have made first contact with aliens, I’m not convinced myself, but I do accept that it is still a possibility.

      And likewise, I’d love to go into space, for me at least, its not looking very likely though!

  2. 3 Louis October 16, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Well we’ve reached the stage on Earth where, when we find an isolated tribe or community in the jungle, we avoid making direct contact, because we now understand the damage that such contact can cause. If we have been able to learn that in a few hundred years, wouldn’t an advanced alien civilisation – many thousands or millions of years ahead of us in terms of development – be likely to adopt a strategy of being completely invisible to us?

    • 4 Dan G Swindles October 20, 2011 at 10:51 am

      I think it is quite likely, and its a good possible solution for the Fermi Paradox (if life is common and the Universe is old, then were are all the aliens?)

      I quite like the idea of our Galaxy being full of intelligent life, but it being able to effectively hide itself from us. As long as it eventually makes contact, and doesn’t stay hidden for ever

  3. 5 Peter Manos November 6, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Thanks for your great essays on this subject Dan! I also just read the “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis” by Seth D. Baum, Jacob D. Haqq-Misra,& Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman.
    To your request about sci-fi references: I thought it was pleasantly self-serving that the alien played by Keanu Reeves in the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still apparently never heard music before he took human form (for his visit to destroy humanity in order to save the Earth). After that key scene he started to decide to not rid the precious Earth of us polluting humans. His hearing Bach being played made him think there was hope for us.
    I’ve decided that whatever disappointments I’ve felt about humanity were displaced. My belief has been, as I expressed on your blog weeks ago, that the typical ETI’s would probably have little or no interest in communicating with us, given our current warlike, greedy and wasteful ways. But now I no longer blame us humans for being unattractive to ETI’s or for having wiped out every other species in our taxonomic genus. Rather I blame Earth. Maybe Earth happens to be a relatively nasty planet. It randomly made us this way. Perhaps we would be a lot mellower, and the Neanderthals and others in our genus and class would still be with us, if it were not for Earth’s violent ice ages, and the competitiveness it has bred in us.
    There are important non-scientific and non technological considerations that seem to be missing from the literature on this subject, Baum’s paper included. They may belong in other forums. But still they center around contact with ETIs. Along these lines some “thought questions” follow:
    1) Don’t things that make us better people generally, ultimately make us better scientifically and technologically, so that art, ethics, religion, and other studies are equally important as science and technology in the ETI debates? Carl Sagan in his book Cosmos lamented the loss humanity incurred with the destruction of the ancient Greek library of Alexandria—was it only of historical value that we lost what was lost there, or potentially of social, economic or scientific value too?
    2) Visit the 2000 year-old ruins of Pompeii and note at Pompeii how the public infrastructure in terms of plumbing and housing was vastly superior to the conditions the vast majority of humanity is living in now (or better even than how most people in Manhattan were living 120 years ago – they were getting fatal diseases because their drinking water wells and outhouses were next to each other)—why hasn’t humanity has progressed more, ethically or morally, since then?
    3) If Neanderthals were still alive could we not perhaps learn from them, if not love them?
    4) Doesn’t technology make us dumber as well as smarter? People used to memorize many hours worth of oral history before reading became widespread. Even after the printing press was invented and reading became popular, books were still expensive, and it was still not considered an unusual skill to memorize a whole book. Before the telephone the typical person was a better writer and story teller because we’d write long letters and/or visit each other for longer conversations … but as technology (along the line going from telephone, to email, and finally texting and twittering) progressed, the information content in each message was made smaller and smaller, while the number of messages exchanged in a given period of time increased exponentially. Kids in school now can hardly hold their attention long enough to learn a 10 word definition. Yes we may be more connected in real time through our technology than ever before, and we may be collectively smarter, but aren’t we is individuals getting more narcissistic and less inquisitive? Or at least is it not fair to ask whether it is an illusion to think our progress is uni-directionally “future is better, past is worse?”
    One point with these questions is that a civilization thousands or millions of years ahead of us could still learn from us, or experience a mystical or religious or spiritual epiphany with us, etc., regardless of their level of technological development. We could have fun together.
    A species’ intelligence might be a byproduct of the harshness of their environment. If things were easy-going in this fishbowl of a planet we live in, we probably wouldn’t have all this expansionism built into our DNA.
    The argument about slow vs. fast expanders in the discussion of ETIs seems to give short shrift to the scenario that the skills that it takes to become intelligent enough to go from being a Type I to a Type II civilization could then create an evolutionary platform as interplanetary beings that may cause an evolutionary backlash and no further expansion. I have not dug deep, but the handful of writers I’ve seen seem to just talk about static civilizations expanding too fast, too slow, or just right, but not about how they’d evolve or devolve in the process and change their goals. Maybe my exposure is still too superficial.
    These ETI’s hypothetically expanding across the galaxy clearly first had to struggle for millennium to survive on their nasty planet in order to evolve to the point of being intelligent enough and aggressive enough to harness enough of their planet’s resources to leave it and colonize other planets or live on self-created environments in massive space stations. But at that stage, they now control their environment.
    Dan, is our best thinking now, that it is unlikely that the typical planetary system will have multiple planets with very similar environments? If so, then a species that leaves its planet and goes to another one would have to alter the new environment to be like its own (but how do you make gravities match?), or bring its environment with it by remaining in orbit of other worlds in its own greenhouse space ship. I think the latter is more likely. So they’d start to get soft. They’d not evolve since they would not have to. Obviously you’re not going to leave your solar system for your first colony—you’re going to colonize other planets on your solar system right? And the next jump, to leaving your solar system for a planet elsewhere, is on millennium scale and involves major civilizational changes.
    In that scenario do you evolve to become more aggressive or less? Your environment is static now, right? You’re not going to shift from living on an earthlike planet to swimming in Titan’s methane. You bring your environment with you. I think you get really mellow and stop expanding due to your success probably. The one except is if you encounter violent conditions involving interplanetary wars or internal strife because you start starving to death in your greenhouse ship, and become even more aggressive and power-hungry.
    All this makes me think it highly unlikely we would ever have direct contact with anything but the most malevolent types, if their technology and economics make it worthwhile for them to bother coming to our peripheral suburb of the Milky Way.
    Think how it would change us humans as we live today, if we had all the resources in we needed right now at our disposal to colonize our solar system. Here’s a wild scenario to make it tangible if you suspend certain practical considerations: Let’s say we developed an amazing tether technology using tensegrity-based carbon nanofibers that weigh next to nothing and can be compressed in million to one ratios before being put into orbit. We built a ski-lift like series of rings of tethers anchored to the surface of the moon, going to a satellite that orbits just above Earth’s atmosphere, always directly between the moon and earth. Suppose we have virtually unlimited power at our disposal because it turns out that all the materials needed to build solar panels are found on the moon, and over decades or centuries we cover the sunny side of the moon with them (even at currently low efficiencies for photovoltaics, this would yield more than 5,000,000 gigawatts of power—more than the current total installed electric generating capacity of the entire earth’s electrical generators). This satellite has a tether that can drop down into the upper atmosphere of the Earth, and to ferry stuff up to the moon, you temporarily extend an air cargo holder into the earth’s atmosphere from a tether to the station—between the earth’s rotation and the moon’s orbit, the speed of this cargo container swinging around the planet’s upper atmosphere would be in the 1,500 to 2000 MPH range—not unmanageable, and you could dock cargo and passenger airplanes to this tethered air cargo holder, ,unload, undock, and then hoist the air cargo container back into the tether system and ferry people and goods to the moon. As you cheaply move tons of materials on this conveyer belt, at a relatively slow speed of 1000MPH it would take 10 days to get to the moon, you could be ferrying equal weights of material from the moon back to the earth as needed, burning very little fuel in the process.
    Sorry to have rambled on so much, but it comes down to this conclusion for me: I think we need to develop extraterrestrial outposts for our species not so much to save it but rather to change it for the better.
    The last set of questions that come up are deeply unscientific: What are we alive for? What is the meaning of life? Are we here in order to progress technologically in order to procreate and make more of our kind? Why? I’m not arguing about religion vs. science here since to me it is all the more amazing if we got here by a mere accident that formed us from proteins stirred in the primal soup after comet collisions—but why does almost every religion have references to heaven or sky-gods? Is it because we have a fundamental need to expand our presence beyond the planet and solar system?
    Ironic isn’t it that the Ort Cloud outside the solar system is precisely where the hydrocarbons of which we are made came from, not the original early Earth?

    • 6 Dan G Swindles November 21, 2011 at 11:45 am

      Well I think I can see where your Mellow Bubble hypothesis came from 🙂

      I definitely agree that there’s no inherent evilness in humanity, yes we’re aggressive, violent and competitive, but as you point out, evolution on Earth does favour such species. So I’d expect any technologically advanced species that evolved on Earth to behave similarly. And yes, maybe on more stable planets life is less competitive, but there’s evidence that infrequent large perturbations have spurred on the evolution of life, so maybe on calmer planets life is more likely to remain as single-celled. Of course the opposite is also true, perhaps more violent planets produce more violent species. But overall I’d hypothesize that the laws of evolution are the same for all biosphere’s and that intelligent life everywhere shared many similar behaviours.

      I also agree that progress isn’t always in a straight-line and isn’t always uniform, when the Romans ruled in Britain (my place of birth) the British enjoyed a society not that much different from today, but when Rome collapsed Britain reverted to a very primitive society for hundreds of years. And yes, technology certainly makes us dumber and smarter at the same time through highlighting the importance of some skills and relegating others, so yes, I do think even a much more technologically advanced civilisation may have something to learn from us, but likely more in the cultural and artistic domains rather than scientific and technological.

      You raise an interesting point on terraforming too, I have no idea how you’d alter the gravity of another planet without adding mass to it, but think how difficult that would be with a planet like Mars that’s only 10% the mass of Earth. For me, the much more sensible solution would be to genetically engineer individuals to colonise different environments, as I’m sure it’d be much easier for an advanced civilisation to alter its biology rather than to alter an entire planet to match its current biology. The first permanent human colonists on Mars may therefore look quite different to humans on Earth.

      As for the meaning of life, I do believe that humanity is the result of unthinking physical, chemical and biological processes (with a huge amount of chance thrown in) so for me there is no objective meaning of life, only the meaning that you choose to give your own life. A bit bleak maybe, but its what I believe.

      PS. I can’t comment on your Earth-Moon conveyor belt as I’m no engineer, but it certainly sounds intriguing

      • 7 Peter Manos November 21, 2011 at 1:58 pm

        Nothing bleak about it–unexamined questions (agnosticism) is perhaps a bit bleak, but not a well-thought-through atheism, to me at least.

        To me, it is all the more reason to do something good into the world if it is only “us” rather than some externally imposed moral judge, since all that we can leave behind then, is the impact our actions had on other people.

        Thanks for your helpful comments and for this blog Dan.


  4. 8 Johnny K September 10, 2012 at 5:36 am

    This article is the most realistic analysis of first contact that I have ever read. Covert observation is the most rational and likely first step. Of course, the technology required to travel interstellar distances implies a technology so advanced that they will quite easily remain undetectable. Actual covert contact would be next, but for contact to remain covert, the contacted individuals would likely a very, very, very rare combination of attributes: (1) an uncommon ability to keep a secret (i.e., finding out the most amazing thing imaginable, and then not reveal it to anyone); (2) an ability to appreciate and understand the nature of the contact; and (3) something other factors I cannot imagine. Of course, the nature of this first contact with any individual would be quite a delicate matter (delicate because of a human’s psychological and intellectual fragility).

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