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The sociologist Michael Schetsche researches the question of what an encounter between humans and extraterrestrial beings might look like

Freiburg, Mar 28, 2019

Superior Visitors

Photo: Sasa Kadrijevic/

Based on what we know today, there are several billion planets that are able to sustain life. Many researchers believe that an encounter between humans and an extraterrestrial civilization is becoming increasingly probable. Prof. Dr. Michael Schetsche from the Department of Sociology at the University of Freiburg says it is high time that we consider humans finding traces of alien intelligence, or aliens one day visiting us not only from a scientific point of view, but also from a social and political perspective. Verena Adt talked to him about what an encounter with aliens might look like.

Michael Schetsche believes it’s probable that humans will encounter extraterrestrial life in the foreseeable future – but it won’t be little green men. Photo: Sasa Kadrijevic/

Prof. Dr. Schetsche, will we be meeting little green men from another planet one day?

Michael Schetsche: Definitely not little green men, but it’s certainly probable that we will encounter extraterrestrial life in the foreseeable future. According to the latest scientific research, there are 200–300 billion planets in our galaxy. Astrophysicists estimate that roughly 1–3 billion of these have conditions that could sustain life. It’s also much more likely that complex life has developed in other places besides Earth than that we’re all alone, we just can’t prove it yet.

How should we imagine the extraterrestrial beings we might encounter?

An alien civilization capable of traveling to our solar system is most likely a highly developed artificial intelligence (AI) that evolved from a biological species. What interests me is the question of whether this development could also be the future of Earth. AI research is on the rise everywhere, thanks to political and economic support. However, I don’t think we’re reflecting enough about the consequences of AI on society. Nick Bostrom, who heads the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, predicts that in the next 40–60 years, we will build an AI so powerful that it could replace us.

But isn’t Earth being taken over by artificial intelligence a classical horror story straight out of science fiction?

You shouldn’t always trust science fiction. That’s why we have scientific discussions about issues like these in the interdisciplinary Forschungsnetzwerk Extraterrestrische Intelligenz, or Extraterrestrial Intelligence Research Network. One of the main questions discussed by the network’s 30 scientists from a dozen different disciplines is “What will happen to us humans when we encounter an alien intelligence?”

It’s high time we deal with the idea that humans might encounter extraterrestrial beings on a social and political level, Schetsche says.
Photo: Michael Schetsche:


What might such an encounter look like?

We humans are still quite a ways off from being able to visit far away solar systems. That means that, if there were a direct contact, we would be the discovered and not the discoverers. It might also be the case that an alien civilization has already been here and that we will discover some kind of trace, like a space probe or a piece of space garbage. I consider this so-called artifact scenario the most probable at the moment.

What would happen to such an artifact?

Who does it belong to? Who is allowed to use it? There are no international agreements in place to answer these questions. The research network believes that this is a problem. We’re worried that a conflict on Earth could develop over access to this superior technology. There are also no regulations as to whether or not such an artifact should be allowed to be brought to Earth. After all, there could be risks involved. What we need is a kind of UN convention on these issues. Exo-sociology is a subdiscipline of sociology that researches the encounter between humans and extraterrestrial life. As a field, we are currently trying to raise awareness about this issue with politicians, because once such an artifact has been found, it’s too late to agree on any regulations.

Don’t politicians have more important problems to deal with at the moment?

As a political studies scholar and sociologist, I know that we first have to take care of the climate change. That having been said, we can’t let other issues fall by the wayside that could someday pose a risk to humanity. One major risk is the artificial intelligence that we are developing ourselves. We might be playing Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice. The second risk is that the farther we travel in space, the more likely we are to encounter alien, meaning completely unknown phenomena that may be hazardous.

How likely do you think an encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization is?

Research on the future of humanity refers to this as a “wild card” event. We can’t predict when it will occur, because we have no comparable data. But when it does finally happen, it will have extremely serious effects. The scientific research of the last 10–20 years indicates that right now is a good time to think about this.

After humans, dolphins are considered to be the second most intelligent form of life on Earth, yet we still haven’t found a way to communicate with them. Photo: Carlos Muñoz/


Do you think we’re able to communicate with extraterrestrial visitors?

Communication is a problem. It’s impossible to learn a completely foreign form of communication without developing a kind of shared practice. We’re not even capable of decoding our own ancient forms of writing without a Rosetta Stone to help us translate hieroglyphs, for example. An encounter with what I call “the most alien of aliens” (in German maximal Fremden) would make clear just how difficult it is to understand other cultures. You can already see this in the interaction between animals and humans. After humans, dolphins are probably the most intelligent life forms on Earth. But after 70 years of research on dolphins, we still can’t understand them and we don’t know how smart they really are.

What you’re saying also touches on the question of ethics.

That’s a very important issue for us in exo-sociology. When should we regard our counterparts as our equals and acknowledge that they also have rights? This is a question that also concerns dolphins and primates: We kill them all the time, and most people don’t have a problem with that. It’s also an issue that will become even more pressing in the future. In 10-20 years, we will be debating about whether robots or cars with artificial intelligence have rights, and whether they can be held legally responsible.

If extraterrestrial beings are so technologically superior to us, we would probably not be able to do them any harm.

The question is rather what kind of status these extraterrestrial beings would assign to us. Would the Earth be a kind of ant hill for them? That wouldn’t be so good for us. Or would they be ethically advanced and think that we may be primitive but require protection? Would we live in a kind of zoo? They might leave the Earth alone and put it in a virtual cage. Then we could only hope that they treat us better than we do other species on Earth.