World Economic Forum: the potential discovery of alien life

The World Economic Forum convened a meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, on January 7, 2013 to prepare a Global Risks 2013 report.

As part of the Global Risks 2013 report, the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network has identified five "X Factor" risks in partnership with Nature. These look beyond mainstream risks to five emerging potential game-changers.

Given the pace of space exploration, it is increasingly conceivable that we may discover the existence of alien life or other planets that could support human life. What would be the effects on science funding flows and humanity’s self-image?

It was only in 1995 that we first found evidence that other stars also have planets orbiting them. Now thousands of “exoplanets” revolving around distant stars have been detected. NASA’s Kepler mission to identify Earth-sized planets located in the “Goldilocks zone” (not too hot, not too cold) of sun-like stars has been operating for only three years and has already turned up thousands of candidates, including one the size of Earth. The fact that Kepler has found so many planet candidates in such a tiny fraction of the sky suggests that there are countless Earth-like planets orbiting sun-like stars in our galaxy. In 10 years’ time we may have evidence not only that Earth is not unique but also that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Suppose the astronomers who study exoplanets one day find chemical signs of life – for example, a spectrum showing the presence of oxygen, a highly reactive element that would quickly disappear from Earth’s atmosphere if it weren’t being replenished by plants. Money might well start flowing for new telescopes to study these living worlds in detail, both from the ground and from space. New funding and new brain power might be attracted to the challenges of human space flight and the technologies necessary for humanity, or its artificial-intelligence emissaries, to survive an inter-stellar crossing.

The discovery would certainly be one of the biggest news stories of the year and interest would be intense. But it would not change the world immediately. Alien life has been supposedly discovered before, after all. Around the turn of the 20th century, the US astronomer Percival Lowell convinced many people (including himself) that Mars was crisscrossed by a vast system of canals built by a dying civilization. But the belief that humankind was not alone did not do much to usher in an era of goodwill and earthly harmony, nor did it stop the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

The discovery’s largest near-term impact would likely be on science itself. Suppose observations point to a potential future home for humankind around another star, or the existence of life in our solar system – in the Martian poles, in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa, or even in the hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan. Scientists will immediately start pushing for robotic and even human missions to study the life forms in situ – and funding agencies, caught up in the excitement, might be willing to listen.

The fledgling space economy had a big year in 2012, which saw the birth of space trucking when the first commercially built and operated spacecraft had a successful rendezvous with the International Space Station, and a host of celebrity billionaires declared intentions to make asteroid mining a reality. Discovery of an Earth 2.0 or life beyond our planet might inspire new generations of space entrepreneurs to meet the challenge of taking human exploration of the galaxy from the realm of fiction to fact.

Over the long term, the psychological and philosophical implications of the discovery could be profound. If life forms (even fossilized life forms) are found in our solar system, for example, the origin of life is “easy” – that any place in the universe life can emerge, it will emerge. It will suggest that life is as natural and as ubiquitous a part of the universe as the stars and galaxies. The discovery of even simple life would fuel speculation about the existence of other intelligent beings and challenge many assumptions that underpin human philosophy and religion.

Through basic education and awareness campaigns, the general public can achieve a higher science and space literacy and cognitive resilience that would prepare them and prevent undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery and paradigm shift concerning humankind’s position in the universe.