In January, the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope was declared fully operational in China’s Guizhou province. Beijing’s steadfast commitment to improving the nation’s position as a leader in the basic sciences can be gleaned from the fact that the construction of the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) was completed in five years, a remarkable achievement for a project of its technical complexity. The scientific mandate of FAST is many ways quite conventional for a telescope of its size, including detection of “fast radio bursts” – bursts of extremely powerful radio-waves from deep space of varying duration whose origins remains a mystery. (In September last year, FAST detected a significant number of such bursts from a single source, a feat that could only be achieved due to the telescope’s sensitivity.)
It is, however, the inclusion of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) in FAST’s scientific agenda that has attracted the most media attention, not always savory. A February 2016 New York Times article on FAST, for example, was headlined “China Telescope to Displace 9,000 Villagers in Hunt for Extraterrestrials.” Other media reporting emphasized the inclusion of SETI in the telescope’s research mandate at the expense of commenting on its potentially path-breaking use to study natural cosmic phenomena such as pulsars (distant geriatric stars made of exotic nuclear matter).
There is also no fundamental reason, as astronomers has now come to see, why detection of alien life may always need radio astronomy. Increasingly, search for “techno-signatures” – signs of advanced alien intelligence – now includes scanning other bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, predominantly infrared waves. But that said, recent revisions of the estimates of the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy alone (up to 300,000) – sharpened by recent advances in exoplanetology – points to the increasing probability of their detection.
China’s SETI road
It is interesting to think of how China and the rest of the world would react if – and this is a mighty “if” – China’s new mega radio telescope manages to detect an alien signal. What immediate steps would Beijing take if this were to happen during Xi Jinping’s (indefinite) tenure? As strategic competition between Washington and Beijing heats up and talks of a new Cold War abound, how would the United States and other allied powers react to the fact that the greatest discovery in human history was made possible through the efforts of an authoritarian, repressive regime? Would this mark an intensification of the rivalry between the China and the West, or lead to its decline?
The irony of this thought experiment of course is in the fact that we are now forced to contemplate the possibility that it is China and not the United States that is in the pole position to detect a signal from an extraterrestrial intelligence. And in many ways, this was in the making for some time.
While the American radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico – the second-largest of its kind, after the Chinese dish – became iconic in the public’s imagination when it came to SETI, in 1993 the U.S. Congress terminated all research funding for what one American senator famously described as “Martian hunting season at the taxpayer’s expense.” (The SETI program at Arecibo, which lasted for a year till federal funding for it was stopped, was pioneered by astronomer Jill Tarter, widely assumed to be model for the character of Ellie Arroway, the protagonist of the movie and novel Contact. Early on in the movie version, Arroway’s SETI time on the Arecibo telescope is cancelled by a dismissive federal science administrator.)
This is not to say that American astronomers have stopped SETI research: substantial funding has since flowed from private sources. Most significantly, in 2015 Russian Silicon Valley billionaire (with serious Kremlin links) Yuri Milner announced a $100 million “Breakthrough Listen” initiative to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Milner’s funding continues to help the SETI program through the U.S. National Science Foundation-supported Green Bank Telescope, for example.
But private initiatives like Milner’s are international in character. For example, Breakthrough Listen is actively collaborating with the FAST project. While China has advertised FAST as an integral part of international collaborative efforts, it is controlled by the Chinese state directly. The ultimate arbiter of how of the new telescope’s time will go into the search for SETI is Beijing’s prerogative.
If directing state resources toward SETI is not an obstacle for China, could state ideology be so? Marxism-Leninism, the liturgy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has no problems imagining the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Writing in 1980, Soviet astronomer Boris A. Voronstov-Vel’yaminov noted the broad congruence between SETI and his state religion: “Dialectical materialism teaches that the infinite universe harbors an infinite number of inhabited worlds and that life will unfailing spring up where favorable opportunities present themselves.” (While doing so he also took a swipe at the Russian Orthodox Church, remarking that it was, on the other hand, altogether not comfortable with speculations about extraterrestrial life.) At a more concrete level, Soviet astronomers like Nikolai Kardashev were pioneers in detailed theoretical models of extraterrestrial civilizations.
Could there be other reasons why the Chinese may not be comfortable with idea of extraterrestrial intelligence? On this point many have drawn from the writings of Chinese science-fiction phenomena Liu Cixin. In Liu’s telling, the search for SETI may not be such a good thing after all. Based on China’s historical experience – and the “century of humiliation” narrative that finds such a significant place in Xi’s China – he has argued that humanity’s relationship with a sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilization may be fundamentally adversarial, resembling that of the hunter and the hunted. (Liu serves as an adviser of sorts to the FAST project.)
The Days After First Contact
Irrespective of the beliefs the leadership in Zhongnanhai holds when it comes to extraterrestrial civilizations, what happens if the FAST dish does receive a signal that, after processing, is determined not to have been generated by any natural astrophysical process?
As SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak points out, there are no binding international protocols that would require Beijing to make the discovery internationally known. But if China were to keep the option of non-disclosure open, its astronomical community must analyze the signal and definitely rule out any natural origins of the signal by itself. (Note that, as with recent claims around an unusual star or an interstellar rock that was found in our solar system , the majority of the international astronomical community would vastly prefer natural over artificial explanations.)
Following this, based on China’s recent domestic political behavior and the international environment, one can plausibly posit the following chain of events.
Leading Small Groups (LSGs) – “coordinating bodies that address important policy areas that involve several different (and occasionally competing) parts of the bureaucracy” – are a Chinese governance mechanism that have grown in importance under Xi Jinping. Given that dealing with the aftermath of the discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence signal is likely to involve getting the science and technology, as well as the national-security bureaucracies to work together, it quite likely that Xi will form one exclusively to deal with it, just as he did for the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
While Xi has personally led key LSGs in the past, whether he himself oversees this one will depend on whether he sees a personal risk in doing so. (For the coronavirus LSG, Xi has let Premier Li Keqiang lead it, perhaps as a way to insure himself should the crisis prove to unmanageable.)
It is highly unlikely that news of this discovery – if not precise details such as its coordinates or content – can be confined to a few in the scientific and political leadership, and impossible if it is a result of an international collaboration using FAST, say with Milner’s Breakthrough Initiative. As soon as words gets out, the CCP will attempt to milk the discovery domestically, arguing that it proves superiority of the Chinese model. This signaling through state-controlled social media such as the microblogging site Weibo will be a further attempt at regime consolidation, especially if the discovery comes at a time when Xi assesses that the Party’s grip over power is slipping. It will be accompanied by aggressive perception-shaping exercise along the line on the discovery the CCP sets.
What about the reaction from the rest of the world? If the details of the FAST signal are not released publicly, there is bound to be Western skepticism – “fake news,” some could exclaim. This reaction will partly be because of the culture of secrecy that permeates Chinese science, leading to an understandable hesitance on the part of many to accept claims from Chinese scientists at face value.
This comes on top of the fact that any suggestions that an astronomical event or object may be artificial is inevitably met with serious skepticism and the discoverer(s) subject to personal attack at times irrespective of their scientific credentials. For Chinese scientists, such attacks may have serious professional and even personal costs, as biophysicist He Jiankui discovered after his claims about the world’s first gene-edited babies were met with international skepticism as well as outrage.
But it could also be due to an ideological backlash: many Western governments may not be readily willing to concede that an authoritarian rival may succeed where they have failed. At a time when the U.S.-China relationship is increasingly acquiring a zero-sum character across the spectrum – political, economic, scientific-technological – and at least one leading American expert has endorsed the clash-of-civilization thesis when it comes to her country’s relationship with China, conceding to the Chinese claim may indeed prove to be politically difficult.
Of course, China’s own stance when it comes to releasing the details of the signal – the coordinates of the source as well as the content of the signal if it was a nonrecurring one-time-only event – will determine much of the international response. Here, the People’s Republic will have two choices, assuming that the discovery was the result of sole efforts of Chinese scientists: release the details to bolster its own credibility (knowing that if the claim was to be dismissed it would do serious damage to China’s international reputation) or keep it a secret. What may ultimately determine Beijing’s choice?
To understand it, note that the ETI signal could be of two different type: a “directed” signal that carries a message (a broadcast, if you wish) or an “undirected” one that could originate from an artificial source but not carry an meaningful information content (for example, energy remnant from some advanced technology of a civilization that harnesses the energy of an entire star or even an entire galaxy – a “Type II” or “Type III” civilization in the Kardashev scale). The difference between the two – whether a signal is part of intelligent communication or simply a technological artifact of alien origin – can be estimated by measuring its Shannon entropy, for example.
If China determines that not only is the signal directed but it has the potential to carry significant amount of information, it may weigh the benefits of keeping the signal secret versus revealing it more carefully for the simple reason that such a message may potentially carry information about very advanced (and therefore useful) technologies. (An advanced technology-blueprint bearing signal was the premise of Contact.) However, note that Chinese scientific achievements are still quite uneven – for example, the People’s Republic was unable to find enough researchers to analyze the FAST data a couple of years ago. It may very well determine that deciphering the message will require coordinated international effort.
Should China indeed release the details of the signal – thereby establishing conclusively that there is intelligent life outside Earth – what would the long-term American reaction be? Just as the Soviet Union’s success in launching the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957 caused the United States to dramatically increase its investment in science and technology, a FAST signal is likely to provoke a similar response especially at a time when American leaders are openly competing with Beijing for technological dominance. But the flip side to this otherwise happy development – just as during the original Cold War – would be the resulting military-technological contest exacerbating already deteriorating US-China relations.
In the 2016 movie Arrival, the worldwide detection of messages from an extraterrestrial intelligence forces the United States, China, and Russia to cooperate despite their individual misgivings – about each other’s as well as the aliens’ intention. The reality, if and when such a time comes, may unfortunately be much more complex.