In 2011 I was invited by the Saudi Arabian government to attend and speak at the Global Competitiveness Forum, an event similar to the World Economic Forum held in Davos. Former US President Bill Clinton was the keynote speaker and other attendees included the former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The core audience was the business community, and attendees included CEO and board level representatives from companies such as Google, IBM, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and Reuters. My panel discussion was titled “Contact: Learning from Outer Space” and I was seated next to Michio Kaku. I spoke about the economic and financial implications of discovering extraterrestrial life, but while my presentation was well-received in Riyadh, some people in the UFO and conspiracy theory communities were outraged. How dare I drag the sordid issue of money into the equation? Why did I do it? Let me explain.
In the various discussions that take place about the societal consequences of discovering alien life, whether these are discussions among ufologists, astrobiologists, or SETI radio astronomers, certain themes and questions crop up repeatedly. Would there be panic in the streets? What would be the effect on religious belief? What about the political ramifications? How would people incorporate this new information into their personal paradigm and worldview? But of all the issues that would arise, the one that hardly ever gets a mention is money. I spoke about this at the Global Competitiveness Forum because when we find alien life, there will undoubtedly be financial implications. Some people may find this distasteful, but feeling uncomfortable about an issue doesn’t make it go away. So let’s follow the money trail.
Discovering extraterrestrial life may happen in a variety of different ways. The scenarios include something along the lines of the archetypal landing on the White House lawn; discovering an alien probe or artefact on Earth or in the solar system; discovering microbial life in our solar system – probably on Mars, Europa or Enceladus; detecting a radio signal from another civilization; or using the next generation of telescopes in parallel with spectroscopy to detect the ‘biosignature’ of life – probably oxygen, ozone and methane. Clearly there are lots of variables here, but in almost every scenario, vast sums of money will be made.
Discovering microbial (or other very simple) life in our own solar system would have huge potential benefits in terms of biotechnology, including bioweapons. Again, I appreciate that this isn’t what a lot of people want to hear, but I’m telling it like it is. Bear in mind, of course, that space missions are increasingly going to be undertaken not by the likes of NASA, ESA, or by nation states, but by the private sector. History will show that the recent crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was only a minor setback to the inevitable private sector domination of space. Alongside biotechnology, consider the value of any form of alien life to private collectors. There are plenty of billionaires out there, who would be happy to pay through the nose for something truly out of this world.
Another scenario relates to discovering an exoplanet where life is detected (or reasonably deduced to exist) through spectral analysis. Whilst the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has rules on naming celestial objects, they freely admit that they have no monopoly here, and that anyone can adopt whatever name they like. So while an exoplanet discovered by a NASA telescope would probably be named according to IAU conventions (which preclude purely commercial names), it would be difficult – if not impossible – to place naming constraints where the discovery is made by an individual or a corporation. In such a situation, the person making the discovery could, in theory, opt for Planet Pepsi. How much would these naming rights and other commercial opportunities (e.g. advertising) be worth?
What about that scenario so beloved of ufologists – the UFO crash? What if the entity that acquires such wreckage isn’t a nation state, but a corporation? Bear in mind that technology acquisition is a pretty good reason for UFO secrecy, and remember that quote from the final report of the UK MoD’s Project Condign, which talked about the “novel military applications” (e.g. the development of a directed energy weapon) that might result from a better understanding of the UFO phenomenon. How much might extraterrestrial technology be worth to a private corporation that might hope to secure a monopoly on exotic new energy sources, propulsion systems, etc.? And how far do you think such corporations might go to acquire such technology, and then keep it secret from potential competitors, the media and the public, until such a time as it could be properly developed?
Lastly, let’s look at one of the most likely scenarios by which we’ll discover the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations: radio astronomy. Efforts such as SETI are underway already, and need no more tools to detect a signal from another civilisation than the tools they already have. A radio signal may be detected today. But the next generation of radio telescopes (such as the Square Kilometre Array) will substantially increase the odds of detecting such a signal. What then? SETI says the answer is to verify and then to disclose, but there may be other players in the game. One highly likely scenario is that a signal would be detected, but that it would be indecipherable. How comfortable do you think governments would be should such data be disclosed? What if we detect what science writer Timothy Ferris dubbed the “Galactic Internet” and/or downloaded an ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’? Information designed to help civilisations build the ultimate power station could doubtless be used to build the ultimate bomb. Humans are pretty good at weaponising things. But again, what if the ‘first discoverer’ here is an individual or a corporation? How much might it be worth to be the first to download an ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’?
It may be that certain corporations first got into the UFO business by accident. Governments pushed some or all of their UFO research and investigation into the private sector to take it outside the scope of Congressional/Parliamentary scrutiny, and to take it outside the scope of Freedom of Information legislation. But corporations aren’t stupid, and must recognise the potential payouts here, even if they do regard them as low probability/high impact scenarios. A new space race is underway, and the potential rewards for the winner(s) won’t be measured in millions, or in billions, but in trillions.
Nick Pope is a former employee of the UK Ministry of Defence. From 1991 to 1994 he ran the British Government’s UFO project and has recently been the public face of the ongoing initiative to declassify and release the entire archive of these UFO files. Nick Pope held a number of other fascinating posts in the course of his 21-year government career, which culminated in his serving as an acting Deputy Director in the Directorate of Defence Security. He now works as a broadcaster and journalist, covering subjects including space, fringe science, defence and intelligence. Nick Pope’s latest book, Encounter in Rendlesham Forest: The Inside Story of the World’s Best-Documented UFO Incident, co-written with John Burroughs and Jim Penniston, was published by Thomas Dunne Books on 15th April and is available via Amazon and all good bookstores.