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Communicating with aliens

Reports of alien contact could face a barrage of fake news, according to a Leeds Beckett University academic.

Cosmos aliens

Dr John Elliott, a Reader in Intelligence Engineering at the School of Computing, Creative Technologies & Engineering, is presenting his research at this week’s Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition.

The exhibition is one of the Royal Society’s most prestigious annual events. Places are keenly contested for by universities to showcase current scientific research in the UK.

Along with colleagues from St Andrews, Manchester, Cambridge, Durham and Berkeley universities, Dr Elliott has been examining how humanity would respond to alien contact.

Any contact would in the first place be reported by the global network of scientists known under the collective banner of SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence).

Dr Elliot said there was a chance we might not understand the signal at all, and in that information void, the public would be left confused about what to believe because of false reporting and fake news spreading rapidly on social media.

"Although the initial analysis that the signal was from a genuine ET source could be completed in a short time frame - maybe a day or two - it could take months to decipher,” he said.

“We can’t rely on there being a Rosetta stone (which allowed researchers to understand Egyptian hieroglyphs), or some great decipherment crib, in the signal.

"It could be an image or simply junk. Nevertheless, any signal or technological beacon from another civilisation would be of great interest.

“It would take time to understand any signal and if that work starts to drag out and there is nothing new we can say, the information vacuum is likely to be filled with speculation. Conjecture and rumour will take over.”

The Summer Exhibition, held at Carlton House Terrace in London, features about 20 exhibits exploring the very latest advances in science.

With access to hundreds of scientists, it offers a unique opportunity to explore the science shaping our future with the people making it happen.

As part of their work, members of the UK SETI Research Network – of which Dr Elliot is the coordinator – have launched what they believe will be the largest ever survey of public attitudes towards alien contact at the Royal Society exhibition.

With no existing international law on how to respond to a signal from an alien civilisation, SETI plans to gather information that will help them shape plans for an international protocol.

This will help them set ground rules on how news of signals should be shared, how they can be understood, and how - if at all - humans should respond.

The survey will help scientists work out how best to provide reliable information but also what should be done if it seems only polite to respond to an interstellar missive.

The late cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned that humans should not alert alien civilisations to life on Earth, but many other experts disagree.

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