Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Could we lie to aliens? Would we get away with it?

These are two serious questions, to which the answers are, respectively, 'yes', and 'unlikely'. 

What started me thinking about this was an article in this week’s Economist ('The terrible truth') which remarked that much of civilization is built upon the ability to lie, and our acceptance of lies in our culture. This applies at a micro-social level, e.g. “Yes, you look great in that suit that just cost you $500,” or at a macro-political level, e.g. “We have nothing to do with the Stuxnet cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges.” It’s easy to say we shouldn’t lie, but when your five-year old screws up in the school play are you really going to tell her she was awful? And if you were a politician, and you knew the truth would unleash a War, would you still tell it?

Of course lies aren’t told only for good reasons (so-called white lies). Most lies are told to profit/protect the individual transgressing the truth, and no one else. But the point is that lying is embedded in our social mechanisms, and is a fact of life in politics. If you want to envisage a lie-free culture, you’d better look towards fantasy, which often hankers towards purer value structures, usually in an ancient context, as if we never used to lie in the olden days (well, maybe not quite so much).

Much of science fiction assumes politics in the future will be similarly riddled with dissimulation, whether taking a ‘human-centric’ vision of the future, or one which is alien-dominated. But I find two faults with this.

The first is that other intelligent life forms may have evolved with different emotional needs, or with none whatsoever (think of animals, or an insect collective, for example). They would not necessarily lie. Would a worker ant lie to its queen? 

What would aliens who didn't lie think of humans, and their constant lying? Would they warm to us? Could they do business with us? Would they see us as interesting or funny (peculiar), and just accept us, or would they see us as needing re-education, or even as a threat, a danger, or a pariah in galactic society?

The politician's answer might be, "Well, it depends if we could get away with it..." Would they know we were lying? Well, either they’d be more intelligent and realize it before they arrived (they could watch a few movies en route, and quickly get the picture), or they’d find out soon enough.

A second problem with projecting our own cultural hang-ups onto alien civilizations, is that they might be telepathic, or just very good at 'reading' each other. After all, some humans are very good at knowing when someone is lying to them. An alien 'exo-biologist' checking out Earth would be sure to look at non-verbal behavior patterns, pheromones, and all sorts of indications and see if they contradicted what was actually said. 

So what? It’s just fiction, right? Fiction is lies by definition, right?

Let’s say it’s not. Let’s say there are probably (in the statistical sense, which is an art form all on its own when it comes to lying) aliens out there, and if they arrive here first, it will be because they are advanced compared to us, and maybe not just technologically. As a species we have become a little ‘tekky’, always thinking about new gadgets or advances in phones, rather than about advancing ourselves as a species, as a culture. We'd show them our latest toys and they'd shrug - been there, done that, a few aeons ago, actually. They'd focus on us. Would we be good allies, business opportunities, a nice holiday destination?  

Think of it like inter-stellar speed-dating. An alien vessel arrives, and gets to know us quite quickly. Do they like us, or do they move on? And if we one day need help, because a nastier alien ship turns up, would the previous one come to our rescue?

Some people would like to have missiles up in space, pointing outwards, in case alien invaders arrive. But again, if they can do inter-stella travel, they can probably disarm any weapon we might have at our disposal. Our main weakness may not be insufficient technology, or the need for bigger weapons, but ourselves, the way we are.

So, do we need to stop lying?

Well, I'm not sure we can. But we need to be prepared for how it will be when aliens finally come a-knocking. Here's an (abridged) extract from one of my books where this happens. Four people have just killed an enemy alien during a fight in a 'public' (i.e. multi-cultural, multi-alien) location, and the local alien police want to take a statement. Do they just ask one of them? Well, yes and no, because - remember - these aliens aren't stupid... (note: Gideon has a 'resident' in his head, a smart translation device, like a very, very advanced I-phone I suppose...)

Gideon and the others didn't have long to wait in the damp, oblong cell, but it was just enough time for them to agree their story. He reckoned they could get out of this one - there had been no witnesses, and the Arcturian ambassador had started the fight. 
The circular door opened, revealing the bird-headed Finchikta agent standing on its filament legs, in front of a large sphere of shifting colours. Jack slapped his thighs and stood up. "I'll do it, it'll be fine." He walked toward the sphere. It hovered toward him and then enveloped him completely. Sabine joined Gideon at the doorway, clutching his wrist so hard it hurt, but he just watched. Within a minute, the sphere retreated, leaving behind a translucent form of Jack, like a highly detailed waxwork model made of crystal. But even from the way it stood, Gideon knew it wasn’t Jack anymore. Gideon's 'resident' kicked in. Transpar – that was what this simulacrum was called – a transparent witness, unable to lie, his personality erased completely, his bodily functions obliterated. A vessel containing transparent memory strings – the perfect witness. The resident offered a footnote: Transpar procedure used only for species below Level 8, including humans, since such species cannot be trusted to know or tell the truth reliably. The idea stung Gideon. Was it reversible, or had they just lost Jack?
The Finchikta addressed him and the others. “You will remain silent during the deposition, on pain of immediate death. It turned to the crystal Transpar. “You have the memories of the human known as Jack.”
It didn’t sound like a question, more a statement, a judicial formality.
“Yes,” the Transpar said, its voice tinkling like wind chimes. Even its eyes were transparent, like watery glass.
“Did you help kill the Arcturian Ambassador?”
“Did you help kill the other Arcturians using a wormhole mine attached to their ship's hull?”
Sabine clutched Gideon's arm. This wasn’t looking good.
“Do you wish the destruction of the Arcturian race?”
“Yes,” it answered, without hesitation.
“Does this go for these humans, and the rest remaining on Earth?”
The Finchikta spoke to Gideon. “Deposition received. Trial convenes tomorrow. If you lose, your race will be handed over to the Arcturians. Do you wish to call any witnesses in your defence?”

[abridged extract from Eden's Trial

So, we probably will lie to aliens, sooner or later, when we finally meet them. It'll then be a question of what the consequences are, for the individual, and our societies. One of my favorite stories as a young boy was 'the boy who cried 'wolf!'. Maybe one day, in the distant future, some alien mother will be telling her young son the story of 'the humans who lied', and what happened to them afterwards.

The Eden Paradox available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.
Eden's Trial due out December 2011

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