I can't think of many things that would change the global economy more than finding out that we're not alone in the universe.
Other intelligent species out in the cosmos may have advanced technology to share with us — which would obviously be a potentially huge economic stimulus here on Earth. Or perhaps they'd want to wage war against us and wipe us out. But even if there are hostile species out there, it is better that we know about them as early as possible so we have a better chance to make massive investments to try to defend ourselves.
Meeting intelligent alien species may also provide new markets for us to sell goods. And even the discovery of primitive life — say, in the oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa — would greatly enrich human scientific knowledge by giving us a new tree of evolutionary life to study.
So far, the search for extraterrestrial life has been a failure. After scanning the skies with radio telescopes for more than 50 years, despite discovering a few interesting anomalies, we haven't picked up any alien broadcasts. But scientists have not given up hope, especially now that we are detecting Earth-sized planets in Earth-like orbits — meaning they're the right temperature for liquid water — around other stars.
Funding for large, open-ended projects like the hunt for alien life has been difficult to secure in the past. Such initiatives don't promise any immediate return or immediate industrial applications for investors. So funding is mostly limited to those who hope to see the initiative succeed for nonfinancial reasons.
But now, investors concerned or excited about the possibility of discovering alien life may soon have the option of purchasing a hedge against it.
In an article for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science proposes a bond that pays out when extraterrestrial life is proved to exist by researchers on Earth. He suggests a lottery bond, which is usually issued to fund projects when the issuer foresees difficulty selling the bonds. All of the bonds get a regular but low coupon payment, and once the project is completed, the holders of some randomly selected lucky bonds get a high payout.
I propose the establishment of a SETI Lottery Bond to provide a continued source of funding for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The SETI Lottery Bond is a ﬁxed rate perpetual bond with a lottery at maturity, where maturity occurs only upon discovery and conﬁrmation of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Investors in the SETI Lottery Bond purchase shares that yield a ﬁxed rate of interest that continues indeﬁnitely until SETI succeeds — at which point a random subset of shares will be awarded a prize from a lottery pool. SETI Lottery Bond shares also are transferable, so that investors can benefact their shares to kin or trade them in secondary markets. The total capital raised this way will provide a fund to be managed by a ﬁnancial institution, with annual payments from this fund to support SETI research, pay investor interest, and contribute to the lottery fund. Such a plan could generate several to tens of millions of dollars for SETI research each year, which would help to revitalize and expand facilities such as the Allen Telescope Array. [arxiv]
Lottery bond issues — like crowdfunding — could also be useful for other enigmatic projects that struggle to attract government and industry funding. Science crowdfunding projects like petridish.org have already attracted money for projects including tracking pacific Orca whales, studying wolves near Lake Superior, and research into human-animal disease transmission.
A world in which scientists can appeal directly to an increasingly scientifically literate public for funds instead of having to rely on approval by government or industry would be a much brighter one. It would allow funding for a huge range of projects, not just initiatives with applications (e.g., military applications) desired by government and industry.
And if that leads to the discovery of alien life, all the better.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- 7 of the scariest spiders in existence
- 4 things NASA can teach you about a good night's sleep
- Internet piracy isn't killing Hollywood
- It's time for the police to rethink 'shoot-to-kill'
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- How names influence our destinies
- How to be optimistic, according to science
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
Subscribe to the Week