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14 March 2000 | Draft

Designing a Team for Alien Encounter

Communicating with Aliens (Part IV)

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Part I: Test challenges for alien encounter
Part II: Strategic clues for alien communication
Part III: Distinguishing patterns of assumption in dialogue with aliens
Part IV: Designing a team for alien encounter


In the light of the above, how might interested parties envisage the design of a human team to prepare for an encounter with aliens -- and improve the operational guidelines for that eventuality?

It is intriguing that fundamental requirements for such an encounter bear a strong relationship to the emerging understanding of the strategic requirements of corporations to meet the future. A prime factor is what has been termed strategic nimbleness and the ability to 'turn on a dime'. Rigidity is fatal, although vigilance is essential.

Unlike science fiction scenarios, it is questionable whether the team would simply be a selection from a narrow range of university faculties and academic disciplines. The focus needs to be primarily on psychological and behavioral skills and attributes in an environment of high uncertainty -- in the best sense of a dialogue variant of 'streetwise'. A predilection for explaining new phenomena to confirm favourite theories would be less than helpful -- as with a preoccupation with the opportunity offered for career advancement. Naturally the team should be able to recognize the need for additional skills, and be able to call upon them. But this does not mean that people with those skills should be physically present at the encounter interface. Approached from this angle it is clear that designing the team would call on the kinds of skills developed for management and operational teams, rather than teams of scientists. However it needs to be far more subtle in scope because of the variety of challenges that may have to be prepared for -- in contrast with the precise objectives that simplify the design of many conventional teams. It may call upon the skills involved in designing an intentional community.

The unproductive dynamic most likely to undermine effective team-building is that associated with ensuring politically correctness at all cost. Considerable thought is therefore required to work out how many constituencies (ethnic groups, religions, disciplines, etc) would want to see themselves represented in any such process and how this number (say 1000) could be present virtually, if not actually -- if the practical number was no greater than say 12, or less. This might be described as the challenge of 'access management'. And through what institutional process is the team to be designed in the light of these constraints -- bearing in mind the chaotic diplomatic and military dynamics around prolonged negotiations in connection with recent crises (cf Yugoslavia).

One experimental approach to the design problem is to consider the following sequence of options:

  1. If only one person could be appointed as representative for the dialogue process, what qualities should that person have? Here it is worth remembering that the most logical candidates (whose voices have been recorded on a succession of satellites sent into deep space) have been deeply flawed individuals (a former Nazi and a person intimately associated with the largest massacres since the Holocaust).
  2. If only two people could be selected, presumably it would be important to reflect gender differences in addition to other important kinds of complementarity
  3. If only three people could be selected....
  4. If only four people....etc

This experiment links back to the pattern structuring exercise of Part III (above). For each number, there is a different pattern of complementarity between the strategic functions that emerge at that level of articulation and different types of uncertainity in the selection. At each number level, a corresponding number of functions would be explicity and associated with a given team member -- at Level 7, there would therefore be seven people in the team. Thus at the first level, for example, the choice is necessarily unsatisfactory, with its requirement for the archetypal 'man for all seasons' to effectively assume all functions. At the second, the challenge of identifying the 'ideal couple' emerges; at the third and beyond emerge the various levels of tream dynamics more frequently explored in management situations. The different kinds of intelligence associated with these roles might be explored in the light of Howard Gardner's classic study Frames of Mind : The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) or Magoroh Maruyama's work on mindscapes.

It is also intriguing how, according to the number selected, different values become explicit in a person/role or else are spread implicitly across the set of active roles. This merits reflection to the extent that the dialogue team is supposed to represent, and protect, the set of values of humanity. There has been little research into values from this perspective, namely how a comprehensive et of values is to be understood if only a limited number can be articulated within the set (see Judge, 1979)

For example, it may therefore be useful to see a team of 12 as composed of archetypal behavioural styles such as the following (very tentative -- work in progress but see reflections on the necessary self-organizing process in Enabling creative response to extraordinary crises,

Given the range of such behavioural skills, how are the people to work together as a team? What dynamic should be cultivated between them? Here the challenge is the enthusiasm of various (Western) facilitators to use their particular model and understanding of teams in preference to all alternative models.

How is this 'frontline' team to communicate with concentric levels of 'backup' teams from which more obvious disciplinary and others skills might be drawn, if and when appropriate? What communication technology can be used to providing scaffolding for the dialogue process (see Judge, 1998) -- especially if the aliens have preferences for electronic, rather than face-to-face encounter? Maybe the encounter will be entirely in virtual reality, in which case is the available groupware adequate to the task? Or the skills to use it effectively?

How is the dynamic of shifting people forward into the frontline team, or back from it, to be determined in practice -- 'gear shifting' in response to the dialogue process? How does the team tentatively adjust its configuration to situations of greater certainty (when provision for other unforeseen options can be tentatively relaxed) or uncertainty (when provision for more unforeseen possibilities must be activated)? What kind of database of assumption patterns needs to be designed to provide for possible expansion or contraction of active assumptions in response to insights from the encounter? Are there any insights on such a design from interactive health databases where the significance of symptoms (in specifying a diagnosis from a vast array of possible diseases) must be kept open subject to test results, contrasting interpretations, and evolution of the condition?

What insights, if any, from diplomatic handling of recent crises, merit incorporation into the guidelines? What insights are to be gained from the way in which teams of astronauts are selected and developed? How much time would such 'dialonauts' need in a 'dialogue simulator' before they were considered competent? How is communication with them by various operations specialists orchestrated in response to need, when they are on a mission? What would a dialogue mission look like if it was organized with that degree of financial commitment?

Of course such a team might develop its operational effectiveness by endeavouring to engage with human 'aliens' in environments in which combinations of the Test Challenges of Part I are of particular significance. This might have the additional benefit of providing some new responses to the dilemmas of human alienation. There is also an ironic resemblance between the SETI program and the search for the super-gifted within human societies -- and the challenge of communicating meaningfully with them. Through what process are communications from the wise detected -- beyond those practiced by Tibetan Buddhists?


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