First contact has been made. They're about to materialise, they seem to communicate in a synthesised version of Chinese and ideographic symbols projected into some kind of reflective medium. The world will never be the same again, there is someone out there, the future has arrived. A familiar scenario to anyone with even a passing interest in life on earth and subject of a million barroom conversations. We're simultaneously terrified of and attracted to the idea of first contact because the kind of profound change it represents is exciting and disturbing. It would put all current concerns about say the environment, global justice and the economic system into momentary shade while we adjust to the fact that we're not the only form of intelligent life in the universe. In fact it seems likely we're not. Some argue we need a shot in the arm like extra terrestrial contact to wake us up from millennial lethargy and species complacency.

Of course the question of whether a virus can communicate or how we might interact with a distributed consciousness organism are more like the type of questions we'll have to get our heads around. At a glance we seem woefully underequipped to deal with such an eventuality. SETI has just been cancelled, the space shuttle mothballed permanently, intraglactic exploration handed over to privateers interested in giving tourists minutes of zero grav experience and unmanned is the predominant model for near future space exploration.

The years between 2011 and 2061 will be full of penetrating insights. The human mind will be thoroughly mapped and recreated artificially. Direct brain control interfaces will be commonplace, telepathy an everyday occurrence, precise emotional stimulation will be easy, disease a thing of the past controlled through individual gene therapy drugs. The first thing that'll help us make and more importantly maintain first contact is a more precise and holistic understanding of the human mind.

Understanding society more deeply, thinking about communities, groups, people and thought will be the next step however. How do we understand ourselves? How does society evolve? How can we achieve more cohesion and peaceful coexistence in society? Is conflict inevitable? Human behaviour seems to change rapidly, is subject to external influence and manifests itself in a huge variety of ways. The challenges of the future need to met by all humanity in different ways. By understanding social pathology we'll give ourselves a better chance.

Maybe the extra terrestrials who make their way here will have been cast out by their own cells, bad apples set adrift in the oceans of space, not representative of their species. Perhaps, as so many dystopian visions have it, they'll have destroyed their home planet through rampant greed, like we seem hell bent on doing, and are looking for a nice, warm, abandoned place to reboot.

John Fass