Here's something, just kind of for fun, that I'd like to talk about. It's something that's roamed around my brain for quite a while and probably should stay there. But, at the risk of making me look like a tinfoil hat...
There's a relatively few amount of developments that, to my mind, represent the next analogue to the computer or the car for advancement of the human as a whole. Teleportation (which, excitingly, is already possible on an atomic level) is one. Direct-from-brain interface (a version of which has been patented by Sony!) is another. The one that gets you the most stares is contact with an alien race.
But let's examine the evidence. We're already capable of finding roughly Earth-like worlds. We've been buzzing like a broken fluorescent light with electronic activity for 50 years. In fact, the next 20 years would be the rough same time period in which you would expect, accounting for transmit time of our collective static, for a return message to possibly come back.
There are a few things that have to happen to have meaningful communication, and one of the first is the adoption by either party of a joint communications protocol, or of dual translation protocols. And while there are very few comparatives that I think we can expect of any sort of alien contact, the first common ground we will likely find will be in mathematics. The notion of "zero" and "one" (or, as we might find in an alien context, "active" or "inactive", "on" or "off") are fundamental to any structure.
And when you have zero and one in common, you have the basis of communicable ground.
I don't expect anytime within even the next two to three-hundred years for us to actually be in the physical presence of an alien life form. But I do think that we will be able to communicate with them meaningfully within ten years of "first contact."
The best way to do that? Virtual worlds.
Think about it: Virtual worlds are the best way to quickly and interactively communicate what a given foreign experience is like. It is reasonable to think that once we've established common communication protocol, shared learning of experience will soon follow, and the best way for a being probably utterly unfamiliar with two legs, two arms and two eyes to learn how to be relative to that experience... is to be one.
In Second Life, I can have meaningful interaction and learning about the environs of New York City. In a similar environment, whatever this something is that we find (or finds us) can have meaningful interaction with the human experience - learn of our artistic appreciation, learn of our social structures. There is no better replacement for actually being here.
With that in mind, I'm not saying that we should start building this right away. But I *do* think that it's advisable to start talking about the formation of a world of basic explanation, in thinking about "movement" and "interaction" as concepts that could be foreign. How do you explain movement to someone/thing that never has? I'm not sure offhand, but I think we could find an answer.
In a sense, I believe that beginning to spend 5-10 minutes a week thinking about this sort of thing will be valuable not only in this (admittedly low-probability) possibility, but in how we begin relating virtual world concepts to people with no technological proficiency. As we move stutteringly nearer to a time when participation in virtual worlds is a socioeconomic requirement, it is important to make them as relative and native experiences as possible without any assumption of basic proficiencies.