How to Talk to Aliens

Start by figuring out the patterns in their language, says SETI researcher John Elliott.

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 If you haven’t got anything to explicitly map the patterns to its semantic equivalent, you’re in a nightmare situation. In the movies they just send it to the national security agencies to decipher. That was alright in the Second World War, when we had the Enigma code. But we knew [the original messages] were in German. Here you don’t. You have no idea what’s going on. Standard cryptology is not going to do it. If we had an army of people and an unlimited budget, we might be able to.

 What kinds of people, and what would their strategy be?

 I’d have a team of software engineers, and I’d also plow money into looking intensively at creatures like dolphins. So you’d need marine biologists collecting data. It’s all well and good having theories in place [for how to recognize language patterns], but getting data —and dolphins would be a good test —is the only way to determine whether alien languages might follow these templates.

 What about studying other primates?

 I have looked at apes and chimpanzees. They’re nowhere near as complex as dolphins. In fact, their encephalization quotient is something like half of dolphins. Dolphins equate to something like Homo erectus. They are very complex social animals that are communicating all the time. They develop their language in the same way humans do—young dolphins go through about a year’s worth of babble until they’ve refined the way they communicate. There are many parallels—they’re almost aliens on our own planet, living in a completely different environment.

 There could also be a post-biological intelligence out there, or a sentinel communicating, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Would there be differences in the way an artificial life form communicates? Yes. They haven’t got the same limitations as we do with our brains. I’m starting to move from thinking about humans and dolphins to robots. There are examples of robots making their own language, so I can analyze that structure.

 Are there any new developments in SETI that you’re excited about?

 We’re still looking at the sky through a straw. But the Chinese are constructing a radio telescope 50 percent larger than the Arecibo telescope. Then you’ve got other projects like the Square Kilometer Array. So our capability for listening to the whole sky is increasing. And people are looking for pulsed light, neutrinos, you name it—different mediums for transmission.

 It’s really early days, though. We’ve only just come out of the primeval ooze as far as technology is concerned.

 What about sending messages out? That has been controversial.

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