How to Communicate with Aliens

Some interesting ideas bounced around at a recent workshop.

Amy Adams tries to decode an alien message in the 2016 film "Arrival." (Paramount Pictures)
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At a recent “Language in the Cosmos” workshop organized by San Francisco-based METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) as part of this year’s International Space Development Conference, participants tackled a big subject: how to communicate with intelligent aliens, and whether “we” would be able to understand “their” language.

Several speakers were optimistic that we might. Two presentations, one with Jeffrey Punske from Southern Illinois University as first author, and the other with Ian Roberts from the University of Cambridge as first author, put forth the argument that there is a universal grammar of languages on Earth, and that this grammar should extend to extraterrestrial languages, especially in their syntax.

Gonzalo Munevar from Lawrence Technological University was more pessimistic. He speculated that aliens would have different brains (if they have brains at all!) and therefore might perceive and conceptualize their universe in ways that remain forever mysterious to us—or any other alien species.

His skepticism seems in order, considering that we humans are still not close to fully understanding other intelligent species on our own planet, such as dolphins—even though we’re closely related to them. And no relationship whatsoever would be expected with an alien species.

The idea of using mathematics as a common basic language was elaborated in a talk by Douglas Vakoch from METI. But this traditional approach is not foolproof either, as evidenced by research conducted by Rebecca Orchard and Sheri Wells-Jensen of Bowling Green State University on interpretations of the Voyager Golden Record. The recording, now bound for interstellar space on two spacecraft, included sounds and images meant to portray the diversity of cultures on Earth to an alien civilization. But even before it was launched, there were doubts as to whether an alien civilization would be able to interpret the message correctly. In their talk, Orchard and Wells-Jensen showed several ways in which it could be misunderstood. If it confuses humans, one can only wonder how aliens—having no common cultural background with us—would interpret it.

Of course, the answer to our dilemma may depend on how first contact occurs. If it happens via long-distance communication, I would prefer Vakoch’s mathematical approach, at least initially. Eventually, though, we would have to go beyond that. How could we express emotions or feelings mathematically? Language has a higher potential for conveying feelings, but comes with its own problems. Misunderstandings are common even between English speakers from different cultural backgrounds.

Perhaps neither math nor language would be suitable. So how would we do it? We are at a juncture where we have more questions than answers. In the 2016 film “Arrival,” the heroine, a linguist, is—after much struggle—able to communicate with visiting aliens. If that day were to come, we might have to come up with solutions, probably using language, very quickly. So this type of workshop is very much needed to evaluate where we stand science-wise. And we might need the answer sooner than we think.

Wait, what’s that glowing light in my backyard?

About Dirk Schulze-Makuch
Dirk Schulze-Makuch

Dirk Schulze-Makuch is a Professor at the Technical University Berlin, Germany, and an Adjunct Professor at Arizona State University and Washington State University. He has published seven books and nearly 200 scientific papers related to astrobiology and planetary habitability. His latest book (2017) is The Cosmic Zoo: Complex Life on Many Worlds.

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