The Science of Aliens, Part V: How Would They Communicate?

Contact with intelligent aliens would happen on their terms, not ours.

Amy Adams tries to figure out how to talk to the aliens in the 2016 film Arrival.( Jan Thijs / 2016 Paramount Pictures)
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Current SETI efforts are scanning the skies for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence at radio and optical frequencies, but so far without success. And even when we have a detection, how will we communicate with an alien civilization?

Several ideas have been suggested, including mathematical and musical approaches. The problem remains, however: Can we really communicate what humanity is about? I’m skeptical. But new strategies are still being proposed, such as the one outlined in a seminal study led by Douglas Vakoch from METI International, who uses an algorithmic approach to convey the concept of altruism by drawing analogies between social and astrophysical phenomena. For example, the loss of health and life in humans can be algorithmically linked to the well-known astrophysical phenomenon of mass loss in stars during their evolution.

As long ago as 1974, scientists attempted to communicate with distant extraterrestrials by beaming the Arecibo radio message to the globular cluster M13. Even if it could be received at a high enough resolution at the intended target—which is unlikely—I doubt that any alien decoder could make sense of it. Without knowing the meaning of the message beforehand, it would be very difficult for most people, including me, to figure it out. And I come from the same cultural background as the message senders, an advantage the aliens won’t have.

How should we then try to talk to aliens, when we have nothing culturally in common? In the 1980s Vilmos Csányi and Györsy Kampis from Eötvös University in Hungary suggested that a direct, meaningful communication with extraterrestrial intelligence is highly improbable—which makes any new ideas like Vakoch’s all the more welcome.

Maybe face-to-face communication will be easier when the day comes? Yes, but even that might not be as easy as you’d think. We humans communicate primarily through language, using sound waves in a very narrow range. This doesn’t even apply to all the animals on our own planet, however. For dogs, the primary means of communication is smell. Cuttlefish and squids “talk” by changing their skin coloration and texture, as well as by their posture and movements. For dolphins, it’s a matter of echolocation, clicking, and whistling.

Even when we make contact, it might be very difficult to successfully communicate with intelligent aliens, a dilemma that was nicely portrayed in the movie Arrival. Consider that we haven’t really figured out how to effectively communicate with dolphins, a clearly intelligent species related to us. We can’t even decipher some ancient languages from our own species.

Should we even assume that intelligent aliens want to communicate with us? In thinking about this question, all too often we project our own desires and expectations. If aliens are in fact able to visit us, it implies that they have superior technology. Any contact is likely to be on their terms. They may not choose to land on the White House lawn, as naively assumed in some science fiction stories. Their way of contact may surprise us, and may be something we haven’t yet imagined.

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