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Alien Scientist: Alien Communication

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: November 2006, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

'Alien contact' is almost synonymous with ‘alien communication’. Indeed, we may assume that first contact with aliens is more likely to be through communication than through physical contact. But is this really the case? For a start, to be able to communicate, we might have to assume compatible ‘intelligence’. If we visited an alien planet inhabited only by the alien equivalents of vegetables, then perhaps communication would not be possible – as futile as attempting a conversation with our houseplants. Even if it were the aliens reaching us, this would not necessarily mean they were intelligent. They could arrive here by chance, just as on Earth many species must have fortuitously crossed seas – voids that would take humans thousands or millions of years to cross by design. An ‘accidental’ extra-terrestrial – or one whose main talent for surviving space travel was a high boredom threshold – might not have much intelligence to share with us.

It may be imagined that, on making contact with aliens – after getting ice-breaking small-talk out the way – we would get down to discussing lofty intellectual subjects such as universal constants, cosmic origins or comparative anatomy. However, even if we shared a reflective, analytical consciousness, would we actually be able to share our thoughts?

Even if an alien would understand the significance of, say, some presumably universal truth such as Pythagoras’ theorem, how would we communicate it? We could draw a diagram to illustrate the essential point of it, but that would presuppose that the alien understood drawing as a means of communication. Think of the mental calculations we do in our head in order to be able to catch a ball: rapid analysis of speed and acceleration, and forecasting of future trajectory. But we do this intuitively, not as a conscious calculus that could easily be made sense of if written down. If the ball-catching calculations were presented to us by an alien mathematician hoping to talk maths with us, we might be completely baffled, because although we ‘do’ the maths in our head, we don’t communicate it the way we compute it.

There may be no more reason to suppose our ‘software’ is compatible, than our ‘hardware’. As Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart have pointed out in Evolving the Alien, we should not expect aliens to be able to eat our flesh or drink our blood, far less be able to mate with us, because we would have no reason to expect aliens to have similar body chemistry or genetics. This is the case even if we do share a predisposition to consume and reproduce. Perhaps it could be the same with communication. Just because humans and aliens might each have a predisposition to communicate with our own kind does not mean this is sufficient for us to be able to communicate between kinds.

If an alien robot landed on Earth in some prehistoric period, our pre-technological ancestors might interpret the visitor as a living alien organism. But we today would not expect the alien robot to run on blood, even if it had analogues for muscles, sensors, nervous impulses and spinal communications. Yet we might still assume that it would have an analogue for external communication – an analogue that should somehow be compatible with ours.

While we are able to communicate with terrestrial robots and computers – through things like keystrokes or vocal instructions – this is only possible because the computers and robots have been deliberately designed to communicate with us. (One could say the technological physiology artificially ‘evolved’ to be compatible with the human environment in which it finds itself.)

But when computers communicate with each other, they use means completely incomprehensible to us: inaudible, invisible pulses down a cable or through the air. We would not know how to decode the messages – or even know messages were there – unless we knew how the technology had been designed. So communicating with an alien ‘organism’ could be as difficult as communicating with an alien ‘robot’ that had not been designed for the human environment. This could apply even if we had something in common to talk about. After all, a computer cannot communicate with an abacus, or sundial – even if these had plenty of content to share about numbers and the passing hours.

Then again, a computer could be rigged up to interpret the output of a simpler device like an abacus or sundial. But that does not mean the computer could be interpreted in return. So if an intelligent alien visited Earth, it might be able to interpret our ‘outputs’, or read our minds. But we might not be aware of it. To the aliens, we may as well be houseplants.

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