How should we communicate with aliens? Should we communicate?

The array of telescopes atop Mauna Kea (Hawaii)

The array of telescopes atop Mauna Kea (Hawaii) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seth Shostak has a post up at HuffPost asking what we should say if we ever find ourselves in conversation with aliens.  Apparently this was the topic of a recent conference at the SETI institute.

Before commenting on Shostak’s main thesis, I think he makes an assertion that deserves scrutiny.

A decade of research by astronomers now suggests that a trillion planets dot the Milky Way. It takes a real Debbie Downer to believe that they’re all as dead as the Equal Rights Amendment.  Unless Earth is special beyond reason, you can confidently assume there are plenty of societies out there.

I’ve got no problem with this statement, until the last sentence, where Shostak takes a logical leap.  (Albeit an understandable one being he’s a member of SETI.)  Certainly, unless Earth is “special beyond reason”, we can expect plenty of worlds with life out there.  Given the history of life on Earth, I think we can expect most extraterrestrial life to be simple microscopic organisms.  Complex life (plants and animals) will likely only be on a minority of worlds.

And given that the Earth was 99.995% of its current age before an intelligent species arose, and also given the Fermi Paradox (if there are plenty of civilizations out there, where is everyone?), I think we should expect intelligent life to be exceedingly rare.  Rare enough that our closest intelligent neighbor may be millions of light years away in another galaxy.

Of course, it’s always possible that interstellar travel is impossible and that the only way civilizations could ever interact with each other is by signaling across the void.  And that gets to Shostak’s main topic.

A leitmotiv of the conference — one thing that just about everyone felt they could agree on — was to beware of anthropocentrism. Don’t assume that the way we think or describe things will be the same for the extraterrestrials. Context and local knowledge are the frameworks of our daily lives, and it’s easy to forget that these are peculiar to us, both in place and in time. The aliens will not get our jokes, our literature, or our reality TV. Their minds, presumably vast and deep, could be as different from ours as those of bats and beetles.

The problem isn’t even anthropocentrism, it’s terracentrism (don’t know if that’s a word, but I’m making it one).  We might have some hope of rising above anthropocentrism by comparing ourselves to non-human animals, but aliens that evolved in a radically different environment may think so differently that even communications like pictures or mathematics may simply be assuming too much.

The fact is, we probably have little hope of figuring out, a priori, how we need to communicate with extraterrestrials.  With that in mind, I agree with Shostak that, if we choose to communicate (more on that in a bit), we should do so liberally.

It’s a tough problem, and my own contribution was to opine that — rather than wrestle endlessly with what we should say — we send it all. Or at least send a lot. I suggested that we transmit the contents of the Internet, or some large subset thereof, rather than offering up more “greeting cards” similar to those that have been bolted onto some of our spacecraft. Sure, there’s a lot of silly stuff on the web — it’s not curated, to use the language of museums. But it’s wide-ranging, covers a lot of human activity, and is highly redundant. For example, the concept of “automobile” is present in descriptions, photos, and videos. That redundancy will help them — assuming they have the processing power — to figure out a lot of what we’ve sent.

In other words, give them enough so that they have a chance of piecing together our concepts.  If you think about it, if we were receiving communication from an extraterrestrial civilization, that’s probably how we would prefer to receive it.  Inundate us, and let us figure it out, particularly since interactive communication is probably going to be impossible, with replies likely to take centuries, if not millennia.

But this raises the question of whether we really should communicate.  Any other civilization that we’re likely to contact would almost certainly be far more advanced than ours, and by “far more”, think millions of years more advanced.  The probability of us connecting with another civilization that just happened to emerge within a few thousand years like we did, is infinitesimal.

Even if they’re 500 light years away, and the soonest they could conceivably affect us would be over a thousand years from now, that’s likely not nearly enough time for us to catch up technologically and be on anything like the same level as they would be.  Communicating with them may simply be the mouse summoning the cat.

Of course, it’s hard to see why an advanced civilization would bother conquering us.  Any desirable natural resources we might have would be much easier to obtain in the Kuiper belt, or on other planets without the bothersome resistance of the inhabitants.  And our biologies aren’t likely to be compatible enough for them to eat us.  (In any case, it would be easier to synthesize the food rather than travel interstellar distances to obtain it.)

But we should consider that it likely wouldn’t even amount to conquest for them.  Their attitude toward us might be the same as that of a scientist studying mice, and experimenting on them.

I suspect that it we ever did receive a signal, we’d get a lot of clues from what was in it.  If there was extensive information about themselves, including information that helped us solve many technological problems, then we might be able to assume they were benign.  On the other hand, if all we received was the interstellar equivalent of a dial tone, we would probably want to carefully consider our next move.

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10 Responses to How should we communicate with aliens? Should we communicate?

  1. I feel like my response to your AI post would fit here too, with just a few minor tweaks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Morris says:

    Figuring out, a priori, how to communicate with anyone, is not an easy task.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    A lot of good points. I especially agree about the possible scarcity of intelligent life. What if the factors of Drake’s Equation are such that the probability of life in any given galaxy is less than one (but not non-zero)?

    Or what if it takes, on average, 15 billion years for life to evolve (the story of evolution does require vast amounts of time)? What if we’ve appeared on the scene a bit early?

    However I’m divided (and inclined to disagree) that communication will be an insurmountable challenge. I’ve never entirely agreed with the idea that the range of possible intelligence is so large that parts of it are incomprehensible to other parts.

    Intelligence has to deal with the physical world which imposes certain constraints: three apparent dimensions of physical space, time, gravity, mass, the concept of measurement, the concept of ratios, and so forth.

    People often invoke bats or dolphins. “How could we begin to imagine what it’s like for a bat?” But those creatures are intelligent (the way humans are). I think if they were, they’d have to deal with the things listed above, and that would provide a basis for communication.

    Math seems like a universal language once you exchange the terms for numbers and operations. Integer math, certainly, is grounded in reality. A rock in this hand and a rock in the other hand is two rocks.

    Stephen Hawking thinks we should fear alien contact, and certain scenarios aren’t impossible. It takes a very powerful supernova to make some of the heavier elements, so it’s possible they might be more rare in the galaxy than they are here. And I wonder if the heavier elements would be found out in the Oort or even as far out as the gas giants. It’s possible “miners” might seek out the inner planets rich in heavy elements.

    If you’re interested, I had my own take on alien contact:
    http://logosconcarne.com/2011/08/04/i-want-alien-contact/

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    • Good point on communication. In truth, I vacillate a bit on this question. Just how different will aliens be given that they should have evolved under the same laws of physics that we did? It’s hard to say until we have actual experience.

      I suspect that we will be some broad similarities, but that we will be shocked by just how different they can be. Many people are shocked by different human cultures, or the strange forms of life that can exist here on Earth. Now imagine a life form and culture that arose in a utterly separate environment.

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      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Yeah. The question, I guess, is how different an environment — and the beings that inhabit it — can be and still develop intelligence. How much is necessarily common; how much could be truly alien.

        There is a linguistic view (presumably extreme?) that says, because the primitive New World people had never seen a (European) sailing ship before, they were somehow “blind” to it sitting in their waters. I’ve always thought that was bunk. They may not have the linguistic framework to talk or think about the ship meaningfully, but the surely would have real world experience with things floating on water, things being in water.

        There is a kind of post-modern view that destabilizes the certainty of knowledge, that says we don’t know what we think we know, and a manifestation of that is the idea of intelligence so alien there is no common ground. SF authors sometimes visit the idea with crystal or energy life forms.

        I am skeptical of this point of view (and of post-modernism in general).

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        • On postmodernism, I agree. I do think the postmodernists have a point, that we have to be cautious in assuming we understand objective reality, that our cultural and biological biases might affect our views. But it’s often taken too far, to the extent of denying that there is an objective reality, or if there is, that we can ever know it.

          I’ve never heard the assertion about natives and sailing ships. If that were true, then other uncontacted natives wouldn’t have been able to see airplanes as they did when they first flew over Papua New Guinea. The natives probably thought the planes were gods or strange beasts, but saying they were blind to them seems silly, particularly when there are photographs of them gaping at the planes from the ground.

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          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            On the former, d’accord.

            On the latter, it comes from the view that thought is dependent on language. It’s true that you can’t think about things you don’t have the language for, but — exactly as in the first case about taking things to extremes — you can go too far with the idea here.

            It may tie back somewhat to the whole “making a name for themselves” thing. Scientists float weird theories that, if they eventually turn out to be true, make the scientist instantly famous.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Geek Queen and commented:
    All of these points are good ones, and I agree completely with the likelihood that we would have enough similar traits to communicate are unlikely; but the aliens are just as likely to be good guys. Maybe they want to help the mice evolve to the next level. I’m not so optimistic as to skip cheerfully into the future singing this, but on the other hand . . . if the other races out there are hostile or view us as potential experimental mice, then trying to contact them isn’t going to change that. If, on the other hand, we try to contact them and they are benevolent or at least neutral, there could be real advantages. But then again, in my personal life I am a big believer in “you might as well try; if you fail you’ve lost nothing, but if you succeed you have gained much.” 😉

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