Tongue-Tied: The Inadequacy of Language for Interstellar Communication

Kim Binsted Ph.D. - Associate Professor, Department of Information and Computer Sciences, University of Hawai’i at Manoa (USA)

Our goal is to construct a message that another intelligence, completely unfamiliar with humankind, would be able to understand. It is assumed that the recipient is so far away that interaction in any reasonable time frame would be unfeasible, so the message must be entirely self-contained. Furthermore, since we know nothing about our target audience, we would like to keep our assumptions about their scientific knowledge, physiology, cognitive processes, and so on, to a minimum. If they have to be very human-like in order to understand the message, we have failed at our task. All we should demand of our audience is that they have the technical wherewithal to build equipment capable of receiving our message.

Even if the recipients were human, we could not necessarily expect them to be able to decode an arbitrary piece of English text. Historically, human archaeologists have had great difficulty decoding natural language texts written by other humans. In every case analogous to the interstellar decoding problem, to decipher the text they have relied on intermediary encodings (such as the Rosetta Stone, or modern versions of ancient languages) and a familiarity with human nature (e.g., that writings on a tomb are likely to be about the entombed person’s life).

So, the message we send should not be arbitrary. Rather, it should be designed to be understood by an intelligent recipient with minimal knowledge of the sender. It has been argued that a large corpus of the written form of a natural language (English, French, or Chinese, for example) would serve this purpose. The main advantage to this approach is that there are large bodies of existing text that could serve as the bulk of the message. The question is, would it be understood? We believe that a natural-language text message, no matter how large and carefully composed it is, is extremely unlikely to be decodable by a non-human intelligence.

The Principles of Interstellar Messaging: An Anthropological Perspective

Klara Anna Capova Ph.D. - Research Associate, Department of Anthropology, Durham University (UK)

The paper presents a data set collected during recently completed doctoral research and portrays ‘messaging’ as a culturally delimited scientific practice with high societal impact. The aim of this paper is to display the material and radio messages in terms of the evolutionary lineage of the messaging phenomenon and to address their content. A brief introduction to the history of messaging is hence followed by commented visual ethnographic evidence. The paper gives an overview of both the scientific and recently emerged popular or commercial messages up to spring 2014.

Each of the messages can be viewed as a cultural or ‘culture-scientific’ archive precisely because it is a time capsule designed to communicate across space and time. To be able to unlock the archive we firstly need to understand how a message is done; this involves looking into key practices and principles of message construction. Of particular interest is then the ability to grasp the meaning of the message in terrestrial conditions – in other words, to question the comprehensibility of the potential terrestrial receiver, the ‘reader’, who should more readily than the extraterrestrial receiver be able to comprehend the symbolism of a message. With regard to the content analysis, the messaging is a conceptual common space where new meanings are produced but also where the ‘universal language’ of interstellar communication is revealed.

The wide variety of examples and evidence from science documents and visual culture will be presented in order to illustrate the conceptual cross-references, methodological biases, and sociocultural context of messaging as such.

On the Universality of Human Mathematics

Carl DeVito Ph.D. - Professor Emeritus, Department of Mathematics, University of Arizona (USA)

It has often been stated that mathematics would serve as a universal language, one suitable for communication between totally alien societies. Our purpose here is to examine that statement in detail. We shall see that while mathematics is often motivated by scientific applications, it is equally likely to arise from internal sources, sources that have nothing to do with the world of science. Nevertheless, we argue that human mathematics can be understood by any race that has a science, and can be an effective means of mutual communication. There are a number of “philosophies” of mathematics but, in this connection, the views of only two of these need concern us: Extreme Platonists and Strict Formalists. The difference between them is apparent in how they answer the following question: Are the natural numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, … merely creations of the human mind or do they exist independently of us? The Platonic view is that these objects, and indeed all mathematical objects, really exist, perhaps in some hyperworld. In this view the mathematician is rather like the scientist. He, or she, discovers objects that are “out there.” So if an alien intelligence exists then they, too, could discover the same mathematical objects that we have found, for instance, real and complex numbers, functions, topological spaces, etc.

The strict formalist, however, has a very different view. To her, or him, mathematics is a kind of game played by specific rules. Somewhat like chess. An unsolved problem gives a kind of goal, and solving such a problem constitutes a “win.” So, to a strict formalist, while five fingers, five cars, and five dollars certainly exist, the number 5 does not. It is a creation of the human mind and an alien, however intelligent, might have no knowledge of 5 or of any other human mathematical object.

My own position is a strange combination of the two. I think the natural numbers do exist independently of us. The rest of mathematics, however, might not exist anywhere but in our minds. But since, as we shall see, all of mathematics can be based on the notion of natural number, all of our mathematics could, in principle, be communicated to any intelligent alien who understands these numbers, certainly to any race whose members can count. It will become apparent, however, that the world of mathematics is not the world of physical reality. It is an artificial world, a world of abstractions and idealizations that human mathematicians have created over many centuries. It may be more reflective of our minds than we realize and may say more about human nature than it does about the real world. Still, one must not forget that human mathematics has an uncanny habit of becoming useful either in explaining some aspect of reality or modeling that reality. So as strange as it might appear to an alien he, or she, or it will be able to appreciate its value.

Interstellar Intersubjectivity: The Significance of Shared Cognition for Communication in Space

David Dunér Ph.D. - Professor of History of Science and Ideas, Lund University

What kind of indispensable cognitive ability is needed for intelligence, sociability, communication, and technology to emerge on a habitable planet? My answer is simple: intersubjectivity. I stress the significance of intersubjectivity, of shared cognition, for extraterrestrial intelligence and interstellar communication, and argue that it is in fact crucial and indispensable for any successful interstellar communication, and in the end also for the concepts that are focus of this volume, empathy and altruism in space. Based on current studies in cognitive science, I introduce the concept of intersubjectivity as a key to future search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and then explain—leaning on phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and cultural-historical studies of cognition—why intersubjectivity is a basic requisite for the emergence of intelligence, sociability, communication, and technology. In its most general definition, intersubjectivity is the sharing of experiences about objects and events. I then discuss what “intelligence” is. I define it as cognitive flexibility, an ability to adjust to changes in the physical and socio-cultural environment. Next, I discuss sociability and complex social systems, and conclude that we probably can expect that an extraterrestrial civilization which we can communicate with has a high degree of social complexity, which entails a high degree of communicative complexity and high degree of cognitive flexibility. Concerning communication, I discuss intention, attention and communicative complexity. I also stress three socio-cognitive capacities things that characterize advanced complex technology: a sustainable, complex social system, with a regulated system for collaboration, such as ethics; complex communication for collaboration and abstract conceptualization; and a high degree of distributed cognition. Finally, if we conclude that intersubjectivity is a fundamental requisite, we then have some options for future interstellar communication. We should target Earth analogues, monitor them, and finally initiate an interstellar intersubjective interaction.

Speaking for Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time

Albert A. Harrison Ph.D. - Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis (USA)

Ample evidence suggests that people seek to inform future generations about their lives, times, and accomplishments. Earth is sprinkled liberally with time capsules, monuments, tombstones, and other tributes to ego, achievement, and in some cases folly. Of such commemoratives Carl Sagan wrote, “For those who have something they consider worthwhile, communication to the future is an almost irresistible temptation.... In the best of cases it is an optimistic and far-seeing act; it expresses great hope for the future; it time-binds the human community; it gives us a perspective on the significance of our own actions at this moment in the long historical journey of our species.” Converging factors—including recognition that we may not be alone in the universe, realization that a major Near-Earth Object (NEO) impact or other terrestrial or cosmic catastrophe could spell the end of humankind, and emerging interstellar communication technologies—encourage us to reach out to new, unseen audiences.

In this paper I consider Active SETI, that is, attempts to make extraterrestrial civilizations aware of our own. (This pursuit is also known as METI, or messaging extraterrestrial intelligence.) Although a simple continuous-wave beacon might suffice, actual attempts have been more elaborate: encoding information in grids, plaques showing Earth’s location in the Milky Way, recordings of sights and sounds of Earth, eerie electronic music, representations of human DNA, and personal letters. In his definitive history of time capsules, William E. Jarvis defines space-time capsules as slices of culture, frozen in time and sent beyond Earth. These include spacecraft that bear greetings from humankind and microwave transmissions that transcend physical containers and carry time capsule–like messages at the speed of light to distant stars. As in the great time capsules of the20th century, space-time capsules are deliberate efforts to communicate with audiences that differ, perhaps in radical ways, from the people who assembled the contents. As is true for even the most ambitious terrestrial time capsules, we really do not know if and when a space-time capsule will be retrieved. If the recipient is many light-years away, discovery may occur long after our society has ground to a halt. Whether they receive one of our space-time capsules—or we receive one of theirs—it could be a message from ancient history.

Other Minds, Empathy, and Interstellar Communication

Tomislav Janović Ph.D. - Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy and Department for Communication Science, University of Zagreb (Croatia)

If an extraterrestrial intelligence should have the technological capacity to decode or at least receive an interstellar message, then it is highly probable that its society would be based on a reasonably high degree of cooperation among its members. Cooperation, in turn, is hardly conceivable without an ability to understand and express emotions and intentions – ability indispensible for setting off a communication process, even in the absence of a common code. This is the role of empathy – affective understanding of other minds. As a psychological mechanism underlying complex types of cooperative behavior, empathy might thus be a psychological universal – a fairly widespread characteristic of intelligent life. In standard communicative situations on Earth, empathy is essential to both of the participants in the communication process. To optimize this process with respect to the resources employed, the sender is typically required to foresee what the receiver already knows. That is, one usually wants to structure a message so that only the necessary information get explicitly encoded, leaving everything else – the potentially redundant part of the information content – implicit. However, in case of interstellar communication, even an impoverished message, leaning heavily on the common context, might fail to get across. Overestimating decoders’ decoding potentials – being too optimistic about aliens’ cognitive abilities or the commensurability of their representational system with ours – may prove fatal for our project. In order to forestall this risk, I propose, and try to justify, the following guideline: if our communicants are incapable of understanding the informative intention behind our message they might still be able to understand our communicative intention – the intention to reveal our presence as intentional beings. For it is much more likely that they will be able to empathically recognize such an intention than to interpret a signal embodying an explicit representational content.

A Journalistic Perspective on SETI-Related Message Composition

Morris Jones Ph.D. - Space Analyst (Australia)

The selection of content for SETI-related communications (sometimes known as CETI, for Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in deep space has been orchestrated largely by scientists and other academics. But human civilization largely chronicles its own activities through journalism and the mass media. The potential contributions of a journalistic perspective to SETI-related message composition are generally ignored. This paper examines how criteria of perception and reportage practiced by journalism could influence SETI-related communications.

Limits of Understanding and Being Understood

Alfred Kracher Ph.D. - Staff Scientist (Retired), Ames Laboratory, Iowa State University (USA)

Our conception of intelligent extraterrestrials is unavoidably anthropomorphic. When we think about what is worth communicating, we start by considering what would be of most interest to ourselves, but we must also ask whether our curiosity is likely to be shared by other intelligent beings. The demarcation of domains like science, art, religion, etc., is a liability when it comes to presenting ourselves to an alien other whose experience may be holistic--or fragmented into different domains.

Images are a promising way of communicating, but like all forms of communication they rely on a context for understanding. As a basis for discussing the likely success (or failure) of communicating cultural concepts to extraterrestrials, we can first look at some examples how this has been done across cultures here on Earth. We can then address particular questions about using this approach in interstellar messages. Among humans the minimal context of communication is our shared evolutionary history, which is not the case with ETs.

How much terrestrial experience can help depends on how human-like the recipients of our messages are thought to be. Since we are addressing ourselves at beings who possess the means to receive our transmission, we are assuming some evolutionary convergence on “technological intelligence” (the same is true for listening to ET signals). Still, it is important to ask whether such cosmic convergent evolution should be expected. If evolution leads to a wider range of mental complexity than we can currently imagine, ETs that we can actually communicate with may be few and (literally) far between.

Lingua Extraterrestris

Marek Kultys M.A. - Designer, Science Practice (UK)

The purpose of this paper is to explore how theoretical underpinnings and practical endeavors in communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI) can inform our general understanding of the process of communication, and vice versa — how the theory and practice of communication can inform CETI developments.

The framework and methods used in this exploration are based on the following premises:

  1. We propose a working model of communication customized specifically for CETI discourse. The model integrates relevant elements of the Jakobson model of general communication (i.e., Contact, Context, Code) with relevant components of the Shannon-Weaver model of communication (i.e., Channel). The problem of message contents (i.e., subject matter) remains beyond the scope of this model.
  2. We treat historical attempts in CETI and fictional depictions of CETI as analogues. Scientific CETI endeavors have not succeeded in establishing any contact thus far. Therefore their suitability to serve as viable case studies in interstellar communication is considered equal to the suitability of diverse examples provided by science fiction. A vast pool of CETI cases is thereby available for analysis within the proposed framework.

As a result of this exploration a possibility for elaborating on the fc factor of the Drake Equation is identified, and its sub-division into four constituent parts suggested (Channel + Contact + Context + Code). Furthermore, the suggested framework opens CETI discourse to a wider critique and enables CETI developments to be informed by new cross-disciplinary expertise.

Ethology, Ethnology, and Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Dominique Lestel Ph.D. - Associate Professor, Department of Cognitive Science and Department of Philosophy, École normale supérieure (France)

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) raises profound philosophical questions that demand serious discussion. Our attempts to establish contact with alien civilizations compel us, for example, to define exactly what we mean by communication. In the past, anthropologists have categorized contacts with new cultures as either ethnological or ethological. In this paper I will argue that interactions with ETIs will constitute a third type of contact since they will be located at the intersection of ethnology on the one hand and ethology on the other. Because humans have had no experience with this type of contact, communicating with extraterrestrials will pose complex new challenges.