Do You Speak English? The Challenge of Language in Extraterrestrial Communication…

While the technical methods of communication are important, the language or coding of the message itself poses a significant challenge in any attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence. How do we construct a message that beings with potentially entirely different sensory perceptions, cultural histories, and cognitive architectures can understand? This article reviews some options.

It might be easier to learn how to talk to a dolphin…

Mathematical and Physical Constants

Many scientists believe that mathematics and the laws of physics are universal and would thus be understood by any sufficiently advanced civilization. As such, messages have often been encoded using these concepts.

The Arecibo Message, for instance, was binary encoded and used basic mathematical concepts and chemical formulas. Similarly, the plaques on the Pioneer spacecraft used the hyperfine transition of hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe) to define a basic unit of time and length.

Pictorial Messages

Another approach is to use pictorial messages, based on the assumption that certain visual concepts might be universally understood. The Pioneer plaques and Voyager’s Golden Records, for instance, contained illustrations of humans, our solar system, and other aspects of Earth.

However, the interpretation of images can be highly subjective and dependent on the sensory modalities of the alien civilization. It’s a bit like playing an interstellar game of Pictionary, where we can’t be sure what kind of “pens” or “eyes” the recipients have.

Artificial Intelligence

With the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence, it could be possible to send AI-equipped probes that could learn to communicate with extraterrestrials in real-time. The AI could adapt its communication methods based on feedback, which would be especially useful given the enormous time lags involved in interstellar communication.

An Enormous Challenge

The question of language in extraterrestrial communication underscores the enormous challenges and assumptions involved in sending messages out to the universe. It’s not enough to simply shout into the cosmos; we must carefully consider what to say and how to say it. Despite these challenges, the question of language in extraterrestrial communication represents one of the most intriguing aspects of our quest to understand our place in the universe.

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