How to Talk to Aliens: The Challenges of Communicating with Beings Who May Be Significantly Smarter

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An astrophysicist and a psychologist expose the challenges of communicating with beings who may be much more intelligent, but who do not share our conceptual system.

In Steven Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), aliens communicate with humans through a catchy five-note sequence.

In Spielberg’s 1982 hit film “ET,” a short alien learns the basics of English on a children’s television show. More recently, in the 2016 film “Arrival,” squid-like visitors use pictographs to make themselves understood by American scientists wielding whiteboards with words.

But what would really happen if we came into direct contact with an extraterrestrial species? How would we recognize or interpret their intelligence, and what would we say?

These are just some of the questions addressed in an extensive conversation hosted Monday afternoon by Harvard’s Mind Brain Behavior Interfaculty Initiative and moderated by Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy Edward J. Hall.

Using “Arrival” as a springboard, speakers Jesse Snedeker, professor of psychology and expert in language understanding, and Avi Loeb, astrophysicist and author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Signs of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” (2021), examined the potential challenges we may face.

Mr. Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, has long argued that the search for extraterrestrial life should be taken more seriously in scientific circles. He said there are a series of factors to consider if we encounter an alien race. (Loeb’s book suggests that a pancake-shaped, fast-moving space rock that astronomers dubbed Oumuamua in 2017 may actually be a piece of interstellar technology.)

First, humans must try to conquer their sense of being at the “peak of creation” and understand that they are rather likely “somewhere in the middle of the distribution of intelligences in the Milky Way galaxy”, said Loeb, founding director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative.

Earth dwellers should also be aware of the “technology gap” that will likely exist between the human race and a messenger from beyond the solar system. (Such a messenger, he said, would likely arrive in the form of an artificial intelligence object capable of a journey of millions or even billions of years).

Given the possibility of a large knowledge gap, we should also prepare for the possibility that extraterrestrials may not wish to communicate with all of us, Loeb said, just as we have no desire to communicate “with ants.” on the pavement “.

However, if we are able to engage directly as the scientists of “Arrival” do, the challenge is how. Such a process would be very different from the search for extraterrestrial life of years past, Loeb said, when people imagined any contact would likely come in the form of radio signals from aliens, which could take thousands of years to arrive.

“However, if you have a visitor in your garden, you better know what you are doing,” he said, adding that we “may need our own AI systems to help us interpret their AI systems. »

According to Ms. Snedeker, one of the potential challenges of communicating with extraterrestrials is the possibility that these beings do not possess a conceptual system similar to ours. To illustrate her point, she used the example of language learning by children.

When children hear a phrase like, ‘The cat is on the carpet,’ they have concepts that are somewhat similar to those of cats, carpets, and spatial relationships,” she explained. In “Arrival,” actress Amy Adams, who plays a linguist, tries to recreate the “child language learning situation” with extraterrestrials by coming up with basic words to describe people and actions, while assuming that the “conceptualization” of extraterrestrials is “reasonably similar” to ours, Ms Snedeker explained.

But if these concepts “were not available to this other species, it is not clear what these words would correspond to”, she added. Nonetheless, Ms Snedeker said she was optimistic that we might share some general concepts with intelligent extraterrestrials who could also be the product of biological evolution.

I am hopeful that we have enough commonalities with their conceptual structures,” she said, adding that “incomplete understanding is still understanding to some extent.” If we had concepts slightly different from theirs or even substantially different, we could still take a big step towards understanding. »

Loeb, who is working on a documentary with the producer of “Arrival,” says staying away from the search for intelligent life beyond our solar system is shortsighted.

“We know that stars formed before the sun by billions of years. We know they have Earth-like planets around them, so the environment we have is not rare,” he said. But finding evidence of extraterrestrial life requires the kind of funding and support given to large-scale projects such as the search for cosmic gravitational waves or dark matter.

“Given the public interest in the subject, the implications it will have for the future of humanity, I think it is actually unintelligent of the scientific community not to engage in research. »

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