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Communicating With Aliens: Observables Versus Qualia

If we ever do receive a targeted message from another star – as opposed to picking up, say, leakage radiation – will we be able to decipher it? We can’t know in advance, but it’s a reasonable assumption that any civilization wanting to communicate will have strategies in place to ease the process. In today’s essay, Brian McConnell begins a discussion on SETI and interstellar messaging that will continue in coming weeks. The limits of our understanding are emphasized by the problem of qualia; in other words, how do different species express inner experience? But we begin with studies of other Earth species before moving on to data types and possible observables. A communication systems engineer and expert in translation technology, Brian is the author of The Alien Communication Handbook — So We Received A Signal, Now What?, recently published by Springer Nature under their Astronomer’s Bookshelf imprint, and available through Amazon, Springer and other booksellers.

by Brian McConnell

Animal Communication

What do our attempts to understand animal communication have to say about our future efforts to understand an alien transmission or information-bearing artifact, should we discover one? We have long sought to communicate with “aliens” here on Earth. The process of deciphering animal communication has many similarities with the process of analyzing and comprehending an ET transmission, as well as important differences. Let’s look at the example of audio communication among animals, as this is analogous to a modulated electromagnetic transmission.

The general methodology used is to record as many samples of communication and behavior as possible. This is one of the chief difficulties in animal communication research, as the process of collecting recordings is quite labor intensive, and in the case of animals that roam over large territories it may be impossible to observe them in much of their environment. Animals that have a small territory where they can be observed continuously are ideal.

Once these observations are collected, the next step is to understand the basic elements of communication, similar to phonemes in human speech or the letters in an alphabet. This is a challenging process as many animals communicate using sounds outside the range of human hearing, and employ sounds that are very different from human speech. This typically involves studying time versus frequency plots of audio recordings, to understand the structure of different utterances, which is also very labor intensive. This is one area where AI or deep learning can help greatly, as AI systems can be designed to automate this step, though they require a large sample corpus to be effective.

Time vs frequency plot of duck calls (click to enlarge).Credit: Brian McConnell.

The next step, once the basic units of communication are known, is to use statistical methods to understand how frequently they are used in conjunction with each other, and how they are grouped together. Zipf’s Law is an example of one method that can be used to understand the sophistication of a communication system. In human communication, we observe that the probability of a word being used is inversely proportional to its overall rank.

A log-log plot of the frequency of word use (y axis) versus word rank (x axis) from the text of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Notice that the relationship is almost exactly 1/x. Image credit: Brian McConnell, The Alien Communication Handbook.

Conditional probability is another target for study. This refers to the probability that a particular symbol or utterance will follow another. In English, for example, letters are not used with equal frequency, and some pairs or triplets of letters are encountered much more often than others. Even without knowing what an utterance or group of utterances means, it is possible to understand which are used most often, and are likely most important. It is also possible to quantify the sophistication of the communication system using methods like this.

A graph of the relative frequency of use of bigrams (2 letter combinations) in English text (click to enlarge). You can see right away that some bigrams are used extensively while others very rarely occur.. Credit: Peter Norvig.

With this information in hand, it is now possible to start mapping utterances or groups of utterances to meanings. The best example of this to date is Con Slobodchikoff ’s work with prairie dogs. They turned out to be an ideal subject of study as they live in colonies, known as towns, and as such could be observed for extended periods of time in controlled experiments. Con and his team observed how their calls differed as various predators approached the town, and used a solve for x pattern to work out which utterances had unique meanings.

Using this approach, in combination with audio analysis, Con and his team worked out that prairie dogs had unique “words” for humans, coyotes and dogs, as well as modifiers (adjectives) such as short, tall, fat, thin, square shaped, oval shaped and carrying a gun. They did this by monitoring how their chirps varied as different predators approached, or as team members walked through with different color shirts, etc. They also found that the vocabulary of calls varied in different towns, which suggested that the communication was not purely instinctual but had learned components (cultural transmission). While nobody would argue that prairie dogs communicate at a human level, their communication does appear to pass many of the tests for language.

The challenge in understanding communication is that unless you can observe the communication and a direct response to something, it is very difficult to work out its meaning. One would presume that if prairie dogs communicate about predators, they communicate about other less obvious aspects of their environment that are more challenging to observe in controlled experiments. The problem is that this is akin to listening to a telephone conversation and trying to work out what is being said only by watching how one party responds.

Research with other species has been even more limited, mostly because of the twin difficulties of capturing a large corpus of recordings, along with direct observations of behavior. Marine mammals are a case in point. While statistical analysis of whale and dolphin communication suggests a high degree of sophistication, we have not yet succeeded in mapping their calls to specific meanings. This should improve with greater automation and AI based analysis. Indeed, Project CETI (Cetacean Translation Initiative) aims to use this approach to record a large corpus of whale codas and then apply machine learning techniques to better understand them.

That our success in understanding animal communication has been so limited may portend that we will have great difficulty in understanding an ET transmission, at least the parts that are akin to natural communication.

The success of our own communication relies upon the fact that we all have similar bodies and experiences around which we can build a shared vocabulary. We can’t assume that an intelligent alien species will have similar modes of perception or thought, and if they are AI based, they will be truly alien.

On the other hand, a species that is capable of designing interstellar communication links will also need to understand information theory and communication systems. An interstellar communication link is essentially an extreme case of a wireless network. If the transmission is intended for us, and they are attempting to communicate or share information, they will be able to design the transmission to facilitate comprehension. That intent is key. This is where the analogy to animal communication breaks down.

Observables

An important aspect of a well designed digital communication system is that it can interleave many different types of data or media types. Photographs are an example of one media type we may be likely to encounter. A civilization that is capable of interstellar communication will, by definition, be astronomically literate. Astronomy itself is heavily dependent on photography. This isn’t to say that vision will be their primary sense or mode of communication, just that in order to be successful at astronomy, they will need to understand photography. One can imagine a species whose primary sense is via echolocation, but has learned to translate images into a format they can understand, much as we have developed ultrasound technology to translate sound into images.

Digitized images are almost trivially easy to decode, as an image can be represented as an array of numbers. One need only guess the number of bits used per pixel, the least to most significant bit order, and one dimension of the array to successfully decode an image. If there are multiple color channels, there are a few additional parameters, but even then the parameter space is very small, and it will be possible to extract images if they are there. There are some additional encoding patterns to look for, such as bitplanes, which I discuss in more detail in the book, but even then the number of combinations to cycle through remains small.

The sender can help us out even further by including images of astronomical objects, such as planets, stars and distant nebulae. The latter are especially interesting because they can be observed by both parties, and can be used to guide the receiver in fine calibrations, such as the color channels used, scaling factors (e.g. gamma correction), etc. Meanwhile, images of planets are easy to spot, even in a raw bitstream, as they usually consist of a roundish object against a mostly black background.

An example of a raw bitstream that includes an image of a planet amid what appears to be random or efficiently encoded data. All the viewer needs to do to extract the image is to work out one dimension of the array along with the number of bits per pixel. The degree to which a circular object is stretched into an ellipse also hints at the number of bits per pixel. Credit: Brian McConnell, The Alien Communication Handbook.

What is particularly interesting about images is that once you have worked out the basic encoding schemes in use, you can decode any image that uses that encoding scheme. Images can represent scenes ranging from microscopic to cosmic scales. The sender could include images of anything, from important landmarks or sites to abstract representations of scenes (a.k.a. art). Astute readers will notice that these are uncompressed images, and that the sender may wish to employ various compression schemes to maximize the information carrying capacity of the communication channel. Compressed images will be much harder to recognize, but even if a relatively small fraction of images are uncompressed, they will stand out against what appears to be random digits, as in the example bitstream above.

Semantic Networks

The sender can take this a step further by linking observables (images, audio samples) with numeric symbols to create a semantic network. You can think of a semantic network like an Internet of ideas, where each unique idea has a numeric address. What’s more, the address space (the maximum number of ideas that can be represented) can be extremely large. For example, a 64 bit address space has almost 2 x 1019 unique addresses.

An example of a semantic network representing the relationship between different animals and their environment (click to enlarge). The network is shown in English for readability but the nodes and the operators that connect them could just as easily be based on a numeric address space.

The network doesn’t need to be especially sophisticated to enable the receiver to understand the relationships between symbols. In fact, the sender can employ a simple way of saying “This image contains the following things / symbols” by labeling them with one or more binary codes within the images themselves.

An example of an image that is labeled with four numeric codes representing properties within the image. Credit: Brian McConnell, The Alien Communication Handbook.

Observables Versus Qualia

While this pattern can be used to build up a large vocabulary of symbols that can be linked to observables (images, audio samples, and image sequences), it will be difficult to describe qualia (internal experiences). How would you describe the concept of sweetness to someone who can’t experience a sweet taste? You could try linking the concept to a diagram of a sugar molecule, but would the receiver make the connection between sugar and sweetness? Emotional states such as fear and hunger may be similarly difficult to convey. How would you describe the concept of ennui?

Imagine an alien species whose nervous system is more decentralized like an octopus. They might have a whole vocabulary around the concept of “brain lock”, where different sub brains can’t reach agreement on something. Where would we even start with understanding concepts like this? It’s likely that while we might be successful in understanding descriptions of physical objects and processes, and that’s not nothing, we may be flummoxed in understanding descriptions of internal experiences and thoughts. This is something we take for granted in human language, primarily because even with differences in language, we all share similar bodies and experiences around which we build our languages.

Yet all hope is not lost. Semantic networks allow a receiver to understand how unknown symbols are related to each other, even if they don’t understand their meaning directly. Let’s consider an example where the sender is defining a set of symbol codes we have no direct understanding of, but we have previously figured out the meaning of symbol codes that define set membership (∈), greater/lesser in degree (<>), and oppositeness (⋁) .

Even without knowing the meaning of these new symbol codes, the receiver can see how they are related and can build a graph of this network. This graph in turn can guide the receiver in learning unknown symbols. If a symbol is linked to many others in the network, there may be multiple paths toward working out its meaning in relation to symbols that have been learned previously. Even if these symbols remain unknown, the receiver has a way of knowing what they don’t know, and can map their progress in understanding.

The implication for a SETI detection is that we may find it is both easier and more difficult to understand what they are communicating than one may expect. Objects or processes that can be depicted numerically via images, audio or image sequences may enable the formation of a rich vocabulary around them and with relative ease, while communication around internal experiences, culture, etc may remain partially understood at best.

Even partial comprehension based on observables will be a significant achievement, as it will enable the communication of a wide range of subjects. And as can be shown, this can be done with static representations. An even more interesting scenario is if the transmission includes algorithms, functions from computer programs. Then it will be possible for the receiver to interact with them in real time, which enables a whole other realm of possibilities for communication.

More on that in the next article…

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{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Daniel Högberg December 10, 2021, 15:28

    Hopefully they will provide us with some kind of Rosettas Stone.
    I think that we should start with all science fiction ever written on the subject to get ideas and inspirations for solutions before we try to invent the wheel again.

    • Jeff Wright December 10, 2021, 21:51

      “My Son, the Astrophysicist” by Asimov comes to mind. Now I think what you will get is ET history on a loop, or a very dry AI laundry list of materials inventory-status of a line of cargo ships in space for centuries but spaced out where the destination gets a steady stream of-yearly?-shipments such that you don’t see the time lag once the train has looped. I say forget Chomsky and look at old telegraphs from Norfolk Southern.

  • Ron S. December 10, 2021, 15:29

    The type of communication we will see depends on the intent: directed or transient. For the former, the message will be designed to be decoded by ETI (such as us) or by machine without excessive effort or need for blind interpretation. It will be payload heavy and protocol light. We already do this with some of our whimsical METI attempts.

    Transient communication is likely to be protocol heavy. Getting to the payload will not be easy without a great deal of clean and contiguous data. This is unlikely since transients are not aimed at us and so may sweep by in seconds or even less.

    EM-based communication of this type will not be real time (space is big, really big) so there will be extensive use of FEC (forward error correction) and the payload may be multiple interleaved streams that only a deep knowledge of the protocol will help to disentangle.

    Going by those probabilities, I strongly suspect that when we do have a signal to decode it will be of the former type: payload heavy and specifically aimed at us. Syntax will then be easy and the semantics perhaps less so, as the author describes.

    • Brian McConnell December 10, 2021, 17:02

      This is one reason to include algorithms in the transmission or inscribed data. An interpreted language can be defined with a small set of logic and math operators, yet can run arbitrarily complex programs that reduce down to this basic instruction set. So why not include algorithms that implement forward error correction, compression, etc. I discuss this in more detail in the next article.

  • Jean Schneider December 11, 2021, 6:21

    The problem with this kind of developments
    is that it uses a human (non alien) tool: natural language, which is our prison in theses matters.
    To quote Kierkegaard, “It is a supreme paradox of the mind to try to discover something that our mind itself cannot think.” (1844- Philosophical fragments)

    I have developed this problem in
    http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.0222
    http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1473550413000025
    https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-3-319-55333-7_163

  • Mike Serfas December 11, 2021, 8:52

    Up for a mystery? Try to decipher the Arecibo message! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arecibo_message.svg

    Those in the know might spot a human form or even a third “planet”, but by and large… well, this is a challenge. At least you can pick words out of a prairie dog message — but here, who knows what is connected to who? If they have heads, the aliens have some serious head scratching ahead of them.

  • Alex Tolley December 11, 2021, 15:53

    The core of the author’s assumptions, that ETI will send pictures in various ways, seems like the best strategy for ETI to take. I even prefer the bitmap approach as it can be pieced together even if the noise is bad. It is the difference between finding a physical, but defaced or partial image and our use of compressed digital media. The former will survive a civilization collapse, the latter will likely result in a new Dark Age.
    I also like the strategy of sending a probe with a high density, easy to read set of images and data, that will last millions of years. Bury it/them in places geologically quiescent, e.g. on the Moon, and then send intermittent messages with a picture and marked location[s] of the probe for retrieval. The probe need not be active, just have the recorded pics made of materials that last for millions of years without degrading.

    This solves the bandwidth problem, the energy cost of transmissions which might be quite low, just em bursts, and the need for operating machines. A binary bitmap of the Moon with crosshairs, perhaps 1 Mb, (1000×1000 1 bit pixels) sent at visible light or radio wavelengths could be sent in less than a millionth of a second. Transmit a periodically repeating signal as a “treasure map”. As a backup, perhaps leave an obvious marker[s] to help local instruments locate an anomaly – radioactivity, magnetic field, unexpected element/minerals on the surface, etc, etc.

    I see this as a variant of the Lurker/Bracewell probe strategy that acknowledges the difficulty of machines working over long stretches of time, while artifacts can do so. [If only the Antikythera device had been buried under a structure, we would likely have a had a much easier time reconstructing it.]

  • Henry Cordova December 11, 2021, 23:54

    My guess is the signal will be as simple as possible; no Fibonacci sequence, not even prime numbers. Just a simple 1, 2, 3, 4…, repeated ad nauseam.

    That is, of course, its a hailing beacon. not some of their own com traffic or industrial noise we’ve intercepted by accident. It will be as simple as they can make it while still making it look artificial, and with no assumptions whatsoever on what our level of technology might be, and no effort to increase the information content.. It will probably be microwave, probably a harmonic of the 21cm neutral hydrogen background, whichever is the one nearest the most transparent region of the Waterhole. This was all worked out in the 1960s, we’ve just been overthinking this too much lately.

    That’s if there’s a signal at all. Intelligence is extremely rare, at best. And a technology based on physics, like ours, is probably even rarer; as unlikely as humanoid guys in shiny plastic suits speaking stilted but still intelligible English.

    We’re better off looking for their smokestacks and lighthouses..

    • Alex Tolley December 12, 2021, 14:07

      That is the scenario that is the McGuffin in Bob Silverberg’s Tower of Glass.

      The problem is that it is just shouting “YooHoo” (to use Brin’s phrase) into the cosmos. Then what? Unless it leads to something more, it is a potentially costly exercise with no payback. Less payback than building a pyramid or Ozymandias’: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”. Or perhaps it is a message that states “We existed” with the expectation that the civilization will be gone by the time another civilization receives it.

      If one is going to signal, there needs to be a useful message at the outset, as the potentially huge distance in space and time means that 2-way communication may never happen. That message content should be of some value beyond “there is another intelligence out here in space”.

      Such a simple message is a bit like prayer to the gods, in that sending some message may attract an answer to come to the sender. In this case, attracting a useful message from Earth to the sender or a terrestrial star craft of some sort to come visit, in the distant future?

      Another implication of such a simple message, if we can be sure it is directed at us and not a beacon, is that it says “We know you exist as an intelligent, technological species.” This implies that their technology is advanced enough that it can provide that analysis and may also imply that the sender is monitoring us from afar. The question is then: “Why?”

      One thought I have is that unless the galaxy is teeming with ETI in close proximity, then the 1000s of ly distances between ET home worlds is so great that there is nothing to be gained with messaging. It is costly, with no hope of a return on investment. Each civilization can operate as if it is alone with no likelihood of a fruitful communication or visit. This may be anthropocentric based on our history of the rise and fall of cultures. Other cultures and civilizations may be far longer lived and stable, and therefore have far longer time horizons.

      • Henry Cordova December 12, 2021, 17:46

        I read ‘Tower of Glass’ many years ago. A fine novel, although as I recall there was much going on besides the attempt to communicate with ETI.

        The problem is that the signal most likely to be received and understood has little to no information content. The signal most likely to be useful to the recipient may be so complex it is likely to be indecipherable, if it is detected at all.

        So where do you draw the line between the two? Or better still, where will THEY draw the line? Like I said, I do believe we’re overthinking this.

  • Michael Fidler December 12, 2021, 10:39

    I’m afraid this is like talking to someone on a phone that takes 200 years to reply. Direct face to face contact is the only way an intelligent species is going to communicate. It would otherwise be like us calling the apes…

    • Henry Cordova December 12, 2021, 18:01

      Communication with others very far away and very long ago who will never get to answer you is not without precedent. In fact, we’re very good at it. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years.

      Even if the message is garbled, lost in translation, incomplete, or even totally unbelievable , it can still be fascinating, and perhaps even useful.
      I re-read Homer every few years…and have been doing so since I was in my teens.

      Odysseus had his shipmates tie him to the mast so he could have “naked ears be tortured by the siren’s sweetly singing.”

    • Brian McConnell December 12, 2021, 20:52

      If the transmission includes algorithms (programs), the recipient will be able to interact with them in real time, thereby mooting the speed of light issue. An inscribed matter probe could likewise include programs as part of its payload. The interesting thing with programs is that even the most sophisticated ones reduce down to a small set of basic logic and branching operators. I discuss this in more detail in the next article and the book.

  • Alex Tru December 13, 2021, 5:32

    … Digitized images are almost trivially easy to decode…

    false and misleading statement.
    Probably simple digital encoding scheme like telegraph Morse code can be decided somehow, but digitized image can be decoded only in conditions that both sides (sender and receiver) agreed (standardized) in advance relatively encoding principles and parameters . without this “agreement” (standard) in advance decoding is impossible – because it requires preliminary communication between two communicating sides, that is nonsense in the case of ETI message…
    Especially if we will take in account that our own experience shows – digital communication become more and more sophisticated , so digital signals tends to be similar to “white” noise .
    None, even super-genial scientists or(with) supercomputer (AI) can decode most of modern digitized transmissions without preliminary knowledge of complicated encoding standard.
    Such “universal” decoder it is sweet dream of different spy agencies.
    Analog signal seams to makes deal somehow easier … but, in the case when receiver have information about sender physiology.
    Digital signal still require knowledge of same data that required for analog + plus preliminary knowledge of digital encoding standard…

    • Alex Tolley December 13, 2021, 13:28

      I will let the author provide the best reply, but I would strongly disagree with your assertion. If an image is constructed of simple black/white dots using a 2D array based on prime numbers, the decoding is indeed trivial.

      Try it yourself. Select an image of the Moon, make it gray scale, then down shift the color depth to 2 (black/white). The resulting image is quite recognizable. One can see that reducing color depth that even 3 & 4 color grayscale images are quite recognizable and clear. The same applies to an image of the Earth. You may recall in the very early days of computer printouts the use of artfully selecting letters to simulate grayscale so that images could be produced with some shading and depth. That can be replicated by simply send the appropriate on/off signal.

      So yes, decoding simple binary images is quite possible at a cost of bandwidth.

      So for my example, using each pixel as an 8×8 array giving an equivalent grayscale depth of 64, a 1 megabit image becomes a 64 megabit image.

      • Alex Tru December 14, 2021, 7:15

        I will try explain my position by other way, digital transmission has it’s advantage when used for machine-to-machine communication because It is hard for our past and modern computers (or some mechanic automat) to make deal with analog signals , analog signal has unlimited number of states that is going in contradiction with our modern computing automates.
        Digital communication automatically mean some agreement in advance, beginning from symbol length (in your example it is color depth) it can be any “bit” length- 2 , 3, 4, 5 … 256 etc. There are no any theoretical obstacles to have any number of bits in one symbol (as possible limit – analog signal has unlimited “bits”), 2 bits in your example is only abstract choice – there is no physical law dictating this choice, I want to say that three “bits” symbol like -1,0,1 seams to be more “natural” choice and in reality use in many modern digital communications or modulation protocols…
        Why 8×8 pixel matrix should be obvious? Why not 12×12, 9×9, etc.?
        How should ETI synchronize data stream? When the current 8×8 ends and next begins?
        Loss or wrong decoding of some digital bits (for example bit inversion) can cause total loss of whole data packet.
        Errors in analog signal cause only distortion of local pixel (if we are talking about image).
        Everything I write here it is elementary things that are well described and explained in all books about information transfer theory.
        Shortly – if you want communicate by simplest and easy way, without complex computers – use analog. For effective compuer-to-compuer communication and high data throughput – use digits.
        It is very clever thing to use digital communication with our own civilization objects, but not so when you want to communicate with unknown intelligent entity.
        I am sure, When you do not have agreement about digital protocol – use analog or as alternative very simple morse code like protocol…
        If we will take for example some apocalyptic (for homo sapience) scenario , when after some catastrophic event Homo Sapience will loose current technology, we can assume that all modern digital communication system will fail after some period of time, more complicated and effective – will fail first and cannot be recovered without recovering of related technology level. In same time for analog communication restoration 17/18 century technology level (but based on modern physics knowledge) will be far enough.
        I am not a big Carl Sagan’s fan, but the ETI signal reception scenario described in “Contact” seams to me more actual than digital image transfer idea described here. At least our old analog TV standard has much more intuitive (for homo sapience!!!) structure and it is very easy to detect in signal synchronization sequence (image rows and frames)…

        • Alex Tolley December 14, 2021, 11:53

          I clearly have not communicated the minimal, noncoded image transmission.
          2 colors = black/white. This requires 1 bit ON/OFF. Just lay out the bits in a 2D array and the image appears. As suggested, a planet/Moon is a good image as it will be surrounded by a black sky. This provides the needed reference to decide which color relates to which bit state.

          Synthetic gray scales. It doesn’t matter what the array size is. That is simply used to build the picture. The signal bitstream will remain a linear stream transmitting the image line by line in a raster fashion. Each 8×8 array for a “pixel” will not be transmitted as a unit but broken up as part of the rasterization.
          The receiver need not know anything about the production method, only that the image will appear to have grayscale when observed in low resolution, just as we see a newsprint image because we do not see the individual dots of ink on the page.

          By tradition the picture size is indicated by making the bitstream length divisible by 2 primes. However, even without that approach, the image would become evident if a wordwrap approach is taken to reducing the width. (You can see this yourself if you paste a string of recognizable symbols into an application like notepad in Windows, and then incrementally reduce its width. The symbols will rearrange themselves until some clear pattern emerges. A simple program could do this until a recognizable image appeared.

          The Arecibo message used a single bit/pixel. The problem with decoding it is recognizing the crude sub images and guessing about the the meaning of some “symbols” which is certainly not obvious.

    • Brian McConnell December 13, 2021, 13:37

      The example shown in the article is a raw, unencoded bitstream with a planetary image embedded in what otherwise looks like a random series of digits. The receiver only needs to guess the width of the image and the number of bits per pixel to extract the image (some additional work is needed for fine calibration, for scaling factors such as gamma correction). The “rosetta stone” is to use planetary images, as these have universal similarities: spheroid object with a black/empty background, predictable falloff of light levels at the edge of the object, etc. Similarly one can use mutually observable objects, such as distant nebulae, so the receiver can compare their reconstructed image against their own observations. Compressed images are a different case, but uncompressed bitmaps will be easily read out if they are there.

      • Alex Tru December 14, 2021, 8:00

        I suppose that raw analog image can be easily made self-calibrated, without need in any additional guessing efforts.
        Yes , everything still depends on the fact how images are interpreted it ETI brain :-)
        By the way homo sapience sees the Moon image as circle (i.e. flat object), but not as spheroid – spheroid it is addition of personal knowledge (or non-knowledge), flat-earthineers can approve this my flat-moon statement :-)
        Who knows , may be there are ETI that see the moon-like objects image as quad or triangle…

  • Andrei December 13, 2021, 11:52

    Thank you Mr Brian McConnell for your very nice presentation.
    Also I have studied animal communication, and just as you also I use the term ‘word’ – at first to the annoyance of 2 certain professors.
    But they have eventually capitulated and accepted my findings, that some species actually have language in the same manner you describe. And not only adjectives as you mentioned, but also the ability to use synonyms. As the species got a limited language, they get creative and use the nearest synonym and the meaning is changed from the new context. My results are similar to that of Mr Norvig, several of the calls are heard extremely rarely, and their identification remain tentative. And I am uncertain we will come to a definite answer even in my lifetime, since the study of this year have brought the news that not very distant populations appear to have dialects.
    It’s these facts that have made me post here on previous times, that my estimate is that we would have huge problems in understanding and communicating with an alien species, since we’re far from able to understand species both very similar to ourselves, as well as having easy access to so we can see how they use the calls in context. Both Slobodchikoff and myself did choose species that was thought to have rather simple communication, while our studies revealed very complex communication. But without seeing the behaviour of the alien species, only listening to a signal, I am hesitant we will be able to understand them very well beyond the basic call for attention they might send of primary numbers or basic mathematic sequences.

    • Alex Tolley December 13, 2021, 13:53

      The advantage communication with intelligent beings is that they will have a greater repertoire than terrestrial animals. Communication by sounds is limited, as anyone who has tried to do so without common usage words can testify.

      ETI can use math, logic, physical constants, that if they are conveyed in a form that is easy to understand (the hard part) then ambiguity can be substantially reduced. We have decoded some ancient languages that have no Rosetta stone decoder keys but are in effect strings of images written in no a priori direction. [Had the depth of an impressed letter/word in a tablet had meaning, that would have complicated matters.]

      We cannot know how ETI thinks, although the late John McCarthy of AI and Lisp fame suggested that intelligence is evolutionary convergent, which would make the decoding problem less onerous.

      If ETI has had a history of successful communication with other civilizations in its past, then it might well have a protocol and methodology that works well for most/all other civilizations.

      The problem for any distant ETI is that without FTL technology, there is no way to know the state of any civilization on a distant world. ETI 2000 ly away will see our world with pre-industrial cultures and empires. Our modern world is less than a century old, and technological development is accelerating. To monitor the state of a world requires a local means to do so, and local intelligence to make decisions. Whether this is by hidden spacecraft with ET crew, Bracewell probes, or triggers like buried lunar monoliths, this is the only c-limited means to monitor a developing civilization and act in a timely manner. There can be no long term patience if the purpose is to nurture cultures to prevent their demise due to errors. [If ETI is out there in our system monitoring us, now would be a really time to help us avoid what appears to be an inevitable climate disaster. ;) I hope this isn’t a test we must pass to join the “galactic club.”]

  • Andrei December 13, 2021, 19:26

    Hello Mr Tolley

    But yes, the climate and plastic crisis will be a test regardless if it count as a qualifier or not.
    In the last year, during the fieldwork of this summer I’ve seen extremely worrying signs in nature. Some ecosystems have been reclassified from threatened, and in such a sad state hey will not make it but be completely gone in mere decades.

    I agree it would be beneficial if a species who broadcast have been in contact with others. We might also get lucky and they decided on a methodology that is similar to what we expect anyway.
    So lets say we get a galactic postcard with basic mathematics to get our attention.
    The larger set of words, idioms or way of expressing things is not an advantage to us, that will rather complicate matters.

    And this is my point, I spent 20 years to figure out the vocabulary of one species, and happened to do a second one which was within earshot while I did other work.
    This was possible as I could see what they were doing, and the events and situations. And sometime make calls on my own to confirm, though not all would make sense to imitate as they only were used when two individuals was in close contact or seen by each other.

    Any of this is not possible while passively listening to a signal, no direct interaction.
    Well even if someone have left a listening post, and I agree that cannot be ruled out, we could be lucky by if that one got one AI in itself and it is instructed to reply to queries.
    But it would still have to send the signal by light speed – and unless the ‘others’ are very close nearby. They might not even be notified yet that Earth have gone technological.

  • ljk December 14, 2021, 15:28

    Can we communicate with ETI who can build massive astrostructures?

    https://www.universetoday.com/153603/a-new-way-to-detect-alien-megastructures/

  • Alex Tolley December 17, 2021, 14:56

    In the last chapter of Lem’s “Fiasco”, the difficuly of mapping qualia and abstraction between the humans and teh Quintans is described as:

    Great difficulty was encountered un understanding these terms. The higher the level of abstraction, the more human an Quintansemantics diverged. Such words as “authority,” “neutrality,” “side,” and “guarantee” did not mean the same thing to both (…)

    CETI has always assumed this to be the case, and hence the attempts to use facts, however difficult to interpret.

    I think Brian is definitely generally on teh right track by expecting that signals will use images/video, in uncompressed form and with clues to formatting as a first stage. Progressive adding of information by symbols or tags which we can decode using machine learning from many examples, and lastly compressing the content using embedded algorithms that we can convert to logic machines might be expected.

    While there is always the human concern of embedded malware, sandboxing algorithms is the safest way to protect ourselves.

    We probably will never be able to appreciate ET’s qualia, and many ideas may be wholly alien and unmappable to human concepts, but ET must know this and try to make their signals as simple as possible at least at the head end.

  • morganism December 17, 2021, 16:10

    Will say it again.

    Seems like the best comm strategy would be based on spectra.

    Universal, lots of variables, red shifting built right in.
    A fantastic baseline, and could possibly be used with phase shifting too.
    Blast of xrays for periods , or multiplication sign? Red shift for groups or ( ).

    Known spectra have built in error correction, as full spectra is known.

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