Talking to Aliens

When we discover intelligent life, how will we communicate with them?

Let’s face it, in most science fiction stories, the aliens speak excellent English (or whatever language the story is written in.) Occasionally, there is a nod to a future in which the language of universal exchange has evolved and everyone speaks Standard. Then there is the old reliable “Universal Translator”. Fortunately for the story, these machines are accurate and rarely get confused by double meanings. When the writer wants to emphasize the extremely advance nature of the aliens, they may communicate by mental telepathy. These solutions certainly allow the writer to get on with his story, without getting lost in the difficulties of communication.

Communicating even with other humans who speak the same language as ourselves is far from easy. We know even less about how to communicate with other animals that share our planet. Scientists have discovered vervets have different calls for snakes, leopards, and eagles, which cause the hearers to respond appropriately. These calls could be thought of as nouns (“leopard”) or verbs (“run for the trees!). It is not clear whether these are innate calls, or whether they are learned in the process of growing up in that group.

For an abstract of an article about vervet calls,

Dogs cannot speak, but they understand words – most articles say about 165 words, although recent MRI research suggests they may understand more.

Dogs also make eye contact, can follow the direction of a point made with the hand or the eyes, and can understand nonverbal tone of voice. They also respond to body language and gestures.

How well so we understand what our dogs are telling us? Dog trainers can become experts in interpreting the nonverbal cues that dogs generate, but it is through a long process of learning. The same is true for horses and other animals people spend time with.

Koko the gorilla uses over 1100 signs, according to the organization that cares for her. She understands both signs and spoken words.

There is no evidence that any animals besides humans understand syntax.
For example, “The bear jumped on the lion” has a different meaning than “The lion jumped on the bear.” An animal might understand “lion”, “bear” and “jump”, but not the relations between the words.

Elephants, dolphins and humpback whales all have elaborate systems of vocalization, but we do not know what these vocalizations mean.

Communication by Scent?

Even though human language is auditory or visual, there is no reason to assume that aliens will use those senses to communicate. We already know that ants communicate with chemicals, and bees communicate by motion and touch. Sight and sound do have advantages for being able to communicate over a distance, but in a dark world, visual communication would be useless. In a closed in world like a hive, sound might be less useful as a way of communicating.

Aliens could even communicate using sense that we don’t have. Sharks can detect electromagnetic discharges produced when their prey moves. This is useful for locating prey in dark waters.

Fish have a lateral line on each side of the body that detect minute changes in water pressure.
They use this sense to perceive motion in the water

The Cuban boa constrictor can detect the body heat generated by its prey through special sensory organs on the bottom of its jaw.

Personally, I would love to be able to detect magnetic fields in my head, the way some birds do. I would always know which way north is!

Even if aliens use visual or auditory means to communicate, we may not be able to detect it. Some animals can see infrared, ultraviolet, and polarized light. Dolphins and bats hear ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for humans to hear, and elephant can hear subsonic frequencies. And here’s a bit of trivia for you – the opening to an elephant’s ear is actually behind those big flapping things on their heads, unlike humans.

Parsing alien language

If aliens converse using signals that we cannot detect, we will certainly need that Universal Translator to talk to them. But even if we can see or hear their signals, it will still not be easy to understand them. Have you ever heard people conversing in a language you don’t understand? You know that they are speaking words, but it is impossible to pick out the words in the flow of speech. Fortunately, with other humans there are nonverbal cues that we can use to help with understanding each other. Nonverbal are culturally influenced, and therefore not as universal as we sometimes assume, but they still make communication easier.

How we acquire our first language

Every infant faces a considerable challenge in learning their first language. They have to learn what sound distinctions are important in the language. They have to learn to pick out individual words from the stream of speech. They need to learn the meanings of the words. They have to learn the grammatical relations of the language. Finally, they have to learn how to use language to get their needs met. This includes how to express politeness, assertiveness, and deference that smooth or disrupt social relations.

Infants are born with the ability to distinguish many of the sounds of all language. In fact, as they acquire one language, they learn to ignore and can no longer hear the distinctions that are not important. They are also helped in the enormous task of learning language by innate awareness of nonverbal communication. They distinguish between a gentle melodic tone, and an angry brusque tone. They will look at what their caregiver is looking at, and in time can look where someone is pointing.

Caregivers also help young children learn language by using a special way of speaking. They use short, simple, direct sentences. Children also prefer sentences with more melody. Many caregivers use more intonation in their voice, whether they learn that children respond better to this, or learned it from their own caregivers.

When we encounter aliens, we won’t have any of the advantages that young children have. We will have to learn their nonverbal behaviors. We will have to learn what sounds are significant. We will have to learn what units of the language are meaningful referents to objects and actions. Then we will have to learn to use the language without irritating the aliens so much that they attack us.

Talking to aliens will not be easy. But if we are successful, we will learn not only about the aliens, but about ourselves.

Posted in Science Fiction Reflections | Leave a comment

The trouble with aliens

I love aliens. I love imagining everything that human beings will learn about themselves when they first encounter another intelligent species.

We haven’t met aliens yet, but we can imagine how we would react when we do. Right here on Earth, we live with an abundance of other species, most of which, to be frank, seem very alien. But regardless of how different other species are from us, human beings have a limited number of ways that we respond.
We ignore the vast majority of species. If they don’t attack us, we can’t eat them, and there is no competition for resources, there is no reason to pay any attention to them. They may be of interest to scientists or enthusiasts, but the average person ignores them.
Next are competitors. Those we kill off. In North America, bison were competition for farm land and range land for cattle, and interfered with the operations of the railroad. Bison were hunted almost to extinction. Beavers built dams that flooded potential farmland. Their numbers, too, were drastically reduced.
In urban areas, rats and mice compete with humans for food. They are hunted mercilessly by humans. They only reason that they have not been killed off is that they can hide successfully in small spaces and reproduce rapidly.
The third category are predators, either of humans or of human pets or livestock. Wolves and foxes, who prey occasionally on livestock, have been hunted almost to the point of extinction. As the human population grows on all continents, lions, tigers, and other big cats have also shrunk in numbers.
The next category are game animals, that is, animals that are not domesticated, but are hunted for food or other resources, or for recreation. If a community is wise, it will manage game animals as a resource to be preserved for future generations. This includes wild caught fish, ducks, deer, and other species. If there is no management, game animals may very well be hunted to extinction. Whales that were hunted for their oil in the 1800’s were almost wiped out. Passenger pigeons and dodos were food sources that were hunted to extinction in the 1800’s.
Finally, there are a small number of domesticated species that we actively care for to provide food and clothing, to work, or to meet emotional needs. Cows, pigs, sheep, goats, reindeer and llamas provide food and clothing. Horses, oxen, and elephants provide labor. Dogs and cats have dual functions. Dogs traditionally performed a variety of jobs – catching rats, guarding, hunting, herding, pulling carts, and performing rescues – as well as meeting emotional needs. Cats have always been useful for controlling rodents, as well as meeting emotional needs.
We tend to prefer domesticated animals that are not aggressive and are not very intelligent. The most intelligent animals that we know – elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and ravens – are not popular pets.

Science fiction stories tend to portray aliens in a few ways. The most popular is to make them “humanoid”, that is, funny looking people, with the same thoughts, feelings, and values that a human would make. As such, we relate to them as we do to other humans.
Aliens can be predators who want to eat us. In reality, it is highly unlikely that aliens would share enough of our biology that they could derive nutrition from human flesh.
Another reason that aliens might be hostile to humans is to gain access to territory. The unspoken assumption is that humans block access of the aliens to the resources that they want. Otherwise, the aliens would simply collect the resources without bothering to kill off humans.
Occasionally, aliens are portrayed as pathological killers who want to exterminate us for no reason at all. This is projecting human psychology onto aliens.
Another model for relationship with aliens is the way that humans interact with other humans who are not from their own group. Throughout history, most humans have classified outsiders as “non human”. In an extreme example, the Spanish tried to convince the Pope to classify the native inhabitants of the Americas as having no souls, and therefore being animals. They did this to throw of the last vestiges of restraint in their treatment of the indigenous people. Fortunately, the Pope refused, whether his decision was based on reason, or the desire to add more souls to the Roman Catholic Church.
How do humans treat outsiders? On the positive side, there is mutual forbearance, trade, employment, alliances, intermarriage, and friendship.
On the negative side, there is mass murder, enslavement, injustice, and abuse of all kinds. Since we prefer to think well of ourselves, these qualities are usually attributed to the aliens.

Science fiction romances and alien visitation stories suggest that aliens want to have sex with humans (or humans are sexually attracted to the aliens). This is extremely unlikely in real life. Humans share 99% of their genes with chimpanzees, but sexual attraction between humans and chimpanzees is extremely improbable. Evolutionarily speaking, it would be a dead end, since such a union would produce no viable offspring.

Most science fiction writers assume that intelligent life forms are humanoid, if not actually human. There is the presumption that an upright posture and the ability to manipulate the environment are necessary for evolution of intelligence.
However, there is another possibility. Like other extravagant and apparently useless traits, intelligence may be a sexually selected trait. Or as a friend of mine said, “Intelligence is so sexy!” In addition to physical fitness, people are attracted to good communicators, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and emotionally intelligent people – all of which are different aspects of intelligence.
If this is true, then body shape would have no bearing on whether a species acquires intelligence.
The one facilitating factor would be that body shape allows for creative manipulation of the environment. This ability is critical to produce the outward artifacts of intelligence. Even if a dog was as intelligent as a human, its body shape would not allow it to manipulate objects easily. Similarly, a whale could be highly intelligent in a way that could allow attractive social behavior, but would not allow it to modify the physical environment.

Orson Scott Card has written some of the most interesting and plausible recent stories about aliens. In Ender in Exile, Ender researches the aliens that he wiped out, in order to understand them. Here the aliens are treated as an object of scientific or archeological interest.
In Speaker for the Dead, Ender is asked to find out why a different set of aliens have killed a human being with barbaric cruelty. He discovers that the aliens attach another meaning entirely to the act. This story combined science fiction with detective, or even ethnographic, fiction.

Who are your favorite aliens, and why?

Posted in Science Fiction Reflections | Leave a comment

What is science fiction?

According to Merriam Webster, science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society…” Wikipedia defines it as “genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, spaceflight, time travel, and extraterrestrial life.“
In “Conceiving the Heavens,” Melissa Scott wrote that “science fiction is the only genre that is predicated on the assumption of inevitable change.”

A hallmark of good science fiction is that it examines the ways that changes in technology or social mores impact the characters. Like mysteries, speculative fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, and alternative history, is logical fiction.

However, speculative fiction is the opposite of mystery. Mysteries use inductive reasoning. The detective collects specific cues and reasons backwards to the general cause of the clues – the criminal who committed the crime. Science fiction uses deductive reasoning. It starts with an overarching idea, such as, What if we could travel to other planets in a reasonable period of time? What would it be like to encounter intelligent alien life forms? What would it be like if robots did all the manual labor? The author then shows how those changes impact the characters in the story.

Fantasy is the twin sister of science fiction. In both, the author shows how changing the everyday rules of society impacts the characters. In science fiction, these changes are somewhat plausible, such as travel to other planets. Even if faster than light travel is impossible, we have not yet given up hope that a way will be found to reach other star systems in a reasonable length of time.

In fantasy, the changes are based on the author’s ideas of traditional themes, such as dragons, fairies, or zombies. Fantasy stories are often set in a romanticized medieval past. Not the real medieval past, where men hacked each other to death in gory battles that made the Texas chainsaw massacre look like a Sunday School picnic. Or the “code of chivalry” consisted of not raping women of your own class, and not stabbing your rivals in the back. But an idealized past, where heroes did great deeds to rescue beautiful women and save the people – and possibly even to win a crown.

Science fiction differs from other genres of speculative fiction in that science fiction stories are stories about a future that is visibly different from the present. Fantasy is generally set in a universe outside our reality, without any fixed relation to history. Alternative history is usually set in a alternative past, since the pleasure of alternative history is comparing it to the actual past or present. Some science fiction universes, such as Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, are set in the past, but this is merely framing for a world that depends entirely on technology that has yet to be developed in our future.

A story set a few years in the future in a world not visibly different from the present is not science fiction, since there is no speculation involved. It is merely an extension of the present. But if society has changed in those few years because of a nuclear war, a zombie plague, or supervolcano – that would be science fiction.

Science fiction was born in the 1800’s, at a time with technological advances were changing every day life at a rapid rate. Railroads, electricity, the telegraph and radio collapsed the amount of time to communicate with others and to travel from one place to another. Fossil fuels and the factory system amplified productivity. In the 20th century, the automobile, powered flight, the atomic bomb, television, and the Internet have continued to transform our lives. Each advance has changed our individual lives and how we relate to each other. Science fiction projects continued change into the future and asks, “What if?”

Science fiction can be combined with other genres. There can be sci fi mysteries, sci fi horror, sci fi military adventure, sci fi romance, and so one

Good science fiction has to follow the same rules as other fiction – strong characters, a plausible plot, and a vivid setting. In “realistic fiction”, the characters are affected by the world they live in. However, the author does not have to be explicit about it, since the reader shares in that society and is knowledgeable about that world.

Reading a science fiction story is like traveling. The reader gets to “visit” another “place”, where the inhabitants have different circumstances, ideas, attitudes and beliefs. Hopefully, at the end of the story we return to every day life with an expanded view of the world.

Posted in Science Fiction Reflections | Tagged , , | Leave a comment