Monday, April 3, 2017

Extraterrestrial Contact: Communicating with Extraterrestrials

First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization could happen in a myriad of ways, if it ever occurs at all. However, you can break down First Contact scenarios into two general categories: Direct First Contact and Long-Distance First Contact (I have sometimes called this Indirect First Contact). The two general types of First Contact can also help to determine the challenges involved in communication with aliens.
Long-Distance First Contact is the most likely scenario. It involves humans receiving a message, or intercepting some sort of data, from an extraterrestrial civilization. If the message comes from the star system where the aliens live, communication back and forth, with our current technology, would take many years or decades. There would be major challenges along the way. We would need to decipher the message. We would need to analyze the message. We would need to formulate a response. We would then try to respond in the language used by the aliens. Without linguistic teaching help from the aliens, such a scientific effort could take many years.

The Atlantic Monthly has a story about the flip-side of this idea- what language should we use to send messages out into space in our effort to communicate with extraterrestrials? Writer Daniel Oberhouse examines a language created for just such a need. It’s a math based language called Lincos and was designed by German mathematician Hans Freudenthal. The premise is that aliens would be more likely to understand a math-based language, since some math concepts may be universal, or at the very least easier to decipher. Oberhouse writes that recently scholars have been working to update Lincos to make a new language that could be used in sending a human message to specific star systems in an effort to make contact.
We are fortunate that we have talented astrophysicists and other scientists working on Long-Distance First Contact issues. Direct First Contact is a different animal altogether, with a very different set of challenges. Direct First Contact is differentiated by location. In a Direct First Contact scenario the aliens are in our solar system and can communicate relatively quickly. The possibilities under this category are also myriad. It could range from an alien probe entering our solar system and contacting us, to aliens landing a spacecraft on Earth to say hello.

The challenges for Direct First Contact are primarily response-oriented. Direct First Contact would be a much more threatening type of contact for humans, simply due to the relatively close proximity of aliens or alien-designed machines. There is one area, though, that Direct First Contact could be easier than Long-Distance Contact and that is language. Aliens in our solar system could easily monitor our TV signals. They could even tap into our Internet system. If the aliens have the technology to travel great distances in space to reach our solar system, they would likely have the technology to study our languages and design communication systems to reach out to us. Television could be particularly helpful, since there are pictures to help put words into context. This could involve years of study for aliens, but communication would likely be achievable in a shorter time-frame than Long-Distance First Contact.

My concern is that currently almost all of extraterrestrial contact research is focused on Long-Distance First Contact. It’s understandable, as I pointed out before, it’s the most likely form of alien contact. But because the challenges are very different between Long-Distance First Contact and Direct First Contact, it leaves us rather unprepared if the unlikely does occur some day and we find aliens on our doorstep.

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