Monday, March 29, 2010

Communication, Aliens, and People Who Speak in Klingon of Na'vi

The Rosetta Stone
The invented language of the Na'vi in Avatar raises the question of communicating with aliens, and for that matter how aliens might communicate among themselves. (The title, from a comment on a blog post at Language Log, was alas a mere typo, corrected to 'people who speak in Klingon or Na'vi.')

Communicating with aliens, by odd coincidence, also came up in comments to the last thread on Starship Troopers, if only backhandedly. Mutual understanding through dialogue, we are given to understand, is not an option with the Bugs. Heinlein does not bother to sneer at the idea of negotiating with them. When the MI capture a 'brain' bug, the Federation wants to study it, not interrogate it.

In Avatar (which, disclaimer, I have not seen) the Na'vi are perfectly capable of language - one that can canonically be written with the roman alphabet - but the corporate mercs are still not interested in talking. If the 16th century is anything to go by, this is all too plausible.

But supposing both parties want to talk, what then?

My uncharitable first reaction to written Na'vi, specifically the name Na'vi, is that Diana Wynne Jones has become our tour guide. Apostrophes in fantasy names are notorious. (Diacritical marks are exotic to English speakers, and the apostrophe is the only one we have on our keyboards.) But this is a quibble, because Na'vi is unabashedly put together as an exotic (to us) human language. Metaphor, in this case, trumps Hard SF literalism.

Real aliens might not make things so helpful, no matter how eager they are to talk. Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought about this. One is that aliens will be alien, their thought processes and means of expressing them so different from ours that real communication (not just a sort of black box interpretation of behavior) will be impossible. The other is that true, sentient intelligence can overcome these barriers, indeed in a sense is about overcoming these barriers.

The barriers - simple, profound, or both - could take varied forms. Only prejudice says that hive entities must be implacably hostile, but striking up a conversation with one could be difficult. If they have a brain caste of sentient individuals the problem is not unlike dealing with any alien race. But if the hive's intelligence is networked, it would surely be a very slow learner. (I believe a commenter made this point a few weeks ago.)

If sentient reasoning arises out of the interplay of the whole hive, a single simple thought might take form at roughly the pace that tidbits go viral among humans in a village or online, perhaps a couple of days for its consciousness to formulate the equivalent of a simple sentence. ('Hmm, this pattern looks non-random ...') Perhaps much longer. Any real dialogue with it might take generations.

But that is only a technical problem of sorts, and it has an established technical solution, the institution of the university, a tool for sustained inquiry that goes back nearly 2500 years. The real puzzler question here goes to a deeper level: How much of our reasoning, and theirs, is universal, and how much is bound up in biological experience?

There is a trope that mathematics, at least, is a universal language, but it depends on what you are trying to say with it. Music is richly mathematical, a transmission as unambiguously intelligent as the first thousand digits of pi, but what information does it encode? Writing about music, as the saying goes, is like dancing about architecture.

Art, in all its forms, is where Plato enters the primate house. It makes full use of our intelligence, perhaps the highest use. It is the marker of our humanity; the argument over whether Neanderthals were truly human, or not quite, is all about whether they produced some form of art, if simply applying makeup. But art is also all about apes hooting, jumping around, and being fascinated by bright colors.

Would it make any sense at all to non-apes? Would their equivalent, if they have one, make any sense to us? Could we recognize their art, even in a black box way, let alone appreciate it? Could any sentient race not have some analog to art?

If we encounter aliens, what do we try to talk about?

The image is of the Rosetta Stone.


Jean Remy said...

The saying that mathematics is the Universal language is not without some basis in fact. Mathematics itself, no disrespect to mathematicians, is less a science than the language of science. All hard sciences require mathematics. Physics and biology are governed by mathematics because at a quantum level Matter and Energy are mathematical expressions.

Basically what it means is that any sapient race that wants to progress beyond fire and wheel will have to use mathematics. The first requirement for a stable civilization is sedentarism. Wandering nomads are cool and all, but it's an obstacle to true civilization. Sedentarism requires agriculture, because if you're going to live in the same spot all the time hunting/gathering will exhaust the local resources. Agriculture requires a calendar. Boom the mechanics of the heavens are on the way to being unlocked. The motion of stars and planets are calculated precisely to predict seasons, and mathematics enter civilization. Mathematics find their way into other practical applications, engineering is born, construction becomes ever more complex as trigonometry is developed.

My point is mathematics is not just nice to have, it is a fundamental building block of any civilization. I don't care how alien they are, their planet is orbiting a star, is tilted as a certain angle, etc... these are universal truths, not dependent on alien cultural development. No matter what you *call* them, the numbers one, two, three all exist. The links between those numbers are not artificially assigned by our experiences, they are absolute.

The real question is, can we move from an absolute language to a non-absolute one. Can mathematics, the most concrete of languages, lead to abstract languages? I think there is another absolute that will be true for any alien species, sapient or not, the drive to survive, and for sapient species "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." Evolution will see to it. Any life that has survived to sapience and create a civilization will have that in common with us, the struggle to get to that point.

This and mathematics are common grounds, and are universal. I do not believe in the unknowable alien because no matter how far removed culturally there is this fundamental common ground. It might take a long time, and a lot of patience, and hopefully neither of us will be too trigger-happy, but with time there is no obstacle to understanding.

Finally, there is no obstacle to appreciating art, once you understand that it is art. Half the time I spent in art school was figuring out that the only thing needed for a piece of art to BE art was for someone to write "art" on it, as long as he did it with passion. Art is not intrinsic to the piece, it is intrinsic to the artist.

emdx said...

As much as saying “mathematics is an universal language” gives that warm, fuzzy feeling, it still leaves me a bit uneasy.

It’s like when you come up to a numerologist’s nonsense, and then say “yes, but does it still works in base 11”???

Sure, math can express many scientific things, but there is more to the Universe than mere science.

Jean Remy said...

There is?

Rick said...

How appropriate - Blogger is acting up, and the image of the Rosetta Stone is not displaying.

Jean Remy said...

Quoth from Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Corey said...

The hive mind concept also shows that racial prejudice can be a barrier to communication.

For example, at the end of Ender's Game its revealed that the Buggers are a relatively peaceful race and have a sense of regret of their previous invasions. Essentially, they exist as a hive mind and so they couldn't conceive of a sentient race that didn't have a hive mind. They thought humans were pre-sentient animals and only after the invasions did it dawn on them that we were also intelligent.

Even if their thought processes are the same, what amounts to racial and cultural bias can cause massive misinterpretations. For example, in Michael Crichton's Sphere the eponymous sphere causes havoc at the bottom of the ocean. So one of the characters says it might be a weapon or a trap.

However, another points out that it could be just a piece of alien technology that is causing problems because we're using it wrong. He cites an example of a micro-organism crawling through a man-made satellite that is hostile to it (because of the fuel tanks, etc, I don't remember the exact details). To the sentient micro organism, the satellite would be a death maze meant to entrap other civilizations.

One thought that occurs to me is Voyager Golden records. We sent them out to say to other species "we're a peaceful, enlightened people." However, if it is deciphered by aliens who have a cultural/racial predisposition that such actions are the equivalent of marking ones territory, then they might interpret it as "Hey, look how advanced we are! This record is us planting our flag on everything it crosses."

Luke said...

There are some concepts that seem so useful that I suspect that any sapient race of beings will find them fundamental. One of these is the idea of an object - a "unit" that is separated from the rest of the environment. Even primitive brains on Earth such as fish and snakes seem to comprehend the world as objects - a snake will recognize objects such as mice as food and avoid objects such as people as potential predators.

Another fundamental concept could well be association. The aforementioned snake can associate the smell of a mouse with the object of a mouse. A dog can associate certain words with various objects and actions.

Moving beyond the cognition of pre-sapient animals to minds capable of rational thought, a key fundamental concept could well be causality - a certain action will cause another event. It seems that there are a few, not many, animals on earth that have a vague grasp of causality, but only one (humans) that naturally and intuitively incorporates causality as a reflexive mode of thought. Causality would seem to be a prerequisite for a technological culture - but this may be merely arguing from ignorance. A work of fiction that gave us a plausible technological culture without an inherent grasp of causality would be fascinating.

Writing a believable work of fiction in which a technological species lacked any of these modes of thought would be quite interesting.

Jean Remy said...

In response to both Corey and Luke.

I would point out that even though we have barely stepped outside our atmosphere we are already taking such philosophical topics seriously, and genuinely trying to imagine alien minds. I would say that the very fact we can imagine alien minds will make alien minds not so alien after all. If we are a species trying to think beyond the boundaries of our own cultural history and natural evolution, then would not an alien species that has advanced to the same level also be thinking about alien mind?

Don't tell me there is no correlation between philosophical and technological advancement. I would point out that atoms and planets were the toys of philosophers before they were the subject of scientific observation. Heisenberg and Shroedinger were thinkers, thought-experimenters before they were scientific observers. Einstein and Hawking applied mathematics to wild concepts that were born in their imagination.

The basic fact is about scientific principles is, if we hadn't thought about them, we wouldn't have gone looking for them. So if you need a parallel advance in mathematics and philosophy to create science, and sapient species that is sufficiently advanced will be by force recognizable having had to go through the same hoops. In short, the principles needed to build a rocket will never vary, so anyone who builds a rocket will recognize himself in another rocket-builder.

As for whether they are too advanced to consider us more than bugs, I call bogus again. Once a rocket-builder, always a rocket-builder. No matter how advanced, they will always remember having built rockets, and therefore will STILL recognize another rocket.

In short, no, I do not believe in the alien so alien that we cannot understand him, not if he builds rockets.

Michael said...

Could mathematics as a cultural cornerstone for advanced civilizations be bypassed if said civilization had an extremely intuitive understanding of their world?

Human Example: A quarterback throwing a football must take into account wind, target movement, and his own movement to hit a relatively small volume using a ballistic arc. This is a mathematical task very few could undertake in their head in the time allowed the quarterback. He has an understanding of how objects move based on experience, not calculation.

Take that ability and multiply it a few orders of magnitude, and you might have an alien species that simply understands how planetary motion (or some other mathematically complex phenomenon) works on a gut level.

Luke said...

So lets try to upset the apple cart, here. Can we envision a technological species without mathematics? Perhaps we encounter a race of aliens vastly older than us, who have a star-spanning technological civilization which evolved. Rather than engineering their machines, they vary the parameters of their designs slightly and keep variations that work better. Now the aliens need no understanding of why a design works better, they simply apply the design and use it.

Jean Remy said...

Once again I am going to say NO.

Mathematics is not a way to understand physics, that philosophy. Mathematics quantizes physics, which is essential to communicate physics. The main principle of applied science is to make everyone else understand what you just came up with. Even if an entire race instinctively understood physics on an instinctual level, they still need a language to communicate in order to build anything as complex as a civilization. Plans need to be drafted, pieces need to be machined, and assembled in predetermined locations. The more complex the machine the more maths are needed as the parts come from further and further away.

Mathematics is a language, and language is used to communicate. Without communication there is no civilization. The only way to communicate with precision is mathematics because it is a language *of* precision, one with absolute rules.

Corey said...

To Michael:

Talking extreme hypothesis here, and delving well past the realm of hard science fiction (much less science), if a civilization were to be founded on "intuitive learners" then there must be a form of transmission of past information.

The thing that Jean Remy so correctly points out is that math is not so much an end as it is a means. And more important, in my opinion, than communicating one's discoveries to peers (for review and duplication) is communicating it to your progeny.

Or to put it succinctly: if you can't write it down to communicate your discovery, then each generation of intuitive thinkers would have to literally reinvent the wheel. That would make it near impossible for a society to build upon the previous generation's advancements.

So in order to create a civilization without the abstract understanding of math, you would have to create some form of genetic memory so as to pass the exact memory (be it gray matter memory or muscle memory to actually carry out the action) to the next generation.

One example could be a hive mind. If the knowledge, intuitive or otherwise, is essentially networked in the minds of millions of component parts (or at least backed up in multiple 'memory bank' organisms within the hive) then yeah you could have transmission of knowledge.

The other is direct memory transfer along with ones genes. A species who passed all its memories to its children could in fact accomplish this.

The result I think of this society is that advancement would be much slower, and messier. This is simply because we've learned to use math to hypothesize before testing the idea empirically.

Moreover, when things don't jive (because the math says something is possible yet we see it happen, or because the math says something is possible but field experiments constantly fail)we know that either the math is wrong or there's a variable we haven't taken into account. But without the abstract thinking, its possible that a species could fail at its 100th experiment and determine "well, this flight thing just isn't possible."

And even if flight was possible, there'd be a lot of splatted individuals before somebody stumbled onto the right idea. In a hive mind society, less a problem. In a 'genetic memory' race, when your 'savant' goes splat he takes the knowledge with him.

Jean Remy said...

Corey: you make excellent points about communicating to your progeny and I like the idea about encoding it genetically, but I would say you only reinvented math in a different version than the written one we think of. The information you want to send to your progeny cannot be liberally interpreted. A difference of a degree of incidence or an inch of clearance is the difference between a Wright Flyer and a Wright Not-flyer. This means the information you are encoding must be absolute, with no freedom of interpretation, and must concern itself with position of precisely manufactured objects in a precise manner. So, Maths, at a genetically encoded level, but still, Maths.

Luke said...


"But without the abstract thinking, its possible that a species could fail at its 100th experiment and determine 'well, this flight thing just isn't possible.'"

Note that on at least four occasions, flight arose without any abstract thinking. From our point of view, it took a very long time, but eventually it happened by trial and error on imperfectly copied blueprints (i.e., genes). The same method that gave us birds and bats and bees and pterosaurs might, conceivably, lead to technology without abstract thinking.

Jean Remy said...

Luke: non-mechanical evolved flight isn't really what we are talking about however. The essential question is: Can we make (flying) machines without maths? Can we build a rocket without empirical science? Can we build a civilization without abstract thinking?

I say no because the last one *is* and abstract and the first two need the last one as a framework to invention, repetition, and mass production.

Luke said...

Jean Remy: While what you say makes sense, I know far too many people who are good at mucking around with mechanical and electronic devices while still having trouble understanding what I think of as simple math. They can machine a spare part for a hot rod or diagnose why a computer can't boot up, but they can't understand imaginary numbers and can't give a logical proof from high school geometry. Give a group of these people the blueprints for an airplane, and they could build it. Try to establish communication with these people by using math as a common language would get you nowhere.

We only have one example of a technological species. This naturally leads us to the solutions this species uses when pondering how other technological species might operate. When we assume this is the only method, however, it is a dangerous method of thinking. It very well might be that most or all technological species converge on abstract thought and mathematics as some sort of evolutionary optimum. However, time and again we are shown that the universe has many ways of doing things, and extrapolating from one example to assume that is the only option has very often been shown to be false.

Hence my idea of mechanical evolved flight and other technologies. Yeah, it's pretty wacky. But a lot of things that work end up initially sounding wacky. We know evolution works, and can, for example, give us flying machines (machines of flesh and blood and bone, but machines nonetheless). So who's to say that a species with a simple mechanical intuition and the ability to transmit complex information but an inability to grasp concepts as abstract as algebra cannot, over time, adapt out manufactured devices that fly?

That's my idea so far for a species of alien which would be difficult to communicate with, with which even mathematics couldn't establish a baseline. No doubt there are other possibilities. What can other readers of this blog come up with?

Anonymous said...

It's hard to imagine a creature much more alien than an octopus, but we do a pretty good job of communicating with them. We've been chatting pleasantly with birds, felines, dogs, and bovines for thousands of years now. And I can communicate with my roommate's crayfish, so long as I accept its limits.

As for hive species, we're making great strides at talking to ants and bees now that we've decoded their chemical and postural languages.

I doubt we'll ever be able to speak alien languages. We can't speak in bird-calls (We don't have syrinxes, and can't make more than one sound at once), but we can do a decent imitiation. I expect that if we speak slowly and very clearly to one another, we and the Spiny Pod-Brains of Reptilitron XIII will be able to make ourselves understood to one another.

Of course, sometimes interspecies communications aren't worth the effort. All that work, and dolphins turned out to be a bunch of sex-obsessed beach-bums with thug tendencies. Disappointing, really.

Ian_M said...

As an amateur linguist, (Very Amateur), I have to first state that I am follow of Noam Chomsky. I agree with his theory that languages, especially grammar, have some hardwiring in our brains. That means any alien language that we encounter will be that, alien. The underlying grammar may be impossible for us to fully wrap our heads around and be able to speak their language.

But that doesn't mean we wouldn't be able to understand them or even work out how their language works, it just won't follow rules that our language follows.

It's sort of like saying that the language of the Ompa Loompas is made up of triangle-shaped pegs and our language is made up of round pegs. However, both languages do fulfill the same basic rule: A colored peg fits into the appropriately colored hole.

For example, the red peg of our language doesn't fit into the red hole of the Ompa Loompa language. But, we do see how their red peg fits into the hole.

In reality, you would need pegs of different shapes, in a rainbow of colors to address all the rules of a language, both explicit (i.e. taught in school) and implicit (i.e. learned by using and wired in the brain.)

What does that mean for communication with aliens? It means that while we have gotten a vocabulary down ("Ball", "Rock", "Big Rock", "Frak'n Huge Rock"), the grammar may be beyond our ability to understand or use.

And when I say "our" I mean us humans. Not our machines.

We could let our machines learn the alien grammar and then work out a method of translation between the two languages so that we can talk to the Ompa Loompas and they to us.

Now, there is an alternative. We could create a creole. A language that includes the bits of grammar and vocabulary that both species can understand, comprehend, and speak. Not a pidgin, which is a simplified version of a dominate language, a creole is a mixture of two different languages.

(As an aside, Farside had the infamous "translator microbes" that supposedly let you speak and understand any language. Any Language. Until they showed that they were in fact magic translators, my theory was that they didn't do the impossible: That is, translate any language into any other language. But instead, they learned your language, and then made connections between your auditory system and vocal system. When you spoke, you didn't speak your language, you spoke "Translator Microbe" and only other users of "Translator Microbes" could understand you. )

Anonymoose said...

Pre-emptive Warning: I’m not an expert in anything. Don’t cite me of any of this. Feel free to point and laugh.

There is some precedence for this kind of intelligence. Birds and insects making remarkable structures, primates using stones and sticks as tools, etc. It happens, it’s not uncommon, and it’s not as if they understand calculus. But now let’s look at our own line. Australopithecus Garhi. These folks apparently were using actual stone tools (shaped and crafted, not just random rocks they picked up) about 2.5 million years ago. They were maybe a little brighter than chimps are now and their tools were hardly consistent in manufacture, but it was a start. Then came Homo Ergaster, 1.8 million years before trig. Their tools -were- consistent in make. Probably still too dumb for high-school, but they -were- making their tools off of some sort of mental blueprint, and passing that knowledge through the generations. To me this sounds like an intelligence that could have preceded what you’re supposing now.

Anyway, time passed, and passed, and passed. Man would fatefully discover his obsession with fire. Cro Magnon and Neanderthalensis would rub shoulders (though no, they likely didn’t converse with each other either). Technology was progressing at a snail’s pace, but progressing nonetheless. We were making our own clothes, building our own huts, figured out the atlatl, good times.

But then came the big whammy. About ten-twenty thousand years ago, man discovered agriculture. Who knew that some dude planting a few grains with the intent of chewing on the plant later would become such a big deal? Before you know it the vast, vast majority of Homo Sapiens had shifted from hunter-gathering to farming. And after discovering beer, well, there was no going back was there? And as Jean Remmy has already stated, once agriculture’s down the other pieces just fall into place, more or less. It happened to numerous civilizations all over the world (most obviously between the old and new worlds), with more or less the same path of technological development between them.

Farming, astronomy, math. It just worked.

Now it doesn’t appear to have been absolutely inevitable that humanity would take up the plough, there were many thousands of years difference between the rise of agriculture for the Mesopotamia and the Incas. But once it caught on, well, compare. 2.5 millions years from rocks to bone spears. 10 thousand from bone spears to spaceflight and the pizza-bagel. If we go back to Cave Man and Friends we can pretty much match the progression of technology with intelligence. At some point it appears we just hit a critical point, the turning point, the watershed moment, the first singularity if you will. We became smart enough to figure out farming, we became smart enough to figure out metallurgy, we became smart enough to figure out mathematics. We figured out math before mechanical flight and the lamp bulb. Even if we could -maybe- build them before. Big maybe.

It appears that instinct and random tinkering can only get you so far before you can figure out arithmetic anyway. While I’m sure it may be possible for a species to become recognizably sentient, to have complex societies and vast intellects, but if they’re building any sort of advanced technology, I think they’d know math.

While yes I’m drawing on the most biased and limited of reference pools ever, I think it’s fair to say that since humanity is the only species in this planet’s history to achieve advanced technology (if there were others, they’ve left nothing to show for it), that our evolutionary history shouldn’t be too unique to other technological species in the universe.

As for a -Non-technological- sentience however... yeah. Different story there.

Jean Remy said...

Luke: imaginary numbers and the like are not what I mean when I say "you need math". Your blueprint-using friends use math. You can't read a blueprint and NOT know math. You need to translate scale into actuality, you need rulers and protractors to make measurements of lengths and angles.

1+1=2 is the most basic mathematics expression there is and it IS an absolute. No one who has ever build anything more complex than a throwing spear has had to use maths, and even the spear maker used maths because the spears needed to be a certain length. And while the first experimenters determined the length of the spear through a combination of instinct and trial and error, every subsequent spear-crafter student knew to make their spears a certain length, expressed at the very least by 1 arm-length and one finger-width, using 2 leg-length of buffalo tendon.

I can NOT see anyone or anything ever reaching space and not know basic addition and subtraction. It is far too basic a language requirement for anything beyond stone age technology. Primitive metallurgy doesn't work without basic maths. You need to tell 1 portion of tin per 2 portions of copper to make bronze. (or whatever proportions, I'm not a metallurgist)

You can say what you want about the alien-ness of a species dictating the grammatical construction of its languages, but mathematics is not determined by the mind, not ours or any other aliens. They are determined by the very fundamental nature of the Universe itself. One rock and one rock makes two rocks, no matter what your brain is shaped like. Always, and forever.

Jean Remy said...


"No one who has ever build anything more complex than a throwing spear has had to use maths, [...]" should of course read EVERYONE who has ever...

Thucydides said...

Stepping a bit sideways, a lot of difficulty in communications between peoples is cultural in nature. The ancient Greeks were obsessed with the differences between peoples, sharp traders and keen observers, so it stands to reason a fair proportion of Greeks knew foreign languages to function as traders, spies, mercenaries etc.

Despite all this, they universally derided other cultures as "Barbarians" (i.e. people whose speech sounded like "bar bar bar"), and when they had the opportunity, made sure the Barbarians knew the glory of Greek culture, religion and language at the point of a spear.

Ancient Greek culture was also well versed in mathematics and mechanics, we have evidence of astronomical calculators, self opening doors and even a steam engine, but culturally, the Greeks seemed to believe these things were toys to amuse or perhaps astound (self opening doors were a feature of temples, and an impressive introduction to the residence of a god), so while math is an absolute, what you say with math might be quite a bit different from place to place.

Real aliens will be...alien. Olaf Stapledon's Martians in Last and First Men had motivations derived from their basic form as virus sized particles seeking solid surfaces to join into cognitive masses. They were pleasantly surprised that Earth had so many flat surfaces, but never stopped top question how they came to be there...

(These Martians are a bit of a cheat, they are written as a race which only uses instinct; even space flight is a result of drifting higher and higher into the atmosphere. No agriculture, technology or higher math here!)

I believe the people of Earth eventually discovered the motivations of the Martians by observation, but I don't recall any effective communications taking place.

Corey said...

To Jean Remy

"So, Maths, at a genetically encoded level, but still, Maths."

Well, yes, my point is a bit misspoken. Math is math. One plus one is two, no matter how you understand it.

My point is whether a society could exist with "explicit" math, for lack of a better term, instead building on an intuitive understanding of math.

By "explicit," what I mean is the actual abstraction of the real world with formulas and equations.

To use the football example: a quarterback throwing the ball is math. From his perception of where the receiver is, how fast he's moving, where the receiver will be given X time intervals, where the defender is and likely to be to the actual execution of the throw. All of that is math (and statistics/probability when it comes to the defender), and can be represented abstractly.

But the quarterback doesn't think that way. He certainly doesn't learn to throw that way. The act of teaching someone to throw a football is all about "throw with your hand like this, your elbow here, planted off the back foot, etc." Heck, your average NFL quarterbacks coach probably couldn't do the math involved in a throw, but he can teach somebody how to execute it.

So any species with a society built upon such an intuitive understanding of math will probably be innately good at guessing and hunches. If the human brain is a quantum computer, they'd be even more "quantum-ish." In fact, to them we might appear to the coldly logical Vulcans of the universe.

tkinias said...


In re Rick’s original post: While I am usually not very patient with silly pseudoforeign names in fantasy or SF, I may have to defend the apostrophe in Na'vi: IIRC, while not all the actors in the film pronounced it “properly”, it appeared that the name was meant to be pronounced roughly [ˈnaʔvi] – i.e., the apostrophe is not merely ornamental but represents a glottal-stop segment. ASCII representations of languages as different as Hebrew and Hawaiian (Hawai'ian?) use the apostrophe the same way.

That aside, though, I wanted to comment on the following from Jean Remy:

As for whether they are too advanced to consider us more than bugs, I call bogus again. Once a rocket-builder, always a rocket-builder. No matter how advanced, they will always remember having built rockets, and therefore will STILL recognize another rocket.

I agree that it is hard to imagine a species so advanced that it couldn’t recognize spacefaring humans as anything but “bugs”, but I think too often we think in terms of a sentient–nonsentient dichotomy. Everything I’ve seen of recent animal-behavior research suggests that – despite how painfully obvious our (i.e., humans’) difference from other animals seems – “sentience” is something measurable only on a continuum (and probably a multidimensional one at that). The increasing evidence that multiple species of Homo coexisted until (evolutionarily speaking) quite recently has shaken our sense of specific uniqueness; I suspect that if all our closest relatives had not died out before we achieved “civilization”, we would long have had a much better sense of that continuum.

The relevance of this to Jean Remy’s comment is that we, H. sapiens, long ago established implicit criteria for what distinguished us specifically from the rest of “creation”. At the moment we’re more-or-less reduced to “I know it when I see it”, with tool use turning out to be fairly common and even tool making being observed among chimps (sharpening sticks to use as spears in hunting smaller primates), not to mention that the borders between animal communication and human speech are becoming harder to delineate.

Science fiction has, by and large, not really caught up with this blurriness yet. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of “ALIENS with FOREHEAD RIDGES”, SF seems to assume that it is easy to distinguish sentient aliens from the rest. Along with this, of course, goes the idea that “sentient” aliens will (or ought to) be accorded “human” rights, unlike alien plant-analogs or unintelligent animal-analogs. But if we’ve really just put the sentience line at an arbitrary point (i.e., that which divides us from everyone else) it is not impossible to imagine that an alien species would put the line in an entirely different place.

What we’re talking about here, really, is not recognizing the “intelligence” of an alien species but whether the aliens are accorded personhood. We can debate the intelligence of magpies or octopuses all we want, but killing one is not considered murder by any legal system on Earth. So what we’re really talking about when we ask if aliens might consider us “bugs” is whether the aliens might fail to consider us to be persons, treating us instead as outside the sphere of moral consideration. Maybe they would think of us as chimps: clearly possessed of primitive toolmaking ability and some level of intelligence, but not people, of course. Killing them for sport would make a lot of people queasy, and animal-rights groups would protest against performing painful medical experiments on them, but there would be no question of affording them anything like full “human” rights.

What if, on the aliens’ homeworld, several species achieved limited spaceflight. Might the one which found us (the only one with FTL, say) not consider us to be in the same category as the smart, tool-using animals they know from home?

Rick said...

I told my wife this morning that I was afraid to even open this comment thread, and I was right. Even on a second pot of coffee, this stuff is scary.

Welcome to new commenters! I see two distinct types of aliens in this thread, quite apart from hivers:

- Technological species who get there entirely by instinct and evolution, without being sentient.

- Technological civilizations created by races that are sentient, but have no formal conception of math.

I will note that formal math only became pervasive in technology in about the last 200 years.

Craftspeople for thousands of years have used clearly mathematical operations, counting, measuring, scaling, with no formal knowledge of math. As Luke notes that is still the case.

Flip side, the last 200 years is the Industrial Revolution. And when we talk about technological civilizations, we basically mean post industrial civilization.

You can build a sailing ship without plans, using twine to lay out the lines, and have no clue that you're doing geometry. You could build a hang glider that way. (It is amazing to me how late wing camber was discovered, when it is so conspicuous - to us - in large gliding birds.)

Could a civilization learn to build lightweight power engines that way? Electronics? It would be tough, but I wouldn't rule it out, and even if their rate of progress is much slower, so what?

It took us about 200 years to go from proto industrial to spacefaring. Maybe it takes them 10,000 years; still the blink of an eye.

On the third hand, where does formal math come from? Scientists and engineers use it as a tool, but from all I hear, mathematicians basically do it for play. For them, math is music without a sound track.

Back to hive entities for a moment, I don't think it is exactly race prejudice so much as culture or ideological prejudice, though it expresses itself as a sort of race prejudice.

In SF context, those hostile hive entities are basically analogized to ants, and we humans do not get along well with ants.

But the traditional archetype of hive entities was bees. Which aren't exactly friendly, but can be worked with, are useful to farmers, and produce honey.

If the ancient Greeks had invented the concept of a hive entity, they might well have admired it as a model of eunomia, 'good laws.' Certainly the Athenians who admired Spartans and deplored the Athenian democracy would have been inclined that way. I don't know if Plato ever mentions bees, but if he does, I doubt he badmouths them.

Jean Remy said...

"I will note that formal math only became pervasive in technology in about the last 200 years.

Craftspeople for thousands of years have used clearly mathematical operations, counting, measuring, scaling, with no formal knowledge of math. As Luke notes that is still the case."

I'd contend the first really formal application of mathematics came with the ballistas and other siege warfare engines. You can't really eyeball those, and war engineers obviously had an advanced knowledge of maths for their time, and probably had a hand in developing mathematical tools.

The ability of sappers to excavate long tunnels nearly blind and still end underneath the walls of a city, massive siege towers still able to roll down a field, and batteries of onagers firing precisely calibrated masses at said walls prove they used of trigonometry at the very least.

Siege engineers were scientists, and scientists were siege engineers. Archimedes didn't just say Eureka in a bathtub, he helped construct machines of war.

That puts serious development of mathematics not 200 years ago, but 2000 at the very least. In geological scales it's not much, but still.

JP said...
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JP said...


I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that our language is derived from perceptions and nothing else. When one thinks of the variety of perception and communication on Earth, one can start to see how an alien language could become impossible to understand.

Can we decipher an ant's pheromonal signals or a bee's dance with any accuracy? A dog's vast world of smell contains perceptions of which we could conceive no more than a blind person could conceive of the color red.

Now imagine the infinitely more varied forms of perception and communication liable to exist given extraterrestrial life. Then imagine their mathematics, their abstract language of limits, sets and measures, being based on perceptions of which we can form no understanding. It's plausible that on the abstract we could communicate eventually, but I don't think "math" is as easy an answer as it initially seems.

Jean Remy said...

But the great things about Maths is that maths do NOT depend on sense and perspective, they just are. Whether you can see in the infrared band and have a sense of smell 1,000 times more acute than a human and are totally deaf, maths still apply and still mean the same thing. Granted to communicate them you'd have to find the "band" in which to transmit, but a number is a number. Not only that but while our own sense are limited, we've extended the limits of those senses with technology. Our eyes can't see gamma, but the GRO can. We can't see millimetric waves, but the VLA can. Any race that is sufficiently advanced for us to meet will have to have created instruments to extend the width and breadth of their senses.

No matter what the limits are for another sapient life form, they will still be constrained by the laws of physics, themselves determined by the laws of mathematics. That is too much common background not to find common ground.

Anonymous said...

"Can we decipher an ant's pheromonal signals or a bee's dance with any accuracy?"

Yes. It turns out that both of those signalling methods carry remarkably precise information. A bee's dance communicates range and direction to food sources, in relation to known landmarks and solar time (Peak hours to gather pollen from different types of flowers). They also have pheromonal alarm signals, signals that identify other members of the hive, etc.

We've gone further with studying bee language than ant language. That's because bees are more important to us. But after a lot of work, we can decipher bee communications with a tremendous accuracy.


JP said...

@ Jean Remy:

I don't want to pick on math! :D What I mean by "easy answers" is the idea that swapping digits of pi is all it takes.

It's true as you say physics must set -some- limits on the field of perception and therefore expression. But it's not clear to me that what an isolated civilization of the blind would come up with would resemble our geometry, for instance. It seems to me that we have a bias for sight in general, in both our mathematical conceptions and our extension of our perceptions (as in your examples). Augmented hearing lagged a bit, and augmented smelling so far as I know doesn't exist. We generally prefer visual cues to imperceptible non-visual stimuli, and I wonder if a species with a different sense-bias would produce similar artificial cues for its own sensory gaps.


I'm surprised we're that accurate with bees! I had no idea. To give another example of progress, we have a fairly good grasp now of some monkeys' language, and can discern various alarms, for "snake," "bird of prey" and so on. What's more, we've uncovered urgency is variably communicated (grammar?) and that some non-dominant monkeys will "cry wolf," so to speak, to snatch up food while the others flee to the trees.

Anita said...

A few thoughts about a hive community, re honey bees.

We understand their dance and a handful of their pheromones (right now 18 out of 40 plus). The dance is very specific - "I found a good nectar or pollen source and here's where it is." Through trial and error, researchers have learn to read it and find the patch the foragers bees id'd.

The first pheromone identified was the alarm scent. If a bee is injured or stings, she releases the scent and the hive goes to Defcon Four. Another is the so called "Come Hither". When scout bees find a suitable hive site, this is used to alert a swarm to bring Her Majesty and start a new kingdom.

One of the most fascinating things about honey bees is they don't specialize in hive duties. In most cases during her lifetime a worker bee will do all the jobs on the duty roster.

She starts as a nurse, taking care of the eggs and larva. Critical work which may be why the youngest and most vigorous are assigned. Researchers think the nurse bees could be the brains of the outfit as they are intimately aware of the health of the next generation. It's believed they communicate vital information with pheromones, such as potential overcrowding and the need to swarm in order to find new digs, also to activate queen larva so a new HM will take over the old kingdom.

After nurse duty, they become ladies in waiting to HM, feeding and grooming her, probably keeping tabs on her health, too. Afterwards, they will move on to all the hive scut work -- comb building, janitoral, guard, air conditioning, etc. They do this in a specific order. A worker will finish her life as a forager.

The question that has the researchers up at night is, is this elaborate, complex behavior entirely hardwired, DNA encoded, or is there any on the job training going on.

We do know bees have to learn at least one important fact -- the location of their hive. When the worker takes on forager duty, gathering nectar and pollen, she'll spend a few hours flying up and down in the front of the hive, by polarization of sunlight pinpointing the hive location. This is why if the hive has to be moved, it's done at night. Otherwise, even a shift of a few feet during the day will completely disorientate the foragers; they are lost.

So, can a hive entity learn, apparently. Could a sentient one, most likely. Could it do math, again most likely.

The bigger question is how to communicate with a sentient honey bee. We understand a bit of their language; would she understand verbal or written communication. Even if she did, how could she reproduce it. We might be able to reproduce the pheromones, but could we reproduce the subtlety and complexities of them?

Rick said...

Welcome to another new commenter!

I have occasionally seen Hawaii spelled Hawai'i in older books. Language Log wouldn't spend any time on Na'vi if it weren't well put together. The dirty secret is that creating languages is a common game in linguistics.

The Chomsky question is pretty much the same question I am asking here. According to Chomsky, all human languages have a shared 'deep structure,' which amounts to our human language processing system. This doesn't rule out our being able to make sense of alien grammars, but it does mean that there's no a priori expectation that we can.

Formal advanced math was indeed being used in practical ways 2000 years ago, but it wasn't yet 'pervasive.'

Even siege engineers probably ended up never using 90 percent of the Euclid they were taught - just set that sucker up over there on the rise, then adjust the elevation angle till she's dropping 'em on the gatehouse.

I imagine the first major practical use of formal math reasoning was not a hardware tech, but calendar construction. (Well, sometimes maybe hardware, though calendric theories of Stonehenge seem to be out of fashion.) A very big deal for agrarian civilizations!

One level of communications problems should be pre-solved, more or less, so long as we are dealing with another spacefaring, postindustrial civilization.

Imagine intelligent, technically advanced bees. They presumably know about the electromagnetic spectrum, however they interpret and describe it, and can detect and transmit signals.

So we won't need to smell their pheremones, and they won't need to hear our voices. Uhura and her opposite number(s), stumbling around, should stumble onto a wavelength the other responds to.

But that is what I called black box interpretation. Suppose the bees figure out that the alien ship responds to a flashing light by flashing a light back. That is a first level of communication.

Now it/she/them has to come up with a code to try, to see if they can elicit a specific response, and that is where it gets trickier, because what they think of as a simple, universal math expression may be very different from 1 - 2 - 4 - 9 or whatever.

Interesting about the 'career path' of worker bees. It seems like they move progressively from the most delicate and demanding work to the most dangerous and 'expendable.'

Jean Remy said...

Rick: I already mentioned the calendar before, actually, as being a fundamental requirement for agriculture, itself a fundamental requirement for a sedentary civilization.

On siege engineers: I wasn't really talking about the guys manning the ballistas but the people who designed them in the first place. You don't let Archimedes get too close to a battle. It would be like putting Charles Hard Townes on board of the Boeing YAL-1.

As for the black box theory: I never said it would be *easy* to translate, and learning each other's languages is not something we'll do over the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon. It might take linguists on both sides years just to translate "pass me the salt". However in the case of postindustrial space-faring species too many things have to be in place for there NOT to be a common ground. As long as there is a common ground, you have somewhere to start from. said...

Reading all these comments, makes me wonder if we really do understand "bee" or "monkey", but instead we only understand the message, not the meaning of the bee dance. And what I mean is that, while we know what the bee is saying about the location of the source of nectar, we don't "grok" the meaning of what she is saying.

It's like reading a machine translation of a Japanese manga. You got all the words, but you get none of the cultural undertones, cliches, feelings of what's being said. And there are nuances that we just don't catch.

(For instance, there's a running gag in Ghost In the Shell 2nd Gig, where a pair of Japanese-Americans get so many things wrong, yet it all went over my head until I read about a more detailed description of the scenes.)

So in the end, we read the bee dance message as:

"Nectar, 200 yards south by south east."

But we don't get the meaning, we don't understand that she is really saying:

"Sisters, rejoice! I have found a new source of food so that our colony may survive another great winter! I have flown far, over a billion of our body lengths to a field full of flowers, heavy with nectar. It is located with the following polarizing vectors for direction. Here, taste the sample I brought back! Isn't it sweet! Fly with me and we will stock our larders for good of our colony!"

We'll be able to talk to aliens, but will we understand them?

Francesco said...

About the sentience level of bees, and math instinct, I remember reading about an interesting and serendipitous experiment.
Scientists were trying to determine the range at wich bees were able to find a food source, so started putting a bowl of sugar water each day at an increasing distance (mathematically determined).
One day tehy were delayed placing the bowl... and were astounded finding the bees waiting for them at the designated new place.
Evidently, the bees are able to observe a trend and make a projection...

Anita said...

kedamono, my favorite example of the subtleties of connotation is house vs home. An English speaker who says "I'll defend my house." may be open to negotiations. One who says "I shall defend my home." is in no quarter mode.

Beekeepers quickly learn to listen. A soft contented hum and you can probably mess with the hive without the Epi pen at the ready. The Turbo Leafblower 9000 snarl, best leave be.

Thucydides said...

Several posters have suggested that mathematical knowledge can be "intuitive" in nature. This is true to a certain extent, the example of football players accurately throwing a ball (or kicking it if they are playing in Brazil!) is one demonstration, and neolithic tribesmen could do similar things with spears, mixing pigments or making sophisticated stone tools.

The problem is these skill sets are developed on an "ad hoc" basis, and can only be passed on by knowledge and personal coaching. The Neanderthals may have gotten a push to extinction as their tribal sizes declined since the people who had these skills had a greater chance of dying before they could pass the skill to a new person. (This erosion of skill sets is important to remember when the Zombie apocalypse is in full swing ;))

Jean's point is a systematic method of recording and transmitting mathematical (and indeed all) knowledge overcomes these barriers. While certain skills and techniques with a mathematical basis might be passed on in an empirical fashion, the "tools" are quite limited in the population. How many of us have the fine motor control and reflexes to actually knap flint tools or make a touchdown pass?

The use of language and symbols allows knowledge to go to a wider audience, pass down the generations and provides a springboard for improvement and extension of knowledge. A weird example is the recent discovery that humans have the theoretical ability to run 40 mph. Observational techniques of runners provide a few percentage points in improvements, but really out of the box thinking (is the striking force of a foot hitting the ground really the limit? What method of transmitting force to the ground provides the maximum force?) and quantitative measuring of actual forces suggest the human body can sustain far greater forces and be propelled much faster. Actual application of these discoveries is a long way off, but now people know something is possible and may decide to investigate how to get there. This is not something which is "intuitively" obvious.

One other observation about the uses of mathematics; applied math is developed to support whatever function is important to the society in question. Neolithic tribesmen apparently had highly developed astronomical tables scribed in bone (and eventually translated into megalithic observatories by their descendants) because keeping track of the seasons was critically important for survival. Even hunter gatherers need to know when to expect migrating herds, calving times, when bears come out of hibernation and when berries and fruit ripen in their foraging area. Since we forage in supermarkets, these skills are not at the forefront anymore.

Our society encompasses technology, so everyone needs a minimal understanding of math to function (how much paint do you need to finish your room, for a simple example). The fact so many people are innumerate and have difficulty even doing simple math means reading blueprints or making more than basic repairs on technological items will be difficult or impossible for a larger portion of the population, with all that implies.

ushumgal said...

@Anonymoose: you are quite right that civilization generally takes off about the time that agriculture starts, but I think it can be pretty well demonstrated that agriculture is a symptom rather than a cause. Archaeologists generally hold that agriculture was a product of population pressure, and that it in turn further increased population pressure.
Hunting & gathering only works when there aren’t crowds of other damn guys spearing all your deer and gathering all your berries. So when the population grows too high for an area to support hunting & gathering, people have to turn to cultivation to ensure they have enough food in the area they control. But this has the effect of further re-enforcing centralization of the population, and as it continues to grow, pretty soon you have more people than you need to work the land. This allows specialization in other trades, which encourages rapid development. Some farmer may not be able to do much with a lump of copper, but some guy who spends his whole life smelting the stuff is likely to notice some ways to improve his product. Another product of the expanding population is social stratification. No longer do you have a chieftain in the hut next you yours, you have a king in the palace on the hill. You also start to get people in non-productive trades, such as long-winded Greek philosophers and meticulous Mesopotamian astronomers.

Interestingly, the very first writing in the world seems to have come about indirectly because of agriculture. Southern Iraq (ancient Sumer) had a huge population to feed, but since there is very little rainfall, irrigation was essential for their fields. Their canal system was massive, and required a huge centralized mobilization of manpower to create and maintain, a sufficiently complex task that human memories were not sufficient for the task, so writing was developed (though my Sumerian professor insists it was invented to write poetry…). In any event, some of the earliest Sumerian texts are not poems, but ration lists for workmen. Who were paid in beer. The Sumerians knew how to have a good time!

Oh, and Jean: there are many forms of bronze that were used in the ancient (some alloys of copper and arsenic rather than tin), but the conventional bronze is 90% copper and 10% tin. Which, interestingly enough, it precisely the proportions of copper and tin ingots found on the late Bronze Age shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey.

I’ve got to agree with tkinias: our definitions of sentience tend to be rather self-serving, as they are always explicitly or implicitly designed to show how we are different from all other animals on Earth. I suspect the real difference is developmental: we’re excellent tool-users, and our use of tools has taken us down a path to sudden and dramatic development. There’s no real reason the same could not happen to another kind of animal. Terry Pratchett’s Science of Discworld book discusses this point, iirc.

ushumgal said...


I’d also like to chime in on Rick’s statement that “formal math only became pervasive in technology in about the last 200 years,” since ancient tech is rather near and dear to me. On the whole, it is true enough, but there are certainly much earlier examples of mathematics in engineering, besides the siege engines Jean refers to. The architects of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt were certainly accomplished with mathematics, and the remarkable nature of some of their buildings show that they understood the engineering; it was not all rule of thumb. We have a number of measured architectural drawings from ancient Mesopotamia (most famously one held by Gudea of Lagash in one of his ubiquitous statues). Also, don’t forget the Antikythera Mechanism, a geared analogue computer dating to about 80 BC, designed to track the date (by the Egyptian calendar), position of the planets, etc. There are other related devices, though much simpler, from later periods as well (iirc, a 4th or 5th century geared sundial which told the day of the week and the phase of the moon, and a very similar Islamic example from the Middle ages). I have also done a lot of reading on the astronomy of ancient Mesopotamia, and the complexity of the mathematics they used (without the aid of Arabic numerals) made me run screaming to my nice, simple, relatively-math-free world of archaeology. So while it is true that mathematics has become particularly pervasive in technology in the last 200 years, I think that is partly because technology itself has become particularly pervasive in the last 200 years. When there was technology before, it still needed math (though the point about shipbuilding is well taken, much of it was rule of thumb, though certainly some of the massive Hellenistic superships were engineered, and Matthew Baker tried to make shipwrightery much more scientific in the Elizabethan era).

I am not so sure that *capacity* for communication is the most essential question. If the species we encounter is space faring, then there are some things we would certainly have in common (an orbit is an orbit), and could certainly find a way to communicate, if both parties are willing. And that, I think, is the essential point. If we encounter a space faring species, will they be interested in talking to us? And, given the demeanor of some of the human governments we’ve seen in the world lately, will it appear to them that we really want to talk to them?

Rick said...

As an aside, Language Log once had a fascinating little commentary on languages (and cultures) that count 'one, two, three, many.'

The upshot is that these people are perfectly capable of grasping the concept '17,' but find it odd that we have a special word for it, more or less the way most English speakers think it is odd that some languages have a special word for 'second cousin once removed on my mother's side.'

On siege engines I'll quibble that even the designers were probably using only empirical rules of thumb, and it hardly mattered whether they formalized them as equations or just did 'carpenters' math.'

Compare to early modern times. Trying to explain the behavior of cannonballs played a major role in the growth of physics, but physics did not return the favor until the 19th century. Gunmaking and gunlaying both remained arts.


That said, I'd expect most spacefaring civilizations to generalize their rules of thumb, which on some level is what science amounts to.

What they make of it philosophically is another matter, and that's what could be harder to discuss. Among other things.

Thucydides said...

Ancient engineers did use sophisticated math to create and refine their engines of war, the most obvious example being torsion powered catapults.

The power was derived by twisting the throwing arms against bundles of horsehair rope or similar materials, and these had to be precisely gauged and pre-tensioned to provide the maximum effect. Too large a bundle wasted materials and added nothing to the throw (indeed internal friction would probably reduce the available power), while too small a bundle would snap under the strain. Similarly, the wooden frames needed to be built to handle the forces involved. This created a sophisticated, accurate and powerful war engine, but was also quite intensive in trained manpower and materials, which explains why they were superseded by simpler devices like the onager and eventually the counterpoise engine (trebuchet).

Lots of interesting information such as the ability of Hellenistic engineers to derive cube roots etc. can be gleaned from this article:

Ancient Catapults by Werner Soedel and Vernard Foley Scientific American, March 1979, pp. 150 - 160; also accessable at this link:

Rules of thumb are dangerous with powerful machinery; Cortez allegedly was persuaded to build a trebuchet to use against the Aztecs, but abandoned the machine after one shot when the projectile went straight up and fell back on the Spaniards rather than forward to the walls of the city. Given the relatively simple nature of a trebuchet, a crowd of soldiers with the help of skilled artisans like armourers and carpenters should be able to make a working model, but since the flight of the projectile depends critically on the length of the throwing arm and sling....

ushumgal said...

I had a few musings that I thought I'd throw out there concerning the mechanics of *how* communication could be carried out.

For example, what if the alien species sees only in the x-ray band, and are blind to visible light? How do we show them images, or interact with them? What if they hear radio waves but not sound waves?

Or assuming any other form of communication: say their equivalent of speech is flashing several bioluminescent nodes in different patterns and at different intensities. How do we go about building a common vocabulary, much less explain abstract concepts like "peace" or "bad"? Ideas?

Corey said...

How do we go about building a common vocabulary, much less explain abstract concepts like 'peace' or 'bad'? Ideas?

Have you ever heard of Starplex by Robert Sawyer? It was a novella in Analog Science Fiction that was compiled into a novel (and is sadly out of print.)

Its basically 'Federation of Planets: the early years' where the eponymous starship/movable space station with 4 races (dolphins, humans, a Klingon-analog, and a Vulcan-analog) make contact with a race of beings composed entirely of Dark Matter.

Anyway, the way that they communicate is through math. Sawyer even states math is the universal language. The characters use math to essentially build a communal understand of concepts.

I can't find my copy, but it even has the character asking the computer what the aliens means by "significant" and the computer spouts back that significant has been determined to be the rage between X number and Y number.

Anonymous said...

Ok...something that I've noticed is that no one has commented about the fact that many human languages use two different sets of symbols to repersent numbers and letters. What if an alien race didn't use different symbols to represent numbers and letters? Or used more than two? And what if they used color to convay different levels of meaning, intensity, or emotional content? (pick some other scheme, but it all boils down to the fact that the phrase "black and white" wouldn't hold the same meaning to them as it does to us)

What if an alien race had swappable memory pods? Or if they "plugged-into" each other to pass memories back and forth? All of their communications technology would be geared to facilitate this transfer...they would be dismayed and baffled by the "inexact" and "clumbsy", and not able to understand that our normal mode of communication is both natural and easy for us; they may also not understand why we think that sticking a portion of their brains into each other to simply talk is icky...

Math may be the universal language...but I can't count to one in Chinese, nor can I recognize the character for "one" in Chinese or the word for "one" an alien language, the red circle may mean one, the blue circle the double-click sound, and the green circle is the punchline to an off-color joke...and our translating machine prints it out in think that an interstellar war might break out because someone used blue ink instead of black to write a mathimatical formula...

And,(my personal theory), I believe that the birth of written language was driven by people wanting to pass along the best recipe for beer...(by-the-way: beer predates wine by tens of thousands of years; so take that, wine-snobs!) ;)

The development of language was driven by survival; cooperate and survive, pass along trade-secrets and survive, coordanate during hunts and survive... But, we are omnivores with a very spicific social structure. Our memory-pod-swapping-aliens may have a completely different social structure and so have a different take on the USE of math and its proper role in civilization.

Oh, and as an aside; herbivors could very well develope into an intelligent, technological species; why?, because outsmarting a whole host of clever carnivores, using cooperation and communications to protect themselves, even using tools and/or weapons to defeat enemies, might be a good survival stategy. People like that might be able to communicate with us, but they might not WANT to...

The bottom line is that we shouldn't negliect to find out if barriers to communication with an alien species include cultural values or even something as simple as using the wrong color of ink...


Jean Remy said...

On the other hand Kennedy called the inhabitants of Berlin a bunch of pastry cakes and we didn't go to war with them.

Yes I know it's sort of a legend mixed with exaggeration and interpretation, but overall my point stands. We're not going to expect perfect translation, especially not at first, and with the amount of power interstellar civilizations must have at their disposal, I would bet everyone errs on the side of caution rather than aggression at the smallest slight.

And while the mathematical symbol for "one" might differ in each language, the simplest expression of a number is a simple pulse in whatever medium we decide communication is most likely. I would bet radio since it propagates in vacuum at the speed of light and is very efficient over long distances and easy to receive with a simple parabolic antenna. It really doesn't matter if the algorithm at the other end translates it as a scent or a color, as long as you cause it to emit single pulses of exact characteristics you can convey the beginnings of mathematical concepts. A lot of SF stories propose Prime Number transmissions for First Contact, and I'll go with that as well. It's obviously non-random, progressive but not linear indicating intelligence.

Finally: so your point is that beer is a primitive drink and that as a civilization we have progressed past those meager attempts at a potable drink, and have finally discovered wine? Your point is is well-noted: Wine is more advanced than beer and therefore superior. I happen to agree. *Takes a sip of Bordeaux*

Anonymous said...

"Finally: so your point is that beer is a primitive drink and that as a civilization we have progressed past those meager attempts at a potable drink, and have finally discovered wine? Your point is is well-noted: Wine is more advanced than beer and therefore superior. I happen to agree. *Takes a sip of Bordeaux*"

Touche`! However, I'll stick to tradition...


Rick said...

Actually, JFK called himself a pastry cake.

I waver between the positions here, which is why I wrote the post in the first place.

In a lot of SETI discussion the point of mathematical signaling is not to strike up a conversation about math, but as Jean mentions, simply to be conspicuously artificial.

Not many natural phenomena beep out the prime numbers. A sine wave is just as mathematical, so it doesn't stand out as artificial.

So this is really an attempt to help the other party's 'black box' reasoning, and this is what a lot of establishing communication probably amounts to.

Jean Remy said...

"A sine wave is just as mathematical, so it doesn't stand out as artificial."

Right. The problem is there are plenty of very regular mathematical transmissions out there, from the beep-beep of pulsars on. Prime number sequences though probably don't occur naturally because there is a level of reasoning behind them that is, as Rick said "conspicuously artificial"

Anonymous said...

Sometimes even artifical signals could be interpreted as noise: some people think that certain types of popular music is noise; we can be fairly certain that aliens wouldn't react to our music the same as we do, and may not even recognize it as music. They may not have a concept of music, so even something like "Ode to Joy" would just seem like noise to them. Which begs the question: have we heard alien music and not recognized it?


Anonymous said...

Ferrell - The Japanese written language has a wide range of symbols for numbers. Which symbol for three you use depends on whether you're counting trees, people, livestock...

Humans do use colour-coded text to indicate tone, emotional intensity, etc. In the simplified texts used in formal discourse we don't use colour or calligraphy to send those signals, but that's because the simplified black and white text is supposed to indicate a particular tone all its own. Comics, websites, advertising, and hand writing all use colour and shape (And density of marks, and spacing) to express meaning.

I believe that the expression 'as simple as black and white' predates mass literacy, but I'm still looking for references on that.


Zachary said...
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Zachary said...

It appears to me that this question ("Aliens can/will be truly and utterly alien!" vs. "No they won't!") is unresolvable.

The point of being truly and utterly alien is that the alien's way of life is in some essential way inconceivable to us. The argument against this possibility is "I can't conceive of such a way of life." Well, yeah, you can't.

We can have interesting discussions about the topic, and see how far we can stretch our brains to encompass different ways of thinking, but, in the end, if a completely alien thought process is possible, it will remain, by definition, outside the discussion.

At least, that is, until we run into such an entity (or observe something only explainable as an artifact of said alien), at which point we can start speculating about the reasons behind what we observe, and maybe in the end discover it's not so alien after all. Maybe.

As an aside, C.J. Cherryh does a pretty good job imagining what contact with really alien aliens could be like with the methane breathers in the Chanur series, especially the Knnn. They likely use math, but it doesn't really help in communication, since they ignore any efforts in that direction. What's really interesting is that this does not preclude a form of rudimentary trade. In the broadest sense of the word, communication is indeed possible- you just can't actually talk to them.

Rick said...

Well, that's a gratuitous little brain exploder! But I take your point: Humans trying to imagine something incomprehensible to humans is sort of a definitional nonstarter.

There was a reputed Phoenician trade method that amounted to a black box inference, of each party adding or removing goods from 'bid' piles; once the piles stabilized, each took the pile the other had gathered. I never clicked with Cherryh, but I wouldn't be surprised if her method is similar.

Ákos said...

The communication issues with aliens might be serious but, I think the problems will be much less about spoken/written language.I'm a vile opposer of the truly alien concept that's fore sure, but there are some things must be taken into account.For example sentience recognisable to us must have eyesight, so if their speech is ultrasound we can still communicate via msn.Pheromone communication or thelepaty, hive mind or such things are either currently consiedered paranormal or impossible, or can1t be acurate enough for sapient creatures(like pheromone clouds getting mixed wth eachoter or so.)The rel problem is at first, the need of physical presence, because our digital formats, program codes, radio signals will be totaly uncompatible with eachoter.(and probably even our methods of distance communication.Who said they will use radio?Thats why I think SETI is pointless).Second,we need to learn eachother's language.Until the learning of the others language, we can communicate with simple pictograms only(and by chemistry and maths),as ther non-verbal signs will also differ quite much if their body is not very,very similar to ours(which is almost sure to be very similar, but also sure to be not, that similar ).
I the question of art,I must agree wit the previous commenter, we must at first, recognise art.

Jean Remy said...

I actually wrote a story from the viewpoint of a blind sapient race of slug-like creatures that communicated through scent. The were basically intelligent chemical factories able to synthesize almost any scent molecule they'd ever encountered. When humans met them they failed to recognize them as sapient and treated them like animals.

However I do believe that with enough observation and study we would determine the complexity of the smells as a language. Any language has an internal logic structure, and while the task of translating it is daunting, recognizing it as a language should not be difficult. That's the theory behind SETI at any rate. For one I was forced to make my sapient slugs a pre-technological society, since, as I've pointed out, technology *will* be recognized as technology. The principles behind a rocket will be the same whether you communicate audibly, visually, by scent or touch or even taste. After all we use "light" (EM radiation in the form of radio waves) to send vocal communications. Therefore while our primary mode of communication is oral, we can use different media to transfer this information.

And radio is just too damn practical to NOT be a means of long-distance wireless communication. We just discovered radio waves, we didn't invent then. Any species advanced enough will discover them and see how practical they are at transferring signals, whether the receptor at the other end translates it as flashes of light or bursts of smell makes no difference.

If there is a regular language-like pattern, we can find it. Translating it will be tough, but not impossible. We just have to listen with all our senses.

Rick said...

A mere hello in passing, for now, since I'm not on my regular computer, but welcome to another new commenter! said...

@Jean Remy: The problems with using scents for communication is that the creature would have to have an olfactory center more sensitive than a T-Rex's nose, and have a good portion of it's brain given over to scent creation/decipherment.

The other problem is that scents will mingle and change when there are more than one individual "talking".

Finally, you need air movement to "talk" otherwise you end up sitting in your own stink or even worse, a light breeze sets up and you can't talk anymore unless you're talking to someone downwind, and that's only one way.

It sounds like a neat way to communicate, but it's not practical.

Methods of communication need a level of directionality. Unless your slug people changed color or did something to identify themselves, there would be no way to know who is speaking. In species where individuality is not important, that may not be problem. But for the most part, making scents isn't a very efficient form of communication.

Looking at the issue, there are only a few truly viable means of communicating: Sound, Color changing, Light.

Cephalopods have shown that very complex color and pattern changing has the possibility of a very rich communication medium.

Bioluminescent lights could also be used as a means of communication similar to color changing or in conjunction.

Sound is something we're all familiar with, but humans are only familiar with a rather narrow band of the sonic possibilities.

Radio is not very likely. It requires some highly unlikely organs to be developed and requires power generation on a scale only seen for short bursts in some animals.

aramis said...

There is a lot of confusion between math as a technology and mathematics as a codified science...

arithmetic as technology is the ability to measure, count, and perform simple arithmetic. It is fundamental to our concepts of technology.

Mathematics as science the detailed study of arithmetic and the advanced forms used to describe the natural world, plus the subordinate technologies of Al-Gebra's Symbols, and the forms of Calculus, the logic of the greeks, the calculation logic of computing, plus studies of comparative numerologies.

Mathematics is not essential for most technology, and experimental non-mathematical iteration with arithmetic for measure is the fundamental axiom of preindustrial sciences.

But, without measure, progress is pretty much impossible. Our ability to replicate items is inherently innate, but to do so accurately and without direct observation requires measurement, comparison, and counting. The skills of arithmetic taught by even silly songs in the middle ages...

Very few adults are innumerate; that is, incapable of basic counting and measuring; no human culture I've read of is inherently innumerate.

Oh, and chimps make tools, and have some inherent non-verbal grasp of numeracy... but they lack arithmetical skills. But even there, our first successful communicative actions were involving numeracy... reward selecting which has more, then which has a specific number.

And the dolphin language issues are showing that, at least amongst mammals, the fundamental world view of objects and the ability to abstract to a symbol is deep rooted.

tkinias said... writes:

Looking at the issue, there are only a few truly viable means of communicating: Sound, Color changing, Light.

Trying to think generically, I would say that this is really a two-by-two grid of techniques: two media and two methods. That is, there are two media (EM and acoustic) and two techniques (active and passive). (I'm making the active/passive distinction from the point of view of the "speaker"; this is arbitrary, I suppose.) We are most familiar with active sound (that is, speech/hearing: you make a sound and I hear it). You also mention "light", which I would call active EM (you glow or otherwise radiate and I see it) and "color changing", which I would call passive EM (you change how you reflect EM radiation and I perceive how your EM signature changes). I am not aware of an organism's using passive acoustic communication, but it's not inconceivable that, if dolphin- or bat-style echolocation is the dominant means of "sight" in an ecosystem, a means of communication might evolve that would involve changing one's echo signature. This could range from something very much like sign language (which, if the perceptual medium were sight, I would lump with "color changing" as passive EM) to something rather like color changing but affecting acoustic reflectivity rather than color (e.g., selective changing of skin texture rather than color).

I expect it would take a very special kind of environment for passive acoustic to be preferable to both active acoustic and passive visual/EM, but, given where I grew up, I would never have thought trading sight for smell was a good idea either... but plenty of organisms do fine with that tradeoff.

tkinias said...

A moment's contemplation makes me realize that I should have said two-by-three: there's also the olfactory sense. I don't expect that passive olfactory communication (you change how you react to and re-emit the scent-particles I emit?) could ever be optimal, but (pace the ants) I don't really see why anyone would prefer scent to sound as a way of communicating. But some organisms do...

Jean Remy said...

They were blind. And yes most of their brain was devoted to olfactory sense like most of our brain is designed around visual clues.

At long range yes communications depend on the wind. Their culture was still basically tribal with the news from distant tribes carried over the "trade winds" if you will. In fact trade winds is adequate because such chemical memory/knowledge was the most precious thing they had.

As for identification, they emitted a sort of underlying identification "code" on a subchannel, if you will. There was basically two kinds of "wavelengths", a subconscious pheromonal one that you didn't technically *smell* but carried emotional cues and identification, and a "smell" channel which corresponds to our auditory messages.

As to directionality I never developed that, but how about large lung capacity and the ability for powerful exhalation. Yes there would be some issues "scenting out" in a crowded room, in the same way it's hard to talk in a crowded room. The pheromonal markers and intensity, (like voice pattern and intensity for voice) help clear things out.

I agree it's not the most practical system but I wanted something distinctly alien, which caused the human explorers to fail to recognize them as intelligent. I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities.

tkinias said...

@Jean Remy:

I like the way you think :)

Rick said...

One big factor in olfactory communication, I would think, is that smells linger - not so much in the air as on surfaces, which is why dogs mark fire hydrants. It would make a room rather like a bulletin board or comment thread, with older comments gradually fading into unintelligibility.

VonMalcolm said...

Perhaps the winner of an interstellar war wouldn't be the fleet who fires first, but rather which fleet understands their rival's language first!

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Anonymous said...

The webcomic 'Freefall' ( sometimes explores implications of a more developed olfactory sense in a sentient being. In this case, an uplifted wolf.

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Rick said...

Thanks for the link to 'Freefall' - that was nicely done, the smell of donuts on his gloves.

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Tony said...

Jumping in late and having not read the whole thing...

WRT to math as a language: No, it isn't, because it is too ambiguous in and of itself. The expression:

p = i * e

is meaningless without knowing the domains of two of the variables. Even then it is vague without plugging in specific values. And even then it is unworkably abstract without knowing a context:
"p" represents power in watts; "i" represents current in amps; "e" represents electromotive force in volts.

Even when given concrete numerical values and no assumptions about context, math relies on non-numerical conventions. The simple expression:

1 + 1 = 2

relies on an agreed definition of:

integral (or "whole") numbers
numeral symbology
operator symbology
radix (or "base")

It would take a considerable amount of precise communication before math more complex than counting on fingers (tentacles, claws, whatever) could be understood.

Having said all of that, once mathematical conventions were understood, quite a large amount of technical knowledge could be interchanged.

Lentulus said...

There was a delightful old H. Beam Piper story in which the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone was a periodic table. How much of a grip on language in general you could get from one I do not know; there is no way the actual content could be culture-dependent, although I suppose the presentation could keep scholars busy for a while.

übertronic said...

Returning to the idea of a race without mathematics, for whom technology evolved instead of being engineered, I wish to point out that although what jean remy said is indeed correct, like any language, math is not the only one. It is definitely the means to an end, but not the only means. The first being who took the relative form of a human was evidently not thinking "Hey, I think four limbs arranged on an upright torso with a circular object on top!" Therefor, one must conclude that it is possible for a machine to evolve using a sentient being as an alternative means to math.

I would also like to bring up the huge communications barrier of sensory information. Have you ever tried explaining green to a colorblind person? You can't. It just can't happen. Aliens would be much the same. They may interpret colors different than us, and therefor, they may appear pink and plaid to us, and an indescribable different color to them. They may also register a different part of the spectrum than us, meaning that we could not always see the same things. These are the types of barriers that would make it impossible to communicate scientifically, because they disallow qualitative description.

Rick said...

Welcome to a another new (I think!) commenter!

Establishing communications across a 'sensory gap' would certainly be ... challenging. But not necessarily impossible. At some level we don't need to fully understand someone's experience to communicate with them about it.

Admittedly this goes to the underlying question of what exactly 'human' intelligence is. It seems to be really elusive, one reason that I consider 'strong' AI a non-extrapolable tech. We know how Deep Blue plays winning chess, but I don't think we have a clue as to how human grandmasters do so.

If we encounter aliens who work like Deep Blue, not like us, we may not really have much to say to them, though we could learn a lot of cool stuff by analyzing how they do things.

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