why standardizing seti is harder than it sounds

Communication is difficult. Especially with alien beings that evolved tens of light years away and may have no idea we're even trying to communicate.
alien communicating
Illustration by VladStudio

Out first hypothetical conversations with aliens have been portrayed in just about every possible way. From an intense and grandiose introduction to the entire globe on live TV or emanating from alien spacecraft, to stuffy, formal interactions between human and extraterrestrial diplomats, to comical absurdities and casual hellos, to swift and outright wars, invasion, or conspiratorial takeover of our planet’s governments, we’ve considered them all and seem to have a pretty good idea about what to say to intelligent aliens. Or do we? Regardless of what some UFOlogists think on the subject, our interaction with a completely otherworldly species has only been fictional so far and in the context of science-fiction tales, human and alien protagonists and antagonists need some way to interact to move the story along. Having the two meet, try to communicate, then walk away bewildered as to what the other was trying to do, much less trying to say, doesn’t make for much of a plot, but in the real world, its overwhelmingly likely that this is exactly how our first conversation with aliens will go.

Because it’s kind of a downer that we may be trying to communicate in ways that would make little sense to a life form living light years away, some are proposing a standard alien message protocol, advising that what seem like important artifacts of human culture to us, like music, poems, movies, and novels, are irrelevant to the process of actually establishing contact, and that we should keep our messages short, sweet and if at all possible, in binary. Sounds good so far, but I’m not so sure about the actual technical aspects of delivering a binary message to alien civilizations. I’ve actually touched on this topic once before when discussing whether it’s possible to download a malevolent alien AI via SETI’s efforts, and said that binary will be the easiest way to communicate since all you need to do is flash lasers or radio pulses on and off to represent the ones and zeroes we use to encode pretty much anything and everything nowadays. And I’m pretty sure that I’m still right about that. However, the other important thing mentioned in the previous link was the idea of standards. How do we know that extraterrestrial computers would see the signal pattern 01101000 01100101 01101100 01101100 01101111 as a basic “hello” rather than complete gibberish? What if they use higher bit numbers but don’t have something like UTF-8 to display ASCII code? By the way, all this is assuming that they even have a standard for dealing with a binary data stream written in a human language, an assumption we really can’t make.

Maybe a better way to get an intelligent species’ attention is to send something much more basic than quips with simple greetings we hope they can decode. How about beaming a long sequence of prime numbers to show that we understand patterns in basic mathematics, like something right out of Contact? Or perhaps we could borrow from Morse code and send a rudimentary exercise in building words out or letters which aliens could recognize as an attempt at intelligent communication revolving around patterns, symbols, and codes? It might not be decodable for them, but that sequence in and of itself should be a clue that it’s not some kind of an astronomical anomaly. Still, even at such a basic level that doesn’t involve any language, just patterns we would use to distinguish ourselves from the background hum of the cosmos, we’re making some very basic assumptions about what would interest our hypothetical aliens. What if they want to hear a deity-like booming voice from the sky and will ignore anything else as irrelevant? What if they have no eyes or ears and navigate their world only by their sense of smell and an exchange of chemicals? What if they have no written language or formal mathematics and can’t recognize our attempts at showing them how well we’re able to understand and encode patterns make no impression on them? We can certainly try to develop some protocols for trying to contact alien life, but we have to be realistic about active SETI’s odds of success. At best, we could only be confident that we’ll attract the attention of a species very much like us, and this species would take a very, very long time to find because it would have to be so mentally similar…

# astrobiology // active seti / alien civilizations / alien contact


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