the trouble with an alien-human dictionary

A new app that's supposed to teach aliens how to communicate with us seems to underestimate just how different aliens and their technology would be...

alien explorer ships

If there’s anything I’m trying to convey when talking about active SETI attempts, it’s that talking to a completely alien creature will be very, very difficult due to the very likely differences in our communication standards, no matter whether we try talking to the aliens themselves or to intelligent alien spacecraft that might just be floating out there, exploring deep space. It’s not impossible mind you, but we probably shouldn’t expect to dial in to an alien communication frequency and start chatting about our respective home worlds without having to learn some sort of intermediate language which would bridge the gap between our species.

Even seemingly simple binary messages being beamed out into space rely on a lot of assumptions about how alien astronomers would view computers, information, and computing protocols. But as I was recently informed in the comment section, it turns out that there’s an artificial language transmitter designed to teach aliens how to speak our language is in the works, and it will virtually eliminate all those pesky standards, protocols, and guesswork from interstellar communication by teaching aliens the building blocks of our languages.

It’s called CosmicOS, which seems a bit like a misnomer to me since it’s not really an operating system, but a logic dictionary based on propositional and first-order logic. In other words, the kind of math taught with books that have no numbers in them, other than to mark the pages and chapters that is. Usually, an OS refers to a software platform that manages hardware and implements several layers of the OSI model using special dynamic libraries and something called a kernel, which is basically an interface between a hardware component and its abstraction in the control panel where you manipulate its settings, so calling this textbook in code format an operating system seems rather grand.

But it is a neat idea because it’s meant to create an alien-friendly message which will show them how we communicate on Earth and allow them to develop their own means of replying to us using the same building blocks. Sort of like Contact but without the cheesy little reunion that totally ruined the anticipation of the story’s climax and with two-way communication, albeit with a very significant delay. Just imagine getting a signal from another world orbiting another star, running the data you get through a relatively small program, and seeing a readout of what extraterrestrials are saying on your nearest computer screen be it a short hello or a full rundown of their greatest literary works.

However, as nice as it sounds, it falls far short of the advertised promise of bridging the protocol divide for the very simple reason that it’s written in Perl and Java, high level programming languages with outputs designed to meet ASCII standards. Far from circumventing communication protocols, they rely on one. And it’s certainly not extraterrestrial software either since we can’t actually send the code to another solar system and expect a life form we’ve never seen or met to actually run it. Your typical Java program is compiled with a unique virtual machine into a bytecode which is then broken down into assembly objects that carry out the instructions.

How will aliens even know what a JVM is and where they’ll have to get it, much less that we expect them to load the message they get into an IDE and run it? And yes, all those intermediate steps between the source code and its execution are necessary because they’re what allow high level programming languages to represent pure abstractions and work with objects, cycles, and design patterns while low-level tasks, like garbage collection and what gets pushed into and popped from the stack, are automated in the background. That’s a lot of elaborate overhead to expect an extraterrestrial civilization to implement exactly as we did if they even tried to implement it at all. Maybe they do their computing with living cells rather than electrons, or jumped right into a molecular computer rather than follow the same arc of technological development that we did.

To send aliens code written in high level languages would require that they basically run the same operating systems we have on our computers on machines that work exactly like ours. And this is why CosmicOS is a major misnomer. It’s not trying to providing an intermediate operating system for alien computers. It attempts to give creatures living on other worlds enough of a grasp of how we communicate to parse our messages at some point in the future. Unfortunately, it’s trying to do so with implementations of what are a set of mathematical abstractions which may or may not be useful to an alien species, implementations which produce either ASCII text, or binary signals which will require a machine capable of translating an ASCII code.

It sounds simple, but this is something that we had a hard time doing while negotiating how we’d represent text across each and every computer in the world at the dawn of the PC age. And if we had a hard time standardizing how we’re going to parse and interpret our own binary noise, just imagine how difficult it would be for alien creatures to arrive at the same standards. Oh they will know that we’re trying to communicate and that we’re saying something to them if they’re intelligent and have the means to detect our signals. But what we want to say may forever be lost on them, including our attempts to teach it how our language works and trying to give it a textbook on how it could respond…

# astrobiology // alien civilizations / alien contact / computer science


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