Talking To Intelligent Life Out There

I’ve been thinking about the nature of intelligence lately. Every severe bout with a migraine leaves me squarely focused on my brain, my stupid, dumb brain. It always starts the same way. The throbbing subsides, my muscles ache from being stiff, I slowly rise from my catatonic stupor, and I think to myself, “Seriously, brain. Why are you such a dick?” I then make up for it by trying to think about something profound. The profundity never shows up, but an interesting question pops up on occasion. I’ll let my Facebook status take it from here:

How would we recognize intelligence if we were to come across alien life? How do we recognize intelligence here? The human race is a deeply self-absorbed species. Because we’ve developed the ability to contemplate the universe and our place in it, we’ve come to assume we’re the only who can. It’s one of those defining qualities about us. We always think we live at the end of history and are the pinnacle of it. For all our creative elasticity, we seem to intrinsically lack the ability to imagine intelligence different from our own.

So we measure all intelligence on a human scale. By our scale, we’re the blueprint. We sit at the top of the intellectual ladder and everything falls below us on a graduating scale, with the things that seem most like us occupying the higher rungs.

A simple definition for intelligence (found on Google) is “The ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” We can perhaps make that general description even more nebulous by saying, “the ability to navigate, with intent, through acquired or given data.” Data of course could be any bit of information (e.g. sensory) that can be collated and “interpreted” to become information, which can then be used and more importantly remembered (repeatable) so that it becomes knowledge. We don’t have to break it down like that but we might as well. Either description makes everything from ants to viruses to plants intelligent. So we’re already off to a weak start.

When asked to identify intelligence, we point to ourselves and then to Apes, Dolphins, Whales, and even a few birds like Crows and Parrots. What makes these creatures (ourselves included) so smart? Is it a language, a series of cunning behavior, the making and usage of tools? Do we measure intelligence by their ability to learn (or our ability to train them)? When we talk about artificial intelligence and things like the Turing test, it’s always how human-like the machine is, that we look for.

I have a problem with this human-centric view of intelligence. Take the computer. When a machine does what it was designed to do, it’s allowed to do it because it is much better at it than a human is. It doesn’t matter how many neurons you have or the creativity you’re capable of, show me that you’re capable of multi-tasking to the extent that a computer is and I’ll be impressed. Many people will point out that this is an unfair comparison because processing power or processing efficiency does not equal intelligence. From a scientific standpoint, nothing whose definition can be so nebulous or abstract should be allowed as fact.

We need a more accurate measure or definition if we’re to take it as scientific fact that we are in fact intelligent. In my view of intelligence, the key factor is function. Each brain is adapted to be the best it can be at what it needs to do. The ability to walk bipedal is an excellent example. According to Neuroscientist, Professor Daniel Wolpert, it’s possible that the reason our brain is so outstanding is not so that it can think or feel, but so that it can control movement. The history of our attempts to get robots to walk on two feet as smoothly as we do should show you how incredibly complex the process is. If this is the case, our “intelligence” is incidental.

In recent years people have started taking a closer look at the Octopus. Octopods are as alien as it gets from us. Like every other creature, they are interesting in many ways, and do many interesting things, but scientists are starting to suspect that there is more going on. Octopods show strangely human behavior at times. They decorate their homes, engage in gardening, remember slights and hold grudges, show empathy, adapt in strange ways. This still falls into the same conceit that’s always been there about intelligence. We didn’t begin to notice intelligence until it looked familiar. But Octopods remain immensely alien to us, and lack a brain as large or developed as ours. Somehow, the physical proportions of the brain isn’t a measure of intelligence, is it a stretch that perhaps behavior isn’t an adequate measure either?

I don’t have enough space to write about all the angles of intelligence or the problems with measures. What should be clear is that intelligence is a moving target and may be unrecognizable. There may not be such a thing as a non-intelligent living organism. We keep looking for intelligent life but have no idea what intelligence could look like. It makes no sense. What if the alien life we find represents a bee hive, or viruses, or parasites, or Octopods. Of course I’m indulging in more conceit by using Earth-like life forms but that’s what we’ll work with. If we come across life in deep space, how will we recognize it as intelligent?

For starters, I think we need to decide whether we’re looking for life, or for life we can communicate with. If looking for life, it doesn’t matter. Let’s not even talk about how we might recognize life. But if looking for life we can communicate with, unless we live in the Star Trek universe, I don’t think we can expect humanoid creatures with human-like voice boxes. So we’ll make a few assumptions:

  1. The alien life is intelligent in a communicable manner.
  2. It can and will communicate.
  3. It wants to communicate
  4. It is capable of traversing space in a controlled manner (no matter the speed)
  5. It is non-cybernetic (that would be too easy)

Intelligence aside, how would we communicate with it? The assumptions I’ve made and the preceding paragraphs should put to rest the argument that we wouldn’t be able to recognize the intelligence because it would be so much greater than ours (the same way you pay no mind to a worm). Remember, wanting to communicate and being able to communicate are important.

The obvious answer is math. Math is the language of the universe, as I said in the opening paragraphs of “Selfish Mathematics.” But how would math be an adequate language? If we borrow a trope from Star Trek, or one we see right here on Earth between different nations, some groups develop further along in one aspect than in another. In Star Trek you can come across a race that has barely entered space but has medical technology beyond that of the Federation. We might come across a race so advanced in cybernetics that it’s practically artificial life or one that somehow navigates space willfully but with no recognizable technology.

Math is important because it represents the blueprint of the universe. There are many things we know that don’t quite work or that are good enough, and certain things we know remain a fact no matter what. For example, barring some anomalous situation in space, one ordinary item added to another ordinary item, equals two ordinary items. One plus one equals two. How do we find the circumference of a circle? There may be a thousand other ways to find it, but the end result is the same. Any life form that fits ALL the criteria listed would have developed, whether through concentrated science or through intuition, a form of mathematics to quantify their universe.

[pullquote_right]Rather than having a universal translator like they do in Star Trek, there is a universal language that can be learned quickly through math, and both species translate their language to that central format.[/pullquote_right]The hardest part is communicating what it is we’re trying to quantify. Without speaking the same language or using the same systems, we face each other with a number of tasks. We use our mathematical system to solve these tasks. We then “exchange notes” and attempt to translate each methodology into our system. So one could say: calculate the mass of our star, calculate the circumference of a circle, and calculate the effect of Earth (or whatever planet’s) gravity on a body of given mass in lateral motion, etc. Formula by formula, system by system, we begin to create a humanized version of alien math and can develop a Rosetta stone. The hardest part of that is the actual mechanics of communication (not the same as the language itself).

They may have solutions to problems we have no solution to, but we recognize the problem. We begin to reverse engineer these more complex problems using the Rosetta stone generated from the easier correlating problems. Now you’re thinking, “well great. So now we can do alien math. How does that help us communicate?” That’s the rub. That math is communication itself, but it’s not very expressive.

I would like to see the construction of a mathematical language. The language needs to be logical, simple, expressive, and be able to be represented mathematically. I can’t imagine what this language would look like, and I don’t know if this language would need a sound, but I do know it would be the first truly universal language. The language would need to start from a cosmic level and then distill to the specific. Any alien species stumbled across would have questions of cosmic concern in common with us, and can then be guided to the specifics by us. Rather than having a universal translator like they do in Star Trek, there is a universal language that can be learned quickly through math, and both species translate their language to that central format.

How expressive would such a language be? Would I be able to talk about my emotions? Would it be able to explain intrinsically human subjects to an alien species? I’m intrigued by the philosophical implications of such a language. Is every word a formula of some sort? Could one literally solve mysteries about the universe through talking? This pure mathematical language is something I would like to see people smarter than I working on. The language has to be:

  1. Based on Math
  2. Expressive
  3. Start from the cosmic and filter down to the specific (e.g. describing common bodies in space)
  4. Easy to learn (if approached mathematically)
  5. Able to be communicated in different ways (sound, symbols, colors, whatever)
  6. Adaptive to shifts in mathematical knowledge (or based on the simplest and most immutable mathematical realities.

Is there anyone out there willing to answer the call? Again, this absolutely ignores the problem of the actual mechanics of communication. Do they use sound or light or smell, etc.? Broadcasting human languages, songs, and even images that might mean nothing at all seems counterproductive. A few good brains, some math, and the advice of some linguists should be enough to create a mathematical language. If nothing else, it could be a fun, mathematically and scientifically expressive language for us Terran nerds, a way to separate the language of science from the language of trade and divisive politics, a quicker way to distill knowledge to those who want it, and a convenient way to store information.

2 thoughts on “Talking To Intelligent Life Out There”

    1. Thanks, I’ll ask my doc bout it. Though I find it funny that one of the listed potential side effects is “headache”

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