In a recent Wired article the author looks at what they got right in Ender’s Game about communicating with aliens. Basically it comes down to this: communicating with an alien race would be very difficult if not impossible. Not in the technically difficult but trivial sense of translation but more fundamentally. He uses the example of a bat or dolphin to illustrate how different our experience might be if we were not primarily visual and auditory and, following from this, how different our language would be if we experienced the world through other senses. This also applies to how we communicate maths and science and casts some doubt on how we often think about this problem.
Solutions tend to involve what we consider to be fundamental concepts such as prime numbers or the basic physics, cosmology and biology depicted on Sagan’s Pioneer plaques. But would these really make sense to an alien species?
Obviously the plaques are visual and could well be essentially “invisible” to an alien species. The same may apply to the methods we choose when broadcasting messages, our use of radio waves for example is a product of our history and particular atmosphere as much as it is a result of research and engineering. It may be a very unusual form of communication, or as we have seen here on Earth, simply short lived in a society that moves to optical transmission or other technologies.
In one of our research projects we began to think about the idea of artificial “synesthaesia” and how we might somehow build new senses by mapping the output of sensors to existing cortical structures. We know that people can learn to “see” braille, which is a remapping of sorts, but we also know that sighted people cannot learn the skill as the processing happens in the visual cortex of the blind. Sighted people do not have the available processing space.
The main goal of that project was focal multi-site brain stimulation so not much has been done along these lines yet but the idea has taken hold. More recently the Human Computer Confluence community have been looking at how technologies such as these, along with VR and the study of Presence might lead to techniques for re-experiencing reality. It occurs to me that these two topics are very closely linked and could well be an interesting research topic. As it happens the up-coming Horizon2020 research program includes an interesting topic called “Knowing, doing and being” that may be relevant for this.
“This initiative addresses the interdisciplinary fundamentals of knowing, thinking, doing and being, in close synergy with foundational research on future artificial cognitive systems and robots. It aims at renewing ties between the different disciplines studying knowledge (especial beyond the ‘declarative’ and action oriented kind of knowledge), cognition (e.g., perception, understanding, learning. action) and related issues (e.g., embodiment, thinking. development, Insight, knowledge as a social construct, Identity, responsibility, culture … ) from various perspectives (e.g., neural, behavioural, social, epistemological), enriching the basis for research that takes artificial cognitive systems beyond the level of dull task execution.”
By manipulating the experience of artificial cognitive systems we could learn a lot about how an alien intelligence might see the world.
This will certainly also have implications for our understanding of our own development. In The Information James Gleick highlights the importance of language and metaphor in our own experience of reality. This is so important that preliterate humans would have had a vastly different experience of reality compared to ours. Our knowledge and some ways of thinking have been made possible by the written word. One of his most simple examples is “to look something up” from the work of Ong, where the very concept would have been meaningless to preliterate human. It’s also quite obviously a visual metaphor unique to a visual race.
So maybe we need look no further than our own past for an example of an alien consciousness that we would have trouble communicating with.