In December, 2020 ex-CIA Director John Brennan said it was “presumptuous and arrogant” to believe there are no other forms of life than the ones on Earth referring to the recent videos released by the Pentagon of US Navy sightings of UFOs. “I think, some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life,” he said on the podcast “Conversations with Tyler.”
Which raises the profound question: if we ever have contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, will we be able to communicate with them? Will they use a language we could comprehend?
The Big Question
According to linguist Noam Chomsky, “the Martian language might not be so different from human language after all.” And, “if a Martian visited Earth, it would think we all speak dialects of the same language, because all terrestrial languages share a common underlying structure” — he must mean “universal grammar.” Others also believe that since the laws of the universe are supposedly the same everywhere, the language alien civilizations use might be fundamentally similar. Stephen Krashen, on the other hand, wrote “It is possible that alien language will be completely different from human languages.”
However if an alien probe landed on Earth and spoke a language that violated universal grammar, we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learn a human language like English or Chinese, says Chomsky.
Proponents of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) estimate that we will encounter alien intelligence within the next several decades. Even if you hold a more conservative estimate – say, that the chance of encountering alien intelligence in the next 50 years is 5 percent – the stakes for our species are high. Knowing that we are not alone in the universe would be a profound realization, and contact with an alien civilization could produce amazing technological innovations and cultural insights.
So, we should ask: how might aliens think? And perhaps most important, how will they communicate.
“The most sophisticated civilizations will be postbiological, forms of artificial intelligence (AI)”, says philosopher Susan Schneider at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Further, alien civilizations will tend to be forms of superintelligence: intelligence that is able to exceed the best human-level intelligence in every field – social skills, general wisdom, scientific creativity.
Beyond encountering an AI species, can we expect to learn an alien language? The first hurdle would be its medium. Humans communicate in a 85-255 Hz frequency range of sound and in the 430-770 THz frequency range of light. This is unlikely to be true of aliens, who will have evolved differently. Nevertheless, the problem is largely a technical one. Speeded up whale songs that are otherwise inaudible to humans, for instance, show that it is relatively easy to map “alien” stimuli into forms that humans can perceive.
Sentient aliens might not need a language. It’s entirely possible that an alien civilization could develop with solely non-linguistic communication or a proto-language.
Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via The Conversation and Cambridge.org Avi was formerly a NASA Sagan Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL
Image credit top of page: Paramount Pictures movie “Arrival”