If there are aliens out there, how will we communicate?

The SETI Institute, before Christmas, held a workshop to tackle the problem of understanding any message we may receive from intelligent extraterrestrial life and how we would reply if we did get the message.

The SETI Institute searches for radio signals from other civilisations with the Allen Telescope Array, but does not transmit signals to other worlds.The meeting at SETI’s Mountain View, California, headquarters was closed to the public, but it has released videos of some of the presentations on its website.

Speakers from six countries drew on disciplines ranging from astronomy and mathematics, to anthropology and linguistics,when considering the best ways to create meaningful messages.

“As we search for a universal language to communicate with civilizations beyond Earth, where should we start? Math? Pictures? Something else?” asked Douglas Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and organizer of the workshop. “It may be much more difficult to create an understandable message than we’ve thought in the past, and our workshop faces those challenges head on.

Recommendations from the meeting will be included in a report of the International Academy of Astronautics’ Study Group on Interstellar Message Construction.

Kim Binstead, who research projects look at artificial intelligence, human-computer interfaces, and long-duration human space exploration, described the problem, saying the message we send should not be arbitrary, but designed to be understood by an intelligent recipient with minimal knowledge of the sender.

Carrie Paterson, meanwhile, suggested that we should try to embed decodable information on what it is like to live on Earth, including data on on different smells. She proposed possible technological solutions for sending multi-channel SETI signals rather just a stream of linear, binary information.

Even though SETI is yet to discover any signs of life beyond Earth, its president and CEO David Black says we should be prepared.

“In the past few years, astronomers have shown that most stars have planets, so there could be many worlds where life has arisen. If we discover life beyond Earth, especially technological life, it would have a profound effect on humanity. We need to take concrete steps now to plan for first contact,” he says.


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