This is How We Would Communicate With Aliens | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
If aliens exist, then we'll need a way to talk to them! For this video, Unveiled looks at how the human race would try to communicate with an extraterrestrial being - if one was discovered! From simple sounds and movements to complex attempts like the Arecibo message and Carl Sagan's "Golden Record"... speaking to aliens is not an easy task! But planet Earth does have a lot of smart ideas...

How Would We Communicate with Aliens?

Through words, expressions, cues or signs various species can co-operate and survive. But, other than some isolated examples and one-off cases - like how Koko the gorilla learnt sign language - we’re yet to achieve full, absolute inter-species communication between anything on Earth. Add proposed extraterrestrial beings into the conundrum, then, and the problem deepens.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; How would we communicate with aliens?

As always, the vastness of space poses a major challenge here. We know, because of the universal speed limit of lightspeed, that for as long as an alien race isn’t actually on Earth itself, there’d be a significant time lag between sending and receiving messages of any kind. The closest star system to our own is Alpha Centauri, which has at least one potentially habitable exoplanet… But between us and it there’s an eight year time delay between sending the first message and receiving the first response. Building any kind of relationship via a conversation which a) takes generations to complete and b) is probably nonsensical for both parties just… isn’t going to work. So, for the purposes of today’s question, we’re imagining that one of us has arrived onto the planet of the other. It’s humans on another world… or aliens on Earth!

From Earth’s point of view, perhaps we’d first try to establish whether there’s a common language. The human race itself speaks over 6,500 languages, though… and communicating between ourselves is often tricky… so the chances of never-before-seen aliens boasting a rich vocabulary of recognisable words aren’t all that high!

From there, we could try to find shared physical characteristics like facial expressions or body language. But again, even within our own species these signs aren’t always universal and can lead to confusion. With an alien species, though, they could be completely redundant. Unlike in a lot of sci-fi films, alien beings would most likely look nothing like us. We assume the human form to be normal, but aliens could be built in a completely different way. They might not have a face to make expressions with, for example. And even in the highly unlikely event that an extra-terrestrial race did look like us, there’d be no reason to think that their thought processes, reactions and emotions would mirror ours. They could appear happy, content and welcoming when really, they’re not!

The key to truly understanding each other would be in ditching cultural concepts (that is, anything that humans have developed over their history) in favour of universally understood principles. We’d have to find a form of communication that any intelligent species, anywhere in the universe, would understand. But what exactly is that?

We gave it a lot of thought back in 1977 when we launched the Voyager spacecrafts. Originally an idea of Carl Sagan’s, both crafts were equipped with a “golden record” etched with messages from humanity for any potential life forms that might come across them. Most of the messages were in some way linked to the observable universe, something which is shared among all beings - at least from the vantage point of Earth. The golden records include a map of where our planet is in the cosmos, for example, by providing the locations of the 14 nearest pulsars to us - which act as guideposts for astronomers. We also included the sounds of Earth; a recording with songs and speech, along with diagrams on how to play it. And to provide information on when the records were first sent, we coated them in Uranium-238, which decays at a consistent and predictable rate. Theoretically, the alien beings that might intercept it could work backwards and determine the age of the record without having to understand any words or language. In general, the hope was (and still is, seeing as the Voyagers are still going!) that science is the most likely candidate for a universal language.

More specifically, we’ve got mathematics - something it’s likely that any intelligent extraterrestrial species would need to in some way understand to develop technology. So, we could try breaking down barriers with numbers. Again, the first goal would be to find what we have in common, perhaps by identifying and comparing basic units of measurement… by applying them to the most fundamental, physical aspects of their and our worlds - the mass of objects; the distance between here and there; the periods during which a star is visible in the sky, for example. Once we each have a grip on what numbers mean for each other, we could develop a scale through which we can translate everything else - a Rosetta Stone of sorts where we start to forge meaning. Naturally, there are issues here, too. Our numbers are not their numbers. Our “number nine” looks like and means what it does, but it’s alien and meaningless to anything that isn’t human. And we wouldn’t be able to refer to our numbers as “numbers”, because that’d be just as absurd. Mathematics is more simply a way of quantifying the universe, and it’s applicable in every sector of the galaxy that beings are likely to live in, because the laws of nature are the same everywhere. In this way, it does at least offer a link between humans and anything else.

Once we have that link, we (since we have the ability to see) could begin to decipher how the beings in front of us communicate with one another. Because once we knew that (even if we, ourselves, couldn’t replicate it) we’d have begun to understand even more. In this way, it’s not too dissimilar to how we understand other animal species on Earth; we can’t speak to dogs, for example, but we can see if they’re happy, scared, tired or irritated. And the possibilities are pretty endless, here. Certain movements might mean certain things; or changes in colour; changes in shape; or particular noises. Honeybees for example, communicate concepts like distance and flight time through intricate “waggle dances” where they position themselves relative to the sun and fly in a deliberate figure-of-eight pattern. Humans have figured that out after years of study… and we’d face endless, similar challenges with a creature from another planet.

First, we’d need a grip on the basics, and then we’d drill down into the specifics. And honeybee-style visuals could prove the key. Through our current understanding of the natural world we could make sense of the “other”, but also present ourselves in a universal and intelligible way. Frank Drake, with the help of Carl Sagan, created the Arecibo Message with this idea in mind. It was a pictographic representation of basic human concepts which was sent out toward the globular star cluster M13, in 1974. It depicts various aspects of human civilization - including our numbers from one to ten, information about DNA, and a human figure of average height - but is represented in binary code, to standardise the data. When translated, it forms basic pictures, or visuals, of all of that information. It will take another 25,000 years before the Arecibo Message arrives at its destination, thanks again to the enormity of space… and there’s no telling whether it would or wouldn’t work… but it’s one way that scientists have found to one day “speak to aliens”.

Naturally, any effort to link with proposed extra-terrestrials requires a significant amount of trust. For some, even by beaming out messages that won’t possibly be received for thousands of years, we could be placing Earth in a vulnerable position. And even in the event that we were face-to-face with an alien (or face-to-whatever-it-is-they-have!), any effort to find a common ground isn’t without risk. Both sides of this futuristic, hypothetical summit would need to surrender information about themselves, potentially revealing their own weaknesses as well as strengths. But to make any progress, there would have to be some compromise. The need to understand would have to beat the impulse to shut down.

Some argue that we’d be too different to ever understand each other. Stanislaw Lem provided an example in his book; “His Master’s Voice,” where he gives the phrase; “Grandmother dead, funeral Wednesday.” These are four words that can be reasonably understood by any human (when translated into various languages), but not by anything else. For Lem, understanding the phrase requires too many reference points - you have to already have ideas on death, family, cultural traditions and a concept of days. If an alien race was, say, immortal, and it reproduced asexually, and was alive on a planet without a sun… they’d perhaps never be able to truly understand.

But, linguistically-speaking, let’s not run before we can walk. Before we could even begin to think about holding complex conversations with beings of another world, we’d need to achieve basic communication using universal concepts. And before that we’d need to find and make first contact with extra-terrestrials in the first place. But that’s how we would communicate with aliens.