02 November 1991

Alien Minds

But the barriers of distance are crumbling; one day we shall meet our equals, or our masters, among the stars. — Arthur C. Clarke, preface to 2001: A space odyssey, 1968.
Oh, there may be intelligent extra-terrestrial life, but not in science fiction. The Aliens just aren't alien enough. On a Cosmic scale of weirdness, every extra-terrestrial intelligent being described in any detail in science fiction is a Human Being. The attributes of a Human Being on a Cosmic Weirdness scale are that it communicates using a time sequence of symbols (it talks), and that it has a conscious concept of number (it counts). Writing, drawing a sequence of pictures, telegraphy, telemetry, television, silent movies, are in this sense all talking. Talking and counting seem like operations basic to any intelligence, but they are not. They are merely basic to human intelligence.

Because it's so hard to conceive of intelligence that does not talk and count, science fiction gives up. So do scientists who try to estimate the number of extra-terrestrial civilizations there may be. Typically, they believe an extra-terrestrial civilization will necessarily become a technological civilization in some fashion that we might recognize, such as by colonizing other worlds, emitting radio waves, etc. This need not be the case at all, because a highly intelligent set of aliens could be extremely different from us. Technology is a human thing, but not necessarily a Human Being thing, much less a non-Human alien thing. Technology arises only if an intelligent organism feels itself poorly adapted to its environment, and thinks it can do better than merely to use its natural gifts. (What would a whale hit with a hammer, even if it could hold one?) Not all intelligent alien civilizations will be technological. Perhaps technology is only a phase of our own civilization, which will go away when we engineer ourselves and our society to do what we want to do without machines. It is naive on the part of many scientists to assume that any advanced civilization will be accompanied by some observable technology.

But how weird can an alien get? It depends on a creature's physiology, environment, and sensorium (the way it senses its environment). Let's start closer to home, with porpoises and other toothed whales.

Toothed whales share many features of our sensorium. They can see, feel, hear, taste, and touch. I'll consider smelling to be tasting the water for a whale. Maybe they smell the air they breathe. But consider that hearing for a whale may be very different from hearing for you and me. Toothed whales use a form of sonar . They generate underwater sound waves, which reflect off objects, obstacles, and other sea creatures. We may call the reception of the reflected sound waves hearing, but in doing so we may mislead ourselves. If you shouted, and listened to the echo, you could tell how far away a reflecting structure was by timing the echo and multiplying by half the speed of sound, and maybe something about its shape by listening to how the pitch of the echo varied in time. Performing such operations continuously would take up so much of your consciousness that you couldn't do anything else, and would quickly become exhausted.

Obviously, whales must have some hard wiring in their brains that does all that for them and more. They can probably process sound coming from several directions at once, for example. Throw in a little signal processing and pattern recognition, and you have something more like vision than hearing. I would guess that whales "see" with sound, that they perceive sound two dimensionally, the way we perceive light. They may even see sound in color, with color representing different frequencies of sound, and gray level representing intensity.

However, the similarity with human seeing cannot be entirely accurate. Sound waves penetrate flesh to some extent. This means that whales might see partly into whatever or whoever they are sonaring, sort of like having "x-ray eyes" or doing a sonogram. Moreover, some of the sound they emit can be felt with the sense of touch, as some divers have reported. Perhaps the courtship songs of whales in close proximity are really ways of feeling one another up. But whales in close proximity to one another might not only receive sound two-dimensionally, they might transmit sound two-dimensionally. They might send sound "feely-pictures" to one another.

I stress the close proximity for sound picture communication, because it would be impossible when whales are far away from one another. The sonar spatial resolution goes down with the distance, just like objects that are far away appear smaller than objects that are nearby. If the object is far enough away it appears to be a single point. At even greater distances, it disappears. All this means that at long distances, whales may not talk to one another, but merely signal one another. Long distance whale communication may bear the same resemblance to close up whale speech as ELF radio messages (usually consisting of a single letter with a pre-arranged significance) bear to human speech.

Such a richness in a whale's sound sensorium, if it exists, would naturally make it nearly impossible for us to communicate with them. A linear sequence of tones (coming from a creature nearby) would be as meaningless to them as a semaphore is to someone who doesn't know the code. The whales may have concluded long ago that humans have a rudimentary signaling capability, but have not acquired speech.

On the other hand, the complex picture-like communication of a whale would seem like a lot of random gibberish, if you listen to it with a single microphone. Perhaps it would be better to use a large array of underwater microphones (hydrophones). We could then use well-known techniques of acoustic signal processing and digital image processing to produce sound pictures from whale communications. Still, unless we could mimic the neural processing of a whale, we would never see what the whale sees. We may partly decipher their long distance signaling, but whale speech may be forever unintelligible to us.

Now I am assuming (which is by no means justified at this point) that whales are intelligent, and that they talk. They are nearly Human Beings on the Cosmic Weirdness scale, and we can't even communicate with them. What makes us think that we can communicate meaningfully with an extra-terrestrial intelligence? The usual way of doing this is to send out streams of ones and zeroes via modulated radio waves, which the aliens could presumably assemble into a picture, or into a representation of the periodic table of elements, or some such thing that is assumed to be fundamental to all intelligence. First the aliens may not even use radio. Even if they did, they might never hit on the demodulation method necessary to decode the zeroes and ones. Even if they did that, they might never be able to make sense of it, because they may have no concept of number.

Consider for a moment. Do whales count? I doubt it. Whales do not possess anything. They never carry anything around. Why should they count? Of course, whales have no material technology, but a concept of number is not necessary for that. Hands are, but not numbers.

Take the technology of cooking. Some cooks who are familiar with a recipe can just make it, without measuring a thing. Or take computers - they are non-living machines that have no concepts of anything at all, much less of numbers. Yet numbers are all a computer works with, performing extremely complex operations with them. If you had a computer in your head, you might just know the right amount of anything, without having to count it consciously. You might be capable of extremely complex mathematics, even science and engineering, without having any conscious concept of number. If you doubt it, read the account of the autistic twins who could determine large primes in their heads in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks.
So an alien with a differently organized brain might never count; it might just go by what felt right, and develop a language around those feelings that would be forever unintelligible to a creature that didn't have those feelings - such as a Human Being. And the things Human Beings feel to be the most fundamental in all the Universe, numbers, may be forever unintelligible to them.

How about pictorial communication? Can whales understand a photograph? Not if they are blindfolded and can only use their sonar. As I mentioned, whale sonar doesn't just reflect off the surface of objects, it partly penetrates them, and reflects off their interiors, too. This "inside information" may be necessary for some whales to recognize an object. Since sonaring a two dimensional photograph yields completely different information than sonaring a three dimensional form, blindfolded whales would cue on the thickness and texture of the photograph, but never perceive the image on its surface. What an alien might make of a transmitted image, even if it could assemble it correctly, is anyone's guess. Only a fortunate coincidence of compatible sensoriums would make understanding possible. Even the pictorial representations engraved on a plate carried on Voyager are unlikely to be understood by an alien intelligence.

All the above argument indicates that I view meaningful communication with an alien intelligence as essentially impossible. No transmitted messages, friends. SETI and other successors to Project Ozma may find a recognizable message, but the absence of one doesn't mean there is no intelligent life out there. Just no Human Beings. Let's work on communicating with whales first.
What about an actual encounter with an alien, up close and personal? First, it's a big Universe. The odds of an earthling-alien encounter happening are infinitesimally low. But say an encounter happened anyway. Then what? My bet, and my hope, is that absolutely nothing would happen. Neither party would be likely to notice the other.

How can this be? Well, what kind of alien are we most likely to encounter? The kind most abundantly found in space, of course. And the most abundant alien, will probably be one that is adapted to living in space without a space suit or even possibly without a spaceship, either naturally, or through some equivalent of genetic engineering. Space would be its home. In its dormant state, which would occupy the vast majority of its time so as to conserve nutrients and energy, it might resemble a rock. Would you suspect a rock, tumbling through space, to be alive, much less intelligent? Probably not. You wouldn't notice it. And it wouldn't notice you, because most likely it would be asleep. Even if it were awake, it would be looking for intelligent life among the other rocks. You would be disregarded.
This brings up some dimensions of behavior that must be compatible with us, if we are to observe an alien life form, much less establish communication. The alien must exhibit some kind of overt behavior frequently enough, and for a long enough time, and at about the right speed, or we won't notice it. A creature that moved 1/1000 of an inch in a ten-thousandth of a second, and then didn't move again for a year, would probably be disregarded as inanimate. After all, would you know that corals were alive if someone hadn't told you?

And even if we did notice the alien, how could we ever dream of communicating with it? Communication can only take place about things that are already common to the consciousness of both parties. There might not be anything we could talk about with them.

But if we did encounter an alien, and if it did behave in a way that we could notice, even if it didn't notice us, could we be in any danger? Suppose the alien could levitate - producing some form of anti-gravity via some law of physics that we have not discovered (like Arthur C. Clarke's inertialess drive). We, being in thrall to technology, might figure out a way to do it, too. And that would change our society and our destiny in unpredictable ways. It would be supremely ironic if, after an encounter with aliens in which no information whatsoever were communicated, our culture responded with self-destruction.

What do those whales talk about, anyway? Not technology. Maybe poetry. The intricate beauty of the ocean surface, as sonared from below on a windy day. It makes you want to breach for the pure joy of it.

Editor's Note: An abridgement of this article appeared in OMNI magazine under the title "Cosmic Babble." Used with permission.

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