Weird Alien Communication: What Language Should We Use?

 “Ou Est La Bibliotheque?  Dans Le Black Hole?”

Alright, you’ve successfully gotten the attention of Kraaa-AAgg on Zebulon Beta.  In what can only be described as a major surprise, it turns out he does not speak English and has no idea what you’re saying.  Now what?

Here’s what:  you need to devise a common language, some basic level communication that you both understand.  Once you achieve a common understanding and revel in the thrill of first contact, you’ll then move on to accomplish the important goal of true communication: bore the shit out of the aliens.


Devised by Dr. Hans Freudenthal in a book called Lincos: Design of a Language for Cosmic Intercourse.   I wonder if he ever gets people making jokes about that title.  Nah…

Think of Lincos (and other artificially-designed languages) as the complete opposite of a secret code — this is a language designed to be easily understood & decoded, by anyone.  The point is to strip out as much human-centric syntax and conventions as possible.  Where the hell do you even start?  Well, if you’ve read Carl Sagan’s “Contact”, you’ll know what conclusion most scientists have come to on this question: start with math.  Yeah, that’s right, throw some math at them.  The idea being that math (and logic) might be the only thing we share in common with intelligent alien life.  It will take quite some time to teach the aliens what we humans call “emotion”, but hopefully 1 + 1 is still 2 over there.  So you send over some obvious simple math statements encoded in your symbols, hope they figure out that “+” means addition, and bootstrap yourself up from there.

So Lincos starts with hopefully self-evident expressions for integers, basic arithmetic, simple algebra, then gets into propositional logic and set theory, culminating in zzzzz…  zzzzWHAAA?  Sorry, I dozed off.  And peed myself slightly.1  Later on, we get into the concept of an “individual”, of individuals conversing with each other, and to illustrate behavior and interaction, we get to listen in on fascinating dialogue such as this:

“Ha Inq Hb ?x 2x=5”        (translated:  “Ha says to Hb:  what is X, such that 2X = 5?”)
“Hb Inq Hc ?y y Inq Hb ?x 4x=10”    (translated: “Hb says to Hc: Who asked me for the x such that 4x=10?”)
“Ha Inq Hb Colt45”        (translated:  “Ha tells Hb to bring over some beer”)

So here’s our gameplan: after we make initial contact, but before we can start joining each other’s fantasy football leagues, we’ll send off the entire Lincos user manual for them to digest.  After they decipher the (hopefully) self-evident language, they’ll be able to form responses in Lincos, and perhaps teach us some of their terminology.  After a while, we’ll be talking back and forth in a new language, not native to either civilization, but evolved from Lincos.  This will all work out well, assuming we can trust them to sit down with the user’s manual and teach themselves basic Lincos.

I’m sorry, but I’m picturing the lucky alien that receives the Lincos dictionary having a hard time getting through it.  “Whew…  They just sent me a 600-page book that starts off with number theory and some dude named ‘Hb’.   And I can’t converse with them until I teach myself this language.  Better go brew a pot of space coffee.  Hmm, it’s odd that I call it ‘space coffee’ — you’d think I’d just call it ‘coffee’.  Nah, let’s just dick around on twitter for a while…”  Thus ends our only hope for joining the Intergalactic Confederation.

If you’re curious, you can pick up a copy of “Cosmic Intercourse” over here, for the low low price of…  two hundred and seventy bucks?  Holy crap!  For that price, it better have tons of full-color fold-out photos of cosmic intercourse.


Some of the CosmicOS source code. Yep, that sure is a self-explanatory language.

Inspired by Lincos, CosmicOS is another attempt to devise a universally-understandable language for that ever-so-important first impression we make on intelligent alien life.  In this case, the language is designed to send messages in the form of computer programs, under the theory (I presume) that like math, computer programming and algorithms ought to be universally recognizable by any intelligence.  Built by Paul Fitzpatrick, CosmicOS has a couple of remarkable features.  For one, there are only four letters in the alphabet for CosmicOS: zero, one, left bracket, and right bracket.  The idea (I think) is that with some thought, everything written in this language will be self-explanatory enough that you don’t need a translator.

For another, there’s the unique approach to getting their message through to the aliens.  The goal, from their website:

“The current goal of development work on CosmicOS is to communicate enough structure to simulate a simple MUD (multi-user dungeon) and to use the interactions between locations, objects, and characters as an alternative to the clever “morality plays” in Lincos.”

Wait, what?  A “multi-user dungeon”?  Is this for an interplanetary D&D game?  “Kraaaa-AANG rolls his dice for hit points…. well, would you look at that!  I rolled a 20!  Again!  Pity you can’t be here to see this, separated by 3245 light years as we are… but wow am I on a roll!  Your turn!”  I can’t find any further clarification of what this means, and so I don’t know if my fervent hopes are correct that this is meant to start an intergalactic LARP-ing club.  I would contact the creator myself, but I’ve been quite the smartass here, so let’s just keep my snarky jokes at his expense to ourselves, shall we?  To be fair, Paul seems like he’s got a good sense of humor (and I encourage you to check out his sites), and surely has thought of much better D&D jokes about his own project than I ever could.

Interplanetary Internet:

While not technically focused on communication with aliens, I wanted to mention this admirable example of taking the long view: an internet protocol for interplanetary communication.  Yes:  someone has spent time thinking about how we’ll extend the internet into space.  It’s actually  intended for easy communication among earth-made devices, not to interface our computers with any alien devices.  For example, using the interplanetary internet, you can FTP up to the Mars Rover using the same FTP protocols you use to … ah, who am I kidding, you kids don’t use FTP anymore.  Hmm, what do you use?  Gopher?  NCSA Mosaic?   Email me your ICQ name and I’ll get back to you with a more up-to-date example.

To date, we haven’t really had to use this yet.  Now, you might be thinking “no shit!”, but there are plenty of satellites and probes and whatnot that we have scattered around our solar system, and the idea is that we’ll eventually have them all talking to each other using this protocol. The now-cancelled Mars Telecommunications Orbiter would have been the first legitimate node in the Interplanetary Internet away from Earth.  Otherwise, we’ve gotten by with custom-made communications protocols to communicate with our various space probes.

And the primary use for this system hardly needs to be mentioned: so that the first brave astronauts to set foot on Mars are still able to download porn from the internet.   (And with that weak joke, I have now guaranteed a whole new class of spam will be targeting my site…)


Next Up:   Indistinguishable From Noise   >>


1.  It wasn’t “slightly”.  I pissed myself most robustly.

© 2011 TimeBlimp Thith ith a pithy statement. Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha