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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Intelligence, part two

Inter-species communication on earth has met, to date, with only limited success. The most successful instances of inter-species communication have all involved a wide spectrum of visual, auditory, tactile and other sensory cues, such as the Fouts' work with chimpanzees. Crafting a communication which can be broadcast on radio frequencies and which will be comprehensible to an intelligence other than ourselves is not a small task. Any communication which is deliberately transmitted to other stars should, at the very least, be readily comprehensible to all humans from all cultures on this planet, and it should also be readily comprehensible to all other species on this planet which are estimated to have intelligence in any way analogous to humans. More, it should be such that all such species comprehending it would be able to convey their comprehension of it to the humans transmitting it in such a way that the humans would understand conclusively that
comprehension was being conveyed. This problem of “comprehensibly conveyed
comprehension” is crucial to SETI.

For example, if we were to attempt to convey our intelligence to a spiny anteater (which has a much higher neocortex-to-body-weight ratio than humans, and is therefore, by some definitions of intelligence, significantly and demonstrably more intelligent than we are) by means of tapping out “x, xx, xxx, xxxxx, xxxxxxx”, then a response from the anteater which indicated its comprehension that it was being communicated with might be tapping out “x, xx, xxx, xxxxx, xxxxxxx”, whereas a response which indicated its comprehension of the meaning of the communication might be tapping out “xxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx”, in this case simply continuing the string of prime numbers for the same consecutive interval as the transmission. However, responses such as 15 taps or 120 taps (the units of the original message added or multiplied together, respectively) might also convey comprehension of part of the meaning of the message, if not the actual intent. However, it is not impossible that the spiny anteater, with its relatively massive neocortex, is possessed of a mathematics so far advanced of our own that the “obvious” relationship of these numbers to it would be utterly incomprehensible to us or even unrecognizable as an intelligent response.

To date, our attempts at deliberate communication with extraterrestrials have been mostly undecipherable even to the majority of humans living in the same culture as the scientists creating the messages. Obviously, this cannot work; language is by definition symbolic, and without a universal (even if rudimentary) symbol set, communication will not occur.

We may presume, for example, that hydrogen occurs in any place that life exists.
However, humans have only been aware of the existence of hydrogen since Paracelsus, and it was not until Cavendish that it was isolated as a unique gas, and it is very unlikely that Neils Bohr would have recognized the Schrodinger/Heisenburg model of a hydrogen atom as anything related to chemistry. So it is probably unreasonable to assume that a non-human intelligence would have any ability to decipher a human’s symbolic representation of a hydrogen atom, from any given point in human history.
Dolphins and other cetaceans, for example, are believed by many humans to be likely terrestrial candidates for non-human intelligence. It is unlikely, however, that most dolphins would understand a human’s symbolic representation of a hydrogen atom, or binary notation of numerals, or consecutive strings of prime numbers. At least, as of this writing, no dolphin has clicked a consecutive string of prime numbers to any human capable of comprehending the significance of prime numbers; it may simply be that dolphins consider humans mathematically inept.

Symbolic representations of hydrogen atoms, binary notation, and prime numbers
each, at one time or another, have been deliberately transmitted into space, in hopes that some other species somewhere might recognize us as intelligent. Perhaps the most eloquent, although probably equally incomprehensible, messages sent
deliberately into deep space to date were not a radio or light transmission at all, but rather two identical drawings etched in 6” by 9” gold-anodized aluminum plates, attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft.

Punch magazine was quick to point out some possible misinterpretations of the etchings. Among the quotes of the hypothetical alien scientists attempting to decipher the etchings--

“A suggestion that it could be a map of some metropolitan railway has been made to us, but we feel that this fails to take into account the arrowed position of a capsized yacht…”

“The illustrated talent for the creature on the right to be capable of firing arrows from the shoulder is a particularly sinister turn…”


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