Social media is popular because communication empowers individuals. First and foremost, social interactions transfer vastly more information than available to an individual in isolation. This enables the individual to adapt to circumstances based on a large pool of experiences, reported by others. Adaptation to the risks from threats and the benefits of opportunities for prosperity is key for survival, providing an advantage to those with access to more information — according to the Darwinian selection of the fittest.
Second, communication allows individuals to cooperate and enhance their ability to deal with threats or harvest limited resources. Here again, socialization promotes survival.
Common sense suggests that these considerations are universal and apply also to exoplanets beyond Earth. Understanding aliens who survived longer than we did could teach us skills that will promote the longevity of the human species. This is crucial in the face of environmental risks, like the brightening of the Sun — which will likely turn the Earth into a Mars-like desert within a billion years.
The main challenge in benefiting from alien advice lies in our ability to understand it. If we ever receive a package or a signal from aliens, could we decode its intended meaning? This could be challenging since our communication skills were tailored in response to our terrestrial backyard and not the global metropolitan of the Milky Way galaxy or the cosmos at large.
Our ability to comprehend aliens depends on how environmental features shape cognition through sensory information and how language traces different levels of cognition.
Both factors could be daunting. For example, most stars emit infrared radiation rather than visible light. Should we expect infrared eyes to yield different mental states? One way to address this question is to study the brain of the mantis shrimp, whose specialized eyes can pick up both infrared and ultraviolet light and its color vision tops ours. This brain can be contrasted with that of the eyeless shrimp in deep volcanic vents.
Consider another example. Most astrophysical objects with liquid water reservoirs have a crust of frozen ice. Without a clear view of the outside world, could lifeforms in these oceans develop technologies that transmit signals towards stars that are not visible in the darkness under the ice? Might we be similarly blind to various aspects of the cosmos and fail to communicate efficiently with interstellar neighbors?
To reach interstellar distances, individuals within a technological civilization must be able to communicate and cooperate with each other. Our rockets were designed by collaborative projects. By extension, if we ever detect space probes from other civilizations — it would be reasonable to expect their senders to have communication skills.
However, decoding an alien language may be more difficult than breaking the German Enigma code by the British mathematician Alan Turing during World War II. Both the Germans and the British shared the same biological makeup, as well as cultural and scientific heritage. This made it easier for Turing’s team to translate content based on familiar cognitive patterns. However, the communication developed by aliens on exoplanets may have little in common with ours since it was shaped by different environments, different physiological sensors or cognitive processors and different histories of natural selection. Given these factors, do we have the slightest chance of understanding aliens?
A glimmer of hope comes from our new tool of artificial intelligence (AI). If we train AI systems on alien communication messages, might they be able to decode the enigmatic content? Our AI decoders will resemble the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave, who interpret the shadows they see on the cave walls in an attempt to figure out what lies behind their back. Our AI systems will start this challenge as the prisoners of our imagination.
In anticipation of an alien encounter, we can train our AI systems on data sets drawn from a diverse set of imagined exoplanetary environments and study how their cognitive ability and communication skills depend on these circumstances. This will open our eyes to a more diverse set of environments than those encountered on Earth. A better appreciation of how astrophysical circumstances shape cognition would be a scientific manifestation of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”, applied to the global context of the cosmos.
Through experimentation with AI models, we might also learn how to enhance our own cognitive skills beyond the level enabled by natural selection. This cognitive growth would be the result of “artificial selection,” extending the circumstances of natural selection on planet Earth to a broader perspective. After all, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that humans are not the pinnacle of creation based on the daily news reports from around the globe. A more intelligent behavior would avoid wasteful conflicts and focus on enhancing prosperity through better communication and collaboration.
Intelligence and communication are clearly correlated. If aliens reach our doorstep before we reach theirs, it might be because they use a social media algorithm which rewards curiosity and generosity, in contrast to the negativity amplified in our social media. The alternative mode of communication would demonstrate a higher level of intelligence.
Here’s hoping that understanding our neighbors would inspire us to improve ourselves. Aliens who survived for billions of years would constitute better role models than our short-lived politicians or entertainers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, was published in August 2023.