Conversing With E.T.

What’s the best way to start a discussion with intelligent extraterrestrials—and is that even possible?

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Radio telescopes could be used to send a message, but would the message be heard?

METI International—which stands for Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence—is a new initiative founded by SETI researcher Douglas Vakoch to address how we could successfully communicate with intelligent aliens. The group held its first workshop last month in Puerto Rico, with the theme “The Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” and quite a few interesting and controversial ideas were proposed.

The workshop featured nine speakers with various backgrounds, all of whom considered the question of how human-level intelligence might evolve on other planets, and what kind of sensory and cognitive systems extraterrestrials might exhibit.

Anna Dornhaus, a biologist and expert on social insects at the University of Arizona, and Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of New Mexico, suggested that natural selection is not sufficient to explain the evolution of intelligence, but that sexual selection is the deciding factor. That sounds odd, because in the female-choice system that characterizes most human societies, sexual attraction seems to be based more on the male’s strength and resources than on intelligence. This idea is nicely parodied in the future-based comedy Idiocracy

Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguist at Bowling Green State University who also happens to be blind, put forward the idea that we overemphasize vision, and that other modes of perception may be much more useful on other planets. In that case, intelligent extraterrestrials might not perceive our optical or even radio signals. Personally, I don’t find this convincing, because nearly every lifeform on the surface of Earth, where the more complex and intelligent organisms live, has vision. And by far most of the biomass is dependent on electromagnetic light waves, which are used for photosynthesis.

Others talked about the risk of focusing too much on human-style intelligence. Neuroscientists Dominic Sivitilli and David Gire from the University of Washington made a convincing case that we should study octopi as an alternative example of intelligence, since they are capable of observational learning, exploration, and problem solving, and even show signs of personality and consciousness.

The big looming question for METI—whether we should even try to initiate contact with other intelligent civilizations—was not addressed, at least not formally. Stephen Hawking recently advised against it, and his caution makes sense from a biological viewpoint, given that social predators are generally the more intelligent life forms on our planet. However, it still is useful to discuss intelligence and how it arises. If at some point in our future we encounter extraterrestrial intelligent life, intentionally or accidentally, it would be handy to know how to communicate.

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