Universal Translators

David Musick (David_Musick@msn.com)
Fri, 8 Nov 96 08:38:54 UT

After reading my post on the unlikelyhood of "universal translators" and being
able to communicate with aliens, and a brief explaination of the basis for
human communication, Michael Lorrey commented:

"Sorry Dave, that sounds like psychomystical claptrap to me. The fact is that
using mathematics, and our knowledge of the physical laws, we already have a
Rosetta Stone to relate with any technological society of aliens. If they were
non technological, I'm not sure it would be so easy. The fact that we would be
two intelligent races with scientists
makes for a huge overlap of common ground from which to build greater

First of all, what aspects of my post make it sound like "psychomystical
claptrap"? I think the concept of resonance between systems (broadly meaning
that they cause each other to behave similarly) is a farily scientific concept
(tuning forks are the classic example). The idea the humans mimic each other
is a matter of observable fact. I don't see anything in my post that I would
imagine someone could see as "psychomystical claptrap".

I understand what you're saying about the Rosetta Stone and using our common
base of scientific knowledge to develop forms of communication with aliens.
However, I can conceive of possible alien beings who are technologically
advanced and who have a very good understanding of the regularities of the
universe (the knowledge that we discover through science), but whose concepts
and ways of thinking are still profoundly different than ours. I am thinking
that our way of doing science and finding out how the universe works is only
one of many ways to approach understanding the universe. It may be that our
science is simply a way that is especially well suited to the human brain.

I imagine that alien beings would have developed their own, unique ways of
developing accurate knowledge, which would likely be profoundly different from
our own. They may come to understand the various properties of the different
elements and learn how to take advantage of those properties, but the way they
organize their knowledge and represent it to each other may be quite
profoundly different from our Periodic Table of the Elements. It makes sense
to us to arrange all the elements on a chart, grouped according to similar
properties and in order of atomic weight, but it only makes sense because of
the particular ways that we have developed to think about things. Evolution
on a different planet would likely yield intelligent beings with very
different ways of thinking about things and approaching things.

Humans seem to have a hard time imagining that intelligent beings might think
in ways profoundly different than we do. We tend to think that our way of
intelligence is the only way. It's difficult to imagine other ways of
thinking; they are too alien to our minds. Humans also tend to imagine that
intelligent aliens will be humanoid in shape, or something reasonably similar.
We have a hard time imagining intelligent beings in shapes *very* different
than our own.

Then there's the question of how the aliens would likely communicate with each
other. Would they vibrate the air, like we do? Perhaps they would make
intricate bodily movements and use some kind of sonar to observe each other
move. Perhaps they will have ways of communicating massive amounts of
information in parallel, rather than in a stream, like we do. Maybe they will
have developed some sort of technology so that they stimulate each other's
minds more directly, and their communications would be so subtle that we would
consider it telepathy. Their forms of communication may be so profoundly
different than ours, and their ways of representing knowledge in their minds
may be so profoundly different, that even if they understand the basic
properties of the universe to the degree we do and have the same basic
knowledge, we wouldn't be able to recognize how they've encoded that knowledge
because we wouldn't understand how they even communicate knowledge to each
other. If their knowledge is being communicated between each of the aliens by
subtle technological links between their minds, then it would be very
difficult to understand the workings of their communication devices, which
would most likely be almost seamlessly integrated with their cognitive organs.

Yeah, if they had a periodic chart written down somewhere, then we could
compare it with ours and understand a little of their language, but what if
they don't write anything down? What if all their communication is
"telepathic"? How do we crack into their communication systems to even have a
start at understanding the information that they are passing back and forth?
And then how do we understand what they're "talking" about? Maybe each of
them has all the properties of physical matter memorized, so they no longer
talk about it; they just refer to that set of knowledge with arbitrary
symbols. Then we would never see their scientific knowledge being
communicated between them, only arbitrary symbols that are meaningful only to
the aliens themselves.

To communicate with them, we have to understand the ways they link concepts
together and what symbols they use to represent which concepts. This is likely
to be as much of an evolved and tangled mess as human thinking and human
language. I don't think we would have much hope of untangling their mess of
concepts and symbols if we ever met an alien species.

Language is an evolved technological device, with symbols pointing to various
concepts, which are linked to other concepts with varying degrees of fuzziness
inside each individual's mind. Language grows as we invent new symbols to
point to our shared concepts and develop new fuzzy links between concepts.
Language grows and evolves very much like an organism. Minor mutations are
constantly being made to the symbolic structure. It's also very much like a
computer program that keeps getting added to and changed here and there until
it is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was and is very complex and

Michael asks, "Who ever said that humans have a "low" level of

I did. It was right in my post. Did you not see it? :-)

Humans DO have a low level of communication. Most of the activities and
thoughts occurring in our brains have no representation in our languages. We
can look at the sky, but can we communicate the color blue? No; we can only
refer the person we are talking to, to their experience of the color blue.
When we're communicating with each other, we're basically referring each other
to common, similar memories and experiences. We can only really communicate
about common experiences and concepts.

Also, it is extremely difficult for us to communicate with each other about
experiences we have in common but which haven't been talked about before, so
no symbols have been developed yet to represent that common experience.
Various bodily sensations and nuances of emotion are common, mutual
experiences for which we haven't yet developed symbols, and so we cannot
really communicate with each other about these experiences, because we don't
know what sounds or images to make to get the other person to remember the
experience we are wanting to refer them to.

Most of our thoughts have to do mainly with our own specific, individual
memories and experiencs, and these thoughts cannot be shared through language
because only the individual thinking them has the proper background (memories)
to understand those thoughts.

Do you understand what I am saying? It's very difficult to communicate these
ideas well. Especially since I don't know how much background you have in
these areas, and I don't know how much to explain and how much to assume you
already know. I also don't know how you think about things and link up
concepts, so I don't know if I'm triggering off your concepts in the proper
order so that you form the links that I am trying to get you to form with this

Effective communication is very difficult to achieve between humans. It is an
art that requires much training and practice.

- David Musick

- question tradition -

P.S. E. Shaun Russell, you wanted to start a thread on semantics. This is it
(in case you didn't notice).