Thursday, October 18, 2012

How-To Talk to Aliens....evolving communication technologies

(Disclaimer: This is a hard-science post and not recommended for casual readers of this blog. Very, very rarely, I remember that I am a bit of scientist myself and I am tempted to write a blog post on some scientific problem which catches my fancy. This is one such and although I have tried to keep the jargon as simple as possible, the topic might be a bit heavy. So if you get bored easily, please feel free to leave now. On the other hand, if you wouldn’t mind learning a little science, bravely go on and I guarantee you will be rewarded for your patience)

I was watching the movie Green Lantern recently and one scene in the movie especially piqued my interest, the scene where the pilot Hal Jordan talks to an alien entity for the first time and the alien says that they are able to understand each other because their common universal translator works well. That had me thinking on alien communication, human communication and communication as such.

When we first evolved from the ape family into humans, one of the primary advantages for our dominating the rest of the species was our ability to talk and communicate to each other. Speech defined us, it gave us the tools to share knowledge, plan hunts successfully and even helped form social unions. Without speech a man could not assert his right to a woman (in front of his competitors) or even communicate to her that he considered her his own. I think the words I love you must have been one of the first few sentences to evolve in human history. And from there to the organizing of great civilizations transcending all the other species on the planet was but just a step forward.

But in all this the fact that the technology (the organs) involved in this form of communication – the tongue, the vocal cords and its associated musculature remained practically unchanged over millennia is a cause for surprise. There has been absolutely no improvement/no evolution/no refinement in vocal cord technology- unlike what Moores' Law predicted (you know the doubling of technology for transistor chips?) . We still have the same transmitting set- our vocal cord muscles and receiving set – the ear drum (the receiver) and the interpreter – the ear bones or the ossicles (malleus/incus/stapes)which vibrate and carry the spoken frequencies of the sound waves to the brain for interpretation/parsing the contents into separate packets of data. So speech tech evolved millenia ago and stays the same, despite Apple’s Siri (on i-phones) and Samsungs S-tech (on Galaxy mobiles).

The other great form of human communication, the written word was evolved long back in the midst of time, somewhere in the Sumerian valley (or maybe the Indus valley) according to different sources. But this technology really kicked off after the guttenberg press got invented. The ensuing availability of cheap paper based communication devices (also known as books) lead to rapid sharing of knowledge among us humans and helped push us up the next step in evolution. And this stayed true right upto the evolution of e-readers which still depend on the written word being read by the eyes and processed in the brain. Technology stays the same, only the delivery vehicle has improved, somewhat like the automobile technology- from the ford model t to ferrari, a car still has four wheels, a steering column and runs on the road, despite the internal combustion engine being experimented with alternatives like fuel cells. But I digress.

To get back to my premise, the most promising new development in information communication after speech was development of computers and machine language. The fact that you could compress large amount so information into data packets and transmit them over  long distances (yes the internet, is what I am talking about) has revolutionized our communication capabilities. We are no longer constrained by the limitations inherent in the other forms of communication, we dont need to memorize entire books of text (like the vedic scholars did) or print huge volumes of encyclopedias (Britannica's) but use compressed data (thank you winzip) for communicating large bits of knowledge over to wider audiences. The knowledge society we now have is equitable, anyone with access to the Internet can get any information – you dont need to know Latin or Sanskrit or be born in the ruling or priestly class to be able to read certain things. Even the Vatican archives are on the net. How is that for sharing knowledge?

But every silver lining has a small cloud or is it vice versa? I can never remember. Anyway the point is as we develop and transmit more and more data, we find that the transmission time is bound to increase with the sheer volume of the traffic and the integrity of the transmitted data is not strictly preserved. Which means garbled data and lost tempers. Hence in recent years there have been enquiries into alternative forms of data transmission beyond the light beam technology we now use in optical fibres (which is the direct descendant of the reflecting mirrors/candles an old, old device) which has by now reached the end of it tether (pardon the bad pun) and attention has now shifted to biological forms of communication. Specifically at the cellular level. This technology is also known a bio-mimetics or imitating biology.

Bio-mimetics involves copying nature to beat technlogical challenges. For example, by studying the hovering effect of humming birds we were able to get helicopters to hover in mid air. And by studying the underwater propulsion techniques of certain squids/calamari we were able to produce harpoons which work well in the depth of the ocean where the immense pressures will make any gun fired underwater absolutely useless. And the most commonly quoted example is of course the invention of Velcro by observing the sharp burrs found in nature. So by adapting the communication technologies as seen in nature we have progressed a great deal in our own ways of getting ahead.

For example bacteria communicate by a process called quorum sensing. When certain chemicals are released by bacterial cells which form part of a colony, the main body of the colony waits till a critical mass is built up (a quora is formed) before all of them start producing the chemical together which helps this colony communicate to other far off colonies. A direct example of this would be the anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare's movement last year. When Anna Hazare and his India Against Corruption organization first started their hunger strike, everyone had a wait and watch approach, till the media got into the act and celebrities started turning up to share the platform with the IAC crowd and suddenly the anti-corruption movement was the flavor of the month with all the country talking about it all the time. It had taken a critical mass to build up before the general public decided that this is an issue worth devoting their time and attention to. 

And that is precisely what bacterial communication is also all about. Translated into computer tech it means any high tech signal, which is passed over an unstable line, waits till the data is completely built up before transmitting itself in one high speed burst without loss or drop of any crucial data. Can you see the military aspect involved in secure transmissions with no data loss?

Now when scientists borrowed this idea from the bacteria, they also went a step further and tried to use bacterio-phages which are basically predatory viruses which infect bacteria and force them to make copies of themselves to distribute far and wide. This is a very useful technology when it comes to communication as it allows you to input a single copy of data and allow it to multiply itself at almost instantaneous speeds and then get distributed over a wider network making sure that the data is never lost in translation. This would solve the problem of all those long distance data losses seen with transatlantic fiber optic lines if the lines are coated with bacteria and the data is transmitted in the form of a virus. A fusion of biology and computers to aim for in the future.

A further example of bio-mimetics involves the neural network theory of computing where computers are built mimicking the data transmission seen in neural (nerve) pathways seen inside the human body (familiar to people who use C-sharp). Our nerves are one of the most efficient data transmission devices ever built, as they help the various parts of our body to communicate with the brain at speeds which cannot be matched by even IBM's latest supercomputers. The basic structure of any nerve is the neuron, a cell which sits in the middle and send out branching fibers (long tubes) called axons which communicate with other axons from other neurons. If you take the analogy further neurons are distributed server networks while axons are the connecting cables and the central server is of course our brain. 

But unlike computers which work wholly by electricity our nerves (and brain) communicate with a combination of electro-chemical processes. The data (or nerve impulses) travel electrically along the axons but when they reach the end of the line where one axon touches another they are converted into chemical signals called neuro-transmitters which helps the signal jump over the gap and communicate with other remote and distant axons too. It’s like a signal which travels over a wire suddenly becoming a wireless signal when it reaches the end of the line and when it is picked up by another wire again travels over the wire. Wire-wireless-wire automatically. Now can you see the resemblance to a wifi-router and see where the idea originated from?

With all this knowledge in transmitting communication we still somehow falter when it comes to the basics of communication. We still cannot communicate with the other species on our planet. The birds and bees. Or the anthropoid apes. Or the whales and dolphins. Recent scientific evidence has found out that the high pitched squeaks of dolphins and the low decibel whale songs do form some rudimentary form of communication, but how rudimentary or how advanced we are unable to judge as long as we are unable to decipher it- the same thing which prevents us from deciding whether the indus valley civilization was aryan or dravidian – we have the data but we just cant interpret it.

The ant species have been found to use complex chemical trails to communicate and so have the bees (which use a variety of pheromones). We know this but we cant understand them. We hear the bird songs and think that they sing to please us and never try to make more of an effort to investigate whether they are actually communicating to each other. We even disregard the communication capabilities of our nearest relatives in the evolutionary scale – the anthropoid apes who have been found to use a large variety of sign language to talk to each other. Remember we once passed through that very same phase of sign language before we developed the spoken language due to our uniquely sensitive vocal cords.

Unless we make more of an effort to try and understand the communication technologies of other species on our own planet, we will be a massive failure when it comes to communicating with species which might try to contact us from outer space. We will be like ants to them in communication technology, running around, laying chemical trails. Or maybe they would have to teach us the basics of their language like how we train apes to speak in sign language. Given the rudimentary vocabulary of apes which use sign language, I fear that any interstellar communication between any advanced species and we humans would leave those aliens clutching their hairs in sheer frustration at the inability of humans to learn anything.

Already we are reaching out to the stars, already the Voyager spacecraft is now past the edges of our solar system and into deep space. And NASA has sent the Kepler deep space telescope after it to try and analyze any signals we might receive back from space. As for our own signals, the Voyager spacecraft carry messages recorded in all human languages – both voice and pictures as humanity's welcome message for any civilization which happens to pick up our broadcast. And also samples from earths music, which is a very sound concept as unlike language, sound waves are essentially on the same scales throughout the universe, as expressed by the vibration/frequency of all bodies in the universe. From the smallest asteroids to the largest pulsars all of them oscillate and produce sound waves of one kind or another in different frequencies. So any advanced civilization should be able to pick up, interpret and respond in kind to any sound wave we produce. This might even be in the form of the definite frequency of their planetary body or the frequency of a large enough nearby pulsar, challenging us to identify their location in deep space by analyzing the sound waves- a sorta location search in a galactic Google map by pinpointing the nearest cell phone tower to where they are currently.

And finally we come to mathematics which all those science fiction movies have conditioned us to think of as the de-facto lingua franca of the universe. Would we be able to converse with other alien species through mathematical constants? I dont know myself although my vote goes for the laws of physics rather than Pythagoras theorem as the universal constant.

But first we have to learn to talk to the apes. And the ants and the bees. And the dolphins and the whales. If we are to ever have any chance of talking to any other intelligence species from anywhere else in the universe. Or we should hope they bring us a universal translator like the one shown in the movie, the green lantern. And forever remain the stupid cousins of the universe. The choice is ours right now, for the sake of all humanity to decide our place in the universe. Learn and Grow Strong. Go forth or Stagnate. I hope we make the right choice.

(P.S. I welcome questions and discussions on all the points I have raised here – as long as they are serious and not frivolous)

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