Intra-Species Communication in Xenovita.
Science fiction is rife with settings where multiple species inhabit the same space and time, and who regularly interact with one another in a variety of social situations. For the most part, individual communication between different species is eased for the sake of the viewing, or reading audience. Star Trek is famous, maybe even infamous for the “universal translator” technology, which up until Discovery’s third season, was used as a handwavium fix for one of the most basic problems facing human-alien interactions.
Just as language is a construct of cultural and societal factors, it’s also constructed within the constraints of shared physiology. Human physiology allows for each of us to produce and hear a certain range of sounds, see certain bands of light and colors, and movements. Communication languages created by humans fall within the ranges we’re able to physically move, speak, see, and hear. It’s why, for example, we can use a “human” whistle to send morse code signals via sound waves most humans can hear, but can’t use a canine whistle to do the same thing. Because a canine whistle operates at a sound frequency range most humans can’t hear, but dog physiologies can, it’s a fairly useless tool for communicating languages humans can use for communication.
Given the unique physiologies of animal species here on Earth, imagine the diverse array of physiologies that could have evolved on far-off alien worlds. How different from the human baseline could an advanced alien species be? Would they communicate in spectrums human physiology could see, hear, or otherwise comprehend? Tackling the basics of alien physiology to find possible conduits for communication will be a daunting task. Like the penultimate episodes of Discovery showed, it would take a great deal of luck, observation, computing technology, and tremendous patience (on both sides) to figure it out. Here on Earth, we’re doing similar research to Discovery’s crew, albeit within the constraints of our technology, to better understand how other advanced mammals like Dolphins and Whales communicate with each other. Maybe someday, with a little luck, we’ll invent the same technology Lucas Wolenczak created to speak with Darwin on seaQuest DSV.
Some scientists have long postulated that math is the universal language of the universe and that it would be math that could open channels for communicating with alien species. In other words, we might be able to use math to bypass some of the problems posed by different physiologies, cultures, societies, etc. The movie Contact, which dropped 25 years ago, best exemplified the idea with an advanced pantheon of aliens using radio signals to transmit math equations a sufficiently advanced species, like us, could decypher to ultimately connect with the greater galaxy. Granted, the movie took the same basic liberties as Star Trek during the climatic first contact between Jodie Foster’s character and the alien emissary, who took the form of her deceased father and spoke in perfect English. But the movie Contact clearly illustrates how math was used to facilitate the actual communication, not the communication between two societies in itself. This is the key distinction. Math could convey certain concepts, but it can’t hold a conversation or share culture.
That said, there are some caveats to labeling math as a universal language or even a set of universal concepts that could be understood by an alien species. Math might be universal if the concepts could be understood, but math has to be conveyed or taught to the audience. As some public educators in schools of the American southwest have found, non-native English-speaking students have struggled learning math because it’s taught in English. Words like, equal and others can be problematic because they must be read, and so teachers employ a variety of cross-linguistic strategies to overcome the communicative hurdles when teaching the concepts. So the method in which math is conveyed is paramount to it being successfully understood. Going back to the movie Contact, the aliens taught Earth their math through a series of basic radio pulses that had to be successfully deciphered, which in turn were used to build a dictionary of increasingly complicated mathematical concepts.
In recent years scientists have moved away from the theory that math as we know it is a universal language for conveying certain concepts to an alien species. We’ve come to realize that there are certain assumptions or human biases we take for granted when saying math is universal. Professor Carl DeVito of the University of Arizona, who’s worked with NASA to help build mathematical methods for alien contact has stated that these assumptions (between two societies) include:
With these suppositions, DeVito said, “we can communicate the gram, the calorie, the degree (Kelvin), and our units of pressure.” But even then, there are limitations. Say the fantastic world of Talocan, from the Marvel Universe, was discovered, having been isolated and hidden from the rest of the Earth since its inception. Talocan would be as close to an alien civilization as we could find despite similarities between baseline human physiology and the Talocanians. We might even be able to use our math to open communications more quickly, but perhaps not.
Just because the Talocanians are close to baseline humans, the assumptions posed by DeVito might not apply. An advanced alien species might have a different geometry and derive its laws of motion from those different mathematics. Their results from that math might be very different from the formulations and laws that are familiar to humans. Will the Talocanians or another alien species have the equivalent of Euclidean geometry? How about the organization of a solar system? Will an advanced alien species, or the Talocanians organize the solar system around the primary star? Mathematically, there’s no guarantee they will.
“The mathematics of motion is differential calculus. Can we assume that an alien race shares this with us? Differential and integral calculus are so fundamental in so many areas of science that it is hard to imagine a science without them,” DeVito said. Yet alien species may have subtle, yet substantial differences from our own mathematics that would have to be accounted for in some fashion when trying to teach or convey our math.
Assuming for a moment that a mathematical baseline can be established between humans and an alien species, that’s when the real work begins. Math can convey certain concepts, but it can’t convey culture, society, and other aspects of human civilization, let alone language. It’s one of the many reasons why our extra-solar probes include things like music, pictographs of families, and more in addition to our periodic chart, and copies of our mathematic formulas.
This is where technology, in the form of advanced computing and artificial intelligence, can bridge the gap between math and language, and create real communication. Right now AI is being used in the home and the workplace, and corporate scientists are working on teaching machines to associate intonation of voice, use of nonverbal language, and even the words we use to measure reactions such as listening, laughing, smiling, etc. The goal is to use AI to measure these reactions and shape a company’s organizational communications to be more effective. Each communication a company makes would become more potent. Their messages would be received more positively, and drive motivation across the organization and customer base. Granted, this is a terrifying proposition, but moral quandaries aside, the technology is a base formula for enhanced messaging and communications.
In the far future, AI could be used in a similar way: to gather copious amounts of data and have the capability to decipher the information in a meaningful way using intuitive and comparative learning to build methods of communication between alien species. It might not be perfect, but we’re talking about quantum intelligences able to process terabytes of data in milliseconds. The margin of error might be irrelevant. Given the learning power available to proto-AI now, it’s not implausible for future fully developed AI to use accumulated physiological, cultural, language data, etc., and audience reactions, and analyze that data and the results to create a base language to open communication. An AI with sufficient skills and abilities could do the work of building a communications bridge if given enough data and time to work.
Ever watch a UN assembly speech? Every person wearing a headset is listening to a human translator. This person is translating the speaker in real-time but is providing that translation subject to their training and innate language biases. The listener, in turn, is forced to make certain conceptual reconciliations based upon the speaker’s mannerisms and the translation being provided. This is where communication and language AI could make another major difference. Assuming AI is programmed free of innate bias—I could tackle the successes and pitfalls of AI programming in a whole series of articles—translations could conceivably be provided without human bias. A user would still have to reconcile a translation with mannerisms, but it removes one potentially imperfect impediment between alien speakers.
Imagine AI being used to influence how one species communicates with another. It could be used to determine the words used, the pace of delivery, and even the body language that speakers use when they deliver addresses to an audience in real-time. This is what AI data-driven communication could look like. AI could help speakers make better sense of such data after initial communication is made, and also take data about the effectiveness of communication styles to help speakers shape how they communicate in future interactions. Even now, AI can highlight strengths and weaknesses in individual communication styles, and help leaders personalize their approach, in a similar way to how Amazon personalizes its recommendations to customers. Again, it’s not much of a leap to see how AI could help speakers in real-time communication between different species with different cultures, mannerisms, and so on. And a sufficiently advanced AI would be to take into account a vast array of dialects, cultures, and so on if it can access the data. Also, a mono-cultural approach to cross-species communication wouldn’t be necessary, as AI would be able to associate and differentiate between dialects, cultures, and other nuances.
In Xenovita, AI and communications technology are sufficiently advanced that most species can effectively communicate with other species, even if that communication takes on very different forms thanks to different technologies. In a fun way, AI is the universal translator of Xenovita, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to speak to everyone else. Communication between different species isn’t necessarily a given in Xenovita. While all of the major species have been in contact with each other for centuries, how each species goes about communicating with another is varied. Xenovita is not an RPG setting of mono-cultures, even within the same species. Just because the ability to communicate between species is available, doesn’t mean a species wants to or uses a method that’s convenient to other species. Some alien species may be completely content doing otherwise. And communication with a new species isn’t an instantaneous process. An AI is still only as good as the data at its disposal. If a new species isn’t willing, can’t, or won’t turn over the relevant data for an AI to build a rudimentary or complete language, then it’s back to the painful, lengthy, fraught-with-mistakes, and less-likely-to-succeed path of two species trying to make sense of each other. It’s a set of challenges that’ll make for some awesome thematic adventures.
We’re still playing with how intra-species communication plays itself out on the tabletop, but the methods are varied and interesting. As we progress from our Pre-Alpha ruleset, we’ll continue to refine and release some of the ideas that’ll ultimately make it into the final product and those that didn’t. But how we communicate is a large part of how we as individuals interact with our reality, and being able to diversify or even challenge a player’s perception of reality and how they interact with it through roleplay is an exciting prospect.
Well, that’s it! Thanks for coming to my slightly condensed
TED Talk rant.
Until next time!