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Twittering with Aliens

One of the staples of television and movie science fiction is the universal translator that allows humans and aliens to communicate fairly easily. But the reality is that we aren’t even currently able to automatically translate all human languages reliably. If we do someday run into an alien race, will we be able to communicate?

The difficulty of conversing with aliens isn’t limited to learning vocabulary, grammar, and body language. We humans all can (on average) produce and hear the same range of sounds. If the aliens we end up meeting use sounds or visual cues outside the human range of perception, we would be entirely dependent on computers to help us communicate.

Fortunately, scientists are currently studying the language of some of the aliens already among us. I’m not talking about extraterrestrials, but rather non-human animals like whales, elephants and birds. Parrots have been a popular focus of study, since it’s long been known by scientists and pirates alike that parrots can imitate human speech.

Three Birds on a Boardwalk

Are they talking about us?

But observing how parrots mimic human speech patterns doesn’t tell us how they normally communicate.

U.C. Berkeley ecologist Steve Beissinger and his colleagues have been studying a single population of Green-rumped Parrotlets (small parrots) in Venezuela for 26 years. In a project lead by Cornell ornithologists Jack Bradbury and Karl Berg, analysis of data collected from carefully placed video and audio recorders have allowed them to observe how wild parrotlets learn their “names” and socially interact with each other.

It turns out that young parrotlets learn their contact call – the sounds that serve as a personal identifier or “name” – from their parents. The call is modified a bit by individual chicks so that each has a “name” that is both unique and related to their parents’ own “names”.

But this isn’t a language that humans can imitate. The sounds are actually much too fast for us to follow. As Berg describes it, the fairly simple peeps we can hear are actually much more complex sounds :

“The parents can make 20 contact calls in the time it takes you to sneeze.” When slowed down for our ears, a parrotlet’s single peep sounds more like eh-ehhh-gehhhlll-grrr-whoeeeeee. [. . . ] “You can’t make sense of their vocalizations just by listening. You can’t imitate their calls like you can whistle a songbird’s tune,” Berg says. “The only way we can study them is by converting their calls to spectrograms, then running these through computer programs” that search for subtle similarities [. . . ]“

This video has the calls first in normal time, then slowed down so human ears can detect the difference between different contact calls so you can hear the difference for yourself:

Nestling Vocal Signatures from Karl Berg on Vimeo.

Berg and colleagues have suggested that their research may provide insight into human language acquisition during infancy. But it seems to me that their methodology could be used to help decipher the “talk” of non-terrestrial species as well. How could they neglect to mention that?

While their parrot communication research has taken years, I would think that it would go much faster with a species that is both more intelligent than a parrot and interested in helping us to learn to understand them.

And I’m wondering if there will come a time when we are able to use our translation devices to talk to Earthly non-humans in their own tongue, rather than “uplifting” them so that they speak in ours.

More information:

For more about the research on Venezuelan parrotlets, listen to the 22 July 2011 Science Podcast or read the podcast transcript.

There is also a video of cute parrotlet nestlings being fed by their father, who uses contact call “names” to greet them.

You can download software – Raven and XBAT – developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research program for the analysis of acoustic signals.

Original articles:

Morell V. “Why Do Parrots Talk? Venezuelan Site Offers Clues.” Science 22 July 2011: 398-400. doi:10.1126/science.333.6041.398 (subscription required)

Berg KS et al. “Vertical transmission of learned signatures in a wild parrot, Proc. R. Soc. B. 13 Jul 2011 doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0932 (subscription required)

Top image: Three Birds on a Boardwalk by LancerE, on Flickr

Bottom image: Body parts I – What are you looking at? by Sami__, on Flickr

“Are We Not (as Good as) Men?”

– paraphrasing The Sayer of the Law.

When franchises get stale, Hollywood does reboots — invariably a prequel that tells an origin story retrofitted to segue into already-made sequels either straight up (Batman, X-Men) or in multi-universe alternatives (Star Trek). Given the iconic status of the Planet of the Apes original, a similar effort was a matter of time and CGI.

In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get the origin story with nods to the original: throwaway references to the loss of crewed starship Icarus on its way to Mars; a glimpse of Charlton Heston; the future ape liberator playing with a Lego Statue of Liberty. As Hollywood “science” goes, it’s almost thoughtful, even borderline believable. The idea that the virus that uplifts apes is lethal to humans is of course way too pat, but it lends plausibility to the eventual ape dominion without resorting to the idiotic Ewok-slings-overcome-Stormtrooper-missiles mode. On the other hand, the instant rise to human-level feats of sophistication is ridiculous (more of which anon), to say nothing of being able to sail through thick glass panes unscathed.

The director pulled all the stops to make us root for the cousins we oppress: the humans are so bland they blend with the background, the bad guys mistreat the apes with callous glee… and the hero, the cognitively enhanced chimpanzee Caesar (brought to disquieting verisimilitude of life by Andy Serkis), not only fights solely in defense of his chosen family… but to underline his messianic purity he has neither sex drive nor genitals. This kink underlines the high tolerance of US culture for violence compared to its instant vapors over any kind of sex; however, since Project Nim partly foundered on this particular shoal, perhaps it was a wise decision.

As it transpires, Ceasar is exposed to little temptation to distract him from his pilgrimage: there are no female hominids in the film, except for the maternal vessel who undergoes the obligatory death as soon as she produces the hero and a cardboard cutout helpmate there to mouth the variants of “There are some things we weren’t meant to do” — and as assurance that the human protagonist is not gay, despite his nurturing proclivities. Mind you, the lack of a mother and her female alliances would make Caesar (augmented cortex notwithstanding) a permanent outcast among his fellows, who determine status matrilinearly given the lack of defined paternity.

Loyal to human tropes, Caesar goes from Charly to Che through the stations-of-the-cross character development arc so beloved of Campbel/lites. Nevertheless, we care what happens to him because Serkis made him compelling and literally soulful. Plus, of course, Caesar’s cause is patently just. The film is half Spartacus turning his unruly gladiators into a disciplined army, half Moses taking his people home — decorated with the usual swirls of hubris, unintended consequences, justice, equality, compassion, identity and empathy for the Other.

Needless to say, this reboot revived the topic of animal uplift, a perennial favorite of SF (and transhumanist “science” which is really a branch of SF, if not fantasy). Human interactions with animals have been integral to all cultures. Myths are strewn with talking animal allies, from Puss in Boots to A Boy and His Dog. Beyond their obvious practical and symbolic uses, mammals in particular are the nexus of both our notions of exceptionalism and our ardent wish for companionship. Our fraught relationship with animals also mirrors preoccupations of respective eras. In Wells’ Victorian England, The Island of Dr. Moreau struggled with vivisection whereas Linebarger’s Instrumentality Underpeople and the original Planet of the Apes focused on racism (plus, in the latter, the specter of nuclear annihilation). Today’s discussions of animal uplift are really a discussion over whether our terrible stewardship can turn benign — or at least neutral — before our inexorable spread damages the planet’s biosphere past recovery.

When SF posits sentient mammal-like aliens, it usually opts for predators high in human totem poles (Anderson’s eagle-like Ythrians, Cherryh’s leonine Hani). On the other hand, SF’s foremost uplift candidates are elephants, cetaceans – and, of course, bonobos and chimpanzees. All four species share attributes that make them theoretically plausible future companions: social living, so they need to use complex communication; relative longevity, so they can transmit knowledge down the generations; tool use; and unmistakable signs of self-awareness.

Uplift essentially means giving animals human capabilities – primary among them high executive functions and language. One common misconception seems to be that if we give language to near-cousins, they will end up becoming hairy humans. Along those lines, in Rise chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are instantly compatible linguistically, emotionally, mentally and socially. In fact, chimpanzees are far closer to us than they are to the other two ape species (with orangutans being the most distant). So although this pan-panism serves the plot and prefigures the species-specific occupations shown in the Ape pre/sequels, real-life chances of such coordination, even with augmentation, are frankly nil.

There is, however, a larger obstacle. Even if a “smart bomb” could give instant language processing capability, it would still not confer the ability to enunciate clearly, which is determined by the configuration of the various mouth/jaw/throat parts. Ditto for bipedal locomotion. Uplift caused by intervention at whatever level (gene therapy, brain wiring, grafts) cannot bring about coordinated changes across the organism unless we enter the fantasy domain of shapeshifting. This means that a Lamarckian shift in brain wiring will almost certainly result in a seriously suboptimal configuration unlikely to thrive individually or collectively. This could be addressed by singlet custom generation, as is shown for reynards in Crowley’s Beasts, but it would make such specimens hothouse flowers unlikely to propagate unaided, much less become dominant.

In this connection, choosing to give Caesar speech was an erosion of his uniqueness. Of course, if bereft of our kind of speech he would not be able to give gruff Hestonian commands to his army: they would be reliant on line of sight and semaphoring equivalents. However, sticking to complex signed language (which bonobos at least appear capable of, if they acquire it within the same developmental time window as human infants) would keep Caesar and his people uncanny and alien, underlining the irreducible fact of their non-human sentience.

Which brings us to the second fundamental issue of uplift. Even if we succeed in giving animals speech and higher executive functions, they will not be like us. They won’t think, feel, react as we do. They will be true aliens. There is nothing wrong with that, and such congress might give us a preview of aliens beyond earth, should SETI ever receive a signal. However, given how humans treat even other humans (and possibly how Cro-Magnons treated Neanderthals), it is unlikely we’ll let uplifted animals go very far past pet, slave or trophy status. In this, at least, Caesar’s orangutan councillor is right: “Human no like smart ape,” no matter how piously we discuss the ethics of animal treatment and our responsibilities as technology wielders.

It isn’t easy being green

If you’ve been reading long, you’ve probably noticed that I spend a lot of time talking about ecological ideas and biological examples that might inspire world-building for science fiction. There are all sorts of odd things right here on Earth that could help to add depth to alien planets and societies.

Today I’m writing about something you are all quite familiar with: plants. You know: green, photosynthetic, rooted in the ground, cold. Familiar, ordinary, boring. Well, the green photosynthetic ones provide our oxygen atmosphere, our food, and all sorts of other things we desperately need (for a science fictional take on that, try The Death of Grass by John Christopher, and his apocalyplse wasn’t even all plants).

But there are 300,000 species of plant on Earth, and some of them are quite odd. I chose three that I’m very familiar with, because all of them are common within my home range of the eastern United States.

Read the rest of this entry »

Check the Expiration Date

I think this is the first time in my life, I have been completely blocked as a writer when approaching a topic. I couldn’t see a way to approach it. Eventually I decided instead to figure out why this leg of the series became the most difficult to complete. Life, Death, and Water Mythology involved symbolism and myth; topics I love to research. The Fountain of Snake Oil was just plain fun. Live Long seemed like a less playful and more realistic extension of the topic. I ended with the intention of discussing placebos and the consequences of aging or not.  However, during this series two people that I cared about passed away. At some point, with permission, I will tell you more about those wonderful people. For now I can tell you that the second death occurred last month. I found myself struggling on a deep level with this topic. I choked. With the gracious permission of my editor, I took a moment and collected my writer self. Read the rest of this entry »

Science in My Fiction contest – CANCELLED

SiMF regrets to announce the cancellation of the 2011 Science in My Fiction short story contest.

This is due primarily to lack of apparent interest. With just two weeks remaining until the entry deadline, SiMF has received just 25% as many entries as we’d received by the same time in last year’s contest.

The lack of interest could be partly due to the more specific nature of the entry guidelines (i.e. the requirement that stories take place off Earth). Another possible reason is the SiMF managing editors have experienced a series of setbacks which prevented them from dedicating time to promotion of the contest. The final setback occurred this past weekend when our 5-year-old son fell and broke his arm. This proved to be the final straw and solidified our decision to end the contest.

We’d like to thank the judges for agreeing to aid us in the contest. We apologize to them, and to all the writers who did enter or were planning on entering. We would have preferred the results to be different, but unfortunately at this point we feel this is the only decision left to us.

Thanks to all readers, fans, and those who submitted for your support!

Cowboys, Aliens, and Consistent Science

I expected a couple hours of entertainment in the summer blockbuster vein when I went to Cowboys and Aliens, and that’s exactly what I got—manly men, explosions, a token love interest, and poor science. Not just poor science, because with Hollywood I’ll accept just about anything if it works with the story, but inconsistent science. When writers don’t even bother to think the cool thingamabobs through or combine sci-fi elements believably, I get annoyed.

What do I mean by inconsistent science and not thinking things through? Read on! But be warned: if you read any further, you will be spoiled!

Really, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t like spoilers, STOP READING NOW.

I mean it.

Let’s start with the alien ships. Actually, no. Let’s start with the premise: An Old West town is attacked by gold-mining aliens. A posse lead by a rancher and a stage robber with a laser gun on his wrist must follow the aliens to rescue the townsfolk the aliens have abducted. Sounds like cinematic gold, and no, that isn’t entirely sarcasm.

Back to the alien ships. They come in two shapes and sizes—small, nimble scouts, and the long, ponderous mothership. The scouts aren’t big enough to fit the alien pilots unless the pilots are scrunched up, and why would you build a vehicle that wasn’t comfortable? The scout ships also lack an obvious propulsion mechanism, so for lack of anything better, I’m going to say they use antigravity. It’s a trope and these are Hollywood aliens, so why not? However, the mothership appears to use chemical rockets, and probably not enough based on its mass. Why use two different mechanisms for the same goal?

Speaking of the mothership: it’s sunk deep into the ground for better access to a lode of gold. When it takes off, the earth shakes as if there was an earthquake, which is what I’d expect. I’d like to know how the ship got into the ground without bucking and churning the land around it though, because there’s no evidence to support anything other than that the ship entered the earth without resistance. The valley’s flat, not even broken up around the base of the ship. I can’t think of a way to leave the land intact yet have a hard time extracting the ship later, unless the aliens tunneled through from the opposite side of the planet. Even then, there should’ve been signs that the ship broke through the surface.

Let’s push aside the fact that the aliens are humanoid again, and ask more important questions like: Why do aliens with energy weapons frequently use teeth and claws in battle, when they can disintegrate their enemies at a distance? Why do aliens capable of interstellar travel need to land on a planet to get gold, instead of just creating gold in a lab? And why don’t aliens living on a ship full of molten gold not wear more protective clothing? Bullets and spears can pierce their skin, so surely there’s all kinds of equipment on the ship that can do so as well. Not to mention the molten gold.

Of course, those first two questions can be answered fairly neatly. The aliens could be a warrior race that still values bodily contact; and it takes an enormous amount of energy to create even one atom of gold. Even with how much energy it takes to launch and maintain a ship and a mining operation, and even though a civilization that travels the stars has to be using the energy of their whole planet or sun, the aliens could well be saving money by choosing this route over a particle accelerator. Why weren’t we shown that? The explanation could’ve been a couple words, or a camera shot. We wouldn’t even know there’d been questions to ask, and the story would’ve felt tighter.

The third question, on the other hand…. Have the aliens really grown so complacent in their use of technology that they don’t even think it might malfunction and hurt them? Do they really have so many people that they can afford not to have safety procedures? I find it hard to believe the answers are yes, though maybe they are. Still, I would’ve liked to have seen the explanation even in a byplay.

This feels like as good a time as any to note that I’ve always been skeptical of aliens who say, “I’ve taken this form to talk to you.” I’d love to know what they really look like and how they’re able to fit into a human body without any bulges or awkward movements (see Men In Black for a counter-example). Where do they get the body? Are they shapeshifters? Are they using a holographic projection? In the case of Cowboys and Aliens, I’d also like to know why the alien chose a waif-like woman over a man, especially an authority figure of some kind. I’d imagine it would’ve had better luck in a male-driven society if it were also male.

Two last flaws in the science: 1) Unless the Apache foreman had a chance to practice his language after being taken into the white community, he shouldn’t be as fluent at translation as he was. Language atrophies if you don’t practice. 2) At one point, the posse of protagonists comes across a steamboat in the middle of scrub, far from water. We’re left to assume that the aliens put it there. My first question is why the aliens would do that. My second is, the aliens must have some kind of tractor beam, so why are their scouts lassoing people?

This isn’t to suggest that all the science in the movie was in error. Cowboys and Aliens had some intriguing technology that I couldn’t find flaws in, though that’s partly due to not knowing enough about the disciplines in question. The aliens have mind-controlled energy weapons, though how they access the nervous system I can’t tell. They have forcefields (which follow from the weapons, by the way; if you can control matter in one way, why not a related one?). The passages in the mothership have ridges all the way around, which allow the aliens to move several at a time and probably come in quite handy during zero gravity—not that they ever experience that, because as I mentioned with their scout ships earlier, the aliens have likely mastered gravity control. I’m also intrigued by how the aliens are able to isolate, melt, and suck gold out of the earth without melting any other element nearby. Do gold atoms have a particular resonant frequency that the machines pick up? If I’m remembering high school science correctly, gold isn’t particularly magnetic, so I doubt it’s that….

And there’s one small moment of praiseworthy science. The aliens have a second pair of hands in their chests, you see. These hands are more dextrous than the claws at the ends of their normal arms, and seem almost to have great touch-sensitivity as well. Both those features would come in handy in any number of situations, so I can understand why these arms evolved. However, these hands also look quite fragile compared to the rest of the aliens’ bodies, so they’d need protection, which they also get. A piece of the aliens’ skin moves aside to expose the arm cavity. Whoever thought the aliens through enough to question the logistics of these hidden arms, go them!

Cowboys and Aliens uses a lot of standard SF tropes which aren’t exactly good science, but are science fiction anyway—but the writers (or director, or whoever) didn’t think them through. To be truly good sci-fi, the aliens would need reasons to look and act as they do, and their technology should be standardized from scene to scene, element to element. Writers should question every bit of their science. Why does the alien look that way? How does weather control work? What is the purpose of the robot’s plunger? The science and sci-fi tropes need to work together as well, in case the writers accidentally suggest that FTL drives can exist with 20th-century technology or that forcefields can exist without any kind of energy manipulation.

This lesson shouldn’t just be applied to Hollywood. It’s equally relevant for books, video games, and other sci-fi/fantasy media. Consistent science means better writing, tighter stories, unexpected outcomes, and fewer propagations of scientific myths. It’s not that hard, even: a judicious sentence or byplay would’ve improved the Cowboys and Aliens science immeasurably. Plus, consistent science is the first step to accurate science, and where would science fiction be without that?

Just 3 weeks remain to enter the Science in My Fiction contest!

There are just 23 days left to enter 2011 Science in My Fiction contest!

What do you have to do to enter? Write a science fiction or fantasy short story which is inspired by a scientific discovery or innovation made or announced within the past year.

A panel of five judges will select the winner:

Tobias Buckell – Author (NYT Bestselling novel Halo: The Cole Protocol)
Liz Gorinsky – Hugo-nominated editor at Tor Books & Tor.com
Cameron McClure – Agent, Donald Maass Literary Agency
Joan Slonczewski – Campbell Award-winning author; Professor of Biology
Lavie Tidhar – Author (The Bookman, Camera Obscura)

The top 3 stories will receive cash prizes (pro rates for the winner!) and will be published in the 2011 Science in My Fiction anthology (November 2011)!

Entries close after Wednesday, August 31! Show us your science fictional chops!

Kids in Space and the Ultimate Moon Bounce

If interstellar travel is in our future, then it’s only a matter of time before we have to think seriously about what it will be like to grow up off-Earth. It’s not clear whether we can reproduce without gravity, but even after we’ve developed a reliable work-around for that bio-logistics problem, we’re still left with no frame of reference for childhood and parenting anywhere but here.

Particularly for the sake of writing thoughtful science fiction set on long-generation ships, it’s worth considering how young bodies and minds will develop in low- and variable-gravity. The health of future generations of starfarers is key to the survival of the species, after all. However, there’s a lot more to growing up than just surviving. After we’ve figured out how to feed and wash and educate our far future progeny, there remains one very important question: How will they play?

Kids need to play, that’s all there is to it. No amount of time or distance from Earth is going to change that. So if and when we get around to raising families in space and colonizing other worlds, we’re going to need to ensure that our interstellar whipper-snappers get enough playtime.

Not all the toys developed and used here will function properly in space unless they’re played with under gravity that is uniform and comparable to Earth’s. Toys and games with a lot of little pieces (unlike the solid Lego minifigures mounted on Juno) are going to experience inevitable losses over time, which makes them less attractive. However, future kids can’t spend all their free time playing video games any more than they can on Earth. If nothing else, that sort of play would consume a lot of electricity for a leisure activity.

My favorite suggestion for coping with the space constraints on a starship along with the problem of energy-consuming recreation? Piezoelectric moon bounces. I came up with the idea earlier this year while writing a short story that included a few child characters. It was never central to the plot, so I left it out of the final draft, but I spent a lot of time daydreaming about a large space station module lined with springy energy-generating materials for the kids to jump around inside. I imagined that they would take advantage of the weird physics in space during wild three-dimensional games of tag played in zero-G. Then I tried to imagine what weightless sports they would invent, and I found myself tempted to write a series of young adult science fiction stories devoted to that topic.

Maybe I’ll get around to that someday. In the mean time, what do you think it will be like for kids who grow up in space?

The self-driving car

A mainstay of science fiction, coming soon to a road near you.

If you live in California or Nevada, it may already be there.

Google has been developing and testing self-driving cars in California, and Nevada has legalized road use of these vehicles. (Google has worked with local law enforcement to test them in California.) These cars use video cameras, other sensors, GPS navigation, and some very clever programming.

Read the rest of this entry »

One Month Left to enter the 2011 Science in My Fiction contest!

The entry period for the 2011 Science in My Fiction contest is 2/3 over!

What do you have to do to enter? Write a science fiction or fantasy short story which is inspired by a scientific discovery or innovation made or announced within the past year.

A panel of six judges will select the winner. The top 3 stories will receive cash prizes and be published in the 2011 Science in My Fiction anthology (November 2011)!

Entries close after Wednesday, August 31! Show us your science fictional chops!