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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.

Alien Languages: Not Human

Contrary to Hollywood and the majority of fictional languages, alien languages are almost certainly not going to look like human ones. They’re not going to have the same sounds, the same word orders, or the same way of solving problems like time, direction, and ownership. Why? Because human DNA and culture help determine what human languages look like, and aliens will, by definition, not share that background.

That’s not to say there won’t be similarities, though. Because language is a communication system and therefore has to convey information efficiently, there are some facts that won’t change.

On Neurobiology

The ability to use language will be coded in the aliens’ genes. Either the aliens evolved language and have basic linguistic structures in their brains at birth, or every individual has to independently invent the language from scratch. With humans, we call this nativism and it applies to a whole range of mental traits, not just language.

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