Start by figuring out the patterns in their language, says SETI researcher John Elliott.
If we ever make contact with an alien civilization, how will we understand what they’re saying? That’s the question that preoccupies John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University, one of a dozen scientists collaborating in the newly formed UK SETI Research Network. Elliott would begin by trying to verify that “they” are in fact using language—a tricky problem in itself. Thinking about such matters has led him to consider other questions, including how humans might communicate with dolphins, and the language abilities of robots. He spoke with Air & Space Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt in August.
Air & Space: How did you get into this area?
Elliott: I started in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence. One day I was thinking What’s the worst case scenario to understand what language is? What if you got a message from outer space? How the hell would you tell it’s language? It was more of an academic thought experiment, to see if language structure could be identified as distinguishable from any other type of phenomenon.
What are some of the rules and patterns ...