The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has always lived on the fringes of mainstream science, but as we discover more possibly habitable worlds, the work of SETI could move closer to the center. A meeting today between biologists and linguists aims to hash out exactly how to talk to the aliens that might be out there.

The goal of the daylong workshop — called the “Intelligence of SETI: Cognition and Communication in Extraterrestrial Intelligence” — is to combine the work of astronomers with biologists and linguists.

It’s being organized by METI International, and coincides with the first day of National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference.

“By studying the variety of intelligence found on Earth, we can gain new insights into sending messages to life on other planets,” said Douglas Vakoch, President of METI International.

With the understanding that exoplanets are everywhere and that (many of them) could sustain life, we’re beginning to spend more time looking for those beings to find out whether we are alone in the universe or not.

But that once-broad search needs to be refined, based on better understanding of a few different characteristics:

  • what those aliens might look like
  • how they might have evolved
  • how they might behave and communicate
  • exactly how intelligent they might really be

The workshop’s sessions will run through a plethora of different ideas put forth by researchers across the world. Among them is Anna Dornhaus, a biologist at the University of Arizona, who will discuss the distinction between a conventional form of intelligence found in most higher-order organisms (mammals), and the “exaggerated” intelligence in humans. In her view, natural selection — which pushes forth traits that will advance energy efficiency — is an insufficient driver of human cognitive complexity.

“It’s inexpressibly humbling for me to be here adding something to the discussion,” linguist Sheri Wells-Jensen from Bowling Green State University tells Inverse.

Human intelligence is similar to a peacock’s tail: it’s an exaggerated trait that doesn’t outright help one to survive, but proves to be a desirable trait in potential mates, and is therefore advanced through sexual selection. As such, human intelligence “may be a rare accident of chance, as rare as a peacock’s tail,” and “this doesn’t bode well for the prospect of finding human-like aliens,” she writes. Her argument suggests it would make more sense to shift SETI focuses away from finding aliens that exhibit our kind of complex cognition, and instead look for aliens that probably do not exhibit any kind of technological capabilities.

Another idea pitched by a pair of researchers from the University of Washington suggests the most successful messages humans broadcast into space for aliens to pick up should be made as broadly interpretable as possible, by a wide range of creatures. Their inspiration behind designing such a message are cephalopods, like octopuses, which retain such an ancient nervous system yet continue to exist and thrive up to the present day and exhibit the capacity for smart behavior. UW biologists Dominic Sivitilli and David Gire don’t think it’s unlikely an intelligent alien may evolve similar systems.

The Arecibo Radio Telescope, at Arecibo, Puerto Rico. At 1,000 feet across, it is the largest dish antenna in the world. The dish, built into a bowl in the landscape, focuses radio waves from the sky on the feed antenna suspended above it on cables. Since the dish itself can't move, the telescope is steered to point at different regions of the sky by moving the feed antenna (dome) along the curving metal track.

Ultimately, the pair suggest that a SETI message launched into space by human researchers ought to include a large amount of detailed astronomical data to provide information for where aliens could calibrate their telescopes, and also include archived data of interesting information another civilization may have missed getting the first time. They suggest it’s not worth sending information of ourselves, since the likelihood an extraterrestrial intelligence could interpret that data correctly is remote, and to avoid providing any technological information.

Another incredibly interesting argument, spearheaded by Well-Jensen, dismantles the notion that intelligence in a species is tied to a possession of a visual perception system similar to what humans utilize. Wells-Jensen, who is blind, essentially argues that an intelligent species on another planet could have easily evolved without a visual system and still possess the technological capabilities to send and receive messages from humans. “I started to wonder why I’d read that sight was necessary for technology,” she says. “It’s pretty clear to me that it is not.”

Her talk runs through her experiment that invents the alien Krikkits civilization (name inspired by Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books) and paints a picture of what they might look like and how they might behave as a blind species.

“I wanted to hold all possible variables constant,” she says. “As soon as you say ‘blind’, people want to grant all kinds of cool but unnecessary extra kinds of senses and abilities — I think because they feel so strongly that the lack of sight is a terrible burden for the poor little guys.”

Her idea, instead, is to just subtract one factor — sight — and find out what difference that can make. The research team ran through an evolutionary scenario from the stone age to the modern day, trying to figure out how the Krikkits would need to progress in order to build a radio telescope without the use of sight. “We ended up not needing to cover most of the elements,” Wells-Jensen says. “You don’t need to discover for example that water is H2O in order to build a radio, for example.

Wells-Jensen calls her talk “a cautionary tale: we send a radio signal [because] we assume they also built some kind of radio. [But] if they didn’t, they’ll never get the message.” In the end, humans, she thinks, ought to be prepared to receive a message from intelligent aliens that is nothing like we could have ever imagined.

Overall, the workshop is another illustration of how scientists from a wide array of disciplines are diving into SETI research with such an incredibly fresh enthusiasm. If we ever do stumble upon signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, we’ll need the entire scientific community to come together and figure out exactly what we need to do next.