One answer to the question of "Why don't we see any aliens?" prompted me to consider:

The computer was a comparatively simple design, what the natives would call “single core” Von Neumann architecture machine. But it made up for its simplicity in raw speed. More than that; its tremendous processing speed required simplicity.

The single central processing unit was made up of patterns of excitement and interference of quasiparticles that were created and herded by a barrel-shaped spool of carefully doped carbon nanotube.

Within the central hollow—inside the barrel—was a core of carefully arranged atoms that stored bits as the orientation of electron spin. In the most general terms, the information storage was using the same principle as the native’s “hard drives”, albeit at a smaller scale. This spin crystal was three dimensional, not flat; and the domains were single electrons. All told, it stored about a petabyte of raw data. In operation, a hologram-like interference pattern played over the entire volume of the core, and the precise pattern allowed it to select individual spin states from the crystal and combine them with simple logic operations, to produce a “bright” or “dark” spot representing the result, on a third location. Intense beams of magnetic flux converged on the result spot in the crystal at the exact moment, allowing the result to be stored as a spin state.

The concept of the three dimensional interference pattern playing over the entire memory naturally allowed only one operation to access it at a time. But the speed of the logic was limited only by the speed of light across the diameter of the barrel, and this severely limited the processing speed to 3 × 1012 logical operations on bits per second. That was not quite enough for the task it was engineered for, and differences between actual verses theoretical maximum performance made the gulf even wider.

So the builders got clever and coaxed more speed out of the system. Processing could be pipelined to some extent, operating in waves that move across the volume, if the data is suitably arranged in space. Many operations operate on words larger than a bit, so this picks up much of the slack and allows, for example, addition of two words to be done in a wave that picks up each bit position in turn, rather than processing one bit at a time.

Another speed boost comes from doing the bulk of the processing over a smaller volume in the center of the volume. Only data at the outer edges would need the full speed-of-light delay across the span. So data was arranged suitably and cached in successive layers like an onion. This computer was a tenth of a millimeter across, and weighed about a microgram. Nearly an order of magnitude more mass was needed to shield and isolate it, so its quantum heart would not feel any whispers from the outside universe.

The craft housing the computer was a hundred times the mass of the shielded computer. The budget for structural members was horded, trying to keep everything as light as possible, yet still be strong and durable. The housing was packed with necessary systems, including sensors, propulsion, power generation, communications, and internal command and control systems. Everything was threaded with tubing for delivery of nanomachines and raw materials for self repair.

The craft, whose total mass was about one milligram, was roughly camouflaged as a member of the local fauna. Any of the locals, sentient or not, who saw it would assume it was some kind of mosquito.

They're here, but we have not noticed them because they are the size of a mosquito.

Story-wise, so far, so good: the alien ("Bill") is an uploaded personality in this tiny craft, studying here in the field. He gets cut off from his peers, and needs to make contact with a human to get help. Local guy discovers Bill after some adventure, they work out a communication mechanism, and strike a deal. Sprinkle with side plots and allegories.

So, my question is, how can Bill get someone's attention, and convince him that he's an intelligent being?

(Block quote above is from a 2011 draft of a short story by myself. It is reproduced here for reference only. Excerpt ©JMD, all rights reserved. I need to label this usage as I'll want to publish it some day.)

I'll discuss the micro vehicle itself in another Q. But, the capabilities of the vehicle are crutial to this question. So some ground rules:

Power is chemical, so energy throughput is about the same as an animal that size. This affects how much it can lift and manipulate.

Senses physically possible in such a small form include those things that real animals can do, but work to the limit of what's physically possible, sometimes an order of magnitude better than what evolved.

Vision is acute in spectra and any properties of a photon received, but naturally limited by the size of the eyes.

Smell is good, collecting and analyzing molecules along the length of the body. Again, acute in data extracted, but limited in quantity of air sampled.

Radio is problematic. Receiving might be possible based on what I've read about a single nanotube receiver, but doesn't have antenna size or power to transmit on anything used by Eartly technology.

Emitting coded light would be the camera in reverse: few photons, precicely tuned. A receiver at some distance needs to know to look for an exact frequency and pulse structure, to distinguish it from background light. It might use properties of light not employed by Earthly technology, like orbital angular momentum or entanglement with reference photons stored in the receiver.

Hearing is limited due to small size and mass. Maybe a lateral line pressure sensor can sense pressure waves in the direction of the body length, so better than a real animal. There is no mechanism to produce sound, but the incedental sound made by the mechanism (flying) is like a mosquito.

Bill doesn't have nanotechnology to mess with outside objects or amplify the actions. His capabilities are those of a mosquito, with human-level intelligence. Any fancy tech will require prior arrangement and can't be used for the initial contact scenario.

  • $\begingroup$ The computer was a comparatively simple design, what the natives would call “single core” Von Neumann architecture machine. But it made up for its simplicity in raw speed. More than that; its tremendous processing speed required simplicity. so basically that's a RISC machine? ;) $\endgroup$ – o0'. Jul 14 '15 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe, maybe not. Even a CISC core is made out of individual transistors, and starting with hardware bit-level logic gates doesn't mean you can only build RISC processors. The exposed instruction set is a layer above the gates that make it happen. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 14 '15 at 23:21
  • $\begingroup$ And in another quibble type comment: "not quite enough for the task it was engineered for"... Why engineer a device to not meet the specified task? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 14 '15 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ @samuel it means that additional things are needed rather than simply clocking it as a single large block. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 15 '15 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ I know I'm being picky but in regards to your copyright notice above, I quote from the SE terms of service (section 3 of the legal link below), "You agree that all Subscriber Content that You contribute to the Network is perpetually and irrevocably licensed to Stack Exchange under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. You grant Stack Exchange the perpetual and irrevocable right and license to use, copy, cache, [...], create derivative works and store such Subscriber Content... " (along with reams more legalese). Thought you should know. $\endgroup$ – Rick Decker Jul 15 '15 at 21:33

Connect to anything wireless, talk to them.

I do mean anything wireless: reverse-engineering any 802.11 (Wi-Fi) protocol might be too complex, but there are plenty of easier wireless things that one can connect to (like radios, for instance).

  • $\begingroup$ It is too small to contain realistic radio, and that affects Bill's own base of operations too. The power availability is low, the mass is low, and the length or area is small. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 14 '15 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz You wrote that the ship has communications. What are they if not radio? Optical? $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 14 '15 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ I've not looked into the physics yet. But assume very short range with the bulk of the complexity in the large dock, and incompatible with the kind of physics used by common Earthly devices. Optical receiving would work; transmitting would require specilized receiver to cope with the very low power and lack of space for any simple "beaming" mechanisms. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 14 '15 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ @JDługosz That depends on whether it's isotropic (for Bill it doesn't need to be), the proximity, and the gain for the receiving antenna. Not all devices are so large, for instance, this transceiver along with TX and RX antennas can transmit up 50cm isotropically. Apparently you're feeling is that this isn't possible, but it's not only possible, it currently exists. Your feeling is wrong. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 15 '15 at 5:11
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    $\begingroup$ I'd strongly recommend this to aliens as a method of communication, as you can't be physically located (at least not simply), and thus lower the risks of a violent reaction from the person(s) you're communicating with. Basically, don't let them know where you are, or see you, until you are confident they won't try to kill you. I don't buy your statement that they are too small to communicate in this fashion. $\endgroup$ – Max Williams Jul 15 '15 at 13:56

Most of the current techniques proposed are extremely low-bandwidth, mainly focused on pre-digital age techniques. It makes more sense that a starfaring alien race would be far more advanced than humans, and they should be able to do far more with digital techniques than we can.

Even if the mind onboard the nanobot is of human intelligence, the nanobot itself should be equipped with powerful digital manipulators capable of sending signals either via wired or wireless connections, allowing the mind to make digital connections.

Wi-Fi and radio

I would disagree with the author's claim that a nanobot the size of a mosquito doesn't have enough space/power to implement a wireless radio.

Micron-sized graphene nano-radios (2-4µm in diameter) have been built with existing human technology with sufficient quality to transmit FM radio audio signals. It is clear that alien nanotechnology which can power a complete sentient mind within a structure the size of a mosquito can do much better in terms of miniaturisation.

On the power side, radios require very low powers to operate. The S-scale used in radios measures the received signal intensities, and signals below -100dBm can be detected. This translates to powers of 0.1pW. For comparison, the kinetic energy of a flying mosquito is about 160 nJ, which is three orders more energy than it takes to transmit at -100dBm for a second.

Therefore, the mosquito-nanobot can simply announce its presence on the nearest FM or AM radio by directly transmitting an audio signal into the antenna, which would be picked up and amplified as audio signals.

Alternatively, it can also hijack the nearest WiFi access point by flashing its firmware. Many access points have weak (WEP) or no protection, allowing them to be hacked and used for information dissemination by the mosquito nanobot.


In any case, the usage of a radio is completely unnecessary, when you can essentially perform arbitrary actions on a target computer.

USB is a convenient mechanism that allows arbitrary devices to be powered directly from the port and which often trigger autorun programs on the attached computer. USB can also be used to drive keyboards and mice, which can be used to display programs in plaintext on the targeted device.

For example, the mosquito-nanobot can connect to the USB port and masquerade as a USB keyboard. On a Windows machine, it can then enter the key sequence Win-R , notepad , enter followed by arbitrary input announcing its presence. Even if the nanobot did not already know the USB keyboard protocol, it could easily tap the signal of an actual keyboard and quickly learn the correct sequence of electrical signals required for sending keystrokes to the computer. A plot point can be made on the alien making incorrect keystrokes during this learning process, causing the human protagonist to suspect that his computer has been hacked.

It can also announce itself as a USB hub, which has a mass storage device as well as a keyboard attached. It can then load arbitrary images, text, audio and video onto the computer of the target in order to convince the target of its authenticity.

Mass media studios

While televisions are on the way out as a form of mass media, many people still watch television, especially so for the case of news broadcasts, which are often live and therefore not subject to editing, allowing the alien nanobot to inject audio signals.

The mosquito nanobot could position itself on the line-in connection of a microphone wire, and transmit audio signals that are broadcast to the entire audience of the TV station.

This has the added benefit of causing a number of alien fanatics to become primed towards the existence of the mosquito alien, which would make its job much easier at finding receptive people for it to converse with and who will believe the messages.


Bill could certainly employ many kinds of writing, starting with the obvious fluid inks, but barring that many small particles (sugar, salt, sand, flour) could be arranged to form legible words when given enough time and an undisturbed surface.

This could also serve as conflict points in the plot, e.g. when Bill spends a whole day arranging an elaborately thought out message in flour on the dining table, but the intended recipient opens a window, causing a draft to destroy it all before seeing it.

This could get him over the initial contact, but would be very burdensome for day to day communication, for which a purpose built device or another way would be needed.

  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that's one thing in the old notes: he uses a drip of paint from a kid's playing. Not sure about how large of a mark can be made, but you're right it just takes more time to build up a larger image. Mosquito footprints would be very tiny. Picking up a droplet has surface tension issues. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 15 '15 at 9:03

I think this is relatively simple. Bill's ship, roughly the size of a mosquito, would wait until a human was asleep and after watching him for a very long time, would simply determine the best time to contact the human. By now, he has undoubtedly assimilated the language and communication methods of Humans (plus, you can presume that his alien race has been studying us for a long while), so he is clear about what he has to do.

He navigates his craft into the ear canal of the human, being sure to hide behind the bony part of the inner ear. Using a small proboscus, much like a mosquito, he would carefully pierce the eardrum material creating a physical link between the ship and the human. This would be particularly risky considering he had heard of others being decimated by incessant digging from the human who was in severe pain from the piercing action.

Once he managed to secure the connection without waking the human, he would then use his tiny chemical thrusters to vibrate the ear drum with a precision we humans could not grasp. He would be able to explain a significant amount of information during the human's sleep and when he woke up, carefully he could communicate to the human and explain the situation. An entire chapter could be dedicated to the voice or linguistic styles used to speak to the human. You could even have recorded speech patterns from other humans so that the voice in the guys ear sounded less alarming...like a relative or love interest. Ultimately, they (Bill and the human) would work out a mechanism that would allow Bill to talk in the human's ear and get him to do what he needed without really exposing himself. Meanwhile, the nano-particles could be mapping his brain and determining the best way to make a visual cortex connection. Before too long, Bill could project any information he needed as thought patterns and the Human host could become somewhat of a robot or mindless host like wasps do with cockroaches on occasion. But the fact is that Bill has compassion, so he wouldn't do that. It would be more about sharing and less about controlling. You have to give the human free will to make the story interesting.

This would shift the story from the technology to the human element. It would open up a huge path to discuss the nature of human beings, distrust, emotional issues dealing with voices in his head. In all, you could create an entire folklorish history about previous attempts to do this, but focusing on how Bill's success, though constantly on the edge of failure, and how it is due solely to some unique aspect that makes Bill able to empathize with the human.

I realize this is rough, but it seems like it would really be a cool story to read. If you could take this and develop it with 1/100th the precision and detail of the story segment you provided, I am sure it would be amazing.

I love what you have written and hope this works for you. Please keep us updated. Great and amazing work so far.


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    $\begingroup$ I just realized that part of the inherent risk of reassigning some of the repair nano-particles to become electro chemical 3D time and logic based mappers to access the brain would take a great deal of explanation to avoid the necessity of having "special equipment" Presumably, one of the aspects that makes the ship self-repairing would allow Bill to modify their behavior..but risk losing the ability to repair the craft--another twist/angle for the reader to stress out about. $\endgroup$ – Deleted User Jul 15 '15 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting (see Needle by Hal Clement) but not the direction I was planning for this one. I could have Bill lament that it could have been so simple if the mission had provided for contact. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 15 '15 at 23:21

Low tech solution: find a HAM radio/telegraph operator and buzz in Morse code. When is your story set? This might have been easier some decades ago, but Morse code is not forgotten even today.

Unfortunately, mosquito shape is dangerous, humans try to squash mosquitoes pretty much immediately after noticing them.


Well, some mosquitos when flying make a noise that is clearly audible by a human (as everyone who had one in the room at night knows from painful experience). So I assume that ship has the same ability to make such noise; possibly also when not actually flying. So the solution could be to sit down close enough to someone's ear, and then use Morse code to communicate to the human. Of course that assumes that the alien already figured out Morse code, and found a human that knows it.


I think that writing is indeed the best option for initial contact. A few notes only, and after that some drawings so the person Bill contacts could be able to build a receiver for the optical communication device in Bills ship. After that, the rest should be easy.

Bill may want to contact a teenager with a high affinity for technology (a.k.a nerd), because at that age, especially with a love for scifi, being convinced to at least try communicating should be comparably easy.
Also, Bill will most likely not be interested in publicity, so a nerdy teenager, who on the one hand does not have too many social contacts, and on the other hand has always seemed a bit too imaginative to be very credible in such matters, seems a reasonable choice.


I would suggest locating someone using a laser projection keyboard (preferably on the most sensitive setting). However, as most people would likely just swat a mosquito that attempted to land on such a keyboard, Bill will likely need to wait until they've left the keyboard unattended long enough for him to have typed something meaningful so that, at the very least, their curiosity will allow him to continue.


Another option would be a neuro-physiology laboratory. They have sensitive electrodes that he would be able to connect to that would be able to amplify the signal to detectable level. It would be immediately obvious if he was transmitting something artificial through the electrode, and someone would go to investigate.


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