1
$\begingroup$

A quote from Story of Your Life (the short novel that Arrival movie is based on)

Colonel Weber frowned. “You seem to be implying that no alien could have learned human languages by monitoring our broadcasts.”

“I doubt it. They'd need instructional material specifically designed to teach human languages to non-humans.”

Superintelligence (from Wikipedia):

is a hypothetical agent that possesses intelligence far surpassing that of the brightest and most gifted human minds. "Superintelligence" may also refer to a property of problem-solving systems (e.g., superintelligent language translators

Let's say that there's an alien probe orbiting the Earth. The alien probe is an artificial superintelligence and it is monitoring all broadcasts leaving the Earth since the very start.

To talk/write to us, an alien artificial superintelligence really need a dedicated "Grammar practice for Elementary Artificial Alien Superintelligence Students"? It can't learn at least one language from our broadcasts? How can it do that?

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I remember seeing that sentence in the story. I had my doubts about it. I wonder if there's recorded evidence of human babies learning a second language solely by watching television? Edit I found multiple articles in a quick Google search, including this TED talk: ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies Summary of the TED talk is here: web.archive.org/web/20170121171945/http://vancouversun.com/g00/… $\endgroup$ – SRM Jan 21 '17 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ Could you clarify the last paragraph? I'm not sure if you're asking why it needs to be taught or why it doesn't or how it does or how it doesn't. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Jan 21 '17 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Zxyrra: If the alien superintelligence doesn't need a "grammar practice", how could theoretically learn a human language by monitoring our broadcasts? Sorry for poor english :) $\endgroup$ – Lupetto Jan 21 '17 at 18:02
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ we have been broadcasting instructional material to teach language for decades, It's called children's programing. $\endgroup$ – John Jan 21 '17 at 20:29
5
$\begingroup$

The superintelligence is super intelligent

There is no real need to explain how it works. By definition, the probe is smarter than a human, so there's no reason why it couldn't be "smart enough" to recognize what constitutes a language and figure out what it's communicating.

  • All languages share similarities. Our friends at Linguistics SE have discussed this a bit, and while completely foreign languages may be difficult to interpret, patterns can be identified, and meanings can be guess-and-checked based on the actions of those speaking.
  • Humans are already capable, so a meta-human would have no problem. There are thousands of languages around the world, and yet nearly all of them have been translated through self-practice and observation. Europeans were able to decipher Asian languages along the silk road, and vice-versa; the same is true for their arrival in the Americas. I'm no expert on the process, but if we can do it just fine, and this probe is significantly smarter for us, the question becomes why wouldn't the probe learn?
$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't know, maybe because it's not human. As you said, we, as human, we share similarities. From languages to brain. $\endgroup$ – Lupetto Jan 21 '17 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ Uhm, maybe this is a Linguistics SE question. $\endgroup$ – Lupetto Jan 21 '17 at 19:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Humans have successfully deciphered foreign written languages, but without conversational feedback from fluent speakers nobody has ever learned to speak another language. The alien probe would neither. It would make some mistakes like babies do, but would probably quickly learn to correct them. $\endgroup$ – Crissov Jan 21 '17 at 19:51
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Lupetto See my above comment ^ $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Jan 21 '17 at 22:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Crissov: You can't learn to speak a foreign language without hearing it, so I don't think that is a fair criticism. $\endgroup$ – TheBlackCat Jan 23 '17 at 20:50
3
$\begingroup$

Thing is, language could likely be learned without being taught through recognition of patterns. Different phonemes being used very often together could be used to learn a word.

The problem then becomes associating words with meaning. With nothing but audio, you really don't have a mental image to connect the words to, nor can you observe the words in relation to various objects, emotions, etc., which makes finding patterns among words far more difficult. You could potentially recognize tone, and try associating tone with various words, but this could end up being more confusing in some cases.

With the example of children watching tv in another language, they have visual reference in that case. They could potentially, eventually, associate words with objects and ideas. In the case of super-intelligence, this likely wouldn't take long. But with only audio, it would seem to me to be very difficult to associate various words with meaning. I would think the super-intelligence could therefore learn a blank dictionary, if you will. It could construct the language's words, and maybe even letters (without symbols, mind you) based on patterns, but there wouldn't be definitions for the words.

To add complications, different dialects or accents could make the phonemes harder to recognize with patterns. If the super-intelligence had visual surveillance, or way of determining what various words referred to, it would likely be possible to learn without being explicitly taught. However, I would think that having only the sound of the words to go by would make it nearly impossible to learn the meaning.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ We send television signals too (Carl Sagan's Contact). This could change the scenario? $\endgroup$ – Lupetto Jan 21 '17 at 18:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Lupetto, Good point. But, if I'm correct, the television signals require a device to interpret what the resultant image will be. The aliens would have to make a device that correctly interprets the image. If they could do so, without accidentally getting a result that is incorrect, and then thinking it is correct (because who's to say they know what the signal should translate to?), then that would increase their chances of being able to decipher a language. Especially if they have access to Dora. Learning Spanish from outer space. $\endgroup$ – Iter Jan 21 '17 at 18:59
1
$\begingroup$

There are two main questions you will have to ask here: How intelligent and how alien?

Humans have been able to figure out the languages of ancient people from text alone without the benefit of native speakers, but this analysis hardly exists in a vacuum. First off, languages evolve and it is possible to find clues based on similarities with existing languages. Second, human languages have a lot of similarities due to the fact that, being human, we have a degree of understanding of other human cultures. Aliens might not be similar enough to understand human civilization on even a basic level.

If we're talking about aliens that are as far above us as we are above non-human animals, we can probably assume that they are as capable of understanding us as we are of understanding non-human animals - difficult, but not impossible. The problem is that the reason we can understand non-humans is often because we evolved alongside them and instinctively know, more or less, what we need to know (example: most mammals understand that "growling, making noise, and baring teeth" means "angry"). We can also empathize with animals reasonably closely related to us; we share emotions like fear, anger, and contentment, and needs like food, sleep, and shelter with many animals. Aliens, particularly the very alien aliens will not necessarily have this benefit.

The problem is that languages exist to convey information, but they only need to convey information that the listener does not already know. In other words, no human language intrinsically contains information about what an emotion is, how human social structure works, and so on. All human listeners know this already, but eavesdropping aliens might not, so they might not have the context that will allow them to start analyzing.

A good example of a complex "language" of a species that is very alien to us and also much less intelligent would be the "dance" of bees. Human scientists have figured it out, but only through intense study and with the benefit of context clues. We needed to know that bees get food from flowers, that they are eusocial animals that can be expected to help each other instead of keeping food for themselves, that they can see the sun and use it to calculate angles and distances, and that the dance triggers bees to go to a particular flower that the "dancer" had previously visited. If we had simply been focused on videos of bees dancing in their hives, with no understanding of bee social structure, goals, and their behavior before and after the dance, no amount of study would allow us to crack the code. There simply isn't enough information contained in the dance to tell us what we need to know.

So if the aliens are as high above us and as different from us as we are from bees, I would guess that they could figure out our language with enough study, but they would probably have to observe us directly to get the necessary context. Broadcasts alone, especially audio broadcasts, would not be enough.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

The Google translate AI recently created its own "meanings map", essentially its own internal language, to allow it to translate word pairs it had never seen before.

Given thousands of years more time and greater computing power, there is no reason to think that your probe could not do likewise. The only issue would be ensuring an accurate match between its tokens and real world phenomena. Concrete objects are obvious enough, but something like "love" might be harder to validate.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

I don't think that language will be the easy way. If we want AlIEN aliens, then let's make them communicate with ideas, thoughts. Then, the aliens could simply communicate with pictures, or with thought.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.