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We always assume first alien contact will be meeting with some strange looking alien, maybe with a multitude of limbs, sometimes with none, etc. etc..

However, so many of our Science Fiction stories talk about humans having strange bodies that have been manipulated at their genes and have other enhancements like cyborgs. One book I recently read was about humans that had 8 limbs, all arms, they wanted that for their work in space. Or gills for living on water worlds...

Why is it we can think that humans will manipulate their bodies to such extremes but aliens will all be homogeneous monsters that "scare" us just because of their alienness. I have to wonder for first contact if they would have specially designed bodies made for their ambassadors to communicate with us. I would think it might even help understand our frames of reference etc.

So assuming benevolence on the part of our first visitors how far might they try to modify their appearance (at least a few intermediaries) to communicate with us?

(I had a similar question before but it was poorly done, trying again and hope this is better)

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    $\begingroup$ Does this sort of large-scale genetic/cybernetic body modification occur in humanity, or just this alien population? Also, a lot of SF stories, especially softer science fiction, does not make the "strange-looking alien" (TVTropes) assumption. A lot of fictional aliens look remarkably human, with just a few different features. $\endgroup$ – KSmarts Feb 2 '15 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ Giant taco that leaves droppings of ice cream. $\endgroup$ – James Feb 2 '15 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ @KSmarts This is first contact to current day Earth. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 2 '15 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ Overcoming form prejudice would be a good test if a species is ready to be introduced to species from other planets. $\endgroup$ – tls Feb 3 '15 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ "We always assume first alien contact will be meeting with some strange looking alien" We do? $\endgroup$ – RonJohn May 17 '17 at 3:28
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Odd-looking but Human-like robots

In 2011, a civilization made first contact with a far more advanced alien species. As Samuel predicted in his answer, the contact took the form of a robot meant to mimick the denizens of the less advanced species.

The robot in question was RoboBee, built by Tim Landgraf et al in a bid to learn more about the bee's language of dancing (2). Communication was one-way and only partly succesfull, yet a first-contact for the bees, in terms of communication. The experiment lends credence to the argument bowlturner makes under the above question, that aliens would mimick us to make themselves understood. In the case of bees, a bee-like body was essential to talk the "dancing language" of bees.

enter image description here
I am RoboBee, ambassador from the human race to lesser developed species.


enter image description here
I have made contact with the natives. They are receptive to my messages, but appear to be controlled by some kind of hive mind.


enter image description here
The mysterious builders of the robot watch from afar, unable to walk among the bees in their true form.

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    $\begingroup$ Awesome! But it also leaves open to be a biological construct with the right technology available. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 3 '15 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ I've always thought this would be the way to go, even if the aliens were our size. We always write a lot of dialog between humans about safety precautions for an upcoming, alien meeting but the aliens should be just as afraid as we are. Why would they risk their own bodies when they could just send a probe? And, why would they bother when we are lazily sending messages through machines instead of going cross planet to talk to someone? $\endgroup$ – pimmen Jul 15 '15 at 11:16
  • $\begingroup$ +! This is literally so cool. I've always thought we (or some other race) would use robots. Had no idea we'd actually done it. $\endgroup$ – Pleiades Sep 5 '17 at 15:37
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They'll look like robots.

It seems to me that the most likely method for first contact will be through an artificial intelligence. Our own best chance (at this point in history) for making first contact, to teach others about we humans, is through our space probes. Voyager 1 is currently more than 18 light-hours from Earth. Attached the Voyager probes are Golden Records, bringing a message from humanity to any space faring races who may come across them.

The vastness of space and the very solid theory that (effective or actual) faster than light travel is not possible (or at least not feasible) means that actual biological aliens are very unlikely to visit us. Just as unlikely as we are to visit them.

Suppose they sent a generation ship or a cryo-sleeper ship. If they were coming here because they captured some radio waves or followed a probe back, they might know something about us and even what we look like. But because travel will take such long time, they couldn't even be sure we'd be the same when they arrived, or that we wouldn't have destroyed ourselves in the intervening decades/centuries.

This leaves non-biological emissaries. Robots. It's really the most logical method after sending a signal via light to let us know they're coming. The robots would come, hopefully with a measure of intelligence of their own. They would impart knowledge to us and ask nothing in return, as a benevolent race might do. Perhaps they could even bring some quantum entangled communication device, so that we may communicate with them in real time. It probably doesn't matter what they look like as long as we're just looking at a hologram. Modern humans can very easily accept what they're looking at if it's not in the room with them, we're used to seeing things that are not really there. This would be quite different for ancient humans, but then they wouldn't have a concept of benevolent aliens in the first place.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think the ideal in non-threatening appearance would be C3-PO. $\endgroup$ – Stig Hemmer Jan 11 '16 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ C3-PO would scare the bejeesus off everyone if you dropped him in 19th century Earth. Pretty sure he would end up burnt at the stake. $\endgroup$ – Drunken Code Monkey Oct 8 '16 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ Quantum entanglement can't be used for FTL communication. See no-communication theorem. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Sep 6 '17 at 12:53
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I would say this largely depends on their understanding of us.

If we go the route of thinking they've studied us for years and know things about our cultures and history. They may try to pick armor/holograms that depict benevolent forms. Ideas like this are explored in sci-fi all the time; Stargate has Thor (of ancient norse fame) belonging to a powerful race of aliens that are waiting for humans to reach a certain intellectual level. Displays and communication use the traditional image of Thor a norse warrior type figure with hammer in hand; however the alien is actually more typical of the "little grey men" appearance.

Other options may include: angels, greek gods, etc.

If on the other hand they're taking the blind approach to meeting us (following radio signals, but not really deciphering a meaning to them) then I suspect the dignitaries will be dressed in a way that shows status and respect befitting their own customs and traditions. We largely do this as well, our leaders dress in a way befitting their station for their culture.

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Depends on who's going to define what "benevolent" means in this case.

For example if these aliens think for some reason that our way of existence is harmful to our "real" nature, they might want to "wake us" into the real reality by purging our illusionary world much like one wakes up a friend who's having a nightmare. So, in this case we might only see something upleasantly impersonal, like our sun suddenly becoming a nova.

It's also possible that they'd contact us telepathically, and we'd only meet after we've grokked each other.

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This depends on the personality of the aliens. No, seriously. Not every human thinks alike, nor dresses alike. Some humans wear tailored suits, others wear T-shirts. Humans have different goals, and present themselves in accordance with those goals. There is no good reason to think that the majority of intelligent species, or even highly advanced ones, would have a uniform approach to interacting with other sapient life-forms. A straightforward species, or straightforward members of a given species, might present themselves in their true forms, with whatever protection is necessary for the environment in which they find themselves. A deceptive species, intent on taking over without being noticed, would almost certainly take on human forms (unless they could control humans directly with a high degree of reliability). A species looking to be admired might look like attractive humanoids, or they might all be clones of Justin Bieber. A species that wanted to scare us might assume the form of a 300-foot tall tentacled squid-dragon-ape monster, but more than likely would be tall, slender, swarthy and sinister, buying up strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger.

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As @Wabbitseason said, it depends on what one means by "benevolent."

My definition of benevolent aliens would have them say hello by first deactivating all of our nuclear weapons and oil/coal/fission industry in an ecologically tame way, and then plugging our power grids into something green that gives practically unlimited electrical power, and then showing us how to stop destroying our planet in other ways, how to not have our endangered species go extinct, how to not be money-obsessed and not have people starve or be impoverished, how to be benevolent ourselves, etc.

So after some initial power outages and panicked media, we'd notice some television and Internet broadcasts where some people are explaining what's going on in a very friendly calm way.

They might look like attractive normal humans, because they'd create spokesperson images (or recruit actual receptive humans, such as the Dalai Lama), to look that way, so as not to alarm us, realizing from all the film broadcasts they'd watched from Earth, what our sensibilities are like. We communicate largely by face images, and they might not have a face, and even if they did, probably wouldn't have the same expression meanings, so it'd make sense to use a human-based image.

Or they might decide to avoid looking too human, and make or borrow an image like we've made for likable aliens in our sci fi films, or to carefully invent one that's like an earth creature, but that we haven't yet used to represent a fictional alien species, so we won't think of them like that fictional species.

Or maybe just send audio with visual of something nice like a blue whale swimming peacefully underwater.

Or they might mess up that second-guessing process, so the image might look like something from Zardoz or something: enter image description here

Or, they might decide not to do that, and show whatever they do look like (which could be all sorts of things), or they might choose not to show an image.

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Unfortunately, I am afraid that your presumption that we always assume aliens will be horrific is largely flawed. In a huge, perhaps majority of science fiction, the key to first contact is a largely common human appearance. Look at the popular TV show "V". They were lizards but wore human bio-shells to look like us.

Another popular example of alien appearance modification for first contact would be Independence Day, where the aliens were tiny little creatures with huge robotic exoskeletons that looked menacing because they had studied us and knew what would scare us.

I think a large section of scifi deals with the notion that we are a primitive and barbaric species and that our first visitors either have been or are somehow evolved versions of us. This explains the almond shaped eyes, large heads, spindly bodies, etc. These are less likely terror-inducing, but more likely logical progressions of physical evolution and specifically evolution off the planet. When astronauts return from space, they are completely encumbered by their physicality--gravity sucks after even a short time without it. It stands to reason that creatures from space would have minimal bodies and large heads.

But to answer your question in another way: what makes you think that we haven't already been visited by aliens that knew enough about us to completely accurately blend in with us? It's likely more common of a theme that Aliens with the technology to travel to our planet will pick a physical appearance that is the most effective for communication with our species. Any attempt to appear frightening would only be the result of thinking that we would be barbarians and that frightening us would be the only way to control us.

But honestly, I like either the notion that we exist like fish (@Peter Masiar)--something that an alien society wouldn't even consider except as a novelty or pet. Or that the universe is much bigger and hugely more populated than we know, but with an interstellar group of "protectors" that placed us under quarantine in the universe until we develop to a stage that we are worthy of knowing the truth..or worthy of harvest like the next coming of Jesus Christ would be.

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There are two important things that others have raised:

  1. "This depends on the personality of the aliens." AKA do they have enough common ground to understand us and our standards or do they miss the point completely, like the alien invader in Never Send to Know for Whom the Lettuce Wilts.

2."I would say this largely depends on their understanding of us." Even if they can understand us that doesn't necessarily mean that they do. Also humans are not a uniform group and we change over time a good understanding of the Papal States under Alexander VI wouldn't translate well in modern society. So called "Historic Truths" like "people only respect strength" could also be problematic.

I think there's a third point that I'm not seeing "What do they ultimately want?" Aliens looking for a market like Niven's Outsiders have very different motives to those looking for allies. Those motives will interact with the above to frame what they find an appropriate appearance in a first contact scenario. Merchants may wish to appear harmless, and keep on doing so in all contacts with us. Warrior cultures looking for allies are probably going to have to be more honest upfront.

Sorry about the formatting, I can't get the bullet points right for some reason.

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You assume that sufficiently advanced aliens would be interested in interacting with humans. For me, it is far from obvious.

Imagine alien race which developed just mere 500M years earlier. They are as distant from us as we are distant from fish. Do we consider fish when you travel over water? Exactly.

And because rate of progress increases, after 500M years aliens would be much more different from even their own original form.

I do not think it is a stupid question. It is a very serious question.

Just our concepts/means of communication might be so off target that aliens may use that any meaningful contact would be nearly impossible. And only if aliens are benevolent, which is also far from guaranteed. @Abulafia made same point, but more humorous way.

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    $\begingroup$ Honestly this looks more like a comment of "this is a stupid question" than any kind of answer. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 3 '15 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ You're answer also assumes that the only other aliens have been around millions of years before us. Why couldn't they be a mere 5-10,000? Also I am 'assuming' that 1 race feels like trying to communicate with us, even if it's just like trying to talk with bees. I also picked benevolent to help narrow the scope of the question to be manageable. I agree we aren't worth the time of day to a 500M yo race, but those they oppress might find us useful... $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 3 '15 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ Also with your edit, I removed my down vote. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Feb 3 '15 at 15:27

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