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Making the Best First Impression, with Aliens

Article written: 14 Mar , 2008
Updated: 26 Dec , 2015
by

Did you know the SETI Institute has a Director of Interstellar Message Composition? I did not know that. I guess it makes sense. If we’re going to be communicating with aliens, we’ll want to be careful about the words we choose. Get it right, and we’ve got extraterrestrial friends, here to uplift us to the galactic community. Get it wrong and we might be looking at radio silence, or worse…

So how should we present ourselves to prospective galactic neighbours?

Douglas Vakoch, the aforementioned Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute has done some thinking about this, and recently wrote it up in an article entitled, How we Present Ourselves to Aliens.

The trick, of course, is to make a good first impression. When the aliens finally receive our first communications, we want them to be wowed. But should we hide our more violent tendencies, or is the best strategy to just be honest. Sure, we fight a few wars here and there, but that’s just a phase we’re working through.

Vakoch thinks that honesty is the best policy. Sure we’re flawed, but what member of the Milky Way club didn’t ravage society with constant warfare and nearly destroy their environment before they reached perfection?

The aliens might be touched at our honestly, recalling their own struggle to get to a stable, peaceful society. Or they might just send in the berserkers to wipe the violent apes off the planet.

And how should we communicate? Could we just transmit CAT-scans of the human body, demonstrating both our physique and level of technology. Or should the mathematicians do our talking for us, communicating in terms of pi until we’ve a mutual mathematical appreciation happening. Do we send our beautiful music, hoping their like it? But what if they hate it?

Whatever we say, and however we say it, that first impression is everything.

So let me know. What would you say, and how would you say it? And if the aliens actually replied, what would we do then?

Original Source: SETI Institute


53 Responses

  1. UNdistinguished says

    We are of one DNA.

  2. Jowan Peijs says

    “WE ARE MANY”

  3. Molecular says

    Faster than light travel, possible or not? 🙂

  4. Member
    Mr Appleby says

    All your base are belong to us!

  5. Kevin says

    Someone is actually getting paid to guess what aliens might think ofur communications? Wish I could get paid for throwing darts at a dartboard. With all the dadio and television signals we are emitting that are not going through the “Great Sky Editor”, I would think his job is less than worthless.

  6. Mark O'Kelly says

    Three channels:
    1) Dick & Jane.
    2) Britannica.
    3) Everything, and I *do* mean *everything*.

    Don’t try to guess what will interest, bore, please, or appall them: we have no clue.

    Things to include:
    High art. Popular culture. Science. Stupid pet tricks. Sports. How to knit socks. The history of China. The history of wheelbarrows. “Teach yourself Basque in 5 easy lessons and 58 hard ones”. How a stapler works, and what it’s used for. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. How to speak Pig Latin.

  7. Jowan Peijs says

    Make it quick

  8. ntoskrnl says

    How do you interpret (or the other way around, send) a message of unknown content from an unknown location created by an unknown mind of unknown intellect?

    – unknown type: analog or digital
    – unknown form of application: audio (what speed, frequency, etc.), visual (how to reproduce, what protocol?), text, or whatever?
    – if digital (most likely) unknown compression, protocol, decode alorythms
    – if decyphered: what context, language, complexity, missing or different basic values (concept of vision, sound, color, thought, belief, individualism, emotion, dimension, time, shape, and so on might be missing or incomprehensible)

    etc etc bla bla
    There are far too many obstacles to make this an easy thing to do. If it was a sophisticated message, and even if it was designed to be easily understood by their means – that doesn’t guarantee we’ll ever be able to make sense out of it.

  9. Nipper says

    You know what? I really have to agree with Kevin. We’ve got so many signals of so many types flitting around already that it seems whatever alien would have to sift through them before they even find our formal greeting.
    Although I think also that once they did find said message, they might be touched to find that someone went through the trouble!

  10. Kevin says

    Nipper: exactly…How many movies are out there that include “messages” to alien civilizations. How are they even supposed to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. History would definitely be in the eye of the beholder there. How would you sort through all the crap we put out there.

    ntoskml: hilarious……I mean there are an infinite number of choices besides analog and digital, including an uncountable number of formats we have never even thought of.

  11. Victoria says

    How should we present ourselves to prospective galactic neighbours? That should not be the question the question should be… How would we want to be approched and presented by prospective galactic neighbours? If there is “Alien life” in outter space then they probably all ready know what kind of beings we are, so if they were to approch us, how would you want them to? Because no matter what we choose as a correct message, this hypothetical message is not the truth or would be truth of who we are. So think of how you would want to be told there is life other then on Earth. I will use the quote “Treat others as you would want to be treated”.

  12. little indian says

    Take me to your chief

  13. ntoskrnl says

    Well, I come to think that even as TV is a nice analog transmission, it might prove hard to understand for someone that has never invented TV. Its just a radio wave… no one tells them that the signal strength is related to the deflection of an electron beam hitting a fluorescent screen and that the time corresponds to breaking to new lines till a defined number of lines is “filled” and then repeating this stuff over and over 25 times a sec and that the result is a moving realtime (by our means of time and movement) image made of pixels that has to be viewed with eyes (if they have any, and if their brain is capable of recognizing objects that way since they are a very primitive reproduction of reality)…
    …just another thought. I’m no expert in TV technology if I got something wrong up there…

  14. Jowan Peijs says

    Don’t I know you from somewhere?

  15. tacitus says

    All species that inhabit this Universe have one thing in common — the laws of nature. Specifically we have the mathematics used to define our physical world. Sure they won’t know them as Newton’s Laws or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but the maths will be the same, and can be used as a basis for communication, starting with simple number sequences (as in Sagan’s Contact).

    It may take some time to figure it all out, but the incentive would be huge and vast amounts of money and time would be available to work on the problem.

    As to what we say, I think we should just be honest, but make sure we have our best marketing and sales people crafting the message. No point in revealing our worst traits before we get to know our fellow aliens. But fears over being attacked by aliens are overwrought. The likely distances between us and them (measured in light years) don’t bode well for close contact, so we’re not going to be a threat to anyone. And if, somehow, they already have the means to come here, they’re likely out of our league militarily anyway, and we would not be much of a threat to them.

  16. Dr Robert says

    If advanced self conscious intelligent life is not something that happened just once by incredible accident, or if such life does not wipe itself out by mandatory default, the universe is full of intelligent life. No need to send messages or to try to get in contact then. Earth would be known for eons and it would be known what’s going on down here right now. Without sending UFOs, abducting cattle, talking to psychics or sleeping with desperate house wifes. It wouldn’t exactly be the 1950’s out there. Add some zeros, knowledge and common sense.

    Listening to the sky with radio telescopes in order to detect E.T. civilizations is useless. If contact is avoided until we reach a certain level we are shielded from any evidence. If there is no such thing as E.L. we won’t pick up anything anyway.

  17. As an alein ship gets close enough to Earth, it would probably detect a myrid of transmissions. Imagine our having to explain late night adult cable? It might be worse. We may have to explain Lost in Space or the Teletubbies to ET.

  18. tacitus says

    Listening to the sky with radio telescopes in order to detect E.T. civilizations is useless.

    It’s only useless if your assumptions are valid, and that’s a big “if”. I would agree that if intelligent life is abundant in the galaxy, then we are already likely being observed, and we will be introduced when they think we’re ready, but that is no reason not to try. Until we have a much better picture of other solar systems and the types of planets they might contain, it is well worth spending a few bucks searching for signals. The results of contact would be profound and great value for money!

  19. Member

    I think listening for SETI is a worthwhile effort. And with the success of [email protected], it’s clear much of the public thinks so too.

  20. Peter Luquer says

    I would hope we would have the humility and wisdom to simply listen.

  21. John says

    “We can have it all or we can smash it all” – From the movie Mars Attacks!

  22. baley says

    Being cautious is not a bad idea just in case FTL travel is possible and the alien intentions are not much generous . After all its not like we know much of alien sociology, isn’t it?

    The closest thing we have to an alien in earth is Michel Jackson and we clearly hardly understand him!

  23. Brian says

    Do you have any OIL? George Bush

  24. Mike - Portugal says

    Assuming “they” had eyes…

    Mathematics all the way, along with symbol explained chemistry and physics and anatomy. ( think hierogliphs from ancient egipt. )

    Be honest, the truth always comes up sooner or later, if they don’t like us the way we are they will either put us out of our misery or come tu us to help us grow up. win win scenario in my opinion.

    …but please omit anything related to politics on
    Earth or they may just get too confused ( disgusted ) to even bother visiting us.

    Peace

    Mike

  25. NeoGuru says

    Play it by ear. And don’t worry about communicating. It’s impossible unless we discover a means of doing so at faster-then-light speed.

  26. Bruce Kamiat says

    Really, only mathematical messages make any sense. There is no way
    that “words” can be communicated to beings whose language is probably
    going to be so different from ours that any common reference points
    other than mathematical ones would be lacking.

    Bruce Kamiat

  27. Geological Engineer Carlos Albrizzio says

    If there was previous intelligent life contacting us, that received no unswer since the pre Cambrian to the present time, 3,500 million years ago, they would have discarded and forgotten us. Intelligent life as our rudimentary one is, should be very fortuitous and uncommon to exists, but thanks to the aleatory geological process of meteoric impacts, (Chicxulub, 65 mya) we developed from the early mammals. Otherwise, as I tell my college students in my Environmental Geology course, this lecturer could be a large crocodile and they, a series of small lizard attending it. Should’n we spend a bit more, trying to understand better the other living beings in the only planet we are sure there is life?.

  28. Kenneth Roger says

    Send them our genetic code with instructions on how to grow some of us. There’s no better way to tell them what we are like. Maybe they will do the same.

  29. Silver Thread says

    I say we shut up and listen for them first. Guessing how they might react and to what they might react is futile speculation. If they have the technology to hear us, they may well have the technology to hear most everything we transmit already.

    Not only this but consider if the alien species is filled with religious Zealots we may well cast them into some sort of Holy War on their own planet. I think at this stage in our development we would do well to focus on our continued growth as a species.

  30. Joseph Baneth Allen says

    If Douglas Vakoch honestly equates advanced age with great wisdom, then he has disqualified himself to be an objective composer of interstellar messages to any ETIs that Humanity may initially eavesdrop on.

    Elevating an ETI to Godhead status and giving that culture superior moral authority over Humanity just because they have potential “seniority” by a few thousand or million years is a foolish policy apparently advocated by the SETI Institute.

    “Having long ago conquered war, poverty, and disease, having formed a stable society capable of enduring on time scales that stagger our imaginations, what would they think of our human flaws and imperfections?” writes Mr. Vakoch.

    What if Mr. Vakoch is wrong? What if an senior citizen ETI hasn’t conquered war, poverty, and disease? What then Mr. Vakoch? Do you turn you back on them in disgust because they haven’t lived up to your expectations? Or do you keep searching for an ETI that you can elevate to Humanity’s Savior? Why does Humanity have to impress an ETI?

    Perhaps I don’t have Mr. Vakoch’s vast life experience, but I believe true friendships begin by mutual respect and admiration. I don’t think Humanity should or needs to impress an ETI with our, as Mr. Vakoch describes it, “primitive” technology. If one person in a relationship spends his time fawning over the superiority of the other person and receives nothing in return, then its not a true friendship built on respect and mutual admiration.

    My question for Mr. Vakoch and the SETI Institute is why to the elevate ETIs to Messiah Status. Why does the SETI Institute apparently refuse to consider that by the very act of communicating that any ETI will be committing a very Human act? And if an ETI is capable of committing one Human act, than isn’t it reasonable to assume that an ETI will a full range of emotions and motivations that are exact duplicate of the ones that drive Humanity – the good and the bad?

    Mr. Vakoch seems to want Humanity to have a one-night stand with an ETI. I’d rather have a committed, long-term relationship based on both Humanity’s and an ETI’s strengths and weaknesses, because even an ETI will have feet, tentacles, or scales of clay – and Mr. Vakoch and the SETI Institute would do well to remember that.

  31. Chuck Lam says

    It is almost a certainty that life is bubbling throughout the universe. Some more advanced than humans and maybe only a few hundred or thousand light years away, most probably not. Will contact ever be made? I don’t think so. The communication distances involved are simply too great. Modulated radio frequency, am, fm, pulsed, ssb, name it, and it diminishes gradually to nothing after a few light years. The math doesn’t lie.

  32. Mr. Kokorrr says

    those messages its like windows password for hackers
    they probably now preparing special weapons for us
    then they ll invade us

  33. Alien 37 says

    I can tell you that we dont talk to you.
    You are still so embryonic that you regard the right to own a gun as a sign of freedom.
    At the same time you are not capable to balance your resource consumption and destroy your biosphere.

    GAL

  34. Kevin says

    Oh, we’re thinking just like humans. Let’s send them tapes of the last few democratic debates. They’ll lose all interest in us for sure.

  35. GBendt says

    Trying to find appropiate words to introduce ourselves to aliens is as viable as trying to find the right words to talk effectively to a whale.

    Regards,

    Günther

  36. alien 52 says

    Your math lies.
    Get beyond the limits of your 3 dimensional thinking.

    Are you really not capable to control the primordial black holes around your solar system ?

    We are watching all the time but we dont see you progressing.

    the only place where you seem to be on rack is on this internet web site as you call it.

    Visonaries like Fraser and Ian are the ones that bring you earthlings forward.

    improve your thinking, your maths and learn to control stellar physics.

    speed of light is no limit but a self delusion you created in order to avoid a broader thinking.

  37. Turk says

    If we found a planet that contained life, and the life that was on that planet was inferiour to us, what do you think we would do?

    We would find a way to invade it, and take their resources. There’s racism among people of the same race, and you guys think that we are all just going to get along with a whole different race of intelligent species? That we are all just going to agree on the same subjects? Not at all. Face it, we need more resources, and if that species is inferiour to us we will deffinetly take advantage of their virgin planet. (I’m saying their planet is a “virgin” because they do not have the technology to use up their resources as fast as we are doing). Or we’ll just find a way to trade lol. =]

    This is my opinion, and I’ll probably never come back on this site again so yea.

  38. Member
    Kbutler says

    Good 1st impression? Too late, the primaries are almost over.

  39. Chuck Lam says

    Hey Turk! Your premise is sci-fi. As a practical matter, it is highly doubtful that man will ever leave the solar system.. Mankind is stuck right where we are. Human life is way too short and too fragile to do any real multi-generation scientific space travel. But we, as a self-aware species, must keep dreaming. It’s in our nature regardless if the dream makes sense or not.

  40. alphonso richardson says

    Some one’s been PAID to think what ET will make of us??
    Send ’em Simon Cowell
    Then again, there’s no guarantee he’d be able to make FTL travel (if it were possible) & as Chuck Lam rightly says, the human species is not designed for deep space/multi generation travel.

    Hmmm. Sending Mr Cowell a ticket get more & more appealing…………………………

  41. Chuck Lam says

    As I have espressed before, I believe the universe is “bubbling with life”. Some will be more advanced than the human species with most not as advanced. I have this bad feeling that SETI is wasting their time trying to make alien contact because they lack the sophisticated equipment that will detect a modulated radio signal that is on the order of a fraction of a femto-watt. Detecting so little RF energy isn’t the only problem. Suppressing or filtering out all the googols of natural electronic interference is probably a larger problem then detecting an almost non-existent signal. The challenge is as daunting as locating a particular grain of sand in the Sahara desert on a windy day. I suspect contact will probably never be made with another intelligent life form regardless of radio power. The slow speed of light and the mind-bending light years of communication distances involved is the problem. If, and it’s a big if, alien contact is ever established, I doubt it will be in our life time.

  42. Al says

    I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the rubbish I’ve broadcase over the decades; I’m sorry for all the wars we’ve fought; the pollution on our planet, and now orbiting our planet; I’m sorry for all the hostile alien stories I’ve created. The list goes on and on about what we should be sorry for. Let’s see if they’re forgiving of our stupidity, hostility and prejudices and want to communicate with us. Maybe they’re already aware of our signals but chose not to waste their time with inferiors.

  43. madchemist says

    Son’t worry Al our TV signals are too weak to be detected and they are not orientated anywere, so they won’t be missing any of our reality shows if we were to go radio silent!

  44. INFINITY says

    SEND CLASSICAL MUSIC, AS A GESTURE THAT THE APES THEY INJECTED SOME OF THEIR DNA HAVE MADE SOME PROGRESS SINCE THE LAST VISIT.

  45. Alien 001 says

    Well Al, we read this thread.
    Apologizing is a first step.

    but hey, dont sink in depression.
    All of us had a long and winding road to go.
    I hope you guys make it before you kill yourself or your planet’s ecosphere.

    good luck

  46. LeRoy S. Cross says

    Let them listen to Modest Mouse: that’ll explain the torments of our history of stubborn traditions (from the common man’s perspective) and irrational paradigms and maybe if they are more advanced and found better ways of life they will help us to get past our past. Maybe they will help guide us away from a government and religion controlled planet, show us that existing is more than working for a dollar (the fakest thing ever created) just to survive. “Its hard to remember we’re alive for the first time, it’s hard to remember we’re alive for the last time”-Modest Mouse.

  47. trebors says

    “all your base are belong to us!”

  48. Nicholas says

    I think that the evolutionary map of man, should be beemed out. The diagram which shoes us from low hominids to the homo sapiens we are today. Also we may not want to use too much color. For we dont know how they may react to that, some human culture signify warfare by certain colors. This may have happened elsewhere as well. Im only 19, but im just saying…..

  49. Joe M. says

    I honestly don’t know what I would send out as a message, though I agree with Mark O’Kelly. We should be sending every little piece of info about us to them so that they can know whether or not we are useful or even useless to them.

    To quote the article “The aliens might be touched at our honestly, recalling their own struggle to get to a stable, peaceful society. Or they might just send in the berserkers to wipe the violent apes off the planet.” If the aliens want to destroy “the violent apes” with their “berserkers”, wouldn’t that make them just as, if not more, violent than us, and that they should destroy themselves as well?

    But what ever is being sent as a message, these people better get it right, because if we all end up dead from an alien attack, or even just enslaved by aliens, we have these people to blame.

  50. Joe M. says

    Nicholas,

    You do point out a good idea. There is one thing wrong with it though. What if the aliens also follow a religion that is against evolution? Then we are really screwed, because if we are not the only life forms out there, what’s to say the aliens aren’t Christian or Buddhist or even just plain out Atheists?

    This is the problem with sending out a message to aliens, we just don’t know. There is too big, too wide, of a variety of stuff to tell the aliens. We don;t know how they will react, if they even do, and what if, they get our message, can’t understand what we are saying because they don’t speak any language on Earth and can’t translate it, and think that we are sending threats?

  51. Wizard says

    This entire thread is exasperating, and a perfect example of why we don’t deserve to communicate with any “superior” civilizations. The communication skills of many of the people posting here are severely lacking. Grammar, spelling and proper punctuation are an important part of communication. I even noticed several words that don’t really exist in any language. We can’t even communicate amongst ourselves, why would any “superior” being even bother attempting to decipher our gibberish?
    What should we say to aliens should we ever make contact with them? I have two suggestions: the first is to send them this thread and if they’re capable of deciphering and translating what it says then they’ll know we’re not worth their time. The second suggestion I have is one short statement… “DO NOT LISTEN TO US.”
    One can only hope that Douglas Vakoch reads over whatever message he decides to send before he does so.

  52. C.R. Copeland says

    Or, they’ve already heard our radio and television transmission–which is why they haven’t said anything back to us.

  53. Nom nom nom says

    We should teach them about Gooood!
    We MUST teach them about the greatness of Goooood!
    Then we have to baptise them for Jeeeesuuus!

    Amen!

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