Sunday, October 19, 2008
Scientist develops program to understand alien languages
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent/Daily Mail
Last Updated: 6:01pm BST 15/10/2008
A computer programme which could help identify and even translate messages from aliens in outer space has been developed by a British scientist.
The new programme would compare alien language sounds with those of 60 human languages
But John Elliott of Leeds Metropolitan University believes he has come up with software which at least will decipher the structure of their language - and be the first step in understanding what they are saying.
Dr Elliott's programme would compare an alien language to a database of 60 different languages in the world to search see if it has a similar structure.
He believes that even an alien language far removed from any on Earth is likely to have recognisable patterns that could help reveal how intelligent the life forms are.
"Language has to be structured in a certain way otherwise it will be inefficient and unwieldy," he told New Scientist magazine.
Previous research had shown that it is possible to determine whether a signal carries a language rather than an image or music.
Dr Elliott, from Leeds Metropolitan University, has gone a step further by devising a way to pick out what might be words and sentences.
All human languages have "functional terms" that bracket phrases - words like "if" and "but" in English.
According to Dr Elliott, such terms in any language, are separated by up to nine words or characters.
This limit on phrase length seems to correspond to the level of human cognition - how much information we are able to process at once.
In an alien language, analysing these phrases might make it possible to gauge how clever the authors of the message are.
If they are much smarter than us, there would a lot of words packed into the phrases.
The programme should also be able to break a language up into crucial words such as nouns and verbs, even though their meaning is unknown.
It can, for instance, locate adjectives from the fact that they are almost always next to nouns.
Because languages have different word orders, Dr Elliott is amassing a library of the syntaxes of 60 human tongues.
If a message is received from outer space, it could be compared against this database. Scientists would then be able to see if it resembled anything human, or a mix of Earthly languages.
Dr Elliott admits that in order to translate what the aliens are actually saying it may still be necessary to have a "code book" of some sort.
But US linguist Dr Sheri Wells-Jensen, from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, points out that "you have to start somewhere".
She added: "My money is on being able to understand aliens."
Editor's note: The success of this program is rather limited by the assumption that an intelligent extraterrestrial species would communicate something remotely similar to human speech sounds. Even on our own planet, many species communicate beyond the range of human vocalizations such as whales or bats. Other, like ants communicate through chemical secretions. Designing a program to take in the infinite variables in ways intelligent creatures might communicate seems like an impossible if not daunting task. My bet is on a common language based on mathematics.
- Steve Douglass
Posted by Steve Douglass at 8:27 PM