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Universal Translators or Visual Synthetic Telepathy?



How do you communicate in a multilingual galaxy?




quick means of universal communication would be convenient if galactic interspecies encounters were common and frequent - that is to say if "warp-capable" alien civilizations (or those possessing comparable technologies) exist in our galaxy. On the other hand, if only slower-than-light travel is possible, alien encounters would be rare and memorable and likely gradual. For now, let's assume the first scenario is true.


In Star Trek, the universal translator can decode a language by simply listening to a fragment of alien speech. This would imply that all languages, all forms of verbal communication, are calculable and share a universal code or pattern. Yet, if this assumption doesn't hold true, synthetic visual telepathy might come in handy. On Earth "Complex, image-forming eyes evolved independently some 50 to 100 times." (Land, M.F. and Nilsson, D.-E., Animal Eyes, Oxford University Press, Oxford (2002)). If the emergence of visual perception is common to intelligent life across space, so would be brain structures analogous to our visual cortex; another device capable of extrapolating the functioning of an alien's visual cortical areas, by stimulating its eye and scanning its brain, would then be able to directly interface with visual thought. Would this be the real universal translator?


So if you ever watched Star Trek on TV, you might have realized that all aliens seem to be bilingual and fluent in English; the universal translator was coined by the franchise to justify the Anglo-Saxon galaxy. The fact that all aliens move their lips on sync with English words, leaves to the viewer's imagination the part in which the translator first hears and processes the alien language, decodes it and then synthetically speaks the English translation. But wait, what if aliens didn't have mouths but communicated with phonic lips and ultrasonic clicks, like dolphins?

And if they exist, what about fluorescent aliens who communicate with complex light emissions or bio-electromagnetic beings who convey thought by interacting with electromagnetic fields instead? Intelligent lifeforms out there could be communicating with something else than sound waves. Still, they could have evolved eyes.

How did the UT work anyway? If an advanced extraterrestrial technology browsed our internet with a super computer, in theory - yes - it would quickly interpret the meaning of Earth's languages allowing it to communicate with us. However, when it comes to pre-digital civilizations, the construction of a device capable of instantly understanding the semantics of languages, separated by light years of divergence - viva voce, word of mouth - could be in theory very difficult, and only feasible if all share, as earlier mentioned, a universal code alien linguists are aware of.

So imagine you are an alien cruising across the galaxy in your warp ship; you've crashed in an alien world. You ejected yourself from the ship just in time but landed in a deep valley and can barely walk. It seems there's no way back to your ship to send a distress signal. Your suit's antenna is not powerful enough - you are at the outreaches of known space. It can however with its advanced quantum technology scan the area. It locates an intelligent but primitive tribe some 50 km away. They have no modern technology and yes, they don't communicate like you, their words are ultrasonic - they are your only hope.

There's, nonetheless, an organic piece of hardware and software you could target. Your very advanced quantum sonar, with a few beeps, quickly and remotely scans the aliens' eye and brain structures, extrapolating the functioning of their visual cortex. You can now try your best at sending a mental image of yourself and your surroundings - an alien looking being in distress. Will they come fetch you?

Vision could make things easier for intergalactic relations. 
The development of synthetic telepathy or brain to brain interface is going through its inception as shown by this demonstration. Its future is the communication of thoughts, senses and emotions. 

Scientists have been able to reconstruct vision from brain activity in the form of eerie and dreamy contours in computer screens. The next step would be to directly stimulate them into the brain. If the emergence of eyes is common to all life, their evolution and corresponding brain structures could follow similar paths across planets - given the fact that all our five vertebrate animal groups posses them and most invertebrates. This video is an interesting representation of how compound eyes see.

So a more advanced civilization could've figured this out as the solution around the problem of language - vision. But how would you put "we come in peace" into images to a completely unfamiliar civilization? A white flag wouldn't work - we would have ended watching a more surreal Star Trek then. 

How about eyeless extraterrestrials. Think of emotions. Survival is the signature of life. Fear one of the emotions that fuels the survival instinct. Is all biological intelligent life emotional? Could a similar technology universally interface with emotion?

A synthetic telepathy device could ubiquitously work for all humans, when dealing with the transmission of images, senses and emotions but when it comes to words, the device would have to know the language the brain thinks in first. Or not? Does "I", "yo", "je" and "ik" all generate similar activity in the brain? If they do, it would seem that words could be stimulated into a person's grey matter by targeting areas of similar meaning regardless of the language they speak.

But if this is not the case extraterrestrials could be using synthetic visual and emotional telepathy to communicate - as these more primitive structures of brain evolution would be universal and easier to target. 

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