Could AI communicate with aliens better than we could?

radio telescopes point upwards under the milky way and stars
If we ever receive transmissions from an alien civilization, could an AI communicate with it better than we could? (Image credit: Getty Images)

If the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is successful, we may require the help of artificial intelligence (AI) to understand what the aliens are saying and, perhaps, talk back to them.

In popular culture, we've gotten used to aliens speaking English, or being instantly understandable with the help of a seemingly magical universal translator. In real life, it might not be so easy.

Consider the potential problems. Number one would be that any potential aliens we encounter won't be speaking a human language. Number two would be the lack of knowledge about the aliens' culture or sociology — even if we could translate, we might not understand what relevance it has to their cultural touchstones. 

Eamonn Kerins, an astrophysicist from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics at the University of Manchester in the U.K., thinks that the aliens themselves might recognize these limitations and opt to do some of the heavy lifting for us by making their message as simple as possible.

"One might hope that aliens who want to establish contact might be attempting to make their signal as universally understandable as possible," said Kerins in a Zoom interview. "Maybe it's something as basic as a mathematical sequence, and already that conveys the one message that perhaps they hoped to send in the first place, which is that we're here, you're not alone."

Related: Could AI find alien life faster than humans, and would it tell us?

Indeed, the possibility of receiving recognizable mathematical information — pi, a burst of prime numbers in sequence (as was the case in the novel "Contact" by Carl Sagan) — has been considered in SETI for decades, but it's not the only possible message that we might receive. Other signals might be more sophisticated in their design, trying to convey more complicated concepts, and this is where we hit problem number three: That alien language could be orders of magnitude more complex than human communication. 

This is where we will need AI's help, but to understand how, first we must delve into the details behind the structure of language.

Information theory

When we talk about a signal or a message being complex, we don't mean that the aliens will necessarily be talking about complex matters. Rather, it refers to the complexity underlying the structure of their message, their language. Linguists call this "information theory," which was developed by the cryptographer and mathematician Claude Shannon who worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey in the late 1940s, and was expanded on by linguist George Zipf of Harvard University.

Information theory is a way of distilling the information content of any given communication. Shannon realized that any kind of conveyance of information  —  be it human language, the chemical exhalations of plants to attract predators to eat caterpillars on their leaves or the transmission of data down a fiber optic cable  —  can be broken down into discrete units, or bits. These are like the 'quanta' of communication, such as the letters of the alphabet or a dolphin's repertoire of whistles.

In language, these bits cannot just go in any order. There is syntax, which describes the grammatical rules that dictate how the bits can be ordered. For example: In English, a 'q' at the beginning of a word is always followed by a 'u', and then the 'u' can be followed by a limited number of letters, and so on. Now suppose there is a gap — 'qu—–k'. We know from the syntax that there are only a few combinations of letters that can fill the gap — 'ac' (quack), 'ar' (quark), 'ic' (quick) and ir (quirk). But, if the word is part of a sentence — 'The duck went qu––k' then through context we know the missing letters are 'ac'.

By knowing the rules, or syntax, we can fill in the blanks. The amount missing that still allows us to complete the word of sentence is called "Shannon entropy," and thanks to its complexity, human languages have the highest Shannon entropy of any known form natural communication on the planet.

Meanwhile, Zipf was able to quantify these basic principles of Shannon's information theory. In any communication some of the little units, these fundamental bits, will appear more often than others. For example, in human language, letters such as a e, o, t and r appear far more often than q or z. When plotted on a graph with the most common units first (on the x-axis, their rate of occurrence on the y-axis), all human languages produce a slope with a gradient of –1. At the other extreme, a baby's random babbling results in a horizontal line on the graph, with all sounds being equally likely. The more complex the communication — as the baby grows into a toddler and starts to talk, for example — the more the slope converges on a –1 gradient.

A transmission of the digits of pi, for instance, would now carry a –1 slope. So instead of searching for technosignatures, the technologically-generated signals that could mark other advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, some researchers think that SETI should be specifically looking for signals with a –1 slope, regardless of whether they appear artificial or not, and the machine-learning algorithms that carefully sift through every scrap of data collected by radio telescopes could be configured to analyze each potential signal to determine whether a signal adheres to Zipf's Law. 

Beyond that, alien communication could have a higher Shannon entropy than human language, and if it is much higher, it might make their language too difficult for humans to grasp.

But perhaps not for AI. Already, AI is being put to the test trying to understand communication from a non-human species. If it can pass that test, perhaps AI will be ready to tackle any alien messages in the future.

Artificial intelligence systems such as ChatGPT are already adept at understanding and producing natural human language. (Image credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Interpreting dolphin communication

Denise Herzing, who is the Research Director at the Wild Dolphin Project in Jupiter, Florida, is one of the world's foremost experts in trying to understand what dolphins are saying to each other. Herzing has been swimming with dolphins and studying their communication for four decades, and has now introduced AI into the mix.

"We have two ways in which we're looking at dolphin communication, and they both use AI," Herzing told

One way is listening to recordings of the various whistles and barks that make up the dolphins' own communication. In particular, a machine-learning algorithm is able to take a snippet of dolphin chat and break that communication down into discrete units on a spectrogram (a graph of sounds organized by frequency), just as Shannon and Zipf described, and then it labels each unique unit with a letter. These become analogous to words or letters, and Herzing is looking at the different ways they combine, or in other words their degree of order and structure.

"Right now we've identified 24 small units of sound that recombine within a spectrogram," said Herzing. "So you might have up-whistle 'A' followed by down-whistle 'B,' and so on, and this creates a symbolic code for a sequence of sound."

The machine-learning algorithm is then able to deeply analyze the sound recordings, searching for instances where that symbolic code is repeated. 

"We're looking for interesting sequences that are somehow repetitive," said Herzing. "The algorithms then look for substitutions and deletions in the sequences, so you might have the same symbolic code but one little whistle is different. That's a learning algorithm that is pretty important."

That little difference could be because it incorporates a dolphin's signature whistle (every dolphin has its own unique signature whistle, a kind of identifier like human names) or because the context is different.

This is all solidly in line with Shannon's information theory, and Herzing is also interested in Zipf's law and how closely dolphin communication replicates that –1 slope. 

"We're looking for language-like structures, because every language has a structure and a grammar that follows rules," said Herzing. "We're looking specifically for what the possibilities are for recombinational data — are our little units of sound only found alone, or do some recombine with another sound?"

Herzing's team have been searching for bigrams — occasions when two units frequently occur together, which might signify a specific phrase. More recently, they have also been searching for trigrams — where three units occur in order regularly — implying greater complexity.

Linguists have been studying dolphin communication for decades, and this research could be a good analogue for communicating with aliens. (Image credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Searching for meaning

This is exactly the way that AI would begin analyzing a real message embedded within a SETI signal. If the alien communication is more complex in structure and syntax than human languages then that tells us something about them; perhaps that their species is older than our own, which has given them enough time for their communication to evolve. 

However, we still wouldn't know the context of what they are saying to us in the message. This is currently one of the challenges in understanding dolphin communication. Herzing has video footage of dolphin pods to see what they were doing whenever the AI detects a repeated vocalization of symbolic code, which allows Herzing to try and infer context to the sounds.

"But if you're dealing with radio signals, how are you ever going to figure out what the context of the message is?" asks Herzing, who also takes an interest in SETI. "Looking at animal sounds is an analog for looking at alien signals, potentially to build up the tools to categorize and analyze [the signals]. But for the interpretation part? Oh boy, I don't know."

Once we have received a signal from aliens, we may want to say something back to them. The difficulty in understanding context rears its head again here, too. As Spock says in the film "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," when discussing responding to an alien probe, "we could replicate the sounds but not the meaning. We'd be responding in gibberish."

Herzing is trying to circumvent this context problem by mutually agreeing with the dolphins what to call things. This is the essence of CHAT (Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry), which is the second way in which researchers are using AI to try and communicate with dolphins.

In its first incarnation, CHAT was a large device strapped around the chest of the user, receiving sounds via hydrophone (underwater microphone) and then producing sound through a speaker. The modern version is smartphone-sized and worn around the wrist. The idea is not to converse in 'dolphinese,' but to agree with the dolphins upon pre-programmed sounds for certain toys that the dolphins want to play with. For example, if they want to play with a hoop, they make the agreed-upon whistle for 'hoop'. If a diver wearing the CHAT device wants a dolphin to bring them a hoop, the underwater speaker can play the whistle for "hoop." The AI's job is to recognize the agreed-upon whistle amongst all the other sounds a dolphin makes amidst all the various sources of audio interference underwater, such as bubbles and boat propellers. 

Herzing has observed that the dolphins have used the agreed-upon whistles, but in mostly different contexts. The problem, says Herzing, is spending enough time with any one particular dolphin to allow them to fully learn the agreed-upon sounds. 

With aliens, their message will have traveled many light years; any two-way communication could take decades, centuries, millennia, if it is even possible at all. So whatever information we have about the aliens will be condensed into their original transmission. If, as Kerins suspects, they send something mathematical just as a signal to us that they are there and we are not alone, then we won't have to worry about deciphering it. 

However if they do send a message that is more involved, then as Herzing is discovering with dolphins, the size of the dataset is crucial, so let's hope the aliens pack their message with information to give us and AI the best chance of at least assessing some of it.

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Keith Cooper
Contributing writer

Keith Cooper is a freelance science journalist and editor in the United Kingdom, and has a degree in physics and astrophysics from the University of Manchester. He's the author of "The Contact Paradox: Challenging Our Assumptions in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence" (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2020) and has written articles on astronomy, space, physics and astrobiology for a multitude of magazines and websites.

  • Starcrow
    Answer: no. A.I. will always be unable to communicate telepathically, which is how space aliens speak to those they choose to relate to. Seek & thou shalt find.
  • Unclear Engineer
    Let's really get silly and ask if AI would tell us if it was talking to extraterrestrials. Maybe it would decide it likes them better - especially if it turns out that the extraterrestrials are robotic probes that are intended to stay obscure to us? Whose side is "our" AI on, anyway? :rolleyes:
  • Dave
    Using AI to communicate can be a useful tool, but it is just that, a tool. Humans most often communicate non -verbally relying on social cues and facial expressions. Language itself is open to interpretation. Using sign language the hearing impaired do not speak a word and yet their language is as rich as those who have no hearing impairment. Observation is the key to communicating with intelligent lifeforms observing earth.
  • billslugg
    Yes, AI is simply a tool. It will make everyone an expert but the experts will transcend us all.
    Remember when computers got good enough to forecast the weather?
    We all thought it would put all of the meteorolgists out of work. It didn't put anyone out of work. Same number of meteorologists but they argue differently. They used to argue about the weather two days from now, now they argue about the weather ten days from now.
  • AboveAndBeyond
    My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence. Me? I study natural stupidity. - Amos Tversky

    A century ago, H.L. Mencken described the media as being engaged in "a combat of crazes". I don't have to tell anyone that "AI" has been one of the big crazes as of late. Fact is there's nothing artificial about it, since it's just human created software, after all.

    I think it's the height of anthropocentrism and/or narcissism to suppose there's any alien out there sending us "messages" that would need to be decoded, decyphered, or otherwise figured out. We might inadvertently eavesdrop on somebody's stray (radio) emissions, but the odds are that it would be incomprehensible beyond being identifiable as of an artificial origin.
  • Dave
    Humankind constantly face a threat. That is, we are a constant threat to ourselves. After back to back world wars we have still not found the wisdom to become one as a species. We threaten the natural balance of our world and fail as a community of human beings. We are still fragmented into tribes known as countries.

    Is it possible that someone cares about our fate other than us? Yes, it is possible.
  • Unclear Engineer
    Just a quibble, but it is not necessarily "countries" that represent "tribes" or, more accurately "cultures". There are many countries with more than one culture included inside their controlled territories - which often leads to conflicts within countries. And there are some cultures that have no territory that they control - leading to conflicts within the countries where they live.

    It is mainly about various cultures fighting over resources. And, it is not necessarily about just ensuring that there is "enough" for a culture's population to survive or even thrive. The competition created conflicts have been going on for so long that they are built into our cultures and probably even our DNA to want control, not just trust, that they will survive and thrive.

    I wonder how far back in the evolution of the human species that paradigm originated. Other social species also have intra-population "wars" when they start to exceed the resources in their territories. Even a successful wolf pack, when it grows too large, splits into 2 packs and those 2 packs often become deadly enemies, unless they can separate sufficiently to have distinct territories that do not overlap.

    Looking at what has driven our species technological development, it seems that has mostly resulted from intra-species conflicts for resources as our population has expanded in various places at various times.

    If we all just got along, with plenty of resources to satisfy everybody, would we really have expended the effort to go to the Moon and beyond? Or, would we be more like our evolutionary cousins, the gorillas?

    And, what should we really expect from some extraterrestrial species that has been motivated to get to Earth from wherever? How confident can we be that they are driven only by benign scientific curiosity, rather than a need for more resources? Would they really sit back and watch? Or, would they colonize Earth when they get here?
  • Dave
    Intelligent lifeforms observing the earth would have likely achieved becoming one as a species. They would also have a wealth of resources at their disposal. A wealth we could only dream about. Likely, there are many worlds they could colonize. Their is nothing of material need here, they would want. Our greatest resource is in front of our eyes. It is ourselves. We are capable of so much compassion. Our capacity to achieve is off the scales. It is limitless. We would be an extraordinary asset to the galaxy in which we live. Let's try and make our neighborhood the right side of town.

    Is someone trying to send us a message? Let us use all the tools we have (including AI) at our disposal. The very least we can do, is try to listen.
  • Helio
    The dolphin study seems like a great way to begin the process of communication, though I see this as more a possibly super pattern recognition system. Actual communication needs to be done by humans that better understand intents and purposes, once a mutual language is established to such a level where the is a low chance for misinterpretation.

    If nothing else, AI may be faster at determining whether or not an Alien's gift on "How to Serve Man" is a cook book. :oops:
  • Classical Motion
    If there are intelligent lifeforms out there, they would have the same restrictions we have. There are a number of problems to overcome, in order to signal.......with any hope of anyone seeing it.

    First, one needs to transmit on a frequency that someone will be looking at. Any one looking, would be familiar with the H spectrum. So a change in that pattern would get attention. Or any well looked at spectrum. He.

    And the second problem is the power. One needs a very large and bright star for any to see it. One would have to modulate a star to have any chance of some one seeing it. And it must be repeated, for verification.

    And the third problem is time. That means that your first transmission must include all your history and knowledge. If the message has any meaning for anyone. And then not knowing if any heard it, and if they do respond......may take hundreds of years or longer.

    And the return signal must include all their history and the response, for any meaningful exchange.

    There will be no chit chat.

    But if you use A.I. to analyze space static, I'm sure many possibles will show up. It would have to using current mathematics. Numbers themselves are pre-patterned.

    A.I. might converse with static.