Interview: What would you say to an alien?

Jon Sutton talks to Douglas Vakoch, clinical psychologist and Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

You’re the only social scientist employed by a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) organisation. Your job title is ‘Director of Interstellar Message Composition’. That has to be both the coolest and oddest role I have ever heard of.
It’s interesting, the whole venture is a leap that many psychologists will feel very uncomfortable with. Since psychology separated from philosophy at the end of the 19th century, we have prided ourselves in being an empirical science. What could be less empirical than speculation about the nature of an extraterrestrial intelligence that we do not even know exists? And yet, I would argue, the contributions of psychologists can help provide a foundation that substantially increases the chances that SETI scientists can find and ultimately even communicate with intelligent life in the cosmos, if in fact it exists.

I imagine that so far the search has been dominated by astronomers, computer scientists, engineers?
Yes, but other disciplines have made a growing contribution, particularly archaeologists and anthropologists, perhaps because their mindset matches that of the SETI scientist. Like astronomers who attempt to find, reconstruct and understand other civilisations distant from us in space, archaeologists piece together temporally distant civilisations and their lost languages and cultures. Similarly, anthropologists are trained to encounter radically different cultures and perspectives – that’s the kind of openness required of astronomers searching for intelligence of a form they cannot quite imagine.

And psychology is well placed to join in?
Yes. Consider the expertise of psychologists, not the labels by which the work we need to do is categorised. I don’t artificially separate relevant work of other scholars because their PhDs are in sociology or cognitive science or musicology, rather than psychology… I just ask that psychologists collectively ask what their profession can contribute to a broader understanding of life in the cosmos.

I firmly believe intelligent life is out there, but I am very sceptical that it has visited us. Is that a common view amongst scientists?
Well, that’s interesting. A survey by Bainbridge a few years ago suggested three groups. ‘Geocentrists’ rejected the possibility of either extraterrestrial intelligence on distant planets or as visitors to Earth. The ‘ufophiles’ thought UFOs were from other planets, and thus, also believed that other planets must be populated. The most interesting group was the third, consisting of those who believed that extraterrestrial life may well exist, but who doubted that UFOs provide evidence of them. These respondents Bainbridge labelled ‘allopatrists’, drawing on a term from population genetics to refer to gene pools that are geographically separated. These questionnaire-takers seemed aware of the immense distance between stars, and thus the unlikelihood of face-to-face contact, but kept open the prospects of intelligence somewhere. Allopatrists were less religious than average, and whereas less than half of ufophiles had graduated from college, over 70 per cent of allopatrists had.

Is that kind of information any practical use to you in your role?
Most past studies of beliefs about extraterrestrial life have focused on UFOs, which makes their results less relevant for contact at interstellar distance. In standard SETI scenarios, civilisations are separated by trillions of miles, providing a buffer that can shield respondents from fears of the impact of direct alien contact. But some research, for example by Pettinico, posited contact through a signal sent at interstellar distances. Educational level predicted likely response to detection: those with a college education were two and a half times less likely to say they would be afraid and nervous than were those with a high school degree or less. Among those who already believed that life beyond Earth is likely to exist, fully 90 per cent would advocate sending a reply. So studies like this help us anticipate who will be in favour of sending a reply to extraterrestrials, and who will be opposed.

So if we do respond, you’re the guy that speaks for Earth? Tough gig!
Yes, and in fact Pettinico’s survey revealed something else interesting about that. Only half of the respondents answered positively to the question ‘If beings from another planet sent a message to us through deep space, do you think we would be able to figure out what they were saying?’. When SETI first began, its proponents typically held hope that mathematics and science would provide a universal language, capable of bridging the gap between civilisations. More recent scholarship is sympathetic to the many challenges that must be overcome to create an intelligible message.

Setting that considerable challenge aside for a moment, what kind of things would we say?
Most often messages to extraterrestrial audiences have focused on human strengths. Take the Voyager spacecraft’s interstellar message – in over 100 pictures of life on Earth, with an emphasis on human presence, there were no depictions of war, poverty or disease. But it is precisely an emphasis on our vulnerabilities that may be of most interest to extraterrestrials. We will not be the most intelligent beings in the galaxy, if we make contact. Humans have had the capacity to communicate with radio for less than a century – a blip in the 13-billion-year history of our galaxy. If extraterrestrial civilisations seeking contact are comparably young technologically, the chances that their century of communicability and that of humankind will coincide are nil. The only way we will make contact, on purely statistical grounds, is if extraterrestrials have been around much longer than humankind. Perhaps it is not the beauty of our symphonies that will set us apart from extraterrestrials, nor our moral perfection – living true to our ideals of altruism. If we wish to convey what it is about us that is distinctive, it may be our weakness, our fears, our unknowing – and yet a willingness to forge ahead to attempt contact in spite of this. Perhaps we will be the intelligent species that has the most exquisite balance of joy and sorrow of any civilisation in the Milky Way. And it is the fundamental facts of human existence such as these that might best be explained to other civilisations, and here that psychology may be of greatest help.

So all you need to do is get agreement on the fundamentals of human existence!
I know, easy, right?! Many SETI scientists have assumed that we should speak as one Earth. Consider, for example, the New Horizons Message Initiative, called One World. But in truth, we humans inhabit many different worlds. And whereas many subfields of psychology seek to identify truths that hold across cultures, others place an emphasis on the diversity of our experience and understanding.

But the fundamental point here is that I’m suggesting a big shift in what we look to communicate. The usual presupposition is that the best possibility for a language to be understood by extraterrestrials is one of based on maths and science. Those are the prerequisites to creating the technologies needed for interstellar communication. But if we only explain what we and the extraterrestrials already have in common, what’s the point? Once we have communicated basic principles of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, how might we go on to talk about what makes us distinctively human? Isn’t it endlessly more fascinating to consider how we might portray an aspect of our species that may seem quintessentially human – our sense of beauty, say? Perhaps we would look to communicate the Fibonacci sequence, how certain proportions are deemed beautiful. Or the cognitive structures of music perception.

What if any intelligence is so alien, say silicon-based artificial intelligence?
Then if our goal in sending a message to extraterrestrials is not simply to tell them about ourselves, but to teach them something new, it could be in our approach to death that we have the  most to teach. Such a species, with replaceable parts, may cease to comprehend death – or at least, to treat it very different than does a species with an expected lifetime of less than a century. The dread of an existential psychologist comes to the fore… Since Freud we have become accustomed to psychologists helping us get in touch with aspects of ourselves we have sealed off. Within the realm of clinical psychology, we continue to focus on the hidden, the obscured, even as we shift from the more mechanistic models of cognitive psychology. An alien species may find our unacceptable beliefs and desires as fascinating as we psychologists always have.

And ‘fascinating’ them is important?
Of course! How do you intrigue an alien? My wife and I have two cats. What if aliens are like them – they know we’re here, but they don’t care? What’s the ‘interstellar yarn’ that will make them respond?

Brilliant! Maybe we need to become more alien to communicate with aliens?
Exactly! Yet to do that we need to understand our own psychology and its limitations. As we ponder the messages we would send to other worlds, we evoke images and sounds that characterise life on our world. And yet, what if the denizens of other worlds don’t rely on the same senses? As we consider the proportion of our cerebral cortexes devoted to processing various sensory modalities, we see a much greater percentage devoted to processing visual and auditory information than our other senses. How then can we imagine what it’s like to experience the world as anything but seeing, hearing creatures? Here we can look to comparative psychology, in order to become more open to non-human ways of messaging.

You’re the Principal Investigator on ‘Earth Speaks’ (see Tell me about that.
People from around the world are invited to submit pictures, sounds and text messages that they would want to send to other worlds. The project aims to foster a dialogue about what we should say to extraterrestrial intelligence, as well as whether or not we should be sending intentional messages. It differs from previous efforts to collect messages to extraterrestrials, in that it looks to identify and ‘tag’ the major themes that people address in their messages. By tracking demographic variables for each person submitting a message, we will be able to identify commonalities and differences in message content that are related to such factors as nationality, age and gender. So that takes the pressure off me a little: rather than trying to identify a unified ‘Message from Earth’, this draws on a dialogic model for interstellar message design to provide a more broadly representative view of our species. Psychology is vital here in the lexical analysis, in interpreting the themes  – for example, in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy – and in cross-cultural understanding – for example, how a Maori or someone from Papua New Guinea depicts a human being, visually and in descriptive terms, can be very different from the Western view which has dominated efforts so far.

What does the future hold for you and your role?
Oh, infinite possibilities! The most contentious question in SETI right now is whether we should transmit powerful, information-rich signals to possible extraterrestrials even before we know for sure they’re out there. This is a strategy called ‘active SETI’, and no less a luminary than Stephen Hawking has warned that it could attract the attention of hostile aliens, so Hawking says we should avoid targeting other stars with powerful transmissions. I take the opposite view. I’m a strong advocate of active SETI, and I’d argue that any civilisation with the ability to travel to Earth to do us harm could already pick up our accidental leakage radiation. We don’t expose ourselves to any increased risk of alien invasion by sending an intentional signal, letting them know we want to make contact. But fear is getting in the way of people objectively evaluating the merits of this new search strategy – fear of annihilation by aliens, or for SETI scientists who understand that interstellar space provides a natural buffer, fear of losing public support and funding by doing something that’s controversial. A sustained active SETI programme would benefit greatly by using organisational psychology to understand and assist multigenerational crews in their search. Investigating the mindset of the explorer. Considering exactly what we mean by ‘intelligence’ in the ‘search for extraterrestrial intelligence’. But perhaps the biggest question is to step right back to our motivations for making contact, and whether we dare. Religion, fear, risk and responsibility… these are huge psychological questions, and unless we face them head on, we risk cutting off promising new ways of making contact. And do we dare not to? Ecopsychology is important in learning how we can face our own challenges, to sustain ourselves, but we need to ensure our focus is dual – inward and outward.

Finally, I have to ask, what do you think are our chances of detecting life out there? Is it just a case of pointing the electromagnetic telescopes to the sky and waiting for the computers to beep?
No – humans have a real role to play. From the outset of SETI, a major constraint in the search has been the processing of the electromagnetic signals entering the telescope, looking for something that stands out from the cosmic background radiation as distinctly artificial. As signal processing has improved into the 21st century, billions of radio channels can be analysed for each star by computer, and as SETI searches became increasingly automated in the 1980s the human eye was eclipsed as a signal detector in favour of computer algorithms that could detect faint signals. Yet as early as 1982, psychologist John C. Baird and colleagues tested human participants’ abilities to detect signals of the sort that could be received in a SETI experiment, and noted that humans are especially good at identifying signals of a form that cannot be anticipated. Automated computer programs are limited to the use of algorithms that detect clearly defined signals. That remains the case today.

So what can people do in practical terms?
In an effort to get human help in finding hard-to-characterise signals, the SETI Institute launched a web-based project called SETILive, inviting lay citizen scientists to scan visually screen shots made from live SETI observations. But we have no confirmed signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation; at best, we have archived examples of false alarms that could not be confirmed by follow-up observations. So a major challenge is to find motivated participants who are willing to visually scan screenshot after screenshot, even though they may never find a signal from ET. SETI would profit from the input of learning theorists, as we plan how to create an experimental task that would be engaging for participants, even if they aren’t able to find a signal from another civilization. We could intersperse the screenshots coming in live with periodic archived screenshots of signals such as those created by spacecraft. In effect, we’re creating a cosmic slot machine – using an intermittent reinforcement schedule that gives periodic small payoffs could be enough to sustain the hope of someday hitting the jackpot. As we are speaking, the telescopes are searching. Tonight could be the night that we discover an extraterrestrial. And if we do, psychologists should be right in there determining how we respond, and also ensuring that the decisions aren’t just made by a handful of astronomers… people all around the world have a responsibility to consider what they would say to an alien.


Find out more and to watch Doug’s TEDx talk ‘What would you say to an extraterrestrial?’

Vakoch, D.A. & Dowd, M.F. (Eds.) (2015). The Drake equation: Estimating the prevalence of extraterrestrial life through the ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vakoch, D.A. (Ed.) (2014). Archaeology, anthropology, and interstellar communication. Washington, DC: NASA.
Vakoch, D.A. (Ed.) (2014). Extraterrestrial altruism: Evolution and ethics in the cosmos. Heidelberg: Springer.
Vakoch, D.A., Lower, T.A., Niles, B.A. et al. (2013). What should we say to extraterrestrial intelligence? An analysis of responses to ‘Earth Speaks’. Acta Astronautica, 86, 136–148.
Vakoch, D.A. & Harrison, A.H. (Eds.) (2011). Civilizations beyond earth: Extraterrestrial life and society. New York: Berghahn Books.
Vakoch, D.A. (2011). A narratological approach to interpreting and designing interstellar messages. Acta Astronautica, 68, 520–534.
Vakoch, D.A. (2011). What does it mean to be human? Reflections on the portrayal of pain in interstellar messages. Acta Astronautica, 68, 445–450.
Baird, J. (1982). Human pattern detection and recognition in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 20(2), 74–76.

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