Icarus stood on the bridge of Trillion’s ship, looking out the window. He was mesmerised by the light dance of two Dottiens speaking to each other – one a real alien and one a hapticgraphic version of an alien. Or at least Icarus hoped they were speaking with each other. Without taking his eye off them he asked, “So this thing never gets bored?”
Atlas shook his head. “Oddly not.”
“Are you sure it’s not a robot? How does it survive in a vacuum?”
Atlas shrugged. “It’s not like we can open it up and see inside it.”
Icarus turned around. “Have you at least scanned it?”
Atlas shook his head.
“You’re losing your touch, old man,” Icarus grinned.
Atlas glared at him. “Rich coming from a cartoon.”
That made Icarus laugh out loud. “Anyway, I think I understand the problem.”
Atlas made a gesture with his hands, inviting Icarus to explain.
Trillion appeared on the bridge, excitement clear on her face at the prospect of talking to aliens. “Yes, tell us.”
Icarus smiled, knowing he had an audience. “Basically, they don’t just use colour to communicate. If you study all their communication, it includes a lot of ‘texture’ and ‘patterns’.”
Trillion was nodding enthusiastically now.
“I got the idea when I was thinking about a concept that is alien to us. The idea of talking through texture is unfathomable because we have a very colour-centric visual system. Colours, shapes, shades. But textures – we struggle to differentiate specific types of bumps. Give us different colours and we can tell baby blue from deep blue.”
“So you’re saying we’re missing texture from our communication efforts?” Trillion looked out the window. “That still doesn’t explain how we figure out how to communicate. How are we meant to understand the nuances and rules of texture?”
Icarus’s face lit up, his cartoon eyes wide. He was hoping someone would ask that. He hadn’t spoken properly with another human in years but was elated when he realised he still had the gift for teaching others. Back on Earth he had used that technique often – explain a solution but leave one big obvious flaw in his argument. He would make that flaw more and more obvious until others would finally ask the question. Then he could come in, solve the problem and drive the point home. It was genius and made him look much more thought-out.
“I believe adding data like texture and patterns into the translation algorithm is the missing component to Lex deciphering the language. And I think texture is the key to the Dottiens understanding what we are saying to them.”
“Are you saying they don’t understand us?” asked Atlas, looking at Trillion as if to say, ‘See, I told you.’
“Exactly. And that’s why they keep trying to adjust their language. They think it’s not working so they go and try something else. I suspect their language requires an interaction between the texture, patterns and colours. Without one of them, you can’t understand the whole.”
He could see by the look on Trillion’s face that she still didn’t quite understand. He searched his brain for an analogy. He needed a way to convey the complexity of language. He needed to convey all the added processing the human brain does to make language seem simple. Because language really isn’t simple.
“Aliens think completely alien from us. Think about it this way,” Icarus said as he asked his Lex to create a table.
Mimicking the action, he pulled the vase off an invisible shelf and placed it on the table. As he did so, a large, clear vase appeared. He nodded his thanks to Lex.
Icarus loved the theatrical nature of what he was doing. He smiled as he thought about how much he missed teaching others. How much fun he was having trying to solve the puzzle of communicating with aliens. “Lex, do you mind producing a cup of never-ending blue marbles?”
In his hand appeared a cup full of blue marbles.
Icarus held it up. “Now imagine you’re an alien who’s come to speak with us. Your job is to work out how our language works. Let’s take English to make it simple.”
Icarus started pouring blue marbles into the vase on the table. “The human mouth can produce 840 different sounds. The English language has 44 unique sounds. These sounds are used to make up words.”
Icarus counted out 44 marbles as he poured them from the cup. When he finished speaking there were 44 blue marbles in the vase.
He started pouring more marbles into the vase. “And there are five different tones we can make with our voices. We can say the same thing twice, but with a different tone and it can mean something completely different. The relationship between sound and tone matters a lot in some scenarios.”
Icarus pointed to the vase. It was now quarter full of marbles. “So you’re an alien. And I’m trying to communicate with you. You’re trying to work out what information coming from me is important to our language.”
Trillion interjected. “Are you saying the blue marbles represent all the possible signals an alien learning English would need to learn?”
Atlas raised his hand. “Yes, but it should be easy. Babies learn to speak in about two years. We have a supercomputer – we should be able to decipher a language faster.”
“Ah, but this is the important part,” Icarus said, staring down into the vase. “Human babies have less information to process. They can only hear a very narrow range of sounds.” Icarus held his cup up to his robotic companion. “Lex, can you make these red?”
He placed his hand on the vase so Trillion and Atlas would look at it. “Everything in here represents important information you would need to decode the language.”
Icarus started pouring red marbles into the vase, this time slowly. “It’s surprising how many sounds we make when speaking that don’t relate to language. Our brains automatically filter them out. But if you were an alien, you wouldn’t know which of these sounds were important. Clicking of the teeth. Breathing. Random sounds we make when thinking.”
Icarus paused. The contrast between the blue and red was strong. A small smile came over his face. He started pouring more marbles in faster. “We also make a lot of sounds outside of our ears’ audible range. An alien wouldn’t know which sounds were important. So they would have to look at all of them when trying to understand what I’m saying.”
The vase was only half full, but most of its contents were red marbles.
Icarus held his cup over the vase again. “Ah, but we don’t stop there.” He turned the cup upside down. Red marbles flowed freely into the vase.
He could tell Trillion and Atlas understood the point, but he really wanted to drive it home. “It’s impossible for us to stay still. Our eyes are constantly moving. We’re breathing. Even you standing there on two feet – who’s to say that when you shift your weight from one foot to the other you aren’t communicating something?”
The vase was now overflowing; marbles began to roll off the edge of the table.
Trillion nodded. “So you’re basically saying we might be looking at the wrong information when trying to translate the Dottiens’ language?”
“Exactly.” Icarus grinned. “If you were an alien communicating via movements, not sounds, you would spend a lot of time analysing my movements. But no matter how hard you tried, we wouldn’t be able to have a conversation. You’d be missing the most important part. The sounds coming out of my mouth.”
It was Trillion who asked the most important question. “So how do we find out which marbles are the most important?”
Icarus looked out the window at the alien. “Simple. We throw everything we think we know about language out the window. And feed Lex more data.” He paused for a moment. “I do have one theory, though.”
Both Atlas and Trillion gestured for Icarus to continue.
“I’ve been looking into asteroids in the system,” Icarus said, swiping his marble demonstration away. “I’ve been looking into why there aren’t any asteroids. I think this creature evolved to protect the planet from extinction-level asteroids. And it moved you here, Trillion, because that’s what it did with a lot of asteroids. I think this moon is a build-up of many of the asteroids it’s captured. That’s why it’s so metallic.”