Finding Life and Intelligence Beyond Earth: Our Response and Responsibility


By William Edmondson

It is timely, therefore, that there is METI focussed discussion of the detection of a tone from a source aligned with Proxima Centauri.  For background information about the “discovery” go here:

My concern in this piece is not to propose a candidate source for the mysterious tone but, rather, to think about some of the issues triggered by the UKSRN’s conference title – specifically the “Response and Responsibility” themes.  For example, we see already the response of scientists to the discovery, and the caution they express.  That is scientists demonstrating responsibility.  There are other questions provoked, e.g.: Is it Responsible to direct towards Proxima Centauri a message in Response to “theirs”?

My concern here is with those who rather too freely offer their choice of favourite message, without thinking about the totality of the situation.  Of course, my choice of possible signal to send “back” has no such problems.  It is carefully thought through.

The biggest mistake in this field, it seems to me, is to assume that somehow we are immediately thrown into the business of sending linguistic messages leading to the establishment of a dialogue supporting information exchange.  That isn’t how linguistic communication works. 

Language use is a situated activity.  There are two situations – always, and inevitably – involved.  The first is the physical situation common to the participants.  The second is shared occupation of what Yuri Lotman calls the “Semiosphere” by which he means the cultural shared “space” within which we operate as cognitive beings.  The portion of that space occupied by city workers in New York is not much like the space shared by hill farmers in Wales.  But there will be some things in common (the concept of weather and its vagaries, the fact of a sound-scape even if the actual sounds are not that common – apart from the ubiquitous sound of internal combustion engines).  The physical space and the mental space, to put it crudely, anchor linguistic activity which cannot work without these anchors.  That is why you cannot do anthropology over the phone.  And no, the use of a phone does not contradict the notion of shared physical situation.  It is not the space itself which is shared, it is the actuality of the situation – the use of the instrument and the constraints on movements these instruments place on users.  “I’m on the train”  – so often overheard on trains – reveals the need for one person to flesh out some details of the situation shared with the other interlocutor.

In my view linguistic “exchanges” with ETIs are inconceivable because my responsibility to perpetuate what we know (linguistics, in my case) over-rides my desire to phantasize about science fiction alternatives to reality.  So, for me message exchange is a fraught term because it conjures up the (now discredited) message model of communication.  People don’t communicate by sending decodable/recoverable messages through a noisy channel.

But I hinted earlier that I had a suggestion for a “response” which is not immediately or self-evidently unacceptable in the face of established fact.  Nor does it run counter to understanding of universals in engineering or cognitive science.

Instead of thinking about sending messages, we should think about sending files.  Specifically, we should send image files, and we should expect to be sent image files.  It will be objected that there are too many arbitrary variables which render such files unreadable.  That is not obviously true and in any case we can be sure (surely?) that an ETI will not want to pose an explicit/known challenge if their ultimate desire is to let us know something about them.

We can, without much difficulty, construct files for sequential transmission of recoverable images.  We should do so.  We should look for such signals.  In my view that is responsible use of knowledge to construct sensible responses.  When the time comes.