Star Trek‘s various starship crews seldom have any trouble talking to aliens, thanks to a nifty device known as a “universal translator.” Although the universal translator was invented, like the transporter, simply because it was the only practical way to tell a story originally sold as “Wagon Train to the stars,” it might actually be possible to build one. (Via KurzweilAI.net.)
So says Terrence Deacon of the University of California, Berkeley, US, who argues that no matter how alien a species might be, its language–even if it communicates via, say, scent–must still describe real objects in the real world, which means there must be an underlying universal code that, given enough knowledge about language and sufficient computing power, could be deciphered.
Deacon presented his idea on April 17 at the 2008 Astrobiology Science Conference in Santa Clara, California.
Testing the theory might be tough because we would have to make contact with aliens advanced enough to engage in abstract thinking and the use of linguistic symbols. But Denise Herzing of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, US, points out that we might be able to test it by studying dolphins.
“Our work suggests that dolphins may be able to communicate using symbols,” Herzing told New Scientist. “The word’s not definitively in yet, but it’s totally possible that we might show universality by understanding dolphin language.”
New Scientist compares the proposed device to Douglas Adams‘s “babelfish,” a fish that translates languages. One hopes that if we do learn to understand dolphin language, the only thing they say to us, before decamping from the planet, isn’t “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”
(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)
[tags]Star Trek,language,extraterrestrial intelligence,aliens[/tags]