DailyDirt: Universal Translators Would Be Nice

from the urls-we-dig-up dept

Just about every science fiction story that involves aliens has to come up with some way for different languages to be translated and understood. Babel Fish, C3PO and Star Trek’s “universal translator” all served this purpose. But, it would be revolutionary for technology just to translate between different human languages. Here are some quick links on the topic of communication research.

By the way, StumbleUpon can recommend some good Techdirt articles, too.

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Comments on “DailyDirt: Universal Translators Would Be Nice”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

I think SETI’s bet is a good one regarding mathematics. I suppose its entirely possible that there could be a sentient being with such a drastically different way of conceptualizing its existence that it doesn’t have any concept of math that’s analogous to ours – but in that case it seems impossible that we could communicate with them, and indeed unlikely that we would even recognize each other’s sentience.

Anonymous Coward says:

All TNG is awesome. Having said that, I don’t think math is the answer to universal language. Addition and subtraction, maybe. But do you really think the aliens are out there taking square roots of negative numbers, and calling the answer imaginary? Negative numbers are already imaginary! Only humans inflict such ridiculousness upon themselves, and then pretend it is somehow objective and universal.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:


It’s not about addition and subtraction or imaginary numbers or anything. That comes later.

The point lies in a simple concept: the idea of one.

That is the only thing that we can reasonably expect to have in common with another sentient life form, since that is essentially our definition of sentience: the ability to recognize one’s self as separate from one’s environment. From that recognition springs the actual conceptualization of separate objects, and thus it forms the basis of all consciousness and communication.

Once you have “one” you realize you have two and three and four as well – but we use arbitrary symbols for those, so we can’t use them as a basis of communication. However, establishing a symbology for 1 and not-1 (or zero) seems like something that can be done across language barriers – thus the choice of binary code for this communication.

Once you have “one” any advanced species is likely to arrive at all the same mathematical concepts we have (after all, we had most of the core ones figured out long before we even conceived of radio waves or any other form of long-distance communication) – and yes that includes imaginary numbers, or a different mechanism for representing what they represent. They may seem rather strange because they occupy a weird spot that is sort of shoe-horned into our symbology – indeed it is possible that another species would have developed a system in which they are more intuitive – but they are not arbitrary: they represent an inevitable consequence of numbers – inevitable all the way back to that initial idea of “one”

There is another TNG in which Picard taps out prime numbers on a keypad to ensure his unseen captors know he is intelligent and not simply an animal of some sort. That is a very significant idea: prime numbers are something that would be impossible to not notice once you start multiplying and dividing, so regardless of what names you give to all these things, someone counting out “1, 3, 5, 7, 11” would be a recognizable pattern.

Math is a funny thing, because it is both arbitrary and not arbitrary. Many of the “rules” are indeed invented by people – but they are not invented just for fun, they are invented to create a consistent system for describing patterns. One great quote about math: “the fun thing about your creations is that they talk back”. And that’s just the point: the moment you have the idea of “one”, it begins talking back to you, and demanding a more complex language for the dialogue – so before long you have prime numbers and imaginary numbers and limits and set theory and all that other fun stuff.

DOlz (profile) says:


My problem with the episode was not the dialog, but the unworkability of the concept. Each phrase encapsulated a complex concept. During their childhood they must have learned the background to these phrases in simpler terms and they should have retained the concept of “dumbing things down”. In fact they are shown they still have that ability in that episode when Picard tells the story of Gilgamesh.

My favorite STNG episode was “Who Watches the Watchers”, geek mode off.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:


I admit that, in the details of the episode, the concept wouldn’t really work. But the concept is a real one: even within human languages, we find some that structure and conceptualize ideas in such drastically different ways that there are major barriers to communication.

It would be pretty much impossible to actually convey the journey from total alienation to understanding within a 45-minute episode, which is why the concept of the episode itself had to be dumbed down to make it work as a TV show, even if it doesn’t quite work as a realistic depiction. Overall, I think it did a good job of conveying the underlying idea.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:


Heh – I have such mixed feelings about that episode. On one hand, the concept is awesome – I love the idea of the whole culture and religion being built around the “skyship” which is only there for a few hours.

On the other hand, they really go off the rails with the logic of it sometimes. When the aliens launched their first rocket, why did they think it disappeared? Didn’t they see it getting slower and slower then near-freezing in the sky as it approached Voyager?

Heh… we should actually probably stop this conversation before it starts ๐Ÿ˜€

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