Communication with Alien Intelligence

Marvin Minsky
 Reprinted from Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence.
(Edward Regis, Ed.)  Cambridge University Press, 1985

   Reprinted in Byte Magazine, April 1985

When first we meet those aliens in outer space, will we and they be
able to converse?  I'll try to show that, yes, we will -- provided
they are motivated to cooperate -- because we'll both think similar
ways.  My arguments for this are very weak but let's pretend, for
brevity, that things are clearer than they are.  I'll propose two
reasons why aliens will think like us, in spite of different origins.
All problem-solvers, intelligent or not, are subject to the same
ultimate constraints -- limitations on space, time, and materials. In
order for animals to evolve powerful ways to deal with such
constraints, they must have ways to represent the situations they
face, and they must have processes for manipulating those

@i{ECONOMICS: Every intelligence must develop symbol-systems for
representing objects, causes and goals, and for formulating and
remembering the procedures it develops for achieving those goals.}

@i{SPARSENESS: Every evolving intelligence will eventually encounter
certain very special ideas -- e.g., about arithmetic, causal
reasoning, and economics -- because these particular ideas are very
much simpler than other ideas with similar uses.}

The "economics" argument is based on the fact that the power of a mind
depends on how it manages available resources.  The concept of Thing
is indispensable for managing the resources of Space and the available
substances which fill it.  The concept of Goal is indispensable for
managing the ways we use our Time -- both in regard to what we do and
what we think about. These notions will be used by aliens, too,
because they're easy to evolve and seem to have no easily-evolved

The "sparseness" theory makes this thesis more precise. It holds that
almost every evolutionary search for ideas will encounter certain
common ideas. These are those peculiar concepts for which there simply
no easily accessible alternatives, that is, other very different ideas
that can serve the same purposes.  This is because, I'll argue,
certain ideas are islands by itself, because there is nothing which
resembles them that is not either identical or vastly more
complicated.  I will only discuss the example of arithmetic, but I
suspect that there are other ideas about Objects, Causes and Goals
which have the same character.

@i{CRITIC: What if those aliens have evolved so far beyond us that
their concerns are unintelligible to us, and their technologies and
conceptions have become entirely different from ours?}

Then communication may be infeasible.  Our arguments may apply only to
aspects of intellectual efficiency which constrain relatively early
stages of mental evolution -- stages in which beings are still
concerned with survival, communication, and expansion of control over
the physical world.  Beyond that, we may be unable to sympathize with
what they come to regard as important.  Yet still, we can hope to
communicate with whatever remains of the mental mechanisms they use to
keep account of space and time consumed, for these may remain as sorts
of universal currency.

@i{CRITIC: How can we be sure that things like plants and stones, or
storms and streams are not intelligent, in other ways?}

If one can't say how their intelligence is similar, it makes no sense
to use the same word. They don't seem to solve the kinds of problems
we regard as needing intelligence.

@i{CRITIC: What's so special about solving problems? Anyway, please
define "intelligence" precisely, so that we'll know what we are

No.  It's not our concern to tell people how to use a word.  We only
want to discuss communicating with intelligent aliens. Let's just use
"intelligence" to mean what people usually mean: the ability to solve
hard problems -- like the kinds a species must solve to build such
things as spaceships and long-distance communication systems.

@i{CRITIC: Then, you should at least define what a "hard" problem is.
Otherwise you may unwittingly become an human-mind chauvinist.  For
instance, we assume it took intelligence to build the Pyramids -- yet
coral reef animals do things on even larger scales.  Would you claim
that we should therefore be able to communicate with @I{them}?}

No, because, while humans solve such problems, it is only an illusion
that the coral animals do. Speed is what distinguishes intelligence.
No bird discovers how to fly: evolution used a trillion bird-years to
find out how -- where merely tens of human--years sufficed.  And where
a person might take several years to find a way to build an oriole's
nest or beaver's dam -- no oriole or beaver could ever learn such
things at all, without the ancient nest-machines their genes construct
inside their brains.  But that is not intelligence: no such machinery
seems capable of solving wide ranges of new, different kinds of
problems.  It would make sense to try to speak to any animal that
learns to solve new, hard problems -- but not problems which we work
trillions of times faster. What makes us able to do such hard things
so fast?  The following ingredients seem so essential that we can
expect intelligent aliens to use them, too.

    SUBGOALS ----------- to break hard problems into simpler ones.
    SUB-OBJECTS ------ to make descriptions based on parts and relations.
    CAUSE-SYMBOLS--- to explain and understand how things change.
    MEMORIES ---------- to accumulate experience about similar problems.
    ECONOMICS -------- to efficiently allocate scarce resources.