Messages from fake aliens decoded quickly in online SETI contest

Do you speak alien? For years radio telescopes have been listening to the cosmos in the hope of picking up an alien message. We have had no luck yet, so while we wait René Heller organised a trial run. He simulated receiving a message from outer space and then challenged the general public to decrypt it.

“I pretended to be an alien that could count and had a physical appearance. I then created a picture of my home planetary system encoded in binary – zeroes and ones,” says Heller, who is at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Gottingen, Germany.

In total the message consisted of around 2 million binary digits. Some portions of the message corresponded to a picture of the aliens, where 0s and 1s were coded as white and black dots making up the image. Another listed the first 757 prime numbers to give anyone decoding the message a clue that numbers were crucial to understanding its full meaning.

A third portion of the message was an imagined “about us” section from the sending aliens, such as their average height and lifespan, and their location in space. Rather than using human-centric units like metres or years to describe these details, Heller used units derived from natural constants like the speed of light and Planck’s constant instead. “These are numbers that anyone in the universe should be able to derive,” says Heller.

Alien missive

On 26 April last year, he published the fake alien message on Twitter and Facebook, and set a deadline for solutions for just over a month later. A recent paper analyses the nearly 300 responses he received over that period, out of which 66 contained the correct solutions.

“The experiment confirms more about humans that it does aliens,” says Claudio Grimaldi at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. It’s impossible to compare this to a real extraterrestrial missive since the message was created by a human and we have no idea how that would differ from a message created by aliens, he says.

The closest thing we have to alien messages may come from dolphins, says Grimaldi. We know that dolphins have some form of language, but we are still some way from being able to understand it despite many people trying. “The experiment is still a really nice step though, and shows that humans have a good capacity to understand coded messages,” he says.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been going for over 40 years, with radio telescopes around the world listening in for possible alien messages. And when the most sensitive radio telescope ever built, the Square Kilometre Array, is finished in 2020, it, too, will spend some of its time listening for messages. It will be able to pick up radio signals from several tens of light years away.

As far as we know, we haven’t yet received a message from intelligent lifeforms beyond Earth. “Who knows how an alien would try to communicate with us?” says Heller. “But from this experiment it’s clear that the general public should help decode a message if we ever think we’ve received one.”

Reference: arxiv.org/abs/1706.00653

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