Like Teaching a Chimp Sign Language

Let us imagine, for a moment, that a superior intellect visits Earth. Not simply an alien intellect, different from us, nor one ancient intellect, one roughly our equal but with a million years our senior in technical knowledge and culture. No, I mean a truly superior intellect, one an order of magnitude smarter than we, as we are to the chimpanzee. What could we learn from such an intellect, assuming it was benevolent and sought to teach us?


My answer? Not much at all.


Washoe the chimpanzee was taught American Sign Language in the late 1960s. Washoe was able to learn about 350 ASL signs, of a total of approximately 7000, or roughly 5% of the language. A chimpanzee is not a stupid creature. It can communicate, lives in social groups and very likely has a culture. What it cannot do, however, is create abstract symbols. According to many scientists, chimps communicate but do not have language. They can learn to use human language, in the form of ASL, as a tool (like they would a sharp stone to break open nuts or a stick to extract termites from a log) but they do not innovate with the language they learn. At best, chimpanzees and other primates can comprehend and manipulate a small portion of what to us comes naturally, because of our innately superior intellect.


What does this then mean for us in regards to a visitation by an alien, superior intellect? Assuming the visitors are benevolent, that they wish to teach us and that they are similar enough to us that their mode of communication is fundamentally understandable to us, we could hope for, at best, to understand a small sliver of what they propose to teach. And herein lies the catch: language communicates ideas, and if we cannot grasp the language, we have no hope of comprehending the ideas. Whatever intellectual power allowed them to cross the gulf between stars to come to Earth would be utterly lost on us. Since the language of the cosmos is very likely math, it would be less like us trying to teach chimpanzees to use sign language and more like us trying to teach chimpanzees to do calculus.


Interestingly, sadly, the limitations are not simply one way. We are no better at truly understanding the chimp mind than they are at comprehending us. At best, we anthropomorphise the chimpanzee and ascribe to it our own thoughts and emotions, but in a demeaning way. Assuming we were at least somewhat physically similar to our mystery superior intellect, then the best we could hope for is for they to equally misinterpret our motives and crude attempts at communication. However intellectually superior they might be, they would likely be as incapable of reducing themselves to our level and communicating on par with us as we have been with chimpanzees. If they are any thing like us, in fact, we are likely to end up in their zoos and in what passes for their bad comedy films about truck drivers.


All this is, strange as it may sound, a best case scenario. It assumes that the superior intellect is similar to us — humanoid, something resembling mammalian, concerned with civilization and culture, egotistically benevolent. What if that superior intellect is fundamentally different than us, however? Then the situation is much less like us and the chimpanzee and more like us and the octopoid. Though they are extremely intelligent creatures, they are also completely different from us.¬†An intelligent alien species that evolved on a world vastly different from our own would not only confound us and be confounded by us the way a chimpanzee does, but would completely defy comprehension in many ways. Would they even recognize us as intelligent beings? Remember — we eat octopus. Alive.


If the time should ever come that we are visited by an intelligent species from another world, we should hope that they are our rough intellectual equals. If they are some time — a thousand, ten thousand or even a million years — more technologically advanced than us, we are likely to experience a fate not unlike contact between advanced explorers and aboriginal peoples in Earth’s history. As bad as that may have been. however, it is better than the alternative: to be viewed as just an animal, a lesser being, strange but ultimately a source of curiosity, entertainment and perhaps even trophies and food.


Alien Intelligences: Superior, Inferior and Vastly Different

One of the most enduring themes in science fiction (and both fantasy and horror to a lesser degree) is that of the alien intelligence, the Intellectual Other. While this theme is most often exemplified by actual alien beings in fiction, it also includes everything from future humans and artificial intelligence to animals (both mundane and uplifted) and non-human hominids. Alien intelligences are notoriously difficult o write well by virtue of their very definition: being alien, they are hard o comprehend and, for the writer, imagine. Too often, the depiction of such intellectual others becomes caricature of specific human intellectual archetypes: the very opposite of “alien” in fact.

There are a few basic “types” of alien intelligences to consider. The first and most obvious is the so-called “superior” intelligence. The idea seems basic and comprehensible: aliens that are smarter than us. But what does that mean, precisely? We all know people who are incrementally smarter than ourselves, and most of us likely know someone who is intellectually inferior, either in our opinion or due to some mental or medical deficit. Superior intelligences, though, are not simply “smarter people” and inferior intelligences aren’t simply “dumber.” The difference is not that e tween you and Stephen Hawking, but between the average chimpanzee and the average human. Both are “intelligent species” but they are so far apart that human endeavor, art and civilization and war and technology, are utterly incomprehensible to the chimpanzee. Equally so, the things important to the chimp are so base, so rudimentary that we, as humans, cannot grasp their value o that “inferior” intellect.

Imagine, then, a species as more intelligent than us as we are to chimpanzees. In the same way that advanced mathematics, poetry and reality television are incomprehensible to the chimp,whatever intellectual pursuits occupy our superiors would be so incomprehensible to us. The sciences, arts and entertainments they produced would at best confound us and most likely seem opaque o the point of nonsensical. As such we might not even recognize such a species as intelligent at all, especially if encountered on their own world (space ships tend to mark one as intelligent), and just like the chimp lashing out at the human researcher, we might attack rather than study or consider. Equally likely, assuming we are in the median of universal intelligence, is the possibility of contact with a species notably less intelligent than we. Even giving that we would recognize such a species as intelligent, chances are we would default to pity at best and paternalism or indifference at worst.

Related is our own interactions with the animal kingdom, specifically rose species like elephants and dolphins that are assumed to be “less intelligent” but are also notably alien (as opposed o the chimp, who we consider to be a proto-human intelligence). What does a single manipulative digit or a life in the open ocean do in regards to the development and exercise of intelligence? Do we consider animals to be stupid because we cannot comprehend them, not because of their (arbitrarily rated) intellectual inferiority? Given that human tend to label those who do not think like us as “stupid” (whether ethnic minorities who don’t know the dominant language or political extremists whose philosophies are very different from our own) how could we possibly label non-hominid animals as “intelligent”? And if we were to boost he intellectual capacity of an apparently intelligent species, why do we think that would make them more like us, intellectually, rather than making them even more alien? All this, of course, assumes that biological intelligence is an independent process rather than an aggregate of biological needs filtered through a neurology of a particular level of complexity. If that is the case, then a smarter animal would indeed be more similar to humans, since we too are animals. That in itself holds profound philosophical implications regarding human nature and where our fellow Earthling species fall in relation to us.

The final category of alien intelligence common to science fiction is artificial intelligence. It is telling that AI is so often presented as anathema to biological intelligence, or constrained by rules that define its relationship to biological intelligence. Moreover, AI often fits into the “superior intelligence” category, and occasionally in the “animal intelligence” category, particularly in the aspect that an AI functions in a very different environment than humans. All that said, I think there is a different reason why AI provoke strong reactions in science fiction: AI can be alien because they can represent a purely practical or “logical” intelligence,which is as alien to human intelligence as a being living in Zero-G or one extremely long or short lived. Humans are anything but practical, basing extremely important decisions on emotions, superstitions, intuitions and strongly held but otherwise unsupported positions. AI, on the other hand, can be cold and calculating, mathematizing life and death in a way we cannot.

Interestingly, science fiction does not reserve cold logic for AI alone. The genre is lousy with logical alien species like Star Trek’s Vulcans. These serve as effective stand ins for AI. Other artificial beings are often so much like us that they can hardly be considered alien at all, such as the replicants from Bladerunner. In the end, what constitutes an alien AI falls under the same rules as what constitutes any alien intelligence: is it sufficiently different from us to demand a category of its own. Most often, the answer is a resounding “no” since most aliens in sci-fi qualify as stand ins for humans of a certain kind or specific political, social or philosophical bent.