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Welcome to Hitting the Books. With less than one in five Americans reading just for fun these days, we've done the hard work for you by scouring the internet for the most interesting, thought provoking books on science and technology we can find and delivering an easily digestible nugget of their stories.
Whether it's Alf or the Xenomorphs hanging out just past the heliopause, we'll have to make first contact with them at some point. But, how? Seriously, how do you communicate with an extraterrestrial species with a taste for cats? We can't even communicate with octopuses, and they're quite possibly smarter than we are.
But that doesn't mean humanity hasn't been hard at work trying to figure out how. Extraterrestrial Languages from author Daniel Oberhaus explores our efforts to speak with beings from beyond the stars.
In 2036, any inhabitants of the HIP 4872 solar system in Cassiopeia will receive a strange visitor. Her name is Ella, and she enjoys playing Atlantic City blackjack, telling jokes, predicting fortunes, and reciting poems. These hobbies are not all that unusual for a human, but Ella isn't exactly human. She's a chatbot: a natural language processing algorithm that can reproduce human speech by analyzing patterns in large collections of text.
Ella's software was included as part of the 2003 Cosmic Call message, and it remains the first and only artificial intelligence sent into interstellar space. Shortly before transmission, Ella, who was created by the software company EllaZ systems, won first place in the Loebner Prize Contest, an annual Turing test competition in which judges try to distinguish humans from chatbots by holding textual conversations (Copple 2008). By today's standards, when many of us have a phone with far more advanced language- processing algorithms in our pocket, Ella comes off as a very crude approximation of intelligence, but at the time the program was considered one of the "most human computers" in the world. We needn't worry ourselves too much that our first AI ambassador to the stars might come off as an incoherent gambling addict, however. Without a primer in the syntax of Visual Basic.NET, the programming language used to write Ella's software, there's a strong chance that extraterrestrials wouldn't be able to interface with the chatbot; but Ella's English language corpus, included with the software, could be a valuable reference material for them. Despite the shortcomings of "astrobot Ella," its transmission to Cassiopeia was a landmark event that pointed to a promising future for the use of AI in interstellar communication.
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