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Do We Need a Special Language to Talk to Aliens?

In May 2018, a radar facility in Tromsø, Norway, trained its antennas on GJ237b, a potentially habitable exoplanet located 12 light years from Earth. Over the course of three days, the radar broadcast a message toward the planet in the hopes that there might be something, or someone, there to receive it. Each message consisted…

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Do We Need a Special Language to Talk to Aliens?

In May 2018, a radar facility in Tromsø, Norway, trained its antennas on GJ237b, a potentially habitable exoplanet located 12 light years from Earth. Over the course of three days, the radar broadcast a message toward the planet in the hopes that there might be something, or someone, there to receive it. Each message consisted of a selection of short songs and a primer on how to interpret the contents.

This was the second iteration of Sónar Calling GJ273b, an interstellar messaging project by the nonprofit METI International that began in 2017. Although both transmissions were billed as a “music lesson for aliens,” the second broadcast was notable for rehabilitating an extraterrestrial language developed by the physicists Yvan Dutil and Stephane Dumas in the late 1990s.

This custom symbolic system begins by introducing ET to numerals, and then progresses to more complex topics like human biology and the planets in our solar system. An earlier version of the language was first sent into space in 1999 and again in 2003 as part of the Cosmic Call messages—a crowd-sourced interstellar messaging project that marked the first serious attempt at interstellar communication since Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent the Arecibo message into space 25 years earlier.

All of these formal messaging attempts have taken basically the same approach: Teach numerals and basic arithmetic first. But as some recent insights in neurolinguistics suggest, it might not be the best way to greet our alien neighbors.

The world’s first interstellar communication system, the lingua cosmica, or Lincos, set the tone for all subsequent attempts by placing basic math at its core. Designed by the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal in 1960, Lincos inspired several other mathematicians and scientists to try their hand at designing extraterrestrial languages. Each system is ultimately an attempt at solving a remarkably complex problem: How do you communicate with an intelligent entity you know nothing about?

The question gets at the nature of intelligence itself. Humans are the only species on Earth endowed with advanced mathematical ability and a fully fledged faculty of language, but are these hallmarks of intelligence or human idiosyncrasies? Is there an aspect of intelligence that is truly universal?

Scientists and mathematicians have grappled with these questions for centuries. As the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner once observed, mathematics is “unreasonably effective” at describing the natural universe, which has led a significant contingent of mathematicians to conclude that math is baked into the fabric of reality. From this perspective, mathematics isn’t something produced by the human mind so much as something the human mind discovers.

Most interstellar communication systems were designed around this conclusion. The goal isn’t to teach ETs about addition and subtraction—presumably they know as much if they can build a telescope to receive the message. Instead, these systems teach ETs about the way we code numbers as symbols. Then they can build up to more complex ideas.

It’s an elegant solution to a difficult problem, but Lincos still rests on the assumption that an ET is “human-like in its mental state,” as Freudenthal once conceded. But if ET does in fact think like a human, does that alien also have some kind of human-like language?

That was where Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, two of the progenitors of artificial intelligence, landed after they became interested in interstellar communication. Both Minsky and McCarthy had a deep interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which they realized had a lot in common with their own search for artificial intelligence. As Minsky argued on several occasions, ET is likely to have language because language is an ideal solution to the fundamental problems faced by any intelligent species—namely constraints on time, energy, and resources.

A deeper question is whether ET’s language will be similar to our own. In other words, whether it will also obey the universal grammar, the hierarchical, recursive structure that linguist Noam Chomsky has argued is the deep structure common to all human languages. Although languages tend to be analogized as a form of software running on the hardware of our brain, recent work in neurolinguistics suggests that language—and the universal grammar—is actually an expression of the hardware itself.

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Several brain imaging studies have shown that the deep structure of human language manifests in our neural activity. When people are taught fake rules for either a made-up or real language, their brains respond differently than when they use actual languages (whether familiar to them or not). These findings suggest that the shared attributes of natural languages might be encoded in how neurons connect. In other words, our faculty of language may be inextricably tied to the structure of our noggins.

If extraterrestrials do have a language similar to ours, that might imply they also have a functionally equivalent neurobiology. To say aliens might think like us and have language is one thing, but to argue they have brains like ours pushes the limits of credulity. But it might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Biology, after all, is beholden to the laws of physics, which puts constraints on the trajectory of evolution. Astrobiologist Charles Cockell makes this argument in his recent book, The Equations of Life, in which he points to the remarkable similarities across species on Earth—from the fact that life is cellular and arises from the same four nucleotides, to the structure of an eye or a wing. This is not to say that evolution is deterministic (random events like asteroid impacts and genetic mutations still happen), but that the number of evolutionary end points isn’t limitless. In other words, we’re not going to discover a planet inhabited by sentient ice cubes.

There is a good chance that ET’s planet will be quite a bit different from our own, and the species there will adapt accordingly. But the course of evolution on ET’s planet will still be bound by the same physical laws, and ET will face the same fundamental constraints on time, energy, and resources. So it is reasonable to assume that extraterrestrial evolution might arrive at similar solutions to these common problems, such as a brain capable of wielding hierarchical, recursive languages.

If that’s the case, then the best way to communicate large amounts of information may not be painstakingly designing artificial languages from scratch, but sending a large corpus of natural language text, such as an encyclopedia. This is how we train natural language algorithms on Earth, which tease out the rules of human language by statistically analyzing large collections of text. If ET has developed its own AI, it could potentially decipher the structure of a natural language message.

Of course, natural language processing algorithms on Earth don’t really understand the meaning of the text they analyze. They are blindly manipulating symbols. And aliens may still need some kind of extraterrestrial language to connect some of the symbols of human language to their meaning. But as on Earth, the best way to start an interstellar conversation might simply be saying “hello.”

This article is adapted from Extraterrestrial Languages by WIRED staff writer Daniel Oberhaus. It was released on October 22 by MIT Press.

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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from…

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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from daily use.

Called reCharge, the concept looks at how to curb the waste that plagues Goodyear’s industry: About 250 million tires were scrapped in the US in 2017. “The tire is one of the few components that doesn’t stay on for the life of the vehicle,” says CTO Chris Helsel. “It’s replaced quite often. So the first problem to solve was to make the tire more of a permanent structure, as part of the vehicle itself.”

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To make that happen, Goodyear’s engineers designed something that works a bit like a stick of lip balm. At the center of the wheel sits a cylindrical, pressurized cartridge filled with liquified, biodegradable tire compound. As the miles stack up and the tread wears down, the pressure differential between the interior of the cartridge and the tire surface draws out the compound. It oozes out of channels radiating from the center to the tread surface automatically, passing through a grid-like frame that molds it into the proper shape. (The system is envisioned as incorporating both tire and wheel, with a non-pneumatic support structure instead of a tire attached to a metal rim.) When exposed to outside air—where the rubber meets the road—the compound hardens, and your tires never go bald.

The reCharge tire is very much a concept, but some of the ideas it promotes could make it onto your car in the next few years.

Courtesy of Goodyear

So instead of tossing old tires every few years, you’ll keep the bulk of the structure as long as you’ve got the car. The central cartridge would need replacing a few times over the wheel’s projected lifespan of between 100,00 and 300,00 miles, Goodyear estimates. That means less waste, Helsel says, since worn down tires get tossed even if the structural components beneath the tread and in the sidewall remain perfectly intact.

The reCharge concept comes with some other neat ideas built in. Helsel says sensors embedded within the reCharge structure can analyze wear patterns and driving style, and tune the type of compound the user might install next in order for it to better match. Aggressive brakers and performance nuts would get one kind of chemistry, hyper-miling road-trippers another. Goodyear could account for climate and road quality as well.

The tire is also well suited to electric vehicles. Because they’re usually heavier than their gas-powered counterparts and apply greater torque during acceleration, they can wear out tires 20 to 50 percent faster, Helsel says. “So you’re going to need a tire that lasts longer. This idea will allow for extended tire life and much easier swaps, and replacing just the cartridge will require one tenth of the number of parts that would need replacing compared to conventional tires.”

The concept, though, isn’t near production. Goodyear hasn’t made the all-important compound, and getting it to work as described would be complex, especially the bit about hardening with oxidation. Helsel says the company envisions something including fibrous material to enhance strength, inspired by the renowned toughness of natural spider silk. But different elements of the reCharge concept could trickle out sooner than a complete product—potentially within a decade. So the proposed tire compound, the structural framework, or the embedded sensors and artificial-intelligence-based analysis of use patterns might appear earlier in conventional tires. So your tires may get smarter—but they’ll still eventually lose the tread.


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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think…

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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.

The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think the triple-folded paper brochure you get at state parks, except replace the paper with a phone. It’s one of the first concepts we’ve seen with two separate hinge mechanisms working simultaneously, converting a 6.65-inch phone into a 10-inch tablet.

Photograph: TCL

I got a chance to play around with a prototype. It feels very rough around the edges—namely, it’s stiff and tough to unfold—but the device veritably went from a traditional-looking phone into an iPad-like tablet. You can also fold one-third of the screen away for the times you don’t need the maximum available amount of screen space. I can easily see myself unfolding this in a coffee shop and pulling out a slim Bluetooth keyboard to type up some words instead of lugging around a laptop.

Unfortunately with so much folding going on it, it’s a very thick phone—around the chunkiness of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, if not more. It’s not terribly fun to use one-handed.

That’s why the second concept is a little more interesting. It’s not exactly a foldable phone, rather a phone with a “rollable” screen, as TCL puts it. It looks just like an ordinary smartphone with a 6.75-inch screen, but spectacularly, you can tug on the right edge of the handset to roll out more display and increase the screen real estate to 7.8 inches—about as much as the iPad Mini, and with no folding required. This design keeps the phone really thin at 0.35 inches. The dummy unit I used required me to manually extend the screen, but TCL said it has a motorized version that automatically does it.

Since TCL manufactures its own displays, the company has gone wild playing around with various form factors. It has more than three dozen other concepts floating around in its factories. However, it’s likely the two concepts being unveiled today (as well as the wallet-like foldable device that debuted at CES) will never make it to market.

“We are not shy to show some of these ideas to engage in a discussion, to get your feedback, to learn,” says Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing at TCL. “We believe this is much more important than just putting a product out, keep the volumes low, charge a very high price, and make the consumer a beta user and pay for it. That’s not TCL’s style.”

This testing phase lets the company identify which types of foldable phones resonate with people the most. Once it nails down a particular design and form—and there’s apparently a leading candidate—TCL intends to create a portfolio of foldables that give several options to buyers.

Being patient also gives the company time to figure out how to make foldable phones more affordable overall. Most of the products we’ve seen from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, and Huawei start at $1,380 and go all the way up to $2,700. That’s far more expensive than some of TCL’s most popular TVs.

“We’re not here to make novelty products,” says Jason Gerdon, head of global strategic communications. “We’re here to make innovation accessible.”

Whatever design TCL ends up settling on, the foldable phone is expected to arrive by the end of the year or early 2021. Before then, TCL is expected to launch its first US phones: the TCL 10 Pro, 10L, and the TCL 10 5G, which it teased at CES. (Gerdon said TCL doesn’t see the Covid-19 outbreak causing a substantial impact on its supply chain in the immediate term, but there is a chance products could be delayed “the longer the crisis continues.”)

Regardless, all this shows just how much TCL is now investing in its own brand name after a few attempts at leveraging others. It licenses the BlackBerry name and made a couple of keyboard-laden phones, but after making no real gains in smartphone market share, TCL is ending its BlackBerry contract this summer. Streit said making BlackBerry phones was still a very valuable learning experience.

TCL also licenses the Alcatel brand and owns Palm, both of which are here to stay. Alcatel will continue to offer ultra-low-cost phones—the TCL phone brand will sit just above it—and Palm will explore other ways to minimize screen time like, say, slapping a flexible screen on your wrist as a bracelet, Streit suggested.

Whether foldable phones prove to be a big part of our future is still up in the air. There’s no singular folding device stealing the hearts of mainstream consumers. But it’s undeniable that a folding screen makes any phone just a little more interesting.


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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.Next came Adobe…

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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.

Next came Adobe Summit. Then Facebook F8. Within weeks, Google had canceled its annual developer conference, Google I/O, and Google Cloud Next, its cloud-focused conference. Microsoft called off its MVP Summit. IBM pulled the plug on Think. TED decided to hold off on its gathering, debating only whether to delay it or put it online. The organizers of SXSW wrung their hands, even after its biggest tech exhibitors—Twitter and Facebook among them—pulled out. On Friday, the city of Austin finally canceled the event.

As concern over Covid-19 sets in, people around the world are rethinking large gatherings. Social soirees have been canceled, universities are moving classes online, and more companies are instituting mandatory telecommuting policies—Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Salesforce have each asked their employees to work from home in recent weeks. If the coronavirus is going to reshape the way we work, as some have hypothesized, it will also need to change how we do conferences, a trillion-dollar industry in which millions of people participate each year. A new group of startups is trying to sell the business world on the value of virtual alternatives, but the appeal of networking IRL has so far had a stubborn way of sticking around.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Conferences have long been the gold standard for exchanging ideas and strengthening professional relationships, both in business and academia. Sure, they can be a bit stuffy, but gathering people in the same room has measurable benefits. One study, from MIT, found that scientific collaborations that came out of conference meetings were “more novel, cross-disciplinary and more frequently cited than projects between two researchers in the same institution.”

It’s the execution of those events that’s often lackluster: People gather in hotel ballrooms, sit in stiff chairs, and watch a series of unsurprising talks and panel discussions. Many conferences end up being self-congratulatory echo chambers rather than forums for new knowledge. Technology hasn’t created much disruption either. Instead, tech conferences have become high-production spectacles as the industry emulates Steve Jobs and his commercial-style developer conferences. Those events aren’t cheap, either: Adobe Summit, before turning itself into a digital-only event, charged $1,695 per ticket—and that was the early bird price. That’s to say nothing of the cost of travel and the inevitably overpriced conference hotel rooms.

The alternate ideas have been fairly uninspired: webinars, panel livestreams. Xiaoyin Qu, the cofounder of a new virtual conference startup called Run the World, says the problem with most virtual conferences is the inability to meet other people. She attended dozens of conferences last year for market research and found that the best moments often weren’t the keynote speeches, but the breakout sessions or coffee breaks when conference attendees could bump into one another. When people met someone at a conference whose work was relevant to them, it made the $1,000 ticket worth it. When they didn’t, conferences sometimes felt like “a waste of time.”

Run the World came out of stealth this month and has backing from Andreessen Horowitz. Connie Chan, the general partner who led the investment, described Run the World as “a hybrid of Zoom video, Eventbrite ticketing, Twitch interactivity, and LinkedIn networking.” The platform allows conference organizers to livestream talks, discussions, and panels in return for a 25 percent cut of ticket sales. It also lets conference attendees fill out a profile describing their interests and uses an algorithm to match them with others; a virtual “cocktail party” feature lets attendees meet each other through video calls. (The “cocktails” are, obviously, BYO.)

Hopin, another startup that came out of stealth a few weeks ago, takes a similar approach to virtual conferencing. The platform combines livestreamed presentations with virtual networking, including a ChatRoulette-style feature for meeting other attendees. Most of the networking at conferences happens during unscheduled time, when people are milling about or hanging around the hotel bar. “That’s why people go to events; it’s not for livestreaming,” Hopin’s founder, Johnny Boufarhat, told Crunchbase News. “You go physically to network with people, to interact with people. And that’s what we solve.”

Moving conferences online can solve other problems, too: It reduces travel costs, environmental pollution, and accessibility concerns. Cutting out the in-person costs can also significantly reduce the price of admission and lets conference organizers invest more of their budget into speakers. For many conferences, Qu says, “around 20 percent is spent on the venue, 20 percent on food and beverages, and almost 20 percent is on equipment.” Most budgets she looked at had left conference organizers with less than 5 percent of their budget for program design and speaker fees.

The idea isn’t to make conferences free or accessible to everyone: some friction, Qu says, ensures that the relevant people show up and actually participate. But because conference organizers don’t have to worry about filling a big venue, in theory they can spend more on paying speakers’ fees and can create more-focused events. Qu has already seen people using Run the World to organize super-niche conferences, like an event for coaching engineers on how to date. It had 40 attendees. “If you no longer need to sign a venue lease 10 months before the conference and hire 30 people to work on that for a half a year, then it makes more sense to do these,” says Qu. “You don’t need to wait until 100,000 people show up to make it happen.”

Still, virtual conference platforms haven’t found much traction. David Pearlman, who researches travel and tourism at the University of New Orleans, wrote a paper a decade ago about the promise of virtual reality for the conference industry. Back then, he thought virtual conferences had a good shot at becoming the industry standard. But they haven’t really picked up momentum. “If anything, they’ve died back,” he says.

That’s partly because most people don’t own virtual reality headsets. But Pearlman says it’s also because meeting people as an avatar remains awkward, and digital platforms have struggled to re-create serendipitous encounters. Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, has been trying to solve this with a virtual reality event space called Sansar, launched in 2017. Participants can log on to chat with each other from around the world or attend live concerts in VR. These aren’t simply livestreams—they’re events designed to foster person-to-person interaction. (The company’s pitch for its concerts: “Meet friends, cop merch, snap selfies. Show off your best moves and emotes: the floss, the shoot, the shiggy, whatever.”) Recently, Sansar introduced a virtual conference stage too, but it hasn’t taken off.

As more conferences get canceled or moved online, organizers could have a chance to explore these emerging platforms as an alternative to the boring old webinar. Qu says Run the World will waive fees for conference organizers who have had to cancel due to the coronavirus. But that’s unlikely to create a sea change, says Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time major conferences have been forced to move online. “There are wildfires; there’s what happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina,” says Calvert. None of those events have spurred an industrywide shift toward digital conferences, she says, because attendees simply don’t get the same value. “The virtual elements are never going to replace the face-to-face meetings, because people want to connect and build those relationships and foster those networks.”

Most major conferences seem to agree. This year, Google has rebranded Google Cloud Next as Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect. It’s the company’s largest annual conference, with over 30,000 attendees, so Google decided to bring it online rather than cancel it outright. “Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company wrote after announcing the decision. What does that innovation look like? It plans to webcast the keynotes and add some digital “ask an expert” sessions with Google teams. Perhaps the most innovative thing it’s done is agree to refund the cost of tickets and offer the conference content for free.

Other conferences have made it perfectly clear that they don’t plan to stay digital-only. Collision, a 30,000-person tech conference held in Toronto, announced last week that it wouldn’t be holding its gathering this year and will instead move its programming online. Next year, though, it’s already planning another in-person event.


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