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SYFY WIRE Resident Alien

Scientists at SETI are Talking with Whales to Learn About Talking with Aliens

Until we find them out there, we have to talk with the "aliens" at home.

By Cassidy Ward

When the extraterrestrial Harry Vanderspeigle (Alan Tudyk) unceremoniously touched down on our planet in Resident Alien (streaming now on Peacock) he was fortunate to have a good way of communicating with the human locals. In many sci-fi stories, humans and aliens find ways to talk to one another pretty quickly, usually through the use of hand-wavy technologies or ear-dwelling fish, but the reality probably won’t be so easy.

How to Watch

Watch new episodes of Resident Alien Wednesdays at 10/9c on SYFY and next day on Peacock.

In an effort to address the alien communication gap, a team of scientists from the University of California Davis, the Alaska Whale Foundation, and the SETI Institute have carried out the first human-whale conversation in the humpback whale language.

SETI Scientists Are Talking with Whales so That They Can Talk to Aliens

Humpback whale

Whether there are any intelligent aliens out there in the cosmos waiting to talk with us remains to be seen, but there are certainly non-human intelligences right here on Earth. To date, we’ve had only middling success at cracking the language systems of non-humans, and they have the benefit of having developed right here on the same planet as us. Extraterrestrial language systems could be even weirder, and bridging the gap here at home could be a stepping stone toward a sort of universal translator.

RELATED: Humpback Whales Exchange Songs Across Cultural Groups

To that end, the Whale-SETI team engaged in a 20-minute back and forth with an adult female humpback named Twain. “We believe this is the first such communicative exchange between humans and humpback whales in the humpback language,” said lead author Dr. Brenda McCowan of U.C. Davis. “Humpback whales are extremely intelligent, have complex social systems, make tools –– nets out of bubbles to catch fish –– and communicate extensively with both songs and social calls,” said coauthor Dr. Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation, in a statement.

The idea is to study intelligent non-human communication on Earth to develop filters we could apply to any extraterrestrial signals we receive. Even if we can’t parse the details of an alien message, we might be able to sort them out from the background noise by creating filters which recognize the structures of language.

Humpback whale

Researchers played a typical contact known as a “whup/throp” using an underwater speaker. Twain then participated both physically and acoustically in three phases of communication: engagement, agitation, and disengagement. Engagement was marked by a high level of interaction, agitation was marked by three wheezy or reverse forced surface blows typical of excitement of frustration, and disengagement was marked by larger spaces between vocalizations and a growing physical distance as Twain retreated.

RELATED: This Massive, Ancient Whale Weighed More Than the Space Shuttle

The interaction wasn’t the most successful conversation two entities have ever had, but scientists are already learning a lot about how to communicate more effectively in the future. The team proposes the production of a well-processed stimuli library, something which will be easier to achieve with non-human Earth species than with hypothetical ETs.

They also noted the different acoustical ranges at play among different species and the challenges inherent in communicating with species which create and take in sounds we can’t hear or make ourselves. Additionally, researchers noted the importance of capturing data in multiple forms, not just acoustic. Human language is certainly not limited to only words; tone and body language also provide important communicative context. We would be wise not to assume that non-human communication is more limited than our own. In fact, it might be more complex.

Here’s hoping we can figure it out, or that our alien correspondents do. In the meantime, you can catch the first two seasons of Resident Alien streaming right now on Peacock. Harry talks to us just fine.