Golden Data

Voyager1 is currently the most distant human made object from the Earth, somewhere beyond 10 billion miles from the Sun. When we launched Voyager1 in 1977, a “golden record” was included with it, in the hopes that it would be able to communicate something about life on Earth to any intelligent beings that found it.

Golden Record – [nasa.gov]

Each record is encased in a protective aluminum jacket, together with a cartridge and a needle. Instructions, in symbolic language, explain the origin of the spacecraft and indicate how the record is to be played. The 115 images are encoded in analog form. The remainder of the record is in audio, designed to be played at 16-2/3 revolutions per minute. It contains the spoken greetings, beginning with Akkadian, which was spoken in Sumer about six thousand years ago, and ending with Wu, a modern Chinese dialect. Following the section on the sounds of Earth, there is an eclectic 90-minute selection of music, including both Eastern and Western classics and a variety of ethnic music.

But what if an alien found the record and was unable to understand the symbolic language or could not “play” the record to reveal the data recorded on it? Many works of science fiction have addressed the question of how to “bootstrap” the communication process by offering some form of fundamental dictionary or even a dictionary building process that can be outlined in symbols that represent such fundamental truths that we assume any intelligent species would understand the underlying basics and learn to translate our symbols from them. This is how the “primer” in the book and movie “Contact” worked and the fundamental truth was the mathematical sequence of prime numbers.

The “Contact” scenario used a sequence of prime numbers to draw attention to the fact that the radio signal might originate from an intelligent source and then included a primer to help decode the detailed information that was included in other radio frequencies. The Golden Record scenario offered instructions engraved in symbolic codes that explained how to play the record. An assumption was made that they were simple enough and logical enough to explain how to retrieve data from the disk. An analog recording made on a rotating disk was commonplace technology on Earth in 1977, but today most of our data is stored in a variety of digital formats. An intelligent civilization might struggle with our assumptions if their background and history are very different. The “Contact” scenario seems more likely to be effective, but it too relies on some assumptions, one being the use of electromagnetic communications in certain forms. Of course, in the story, the contact information was tailored to our civilization, reflecting back our earliest television transmission.

A civilization that is very advanced compared to ours might be using data storage techniques that we have no idea about. Their “bootstrap” instructions to us would have to include an instruction manual on the technology involved, the tools needed to make any apparatus to access it and operating instructions. Even if the technology used to store the data is inconceivable to us in our current state, they could be able to “lead” us to the instruction primer via something that is obvious and commonplace in our world and our technology. Instead of the radio signal technology of “Contact” (that the SETI program monitors), maybe it would be composed of a broader spectrum of beacon, one that includes all frequencies of electromagnetic radiation and maybe more. It could have radio and light and infrared and ultra-violet components, and what else? Prime numbers are still a pretty good candidate for drawing attention to the beacon signal, but what about Fibonacci numbers or some other sequence that is unlikely to be random? And how would the sequences be represented in a numbering system? Again, instead of using decimal or binary, under the assumption that they are the most likely candidates for widespread understanding, why not send it in a variety of number systems and try to cross-reference them?

Leading the target civilization to the primer and getting the basic translation process started is the first hurdle, but then comes the task of describing how to build new tools to develop new technology. Perhaps this requires another complete primer on tools, starting with basic simple things like the lever and wheel and walking upward through increasingly sophisticated tool techniques. This also will need a “multi-spectrum” approach that would be able to reach civilizations with many different understandings of tools and technologies. As an advanced civilization builds a history of contacts with other more primitive groups, a collection of basic tool and technology roadmaps could be built that would enable this.

Once both the translation primer and the tool building primer are in place, operating instructions can be presented with some confidence that they can be understood and carried out.

Finally, some consideration would need to be given to the “non-interference” policy presented in Star Trek that was designed to not hand over technology that could disrupt the natural development of other civilizations. A master primer process as described above would contain a treasure trove of information and roadmaps of other technologies if it all could be translated and understood.

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