Designing E.T.’s Experience: Interview with UX Week Speaker Doug Vakoch of SETI Institute

Better experiences come about from building empathy for our users, but what happens when that user is an extraterrestrial? At UX Week this September we’ll talk to the person who can answer this question and help us consider how solving this far-out problem can help us design and communicate better with our users here on earth.

Dr. Doug Vakoch is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, and he researches ways that different civilizations might create messages that could be transmitted across interstellar space, allowing communication between humans and extraterrestrials even without face-to-face contact.

In our conversation, Doug lays out the design principles for communication with E.T., invalidates Hollywood plots, and tells us what he really hopes to communicate to extraterrestrials.

Brandon: Let’s jump right in—if an extraterrestrial civilization contacts us, do we communicate back?

Doug: There are a lot of things that happen with the first time we detect a signal that looks like it might be from another civilization. The signals that we look for are very similar to the TV and radio signals that we create here on earth, so there’s a long process that could take weeks, even months, before we’re really sure that this is from another civilization. Then, if we do, it could be very hard to unpack any message that they might send to us.

But all the while that we’re trying to figure out what they’re saying and whether this is, in fact, really a signal from ET, I think there will be a cacophony of replies from earth. While it’s debated in the United Nations and all kinds of other international bodies about what we should do, there’s really no stopping anyone with a transmitter from turning it toward that star, and saying hello.

Brandon: So how are you helping various bodies to start thinking about that, and how we conduct ourselves and how we communicate back?

Doug: One of the core questions that we have to ask is, “How we could say anything understandable to another civilization?” The challenge we face is that any civilization that sends us a signal is separated from us by trillions of miles of space, and so, if we want a message that is going to be understandable it has to be self-contained. If they don’t understand us and say, “Could you repeat that?”, that back and forth could take centuries or millennia.

The scientists and people from a range of disciplines I work with try to figure out, how is it that we have the greatest chance of saying something that would be meaningful so that when we say hello the extraterrestrials will really understand what we’re trying to get across.

Brandon: What kinds of good and bad solutions have we human beings considered so far?

Doug: The main idea that has been at the core of the messages that we sent out is both a good idea, but maybe also a bad idea because it may be somewhat limited. This good idea starts with the question, what do we and the extraterrestrials have in common? Ultimately, that’s the question of anyone involved in trying to anticipate user experience. How do you create something that will be meaningful to the user on the other end?

The challenge that we face is, we don’t know what extraterrestrials are like so we look for something that seems like it has to be universal. If an extraterrestrial is able to send a message and receive a message we know, at least, they have radio technology. It seems likely that if they can create a radio telescope or radio transmitter they’ve got to be a good engineer, so they should at least know the fundamentals of math like two plus two equals four. We start with those fundamental concepts, but it seems like scientists everywhere would need to know about math and physics and chemistry. That’s the positive side of the messages that have been sent out so far.

The down side may be that that’s a pretty truncated view of ourselves as human beings, that there’s much more to us than just a scientific description of ourselves. We also as we move forward want to think about how we could describe something about the breadth of human experience.

Brandon: Are there any other assumptions we can make about the other user?

Doug: One of the things we can assume is that if someone picks up our signal they share something very essential with us, which is curiosity; the very fact that they are wanting to know whether there’s any life out there, and going to the efforts to listen. The other thing we will know is that if we make contact that other civilization is very patient, and I say this because we, here on earth, have had the ability to communicate at interstellar distances for less than a century, but if we make contact with another civilization it’s likely they’ve had the ability to communicate much longer and have been transmitting continuously.

The reason I say that is, in the 13 billion year history of our galaxy, a century, a hundred years, is just a wink of the eye. If another civilization only lasts for that long, we and they will never co-exist. The only way we make contact is if they had been out there transmitting signals for a very, very long time. What that tells us is that an extraterrestrial is going out of its way to tell us something about themselves, is a very patient civilization; they’re willing to initiate a conversation that could take centuries or millennia to evolve.

Brandon: They’re obviously stable enough to keep communicating that whole time.

Doug: I think that notion of another civilization being a stable civilization gives us a key to what might be most interesting to tell them about earth. Again, this ties into user experience. We don’t think of creating some technology or some sort of interface necessarily to communicate what we want to say; we think about what does the user want?

In interstellar messages, we’ve often thought more in terms of, what do we want to say about ourselves? I think the more fruitful avenue is to ask, what could we tell them that they would be especially interested in? Because of that stability that you point out in other civilizations, if they’re around long enough to make contact, if they’ve existed for thousands or millions of years, they have a society that’s much more stable than ours is. Rather than try to tell them about how wise or how powerful we are, maybe the more interesting thing that we could tell them, from their perspective, is to remind them what it’s like to be an unstable society, what it’s like to be children in a cosmic time scale.

Brandon: One of the approaches in the field of User Experience is to look for other solutions that are out there that may be similar to things we’re trying to create. Are there good precursors of civilizations communicating with other civilizations?

Doug: There really are other attempts to make contact that are comparable, that we can learn from. One great example is time capsules, because as we think about it, this is an effort to communicate with future generations. We bury something in a container that’s going to last for hundreds of years or longer, and we hope that it captures some sampling of the culture of the day so that no matter the changes are that happen on our world, between the time that time capsule is set in the ground and when it is retrieved, that the recipient might get a glimpse of what it was like in the past.

When we communicate with another civilization, the very fact that it will take decades or centuries for a message to get there, even traveling at the speed of light, and then a reply to get back, means that our message is like a non-corporeal time capsule. We can learn about the mindset to have of portraying a snapshot of ourselves for future generations when we look at time capsules.

Another example that informs our work is that also focuses on communicating with future generations. We work with people who have tried to figure out how to mark nuclear waste sites, so when nuclear wastes are put deep underground they need to be marked so that they won’t be tampered with by future generations. Language could change tremendously over the millennium so you need to look for some kind of a symbol that will be understandable as indicating danger and not, at the same time, serve as an enticement to make it so intriguing that someone tries to dig it up to find out what’s beneath the surface.

Brandon: Another approach in User Experience is to identify design principles to be infused into every part of the experience. If you were asked to identify design principles for communicating with extraterrestrials what would they be?

Doug: One design principle to communicate with extraterrestrials is to make the message as self-contained as possible. We talk with one another here on earth, we’re used to this free back and forth exchange of information; if we don’t understand, we can ask for clarification. That simply won’t be possible if we send a message to a distant star. We want a message to be as self-extracting as possible, so we search for what we think are most likely basic principles that we have in common and then see how we can develop more complicated messages from that.

Another design principle is to think in terms of redundancy. What might initially seem obviously universal to us, may not, in fact, be universal. I’d love it if a message came in with prime numbers indicating that the extraterrestrials know that part of mathematics, but maybe that won’t be something that resonates with them. So I would emphasize a sense of redundancy—send as many different sorts of things as many possible ways as we can with the hope that at least one of those messages will be understood, because I think if you can begin to send one message that has meaning that could really unlock a series of messages.

If we want to talk about chemistry, for example, maybe they’ll recognize it when we talk about the periodic table of elements, and if they do well that’s great because now that we can talk about a particular atomic structure we can now describe that in physical terms and three-dimensional terms, molecular structures. So that can become the opening to describe objects and three-dimensional space objects that change over time. Once we get one part of a message understood, that could become the key to opening this whole cosmic treasure chest.

Brandon: Do you have a favorite experience here on earth?

Doug: I love being in nature, so I love—this is also the thing that really gives me the ultimate challenge in thinking about communicating with an extraterrestrial; how do you communicate to someone what it’s like to feel the breeze on your face. That’s a big challenge, so there may be parts of the human experience that are very important to us, but very challenging to communicate with someone else. I think, to me, just being connected with the natural world is very important.

Brandon: In your heart of hearts, what would you most hope to communicate to an extraterrestrial?

Doug: Well, I would most want to communicate the challenges that we face, because I think that’s what is potentially of most interest to another civilization. It also is timely for where we are as a civilization now at the beginning of the 21st Century. I would want to communicate that we’re not sure that our advanced technology and our cultures are going to survive in anything like the present form, even a century from now. But, in spite of that uncertainty, we have enough hope that we are reaching out and hoping for a reply.

Brandon: What is the risk in communicating back, and how do we mitigate it?

Doug: Well, Stephen Hawking raised this question about is it risky to send a signal to another civilization. This was 2010, and the scenario that he laid out was, maybe they’ll come and strip-mine our planet for its rare resources. Well, that was four years ago, and it had some significance then because Hawking, like the rest of us, didn’t know that there are earth-like planets out there. Maybe there was something very rare about earth-like planets.

We now know that earth-like planets are everywhere, and they exist in the habitable zones of many stars. I think it’s hard to understand what the motivations of an extraterrestrial would be and, if, in fact, there was a good reason for extraterrestrials to get here; they have the capacity, why haven’t they already come here? I think there’s a natural mitigating factor to any dangers of extraterrestrials, however malevolently they might be inclined, which is just the vast distances of interstellar space. I think one of the things that we always want to do is encourage a very broad-based discussion about transmitting, and any message that we send, it shouldn’t just represent the views of a few scientists, but should be broadly representative of people around the world.

Brandon: You just invalidated an entire genre of Hollywood plotline based on aliens coming to claim Earth for it’s rare resources.

Doug: But those are much more exciting movies. The real challenge of a science fiction movie that captures the reality of SETI is there’d be a lot of down time waiting for a reply, and very realistically it could take decades, even centuries, to decode a message from another civilization. Even though we hope to find these universals that will be meaningful to an extraterrestrial user, it may be much more difficult than we can ever imagine.

Brandon: What lessons do you think we, as user experience designer professionals, can learn from your work when most of us are designing for interactions of mere humans?

Doug: I think the most important thing is to keep in mind what the user wants as opposed to what we would want as the user. Often when we’re thinking about designing interstellar messages we imagine the kind of message that we would want. Sometimes we’ve said we would like an Encyclopedia Galactica or we would like some solutions to our current problems here on earth. But are those the sorts of questions that civilization has been around for eons would really find interesting? Maybe not, so I think the most important, the most challenging thing to do is to step out of our own assumptions about what the user wants.

The great thing about designing for users here on earth is that we can actually check in with them and see whether our designs are working. With an extraterrestrial, we’ve got to be a lot more patient in trying to figure out whether the message that we sent actually worked.

Brandon: Thanks Doug, we look forward to your talk at UX Week!

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