I don't know how on-topic this question is but this seemed like the most fitting stackexchange site to post it on. If this doesn't fit here, please let me know and I'll close this question.

On topic now: suppose a hypothetical scenario in which the Earth receives a radio signal from space that we discover is in fact digitally encoding information. We keep receiving a continuous stream of data from this signal for a long time.

Given very long periods of time and huge exabytes worth of data over millions of years, constantly trying to decipher it, is it possible for us to be able to decode and understand their language and derive context from all that data (somehow extract information). Suppose that this stream of data are radio communications between aliens and it is unencrypted. However, the information is not encoded in Earth standards (like ASCII encoding or anything similar to what we use).

Is it possible and, if so, how would we start trying to make sense of this data? I imagine statistical analysis of some sort, as well as some understanding of linguistics is required to at least attempt to decode the data.

Suppose that we never meet these aliens, nor do we observe them. The only thing we know about them is the existence of this signal.

Is there even a field of science that specializes in such decoding of info?

  • This is more the domain of sci-fi fantasizing. It was solved by fiat in Star Trek via a software implementation of the babel fish, which probably was infected with translator microbes. We can make stuff up about statistical analysis, but in the real world, a signal with no context is just noise. Though not in the domain of linguistics, you might look into attempts to assign "meaning" to animal noises. – user6726 Jun 8 '18 at 16:32
  • Before Star Trek, it was solved by E. E. Smith, PhD, in his lensman series. Smith imagined that a translator device called a "lens" was furnished by an ancient advanced race from the planet Arisia, It remains unclear that universal translation is possible among beings with truly nothing physically in common, since all intelligent life in our galaxy sprang from the Arisian life spores floating throughout local galactic space. – Greg Lee Jun 13 '18 at 21:13

Without context, you have no way of deciphering this. Try to free yourself from your humanocentric view of sequential, audio-oral language transferring concepts that are familiar to you. There are just too many variables:

The signal can encode video because the aliens communicate in sign language or by producing ink patches that they telekinetically shape into signs. It may encode chemical structure for a smell based language, it may be a direct mind-to-mind telepathic signal not based on any articulated elements. Or it may be a television signal, so speech accompanied by imagery. Or any combination of the above and more.

Then of course you have no idea what the topic is... love poetry? Hatespeech to the fellow co-aliens? Concepts beyond anything we, pathetic meatbags can imagine because they are the dreams of energy based entities living in the heart of a star?

As pointed out in a comment below the question - without any context, the signal is just noise.

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  • My theory is, it's pranking by aliens, who send random blips in the hope of driving us nuts trying to discern the secrets of the universe embedded therein. – user6726 Jun 14 '18 at 1:17

We could probably use some sort of word embedding technique. This could detect semantical relations such as synonymy, antonymy and so on, but there's no way of knowing if they would correspond to our own semantic spaces.

For details on how this embedding could be mapped to Earth languages see this blog post.

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  • Without any extralinguistic reference points, this would hardy be more useful than finding "word embeddings" in instrumental music. – tripleee Jun 14 '18 at 10:05
  • Thank you for this information. The article is quite informative! – John Jun 15 '18 at 7:30

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