How to build a Universal Translator

It occurred to me that something like the “Universal Translator” of Star Trek could be constructed without very advanced technology. I call my more primitive device a “Drongo.”

If you have two technologically advanced races, and they meet, there is a need to construct a basic vocabulary quickly. One can sit in a room, point and say words — but this can get quite tedious and is not readily amenable to computer analysis.

The device I am proposing makes the following assumptions about the aliens we contact:

  1. They are able to use some reasonable part of the electromagnetic spectrum for communications (i.e. radio, infra-red),
  2. They see things in images,
  3. They know what primary numbers are,
  4. They know what binary numbers are,
  5. They have the basic concept of nouns and verbs.

An obvious code for an image would be to write it as an array of binary digits, using a primary number for the number of pixels on the x and y axes (similar to what Sagan proposed in “Contact”). Aliens receiving the signal would recognize they were seeing a product of binary numbers and might deduce an image was intended. To aid in this endeavor, the drongo should have one or more displays that show the image in various electromagnetic frequencies.

Images and words could be sent on alternating frames, and by studying the sequence of words and images a number of names, nouns and verbs could be communicated (even basic mathematics concepts such as counting and arithmetic). This might form the basis of a very primitive communication, and if both parties have a drongo they might be able to get up to speed on a basic written language in short order. The device would send the foundational vocabulary out repeatedly in an infinite loop. If the foundational vocabulary is understood, the device could be queried to request a next lesson (This would reduce the amount of information that would need to be in the first loop/lesson).

I could envision two alien races constructing an intermediate language (albeit a primitive one) after only a few hours of drongo communication.

Key to the success of a drongo is the development of various recognition technologies, such as this. It will make it possible for us to classify images received from an alien’s drongo.

There might be other kinds of reasonable assumptions that would enable deeper communication to progress, this is only the kernel of the idea.

Obviously this device is vastly inferior to the device on Star Trek. It is very much dumbed down, but could be quite effective. I named the device “Drongo”, after a type of bird known for its effective mimicry of human speech. “Drongo” is also an Australian slang word for “idiot.”

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