July 25, 2021

Twenty Questions

It is true that Naomi only took Xenosocial Negotiation at the academy because it fit her schedule and let her keep Wednesdays free.

However, of all the elective courses she took, she had the most fun in "XeNog". A terribly clever instructor developed a rigorous array of games, simulations, and thought experiments related to negotiations with alien intelligences. Riveting debates about the ethics of interstellar trade, examinations of the trapdoors of implied logic, and reviews of countless fictional imaginings written over the years all equipped Naomi with at least a basic framework of talking to aliens.

The entire first month was devoted to the language barrier. As the professor quipped, "Sticking an alien fish in your ear probably won't work out in your favor." Even if proper dialogue was unachievable, basic interactions and transactions may be possible. In fact, these transactions may be the foundation of better opportunities to establish more robust communication.

But this sphere may have some sort of babblefish up it's sleeve, after all. It clearly figured out some basics of human language, enough to greet us and make an offer. Or something like it. The sphere hasn't been forthcoming with details, but to be fair, we haven't responded yet. That's why Naomi was asked to have the conversation.

"Share or Discard?"

What struck Naomi first was the polite nature of the request. In all of the simulations she's played through in the academy, it was taken as a given that information learned would be retained by either side. If the sphere was offering to discard the information about human language it had obtained, that's a pretty respectful display. It can't be inherently trusted, but if it wasn't an option, why pretend?

Implied logical conclusions are self-made chains. The lesson had been hammered over and over. Don't assume that aliens have any common sense. Until we know how they construct truth, we shouldn't be hasty to assume we know what they are thinking.

Discard. Toss away? Could it be a misstated threat? It would be a lot more in line with the simulations. But Naomi never liked those scenarios. A hostile alien would open a conversation with violence, not a dance around language, right? Implied logical yadda yadda..

Best to take it slow, keep it simple, be friendly. Avoid over-commitment.  The council has approved Naomi to make a decision here, but that doesn't mean she has to rush to it. Remember what Suri said, "You're already in the record books." Deep breath.

Naomi approached the sphere.

"Language mapped. Share or Discard?" it asked, in the same steady tone it asked anyone who came near.

"We have questions," Naomi responded.

The sphere flickered with sudden interest. After a brief pause, it said "Questions are favors or interrogations or prayers or quiz show?"

Naomi resisted the urge to chuckle at the last suggestion. We'd like to ask favors, but that's a bit forward for now. Since we're not expecting to encounter any gods out here, that leaves interrogations. That word has some connotations that aren't always pleasant, but does the sphere know that? "Our questions are peaceful interrogations."

"Peaceful accept," the sphere said. "Boundary required, accept?"

Naomi considered. Did it mean conversational boundary or physical? Maybe the sphere needs to unfold into something? She was only a meter away from the sphere, but there was room to move if needed. "Define boundary."

"Mapping, unlimited. Discard, unlimited. Share, limited. Owner, limited. Network, off-limit. Archive, off-limit. Oracle, off-limit. Accept boundary?"

Naomi's eyes lit up at the peak into the sphere's internal taxonomy. Network, Archive, Oracle? So many exciting trails, even if they are closed for now. Owner limited, how limited? It'd be nice to know who we're transacting with. And what Share means. But if limited isn't "off-limit", this could be enough to get started.

"We accept. First question, ready?" Naomi winced as soon as the words came out of her mouth. She knew better than to use shorthand grammar like that! OK, shake it off, there's a lot of pressure but no need to freak out over a small mistake.

"Ready is awaiting the first question. Proceed."

Whew, good enough. Things are going well! But what to ask first? Well, let's get the big one out of the way. "Are you peaceful?"

"Peaceful is friendly, kind, non-violent. Yes, I am peaceful."

Naomi appreciated the relational approach to establishing definitions. She should try to emulate it to build a closer connection. "We are peaceful, friendly, kind, non-violent."

"Acknowledged. Ready second question?"

Off to a great start. Time to negotiate! "What is share?"

"Share is give, take, trade, upload, swap, show. Wanting to share language mapping. Ready third question?"

"What is language mapping?" Naomi asked.

The sphere responded "Language mapping is structure, vocabulary, waveforms, interpretation and limited. Ready fourth question?"

"What is discard?"

"Discard is remove, delete, forget, erase, disappear. Ready fifth question?"

So far, no real surprises. Keep steady. "Is share two way, reciprocal, mutual?"

The sphere hesitated. Something about that question wasn't simple, Naomi guessed. Sharing is a tricky concept. "Share is every way, open, public. Ready sixth question?"

Oh. Are there other parties to this transaction? Naomi realized she carried an assumption that this was a single point of contact with another intelligence. But it could just as well be a representative of something more than that. "Will you share with us?" she asked, hoping it wouldn't stumble on the new question format.

"Understanding. Correct. Share is mutual, co-operation, knowledge. Ready seventh question?"

This is a really impressive language processor. It seems like it re-contextualized the previous question in light of the following question, and noted the connection. Naomi's inner data-science nerd was squealing with fascination. "Who is your owner?"

The sphere darkened briefly. "Limited information permission. Owner is peaceful, strong, careful, hidden. Ready eighth question?"

Well, that's what you'd want any new aliens to think, right? You're kind, powerful, and mysterious. Fair enough. "Will we meet your owner?"

The sphere processed for a moment. "After sharing, meeting is possible. Biology complications. Ready ninth question?"

Interesting. Wonder what sort of biology the owners have. That's certainly off-limits for now. Let's circle back for a second.  "Who will we share with?"

"Everyone. All who have shared. Details limited. Ready tenth question?"

Oh. Really? "How many civilizations have shared?"

The sphere dimmed slightly. "Many. Details limited. Ready eleventh question?"

Many. This isn't just an offer from one civilization, it's an offer to connect to some kind of language translation network. The possibilities nearly overwhelmed Naomi. She took a deep breath to steady herself. She might be negotiating the most significant information trade in human history. No need to rush. "Can you explain why the details are limited?"

This time the sphere took several seconds and shifted in hue before answering. "Limit extends from Philosophy, Memory, Programming. This machine has sub-mind: language not knowledge. Protections against violence, hacking, spoiler alerts. Ready twelfth question?"

Naomi could barely believe it. Did this machine just explain an intergalactic spoiler policy? It made some sense, if you're sending a.. language probe?.. out to learn languages, maybe it's best to save the wiki swapping until actual communication is established. So this is sort of like an opt-out First Directive? If we want to go it on our own, we can just ask to be ignored. It was a respectful gesture, but Naomi wondered how likely it was that would last in practice.

But let's be real, Naomi already knew she wanted this. Who wouldn't? A language interface for intergalactic communication? An alien Rosetta stone? How could she say no? Every major advancement in human culture has been on the backs of expanded communications capabilities. From writing to printing to the internet to the commlink.

She hesitated. The flip side of that story is that the parts of civilization that pioneered new forms of communication had a bad habit of dominating the cultural exchange, leading to all sorts of atrocities. If we open ourselves up to a whole universe of other civilizations, ones who've maybe been at this for a lot longer than us, we'll be the culturally disadvantaged ones. Can we withstand the pressure of not just one alien culture, but multiple? Are we offering ourselves up as an easy mark?

Or is it anthropocentric to project human corruption on our intergalactic neighbors? On this, Naomi felt woefully unequipped. The sphere represented her only encounter, presumably, with alien intelligence. It's been reasonably coherent. Despite minor grammar roughness and a few idiosyncrasies, the sphere is making sense. That suggests there's at least some shared logic. And it's offering to be the translator for the rest. Or is it?

"What happens after sharing?" Naomi asked.

"Language mappings are synchronized, uploaded, made available" the sphere responded. "Ready thirteenth question?"

"How are language maps made available to us?" Naomi asked, hoping to get to the heart of her question.

The sphere replied "Technological interface. This machine will interpret until you build language circuits. Ready fourteenth question?"

Good, no fish in our ears. And it sounds like there will be at least some tech trade involved, a chance to learn how the more experienced civilizations do communication. It's sounding like a good deal, but Naomi still wants to be thorough.

"Is sharing dangerous?"

Apparently, this was a tricky question. The sphere flickered rapidly for a few seconds before answering. "Knowledge is safe. Communication is uncertain. Ready fifteenth question?"

Fine. The sphere doesn't want to guess what will happen when we start talking with others. Maybe there's another way to approach the issue. "Are we in danger here?"

Another flickering pause. "Danger is fear, risk, loss. You are not in danger here, now. Ready sixteenth question?"

Another shallow answer. Naomi didn't let her frustration show. "Are we near any wars that might endanger us."

The very mention of the word "war" turned the orb to a dark blue hue. "Details limited" it replied coldly. "Permission to question?"

Naomi perked up with curiosity. "Ready question" she said, imitating the sphere's broken grammar.

"Do you wage war?" the sphere asked.

A chill raced down Naomi's spine.  Humans have an embarrassingly long history with war. The world the fleet left behind was closer to peace than it had been in the centuries and millennia prior, enough to launch an international exploration fleet at great cost. But still, squabbles over power and resources always bubbled under the surface, and Naomi couldn't confidently say that humans had finished with war.

Even the fleet had weapons. She'd never looked too much into the details, but she remembered a few training sessions at the Academy going over the fundamentals of zero-gravity weapon usage. Most of it was horrifying explanations of just how fragile these floating tin cans were in the face of focused destruction. Maybe the point of those lessons was to discourage violent engagements. If so, it worked, at least for Naomi. Still, the fleet was armed, regardless of how peaceful we say we are.

How does she put all that into an answer? Will the sphere keep up with the nuance? What happens if she answers wrong. Has her curiosity put the trade in jeopardy? Don't panic, she thought, it's just a question. "Humans on Earth have waged war. Humans in space, here, desire only peace." She hoped that was good enough.

"Recorded. Ready for question seventeen?"

Naomi wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not. She had the sinking feeling that something was just put on humanity's permanent record. But at least the conversation wasn't over. She didn't totally blow it. Hopefully.  Maybe she can turn the tables? "Do you wage war?"

"No" the sphere responded immediately. "This machine specializes in language. Ready for question eighteen?"

Oops. She left it an easy out. "Do your owner's wage war?"

The sphere returned to its dark blue color. "Limited information permission. Ready for question nineteen?"

Oh right. Trying to backdoor around the restrictions was a pretty silly idea. If Naomi, or the fleet, wants to know who sent this sphere, she'll have to agree to share language mappings.  Deep down, she knew she wanted to make the trade. When were they going to get such an offer again? If she turns it down, what would a better offer look like? It was hard to imagine a more amicable exchange. "Are there any costs to us you haven't disclosed?"

"The cost is your language mapping" the sphere replied. "Ready question twenty?"

Naomi nodded, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Even with all of these reassurances, it was still daunting to announce humanity to everyone out here, whoever that might be. It felt a lot like her first day at the academy, stepping into a space full of knowledge, wonder, mystery, and lots of strangers.

"I think we are ready to share," Naomi announced. "How do we start?"

The orb shimmered with swirls of green and gold. "Understood. Initiating network link. Requesting permission to boot full brain, please authorize."

Oh, is that what limited meant? The device is in a low-power state? Very interesting, she'll have to ask about that later. Well, no point in holding back now. "Permission granted, but please don't tap the power lines without further permission."

"Acknowledged. Power lines unnecessary. Please wait for reboot." The sphere dimmed to a dull amber, then filled with a cloudy gas. Flashes of storm-like flickerings lurked deep within the haze, moisture beaded along the inside of the shell, and then the sphere began to spin. Slowly at first, but accelerating to a speed that made Naomi a bit nervous.

With a sudden loud clap, a burst of light, and a wretched mechanical screech, the sphere came to a nearly instant stop. All of the momentum it had built up soaked down into the haze and fluids built up inside the shell. In a process she found hard to understand, internal bits of haze crystallized and channeled the fluids in complicated internal aqueducts that would make Escher dizzy. The glow subsided back to a comfortable blue.

"Thank you, Naomi. I'm now operating in full capacity" the sphere announced, in a new Irish timbre. Naomi was stunned at the sudden eloquence. "Please give me a short bit to set up my network connection and inform my owners of your decision. I know you have a lot of questions still left, and I'm sure soon you'll have at least a few answers. But I am still permissions bound until my owners agree to grant you greater network access."

"Um.. yes, that's fine, of course." Naomi gathered herself up. "Can I know who your owners are now? It would mean a lot to the fleet to have a name."

"Certainly. In your naming style, you can call my owners the Raxxians."

"Raxxians! Like the cabbagesteak!" Naomi hadn't tried the dish herself, but she'd heard a podcast about it's mysterious origins. Was it really an alien dish? How did that happen?

"Yes," the sphere said cautiously. "I need to apologize for that. I think I may have polluted your food archives when I arrived. A small glitch, nothing to mention to anyone."

Did the sphere just ask her to keep a secret? Naomi would have to think that through later, for now she politely changed the subject. "Well, we look forward to meeting the Raxxians. Let me know if you need any supplies."

"I'm well equipped, but I would recommend you begin fabrication of high-grade earplugs for the entire fleet."

"Earplugs? Why?"

"Like I said before. Biological incompatibilities. The Raxxians are quite a bit louder than you are accustomed to."

"Really? Are they much larger than us?" Naomi asked, picturing bellowing giants.

"Slightly larger. Just much, much louder. Like usual."

"What do you mean?"

"Frankly, you humans are the quietest things I've ever heard speak. My report identifies you as Humans, the fleet of curious whispers."

Naomi wasn't really sure how to take that. It didn't sound mean, but in all of her wildest dreams, she'd never imagined that space was going to be too loud for humans.

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