Should we ever detect an extraterrestrial civilization, or any kind of alien life for that matter, it's a safe bet they'll look very different from us. They'll also probably think in a way that's completely foreign to what we're used to. Here's how experts believe we might be able to predict what the minds of aliens will be like.
Intelligence has historically been studied by comparing nonhuman cognitive and language abilities with human abilities. Primate-like species, which show human-like anatomy and share evolutionary lineage, have been the most studied. However, when comparing animals of non-primate origins our abilities to profile the potential for intelligence remains inadequate.
Historically our measures for nonhuman intelligence have included a variety of tools: (1) physical measurements – brain to body ratio, brain structure/convolution/neural density, presence of artifacts and physical tools, (2) observational and sensory measurements – sensory signals, complexity of signals, cross-modal abilities, social complexity, (3) data mining – information theory, signal/noise, pattern recognition, (4) experimentation – memory, cognition, language comprehension/use, theory of mind, (5) direct interfaces – one way and two way interfaces with primates, dolphins, birds and (6) accidental interactions – human/animal symbiosis, cross-species enculturation. Because humans tend to focus on “human-like” attributes and measures and scientists are often unwilling to consider other “types” of intelligence that may not be human equated, our abilities to profile “types” of intelligence that differ on a variety of scales is weak. Just as biologists stretch their definitions of life to look at extremophiles in unusual conditions, so must we stretch our descriptions of types of minds and begin profiling, rather than equating, other life forms we may encounter.
COMPLEX (COmplexity of Markers for Profiling Life in EXobiology) offers a new approach to profile a variety of organisms along multiple dimensions including EQ – Encephalization Quotient, CS – Communication Signal complexity, IC – Individual Complexity, SC – Social Complexity and II – Interspecies Interaction. Because Earth species are found along a variety of continuums, defining an intelligence profile along these different trajectories rather than comparing them only to human intelligence, may give us insight into a potential tool for quickly assessing unknown species. The application of profiling nonhuman species, out of world, will be both observational and potentially interactive in some way. Using profiles and indicators gleaned from Earth species to help us develop profiles and using pattern recognition, modeling and other data mining techniques could help jump start our understanding of other organisms and their potential for certain “types” of intelligence.