About Earth Speaks

Principal Investigator: Douglas A. Vakoch, Ph.D.

Project Overview

As the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) begins a new phase of research with its galactic plane survey, the chances of detecting a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization increases considerably. If we do detect an extraterrestrial civilization, one of the most pressing issues facing humankind will be “Should we reply, and if so, what should we say?” For many years, the SETI Institute has engaged scholars from a range of disciplines in addressing this issue, through a series of workshops that broadly examined the cultural aspects of SETI [1], as well as through international workshops and conference symposia  more narrowly focused in interstellar messages (e.g., Art & Science of Interstellar Message Composition and Encoding Altruism.) None of those venues, however, solicited broad-based input from the global community, although it is often noted that a reply from Earth should be sent on behalf of all of humankind.

Building on an infrastructure that the SETI Institute used to gather over 50,000 messages from around the world to send onboard the Kepler mission in a DVD, “Earth Speaks” will invite people to submit online their text messages, pictures, and sounds, as they ponder what they would want to say to an extraterrestrial civilization. Participants for the study will be recruited globally, from all walks of life.

“Earth Speaks” will differ from previous efforts to collect messages to extraterrestrials in several ways. Unlike the Planetary Society’s “Messages from Earth” project that collected messages for missions to the Moon and Mars , the SETI Institute’s project will identify the major themes that people address in their messages. The social networking site BEBO’s “Message from Earth” did group submissions into predefined categories, and a captioning option allowed message submitters to label or describe their submissions.

The SETI Institute’s project will go further, however, by identifying clusters of similar messages through “tagging,” in which message submitters and others viewing the messages will provide labels that summarize the content of each message. The current study will build upon an approach described by the Principal Investigator (PI), in which the content of a sample of greetings onboard the Voyager interstellar recording was analyzed by rating the similarity of these greetings to one another. The current project uses the logic of this approach, but makes novel use of new information technologies to gather input through online interfaces, allowing participants globally to both produce and categorize message content.

By tracking demographic variables for each person submitting a message, we will be able to identify commonalities and differences in message content that are related to such factors as nationality, age, and gender. Rather than trying to identify a unified “Message from Earth,” the current project will help understand differing perspectives on the appropriate content of interstellar messages, drawing on the PI’s Dialogic Model for interstellar message design [3]. As a result, “Earth Speaks” will provide a more broadly representative view of our species than previous messages.

Study Protocol

1. Prospective participants will be required to electronically sign an informed consent form.

2. All participants will be required to authenticate their accounts by responding to an email sent to their preferred email account.

3. To protect study participants, which will include children, web pages will not allow direct access between people submitting messages.  

4. The interface will allow submission of messages in the form of text, sounds, and images. 

5. No messages will be posted online until someone has screened them. In the earliest stages, the PI will do this, letting us post a sampling of messages soon after the project goes live. We will also establish a mechanism to recruit volunteers to assist with screening; these volunteers will be monitored by the PI. Screening guidelines will be along the lines of standard online guidelines.

6. In the earliest stage of deployment, we will simply capture people's messages, along with their tags. Later we will display select messages. Yet later we will show groups of related messages (initially, based on tags the message creators gave their messages). Yet later we expect to develop a game to elicit more nuanced tags (along the lines of http://images.google.com/imagelabeler/).

7. At a later stage of the project, participants will be asked to respond to surveys to assess their attitudes about extraterrestrial life and interstellar communication.



1. Billingham, J., Heynes, R., Milne, D, Doyle, S., Klein, M., Heilbron, J., Ashkenazi, M., Michaud, M., Lutz, J., & Shostak, S., Eds. (1999). Social implications of the detection of an extraterrestrial civilization: A report of the Workshops on the Cultural Aspects of SETI. Mountain View, CA: SETI Press.

2. Vakoch, D. A. (2001). Towards India: Interstellare Botschaften. In Cimerman, Z. and Ammann, D., Eds., All Design - Leben im schwerelosen Raum [Space Design – Life in Zero Gravity] (pp. 248-263). Basel: Schwabe.

3. D.A. Vakoch (1998), The Dialogic Model: Representing human diversity in messages to extraterrestrials, Acta Astronautica. 42, no. 10-12 (1998) 705-710.