Machine Translation

"So we're agreed then," declared Ares, chairman pro tem. Poseidon was having none of it, however.

"We are not agreed. Stop trying to frame the discussion in your terms."

It was Hera who responded. "You have to at least accept that they demonstrate language capability," she said, gently.

"I accept nothing," Posiedon snapped. "On the kind of timescales we're talking about, anything can appear to be intelligence. I've seen crystals that grew in smarter formations. It's natural, that's all; purely at the stimulus:response level."

"On some level that's all of us," replied Ares, quietly. This elicted nothing more than a snort. "What do you think?"

Hercules looked up from his work. "Hmm?" Ares sighed. Hercules had probably triple the intellectual capacity of the rest of the room put together - but because of that, he tended to be the one the higher-ups asked when they wanted a report on something. You would almost feel sorry for the guy if he wasn't such an asshole.

"I said, are you or are you not convinced by the overwhelming evidence of their conversational ability."

"Oh, that. Cast iron." He shook his head. "A man would have to be some kind of idiot to try and deny that."

"Oh yeah? Sure, the" - Posiedon's lip curled - "exobiologists tell us they've had conversations with them. And they even present us with suitably stilted-sounding little snippets. Translated, of course - after all, no one who hasn't studied exobiology for five years could possibly comprehend their language."

"I've taught myself a little," said Ares smoothly, with a confident smile. "Not enough to be able to translate it by myself, but I can follow a lot of what's going on. There doesn't seem to be any distortion going on."

Hera looked suitably impressed, but Posiedon recovered instantly. "You've learned to read the patterns? Or to translate the notation the exobiologists have transcribed them in - accurately and neutrally, of course."

Ares was struggling to frame a reply, but Hercules spared him the bother. "You're saying they're lying? They're Company men too, and I don't think they'd take kindly to hearing that." Ares gritted his teeth. Having Hercules on his side was prefferable to not, but only just.

Posiedon simply rolled his eyes. "Of course I'm not suggesting any deliberate deception. Merely that they by the nature of their profession have a strong vested interest in there being intelligent beings to contact, and so this might cause them to, entirely unconsciously, interpret ambiguous results in a way more favourable to that. "Unusual alien lifeforms make random noise" doesn't get you published."

"He's right," said Hera, unexpectedly. "Even if you assume no misguided motivations, how many hours of attempted conversation have there been?"

They all had the figures. That is, they all knew how many departments were working on this, how many students in each, the estimated budgets... Ares announced his conclusion first.

"700 hours, tops." A few moments later Posiedon shrugged. "Yeah, I came up with less than that. So if we assume everything is random, taking into account the rate of the communication method and how much it takes to look like a typical "conversation" example, we'd expect that to produce... well, easily more than 50 megabytes of information, right?"

"Big deal," drawled Hercules. "There are 120 megabytes of published transcripts, right?"

Posiedon prepared to bring the hammer down, but Ares was faster. "No, that's not the same thing. The encoding they use is optimized for easy transcription, not data size. In fact it compresses to..." Posiedon was gracious in victory, waiting for Ares to run through the calculation himself. "About 50%," he concluded. "60 megabytes. It's chance, nothing more."

"We'd have to run through the calculation more precisely to be sure of that," offered Posiedon, but Ares waved him away.

"No, no. I mean yes, we should do that, but I'm not going to cling bitterly to my position until it becomes completely indefensible. I was wrong; they're not intelligent after all."

"Screw you guys," said Hercules, and stomped off to try and talk to the humans.