Explaining Cosmic Loneliness — The Technological Singularity and Confounding Scenarios
by T. Reyes
NDERGROUND, thank you for the response to my my article on the Technological Singularity and Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Yours has prompted me to respond in kind and consider again the Fermi Paradox: “Where is everybody?”
The Fermi Paradox was first exclaimed by Enrico Fermi during break time at Los Alamos as he and the crème de la crème of scientists created the first atomic bomb to assure that the Allies had one first before Nazi Germany. “Where is everybody?” meant that despite 100s of billions of stars within a galaxy and likewise 100s of billlions of galaxies in a Universe over twice as old as our Solar System, there is no sign of any other civilizations in the Universe; just ours.
This begins a follow-on to the article The Singularity can explain why we seem alone in the Universe. NDERGROUND begins a response to the article as follows:
NDERGROUND”An artificial intelligence singularity does not necessarily imply that there would be no civilizations that make use of stars or star clusters to power a civilization.” [link]
I would agree that we cannot exclude the possibility that a Technological Singularity is a passage point that a civilization might circumvent. If there are many technological civilizations in our galaxy, then the possibility exists that one avoided creation of a superior AI that suddenly and quickly changed the course of their history and fate.
My original article conceded this point. NDERGROUND in comment to the article emphasizes scenarios from science fiction and otherwise where advanced minds or self-aware AI could choose to take advantage of vast and powerful resources such as whole stars or star clusters.
The poster boy for this scenario is Freeman Dyson’s “Dyson Sphere”. Presently, a new study has been published based on historical records of the Kepler star — KIC 8462852 — with light emission curves hard to explain by natural processes. A century of astronomical records revealed that this star has had long term light fluctuations that would make giant comets or massive dust bands, considered the most likely natural explanations, quite unlikely. All natural explanations are falling short which is leaving the least likely scenario — the signature of a powerful civilization — as a remaining possibility.
While it is exciting that Kepler has discovered such an unusual star besides thousands of planets implying that the galaxy holds trillions, finding just one civilization within the 150,000 stars studied in the Kepler field would mean something extraordinary. Statistically, it would mean that there is a similar advanced race within 200 light-years of Earth! This is very close and while there would be one advanced race, there would be more less-advanced ones perhaps spewing out radio wave communications, laser light or observable waste products of industry. Yet, we have found none at all. Finding one civilization within the Kepler field is contrary to the picture we have so far — a Universe that shows no signs of advanced intelligence except our own… if you choose to look at humankind so kindly.
NDERGROUND also reminds us that simpler self-replicating, mindless, automatons could quickly — a few thousand or million years — occupy a whole galaxy.
These are confounding scenarios that have not been realized by numerous SETI searches of the Universe. No mega-structures have been revealed by careful searches of the Cosmos. The problem may still be in our hands, in that our means of performing the search may still be too crude; our telescopes and electronic sensors still a bit too weak.
Consider first the possibility of automatons populating a galaxy. Insight might be found by looking at exponential growth of bacteria. A bacterium can be considered a self-replicating automaton. Exponential growth continues until some critical nutrient is exhausted. What would constrain the growth, exponential or otherwise, of automata expanding across a galaxy or even the whole universe? There are several.
Consider also the discovery by Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann — Cellular Automaton and von Neumann’s Universal Constructor. Since Von Neumann (Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata), several more automata models have been invented. The mathematical study and development of automata has revealed that the constraints and necessary states for a constructor — self-replicating — machine are complex. Consider that despite millions of years, biological automata such as bacteria did not populate every niche of Earth environment without unimaginable numbers of life-cycles and variations through evolution. The thought that one can just send off an automaton into space to replicate and reach every star in the galaxy is likely short-sighted.
If the automaton is lacking adaptability, a potential to evolve, then its inconceivable that its creator could have accounted for all possibilities, all challenges the machine would encounter in replicating and expanding forever. Von Neumann emphasized the naturalness of error in computation and automata and that we presently manage error in our present computing systems and automata improperly.
Automata can be conceived that evolve and adapt to challenging conditions. By so doing, the self-replicating and evolving machine would need analytical capabilities to problem solve while retaining some prime objective. However, like bacteria, it is possible that while having adaptability, it may not be sufficient to overcome all obstacles. For example, extreme and sudden heat sterilizes bacteria. An analogous scenario for interstellar automaton would be gamma-ray bursts or supernova explosions.
Alternatively, the automaton could be made very adaptable. In such a case, the machines would be prone through adaptation and “mutation” [errors transferred through replication] to evolve into truly AI and achieve its own Singularity all on its own.
Furthermore, consider that logic and optimization are inseparable partners for any intelligence. The consequence would be that rather than expand and consume immeasurably, it rather chooses optimization which leads to efficiency. This is what I am inclined to believe happens and what is a principal argument in my original article. Achieving harmony with the Cosmos to live long and prosper as a race leads to efficient approaches to utilizing space, matter and energy.
The obstacles facing an automata expanding throughout a galaxy are formidable. NDERGROUND focuses on self-aware biological or artificial intelligence that would choose to utilize vast amounts of matter and energy. It is what every SETI search has been counting on.
The Human Race could undertake this scenario. We are first eyeing a vast resource of near-Earth asteroids and a F-type star we call the Sun. Together, they represent the materials and energy needed to support hundreds of billions of human lives for millions of years.
At the same time we are accelerating towards some technological singularity. John Von Neumann, 1957, “Ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
As we are accelerating, without much effort, a hundred years of accelerated population growth is now slowing down. Overall consumption is still growing but efficiency is cutting into that growth. It is expanding our minds, our intelligence. In doing so, we are choosing to function more efficiently.
Consider NDERGROUND’s counterpoint to my original article in the form of the possibility that humankind expands into space without questioning consequences; expanding and consuming resources without end. We realize a near endless access to resources and choose to throw caution to the wind.
Despite our potential to go forth and prosper, multiply, there is no sign of any automaton, of no ET AI or of a superior civilization, just a few million years ahead of us, consuming and expanding throughout the Universe.
It is appearing that long-term survival of our species is not expansive use of matter and energy, to ever larger scales, but might rather involve a path using optimization and logical thinking that leads to thrift and efficiency. A side-effect of this choice is that the successful civilizations become difficult to detect.
One must question whether any advanced sentient intelligence— biological or artificial — would choose a path akin to bacteria thriving in a petri dish. For automata, simple or complex, or intelligent sentient life or machines, retaining a prime objective of expanding throughout a galaxy over many replications or generations is a problem we have yet to solve.
While one would think there should be exceptions and there should be civilizations that expand to huge populations with individual consumption far greater than we imagine, it may be a very rare exception of a phenomenon that appears to be rare in itself — emergence of intelligent life. Is KIC 8462852 the exception? I would not hold your breadth albeit it is more fun and exciting than many science fiction plots.