Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Fermi paradox and virtuality

The Fermi paradox is the well-know problem that the galaxy should be full of alien life. Once one civilisation masters adjacent-star interstellar colonisation (hard but not impossible) it’s only a few million years to colonise the whole galaxy. So where are they? Why aren’t they here? Why does the galaxy seem devoid of artificiality through the best telescopes public funding can buy?

Books and books have been written about this, though the Wikipedia article here has a pretty good overview. Broadly speaking there are three layers of explanation.

1. Alien life is not out there at all - the evolution of human-equivalent intelligent societies anywhere else is just too unlikely and hard.

2. Yes, there is intelligent life out there but they don’t want to do interstellar migration.

3. They do want to, but star flight and terraforming is, despite appearances, just too hard.

4. They do want to, and it would in principle be possible, but some covert predatory entity destroys them when they try, so they’re all keeping whatever passes for their heads down.

To be honest, I don’t really buy any of the above. Despite his meandering and autodidactic style, I think John Smart has the right idea here. Recast in plain language, this is what I think he’s getting at.

Reflecting our evolutionary and cultural past, we are quite comfortable with moving our bodies around to meet various biological requirements - foraging and the like. Technology has recently given us movable caves (cars, ships, spacecraft). As we assess the future we see bigger and better interstellar space-caves taking us to the stars, and we wonder why we don’t see the dust of the space-caves of earlier alien migratory hordes moving into our bit of the space-prairie.

A more fundamental reality than all this primate-wanderlust-stuff is the brain functioning which makes it all possible. Our brains themselves know nothing of geography other than the simulations they compute from diverse sensory inputs. All those expansionary actions and desires are themselves the conscious enjoyment or otherwise of sub-conscious perceptual, effectual and emotional brain processes helpfully designed-in by evolution.

Once we have a good theory and technology for replicating all this as well as impossibly-sophisticated virtual environments, (surely only a few hundred years away), we will henceforth turn our backs on the raw universe.

I mean, let’s get real: what a crummy desert the basic universe is! Most non-geeks (i.e. people) would be interested in being on any non-Earth planet for all of, well let’s say 90 seconds. Living in virtuality will be so much more entertaining and fulfilling, as Iain Banks so accurately predicted in Excession, with the Land of Infinite Fun.

So if it was me, I’d start with a good place to unobtrusively and securely site the computing clusters, with lots of redundancy and backup (Mercury might be a good idea - lots of solar energy and not much climate) . Then I’d have a bunch of robots with powerful manipulation and defensive capabilities just to run operations and technical support, keep underlying physical reality under control and surveil the neighbourhood. Then let a quadrillion civilisations bloom in virtuality!

I might send out some pretty discreet, stealthed probes for research purposes, but galactic empire building? What would be the point?