Regular Contrarian readers may have noticed the healthy number of links to Sentient Developments over the years. The reason is simple: SD manages to explain complex subjects in plain terms, but never at the expense of the ethical implications of evolutionary technologies. This is great for a layman like myself, who can grasp Big Concepts, but lacks the training to parse purely technical treatises.
SD proprietor George Dvorsky recently brought on his first-ever guest blogger — Australian writer, philosopher, and critic Russell Blackford. (George promises to invite more guest contributors, which should be interesting.)
Enrico Fermi observed that there seems to be a contradiction between the fact that we have not encountered alien civilizations and facts about the scale of the universe (and, indeed, our own galaxy). The vastness of space, the enormous number of stars and planets, and the age of the stars all add up to a presumption that there should be plenty of life Out There, some of it much older than life on Earth. If there are intelligent beings in space that began with millions of years of head start over us, why don’t they have technological civilizations far more advanced than our own? But if they do, why have we never encountered such things as alien space craft, probes, or radio signals?
Good question, and one for which there are, to date, no elegant answers. Plenty of suppositions, sure — but nothing to explain why we’re floating cold and alone on our wee blue ball. I’m not gonna get into von Neumann probes or Astrochickens, but let’s just say that math says we should’ve been contacted by someone or something by now.
Might it be that creating space craft that can travel reliably at even 1 per cent of the speed of light is harder than we assume? Or maybe advanced technological civilizations tend to destroy themselves? Or do they tend to stop expanding their populations, as human beings are doing? We’re really guessing.
The most pessimistic solution is that they tend to destroy themselves. From the point of view of our own species, that solution would suggest that our self-destruction lies ahead. If we discover life elsewhere, then, it’s bad news: the more common life is, the more common technological civilizations should be, and hence the more likely it is that the reason we don’t see them is that they destroy themselves. QED.
. . .I don’t think that’s the best way to look at it. There are other possibilities. Perhaps technological civilizations tend to reach a technological singularity point, at which stage they are transformed so comprehensively and deeply that we wouldn’t even recognize them. They might miniaturize themselves in some way that makes expansion into space pointless, or they might switch over to some kind of substrate that we would never recognize as a form of life (partly, no doubt, for their own convenience, but perhaps partly to avoid interfering with vulnerable civilizations at our level).
Or maybe our technology has limitations after all:
We might also be impressed by the now-embarrassing question, “Dude, where’s my jet car?” It sometimes seems that, even as the power of computer hardware continues to follow Moore’s Law, progress in what we can actually do with it seems to be slowing down. “Where’s my robot maid?” If so, human technological potential may be limited, and we need to imagine the future of the world with bounded horizons. Not that that need lead to crippling pessimism – it would not demonstrate our inability to produce great advances in, say, health and life span. What is and is not possible may be different from what we intuit in advance.
And that’s just Part One. The second installment looks at the Drake Equation — a kind of “uncertainty meter” for determining how many ETIs we may or may not come in contact with. But why should we be the sole arbiters of intelligence in the Universe? I call anthropic bias! Still, Blackford finds some cold comfort in Drake’s:
Some of the fractions that feed into the Drake equation may be very small indeed, so small as to make technologically advanced species, and the civilisations they create, incredibly rare. It’s consistent with what we now know that the conditions required for life to form are extremely fortuitous and unusual. It may need very rare combinations of environmental factors. And even then, you can have life staying at levels of neurological complexity that don’t lead to technology.
We know that life can stay at levels of intelligence well below our own pretty much indefinitely. If not for one or more catastrophic events at the end of the Cretaceous Period, including the bolide impact that caused the Chicxulub Crater, Earth might still be dominated by dinosaurs, which might not have developed any impressive levels of intelligence. They hadn’t done so in the previous 150-odd million years, so there’s no reason to think they would have in the past 65 million years.
So maybe we’re gonna be stuck at this general level of development for some time. Oh, well. I might not be able to upload my consciousness to be downloaded at the other end of the galaxy, but at least I have an iPhone!