SETI at the Particle Level

by Paul Gilster on February 12, 2014

A big reason why the Fermi paradox has punch is the matter of time. Max Tegmark gets into this in his excellent new book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Knopf, 2014), where he runs through what many thinkers on the subject have noted: Our Sun is young enough that countless stars and the planets that orbit them must have offered homes for life long before we ever appeared. With at least a several billion year head start, wouldn’t intelligent life have had time to spread, and shouldn’t its existence be perfectly obvious by now?

Tegmark’s book is fascinating, and if you’re interested in learning why this dazzling theorist thinks it likely we are the only intelligent life not just in our galaxy but in our universe, I commend it to you (although Fermi issues play only the tiniest of roles in its overall themes). I’ll have plenty of occasion to get into Tegmark’s ideas about what he believes to be not just a multiverse but a multiply-staged multiverse (i.e., four different kinds of multiverse) in coming days. But today I want to look at yet another Fermi speculation, this one by the Australian artificial intelligence researcher Hugo de Garis.

m81_2_

Image: The spiral galaxy M81 would seem to offer countless possible environments for life. But is there a SETI case to be made not just on the galactic level, but on the level of the very small? Image credit & copyright: Giovanni Benintende.

If SETI is giving us no evidence of extraterrestrials, maybe it’s because we’re looking on too large a scale. What if, in other words, truly advanced intelligence, having long ago taken to non-biological form, finds ways to maximize technology on the level of the very small? Thus de Garis’ interest in femtotech, a technology at the level of 10-15 meters. The idea is to use the properties of quarks and gluons to compute at this scale, where in terms of sheer processing power the improvement in performance is a factor of a trillion trillion over what we can extrapolate for nanotech.

I leave you to the two de Garis essays listed at the end of this article for the particulars on how this might be accomplished, including thoughts on moving beyond femtotech to ‘attotech’ and even what he calls ‘zeptotech’ (using possibly existing force particles that would mediate the grand unified force of the electroweak force and the color force; i.e., the strong nuclear force). It turns out that the vast improvement from nanotech to femtotech is based on factors like the density being a million cubed times greater, while the signaling speed between femto components would be a million times faster because such components are so much closer together, and so on.

If artilects are the future of biological life forms — their successors, actually — then wouldn’t there be pressure to gradually downgrade to nanotech scale (nanolects) and eventually to femtotech levels? Such a ‘downgrade’ is actually an upgrade, of course, and continuing to downgrade as far as possible would only make sense as long as huge performance gains can be achieved.

Thus de Garis’ conclusion (the italics are his):

The hyper intelligences that are billions of years older than we are in our universe (which is about 3 times older than our sun), have probably “downgraded” themselves to achieve hugely greater performance levels. Whole civilizations may be living inside volumes the size of nucleons or smaller.

Given this perspective, conventional SETI through radio or even Dysonian methods (i.e., looking for the signatures of macro-engineering, as recently discussed in these pages in Jason Wright’s Glimpsing Heat from Alien Technologies) begins to look incomplete. Indeed, de Garis refers to it as ‘provincial,’ arguing that while he would not want the SETI effort to be canceled, he does believe that any radio-emitting civilizations out there are most likely not the most intelligent beings in the universe. To find the truly advanced civilizations, we would need to look on the level of the very small:

Therefore I recommend that humanity start thinking about ways to detect their presence. We need a SIPI, a Search for Infra Particle Intelligence. For example, why are the elementary particles such “carbon copies” of each other, for each particle type? Once one starts “seeing” intelligence in elementary particles, it changes the way one looks at them, and the way one interprets the laws of nature, and the interpretation of quantum mechanics, etc. It’s a real paradigm shift away from looking for non human intelligence in outer space, to looking for it in inner space, i.e. SIPI.

I remember lively discussions with several fellow writers over the years on the question of whether we might miss an extraterrestrial civilization’s signature because it was small. Indeed, one colleague speculated, the Earth itself could be under intense observation through a nanotechnology network that would be completely outside our range of observation. Where SIPI brings us is into a realm where even nanotech seems like a bulky and rather clumsy way to proceed. It’s a Fermi solution wild enough to galvanize many a future SETI conversation.

The relevant essays are de Garis, “Femtotech: Computing at the Femtometer Scale
Using Quarks and Gluons” (full text available at kurzweilai.net) and “X-Tech and the Search for Infra Particle Intelligence” (available at h+ Magazine).

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{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex Tolley February 12, 2014 at 11:51

Isn’t this the theme of “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957), which in turn is based on SF stories like “The Girl in the Golden Atom” (1923) by Ray Cummings?

Once you posit intelligence at the atomic scale, then it is but a short leap to posit that these intelligences are networked into a super-intelligence, which leads you to beliefs in living personal gods, animism, etc.

Ronald February 12, 2014 at 12:45

The Femtotech hypothesis is a fascinating theory, and I love good and daring theory, however, it all hinges on one big and totally unfounded assumption: that an advanced civilization would want to proceed into the minuscule and that (biological) consciousness can exist at that level.

With regard to Tegmark and his fundamental question “With at least a several billion year head start, wouldn’t intelligent life have had time to spread, and shouldn’t its existence be perfectly obvious by now?”, that sounds like just classical Fermi.

Anthony Mugan February 12, 2014 at 13:30

A fascinating idea. I can’t help wondering of the risk to such a universe in a particle of some lumbering giant like us coming along and sticking your universe in a particle accelerator!

ljk February 12, 2014 at 14:07

To quote from the main article:

“Tegmark’s book [Our Mathematical Universe] is fascinating, and if you’re interested in learning why this dazzling theorist thinks it likely we are the only intelligent life not just in our galaxy but in our universe, I commend it to you (although Fermi issues play only the tiniest of roles in its overall themes).”

My initial instinct was to say that if we are the only intelligent life in the Universe, then it is an awful waste of space (ala Contact). Then I realized this comment is only true if intelligent beings are the focal point of the Universe. If they are, they certainly do not seem to be making much of a physical dent as far as we can see.

I know, it might be utterly subtle behind-the-scenes stuff – the whole point of this piece – that we may be too limited in our intellects and experience to understand and appreciate. But still the dominant objects in the observable (visible at our optical wavelengths) Universe seem to be galaxies, lots of them on grand scales in massive clusters. Regarding Dark Matter and Dark Energy, which supposedly make up most of our actual reality, the debates as to their reality continue to carry on. At the very least, neither are visible to our organic eyes.

However, even they fade into a distant blur once you get far enough out into the Cosmos (ala Powers of Ten). In any case, it can be agreed that comparing the human species and its home planet to most other celestial objects physically, we are anything but significant on a cosmic scale. I suspect this is the case for most other life forms throughout space, intelligent and otherwise.

As for Tegmark’s comment, as this blog shows below, he is speculating:

http://lexfridman.com/blogs/thoughts/tag/max-tegmark/

I know the media and general public tend to get all worshippy and gullible when an expert – especially if they have anything to physics and cosmology and come from a Major Institution – makes a pronouncement on something they tend to be unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, it should be clear that while Tegmark is a smart guy, he is no more of an expert on ETI than anyone else.

A similar thing happened in 2010 when Stephen Hawking said that ETI might want to conquer humanity if we ever met. Even though his scenario sounded a lot like the plot from the 1996 science fiction film Independence Day, the media and masses went ooh and aah at Hawking’s Pronouncement. I addressed this very issue here:

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=14703

and here:

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=14754

How ironic that when Hawking then said there probably was no God, the same bunch who bought into his views on alien invaders suddenly found the academic to be flawed in his thinking on the subject if not downright wrong and corrupting of society. And how quickly the media forgets in light of his recently perceived diatribe that black holes do not exist that he also admitted to a major error in regards to side celestial bodies.

Anyway, Tegmark is entitled to his opinion on the subject but as I have said in Centauri Dreams and elsewhere many times before, it is too soon to know if we are alone or not in the Universe. We know way too little and as I and others have shown, current and past SETI have largely been aimed at beings not terribly different from us, often deliberately ignoring many of the factors that show just how alien an alien race would be from us. Funny how Tegmark can also imagine an infinite number of whole alternate universes but a few aliens next door is just too much to be real.

And again, while I do not know much of Tegmark’s background, I am wondering how much of this attitude stems from non-scientific thinking? I am reminded of how Henry David Thoreau came up against the leading thinkers of his day in regards to biology and geology. The hired experts based their views on the Bible, which meant that species stayed the same and in the same place until God decided to remove them. Thoreau, who was an avid reader of one Charles Darwin, did the legwork and discovered just the opposite. Which just shows that society’s proclaimed experts can be just as subjective when it comes to their time and place as anyone else. This includes a fear that a Vast Universe populated by many intelligences may finally render us less than the Special Chosen Ones.

By the way, a prime example of Thoreau’s true expertise in the sciences can be found in this new book, Walden’s Shore by Robert M. Thorson, here:

http://robertthorson.uconn.edu/writing/books/waldens-shore/

Regarding Hugo’s ideas, even if they turn out to be wrong (unless our descendants make them happen), the point is that they make us think outside the box, one which SETI has been sitting in for far too long. The same goes for the ideas of the late Robert Bradbury. Both are true pioneers of our views on alien minds who did not confine themselves to some kind of Star Trek type scenario.

Abelard Lindsey February 12, 2014 at 14:12

I actually find this concept of alien intelligence more credible than the “Star Trek” notion that they are still biological humanoid aliens. Even though I am very skeptical of near-term prospects of sentient AI and anything like the singularity, all of these possibilities are likely over a time period of millions of years.

Any intelligent species that is millions of years more advanced than us are unlikely to exist in the kind of biological forms that we currently exist in.

FrankH February 12, 2014 at 16:18

Tegmark is a good scientist, but some of his multiverse ideas are untestable, un-falsifiable and just not science. Peter Woit has a review, which is worth reading: http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=6551

As for the idea that life in the Galaxy has a several billion year head start… it’ll take several billion years for the Galaxy to be seeded with enough heavier elements to make life possible. We may not be the first planet with life, but we could be the first planet with intelligence; someone has to be first and it could be us.

John Gallagher February 12, 2014 at 17:05

Could it be that these hidden civilizations have been in contact with us all along ? Is this just another way to say angles and demons ? This type of speculation always leads into the occult. Rick Strassman and others have written about “machine insect” entities encountered under the influence of DMT. Maybe Timothy Leary was on to something! Just having fun of course.
See where this kind of speculation can lead. Then again I suppose its no worse than string and multi universe concepts.

Tulse February 12, 2014 at 17:48

What if, in other words, truly advanced intelligence, having long ago taken to non-biological form, finds ways to maximize technology on the level of the very small?

Even if that is technologically possible, presumably among all the civilizations in the universe there should still be those that have not advanced to that level but are nonetheless detectable by us. I don’t see how this actually solves the Fermi Paradox.

Whole civilizations may be living inside volumes the size of nucleons or smaller

…and thus could be wiped out by a single cosmic ray? That seems like a profoundly precarious existence.

Wojciech J February 12, 2014 at 19:01

De Garis is right on spot in regards to SETI.
We are trying to imagine Aliens in terms of what our civilization will look like in 500, maybe 5000 years-interstellar colonies,maybe Dyson Spheres.
But geology and statistics are on the side of the argument that any other alien civilization would be rather 50 million or 500 million years older or younger than us(in the second case it mean probably non-existent). Can we imagine what such civilization would be capable or interested in? Certainly trying to colonize interesting and unique biospheres and landscapes seems…plain and banal for such a civilization and its abilities.
That’s why searching for its left-over artifacts on mega-scale or signs of technological activity seems more logical.
In any case I wouldn’t expect them to seek to colonize the universe. Even our young civilization already has voices against it.

Thomas Mazanec February 12, 2014 at 19:57

The h+ link says “not found”.

Andrew Palfreyman February 12, 2014 at 20:15

The late great Douglas Adams thus:

After millennia of battle the surviving G’Gugvuntt and Vl’hurg realised what had actually happened, and joined forces to attack the Milky Way in retaliation. They crossed vast reaches of space in a journey lasting thousands of years before reaching their target where they attacked the first planet they encountered, Earth. Due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was swallowed by a small dog. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy states that this sort of thing happens all the time.

Paul Gilster February 12, 2014 at 20:41

Thomas Mazanec writes:

The h+ link says “not found”.

Odd! It was working this morning. Try this slightly different version of the same paper until the other link comes back up:

http://profhugodegaris.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/sipisearchinfraparticleintelligence1.pdf

tchernik February 12, 2014 at 21:01

That flaw with the article’s argument lies in the falsifiability of life and computation at the scales mentioned.

We know life is possible at our scale. And we know computation can be carried at devices producible at our scale. We have proof by existence of both (us and our computers).

We don’t know if we can build femto/attotech computers, and even less femto/atto-scale AIs and living things.

Therefore, looking for femto-scale or below intelligence is not science, not even rational speculation as of now. This could change when we can prove without the shadow of a doubt that femto-scale computing is possible.

But right now is just as idle as thinking about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or how many turtles are there, all the way down.

Max Tegmark February 12, 2014 at 21:11

Thanks for these interesting comments!
ljk: What Paul Gilster is referring to isn’t that old blog post, but what I wrote more recently in my book ( http://mathematicaluniverse.org ), where I make a quantitative estimate factoring in the size of our observable universe, etc. That said, I totally agree with you that we don’t know whether we’re alone in our universe or not. My point was simply that the scientifically most reasonable viewpoint right now is to be agnostic on the issue: we shouldn’t take for granted that there are all those aliens out there who’ll keep intelligence going in our universe if we screw up, and use that as an excuse for continuing our IMHO rather reckless behavior on this planet of ours.

FrankH: Peter Woit is entitled to his opinions, but I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t speak for the entire scientific community. Thanks for raising this important question of whether parallel universes are science or mere speculation! I discuss this question extensively in chapter 6 before starting to explore parallel universes.
First of all, please note that my book does *not* claim that parallel universes exist. Instead, all my arguments involve what logicians know as “modus ponens”: that if X implies Y and X is true, then Y must also be true. Specifically, I argue that if some scientific theory X has enough experimental support for us to take it seriously, then we must take seriously also all its predictions Y, even if these predictions are themselves untestable (involving parallel universes, for example). In other words, I argue that parallel universes are not a scientific theory, but prediction of certain scientific theories. Specifically, I claim that there are four implications:

1) Cosmological inflation generically implies Level I multiverse
2) Inflation + string landscape generically implies Level II multiverse
3) Unitary quantum mechanics implies Level III multiverse
4) The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis implies Level IV multiverse

I’d be interested to hear if you have objections to any specific claims that I make in the book. Would you object to the claims 1), 2), 3) or 4)? Or are you arguing that one of the theories (inflation, say) makes no testable predictions and is therefore unscientific?

David Cummings February 12, 2014 at 21:58

Paul, I think you should invite Max Tegmark to write something for Centauri Dreams. He has a blog on Scientific American and likes to engage the commenters in open discussion.

ljk February 12, 2014 at 22:49

Having read the review of Tegmark’s book thanks to the link FrankH provided above, plus reading many of the comments to that review (including multiple replies from Tegmark himself), I am even more certain now that his opinions on alien life and intelligence are just that – opinions.

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=6551

My other thought that Tegmark has ulterior and non-scientific motives are further enforced by one of his replies that he often does things in direct opposition to being told what to do. If supporting the existence of ETI is what the scientific mainstream is doing right now, then I can see Tegmark becoming a contrarian for the sake of going against the flow, valid or otherwise.

Tegmark’s ideas on multiple universes seem to be on even less solid scientific grounds than any fears those who are reading about Hugo de Garis’ ideas might have. Again, the notion of super small ETI may turn out to be no more than science fiction, but it is the literal thought – as in thinking outside the box – that counts here.

ljk February 12, 2014 at 23:05

John Gallagher said on February 12, 2014 at 17:05:

“Could it be that these hidden civilizations have been in contact with us all along ? Is this just another way to say angles and demons ? This type of speculation always leads into the occult. Rick Strassman and others have written about “machine insect” entities encountered under the influence of DMT. Maybe Timothy Leary was on to something! Just having fun of course.”

We are at a strange point in our history: While modern science and technology have done more for us in terms of understanding the Universe as it really is, there are many people who still think angels and demons exist as literal supernatural beings at the whims of even more powerful beings.

Then again, how much would it take for an advanced ETI to convince humanity that they are mystical entities and forces from a magical realm? The answer: Not much even today.

We have on one hand a gullible general public who puts their literal faith in unseen beings from other realms and is convinced those beings are watching and guiding (or misguiding us). On the other end of the spectrum, we have the educated scientists who in their determination not to get wrapped up in the mysticisms and fantasies of the masses often go too much the other way and assume there is nothing alive and intelligent when it comes to the actions of objects seen in the Cosmos. Both are due to our young species and civilization.

Hopefully as we expand into space these attitudes will change and we will have a full appreciation for what is out there. Otherwise we risk remaining half barbarians with powerful tools and weapons at our disposal.

Speaking of Timothy Leary, what the heck:

http://io9.com/5988180/read-timothy-learys-brain+melting-comic-about-space-migration-and-the-future-of-human-consciousness

Anthony Mugan February 13, 2014 at 4:56

Evolution does not seem to have followed this avenue. Whilst technology may widen options that should give pause for thought. Leaving aside the question of if consciousness could be present in something so small / less complex in a dog eat dog (or battle fleet) universe the answer seems that the need for effective power projection may may be an important consideration.
As has been pointed out above this strategy seems to bring with it some existential risks

Antonio February 13, 2014 at 5:00

I never understood the artilect-based solutions to Fermi paradox. I agree that biological intelligence can evolve to artilects, but… why on earth must the previous biological intelligence dissapear? I mean, these artilect “solutions” remind me of the creationists question “If we descend from apes, why there are still apes?”. I think they are equally flawed. Maybe some biological civilizations are replaced by non-biological civilizations, but it seems improbable that this is always the case.

Brett Bellmore February 13, 2014 at 7:47

I admit my acquaintance with theories of femptotech are somewhat limited. But to the extent I am acquainted with it, it is my impression that it would not produce particularly *efficient* computing devices. Fast? Sure, signals can’t travel any faster than C, and nuclear interactions take place on a very small, fast scale. But. They’re very energetic. Enormously more so than the sorts of interactions we base our computing technology off of.

So, conceivably, you might see a femptotech civilization on the surface of a neutron star, thinking very fast, but gulping down huge amounts of energy to do it, and radiating enormous amounts of waste heat in the process. But any civilization which prioritized logical operations per joule rather than speed at any cost would not go this route.

Femptotech, if feasible, might give us things like elemental transmutation, or the ability to controllably extract energy from all elements except iron. But I don’t think it’s a computing technology.

I may be wrong about this, but that’s my take.

swage February 13, 2014 at 9:52

One major advantage of miniaturization with respect to space exploration is its energy efficiency. You go faster with less energy and this certainly is resource efficient. It seems the transition is inevitable in the long run, as its already happening in our case. The focus shifted from manned missions to robotic ones and even satellites tend to shrink. The direction is clear. Even further down the road molecular assemblers seem to be inevitable for projects of cosmic scope. Interestingly ribosomes fit this description perfectly, which is not technology but biology. However at that level the boundaries between organisms and machines seem a bit blurry. The thought occurs that this kind of “technology” might be widespread, at least deep space spectroscopy turns up the most interesting data related to cosmic dust. Interesting, isn’t it?

torque_xtr February 13, 2014 at 10:19

There could be a serious energetic limitation to such computations. At atomic/electronic level, one cannot compute more efficiently than on the order of one electronvolt per elementary computation (bit state change). But on nucleonic scale minimal difference between bits is defined not by electronic, but by nuclear energetic levels and may be on the order of hundreds of keV or some MeV. This is even worse at the smaller scale because of uncertainty principle, and if a civilization is energy-limited, it would prefer nanotech over any smaller-scale tech, and vice-versa if it is matter-limited but not energy limited like some black-hole users…

ljk February 13, 2014 at 10:49

Antonio said on February 13, 2014 at 5:00:

“I never understood the artilect-based solutions to Fermi paradox. I agree that biological intelligence can evolve to artilects, but… why on earth must the previous biological intelligence dissapear? I mean, these artilect “solutions” remind me of the creationists question “If we descend from apes, why there are still apes?”. I think they are equally flawed. Maybe some biological civilizations are replaced by non-biological civilizations, but it seems improbable that this is always the case.”

I do not think that just because a species turns into or makes Artilects that they all immediately remove their biological ancestors/creators. Some may but I bet there are others that just abandon their forebearers to the planet of their birth. A distant observer would obviously take note of beings building (or becoming) Dyson Shells, manipulating their galaxy, and such over a group of organic beings remaining on one small world.

In the Orion’s Arm universe, the Artilect that “takes over” Earth turns it into a wildlife sanctuary and kicks all the humans of the planet. Well that’s one way to get us to colonize space.

M Mahin February 13, 2014 at 10:57

de Garis asks a very good question by saying, “We need a SIPI, a Search for Infra Particle Intelligence. For example, why are the elementary particles such ‘carbon copies’ of each other, for each particle type? Once one starts ‘seeing’ intelligence in elementary particles, it changes the way one looks at them, and the way one interprets the laws of nature, and the interpretation of quantum mechanics.” But rather than interpreting this as “aliens in our atoms” (quite a laughable interpretation) it is more logical to interpret it as programming that has been part of our universe from the beginning, as discussed at this website: http://www.programmedcosmos.blogspot.com

ljk February 13, 2014 at 11:21

Max Tegmark said on February 12, 2014 at 21:11:

“ljk: What Paul Gilster is referring to isn’t that old blog post, but what I wrote more recently in my book ( http://mathematicaluniverse.org ), where I make a quantitative estimate factoring in the size of our observable universe, etc. That said, I totally agree with you that we don’t know whether we’re alone in our universe or not. My point was simply that the scientifically most reasonable viewpoint right now is to be agnostic on the issue: we shouldn’t take for granted that there are all those aliens out there who’ll keep intelligence going in our universe if we screw up, and use that as an excuse for continuing our IMHO rather reckless behavior on this planet of ours.”

Welcome to Centauri Dreams, Dr. Tegmark. A pleasant surprise.

If there is one aspect of ETI I do not care to support is the notion that superior benevolent aliens are going to come to Earth and solve all our problems. In some ways it seems to be even less of a realistic idea than their usual fictional role of marauding invaders.

I definitely never understood how Carl Sagan thought advanced ETI might be out there beaming all their knowledge into the galaxy for everyone to freely use (his Encyclopaedia Galactica concept). Maybe the rest of the Universe is occupied by altruistic beings all working for the common good, but on this planet sharing vital information with strangers who have the potential to later turn this very information on you for their gain is considered seriously unwise. It would be nice in one sense to think that Earth life and its often competitive and violent behavior is a cosmic fluke, but I have my doubts.

Just as I have my suspicions about friendly angels who hover over us for our own good, I have even greater suspicions about relying on unknown aliens to carry on any works we have done. So for me that is not an issue and anyone who seriously considers this possibility, especially if they are in the SETI business, should rethink their position as soon as possible.

We *will* benefit from the discovery of ETI, but it will more in the sense of finally having more than one data point regarding life in the Universe rather than them sending us information on how to do fast interstellar travel or generate unlimited energy. I could be wrong, but I also think most humans are hung up on being “saved” by special individuals rather than pooling their resources as a group to solve issues. We now have over 7 billion humans on this planet: Imagine what could be done if more of them truly cooperated together for the common good, rather than hope one or two guys will come along and tell everyone what to do and what needs to be done.

All this being said, I still think you should not dismiss the possibility of ETI based on this concern that there are those who assume other intelligences will carry on whatever work a bunch of smart beings need to do in the Universe. Having not had a chance to read your book (I just learned about it yesterday), I hope you have other more pertinent reasons for dismissing aliens than this fear. I believe I may have also uncovered your hidden motive on all this as I speculated earlier.

By the way, there *is* one good reason why we or other civilizations might want to share our knowledge with others in order to preserve our culture: If we were to learn that humanity was doomed in some way, we might want to beam our knowledge and information into deep space at presumably fertile targets. Or perhaps scattershot it since we do not know of any sufficiently advanced ETI yet. I refer you to James Gunn’s science fiction novel The Listeners for just this idea.

A species that has no way to get off its planet or escape its solar system might opt for at least preserving itself in that manner. Since they are doomed their is no worry about being taken advantage of or destroyed by another set of minds. This at least provides some logical reason as opposed to just beaming all that we know into the galaxy and hope all goes well.

That is why I and others have advocated aiming our SETI instruments at supernova and other dying stars among other celestial spots beyond the usual Sol type star systems. Any beings there who lack warp drive may have good reason to suddenly want to share their culture with us and others.

James D. Stilwell February 13, 2014 at 11:51

Bookmarked this special post and the marvelous comments….
I wonder if a race of artilects will develop with the Territorial Imperative intact…..and to what degree they’ll specialize into various kinds….
That a single artilect could assume control of earth is frightening….
Is this letting the genie out of the bottle….
Who here is the Potter and the Pot….
Thus begins a subject of endless branching….
Down the rabbit hole into Wonderland I go….JDS

Peter Popov February 13, 2014 at 14:51

Mr. de Garis’ speculations are nothing more than a publicity stunt, certainly nothing that has to do with science. The idea that one can have technology based on the strong interaction by itself is nothing new. Nuclear weapons are one example. What is ludicrous is the argument that since the strong force deals with standard model particles, therefore one can make machines the size of an atomic nucleus.

The same game was tried with Nanotechnology. Since the electromagnetic interactions deals with atoms, once can therefore scale down machines to an atomic size. The problem with all such concepts is that the ENTHROPY INEQUALITY, a.k.a. second law of thermodynamics generally prohibits most concepts of such things doing something useful. Example: In principle, now, as we read this blog, one can design, for example, a mechanical gear box several hundred atoms across. In principle one can manufacture it tonight, the fabrication facilities do exist. But, it is not going to work as expected, because of the second law of thermodynamics: thermal noise will cause all such components to wobble back and forth rather than rotating in certain direction. If you throw in quantum mechanics, the position of any part of your component will be uncertain, so …. I hope you get the point.

Now, prior to someone producing nanomachines which do something useful and do not create chaos (increase entropy), and do not require a planet-wide human-scaled industrial infrastructure to support their production (self replicating?) then I believe talk of zepto-technologic aliens is somewhat premature.

In general, this kind of wild speculations of pico-, zepto-, and whatever technology, civilizations the size of atoms and so on are PURE EVIL. I can understand that people seek publicity, so they come up with fascinating concepts – positronic robots, strings and (mem)branes, elevators to space, etc. As long as these things remain publicity stunts, the it is ok, morally neither worse nor better than reality TV shows. If they become nice science-fiction novels then great. The trouble is when such things get parachuted into the academic community, universities start to hire zepto-technologists, etc. This happened with string theory and algebraic topology as of late. Now, a Multiverse bug is on the horizon.

It was already mentioned in the comments that such concepts are nether testable nor falsifiable. What is really bad is promoting untestable ideas in an academic setting. The core of the scientific method is that one proposes a hypothesis, a model of certain (mathematical) nature which describes certain aspects of the natural world. Then, experiments MUST be carried out to collect evidence which supports or refutes the model. If sufficient experimental results supports the model then one starts looking into practical applications. This is the only way known to date, which lets people understand nature, keep their sanity, stay away from the occult and produce practical gadgets. If your experiments refute the model, then this is ok. You proposed a wrong model and that is still worth the effort. What is not worth the effort are models which are not testable. This is science fiction and should be called this way.

The blog of Peter Woit was mentioned by FrankH. If you are fascinated by Strings and Multiverses and want a reality check, this is the place.

Peter Popov February 13, 2014 at 17:01

For some strange reason, my first sentence changed from Mr. Tegmark to Mr de Garis’. I meant Mr. Tegmark, the author of the proton-sized aliens concept.

Paul Gilster February 13, 2014 at 17:02

Peter, Max Tegmark is not the author of the proton-sized aliens concept. I discuss his new book in the first two paragraphs, but the post then goes on to talk about Hugo de Garis’ ideas on femtotech and tiny alien civilizations. These are not Dr. Tegmark’s ideas — I was using his new book as the segue into a look at what Hugo de Garis is saying about the Fermi paradox. Have another look at the post in question.

NS February 13, 2014 at 17:05

There’s plausible speculation (e.g. speculation that does not contradict well-established science) and implausible speculation (e.g. speculation that in order to be true would have to overturn much of current knowledge). I see nothing wrong with scientists engaging in the former. At least it could suggest possibly fruitful avenues for further investigation as opposed to ones that are likely to be of interest only to cranks.

FrankH February 13, 2014 at 17:06

Dr. Tegmark, thanks for posting in this tread.

You wrote:

“1) Cosmological inflation generically implies Level I multiverse
2) Inflation + string landscape generically implies Level II multiverse
3) Unitary quantum mechanics implies Level III multiverse
4) The Mathematical Universe Hypothesis implies Level IV multiverse

I’d be interested to hear if you have objections to any specific claims that I make in the book. Would you object to the claims 1), 2), 3) or 4)? Or are you arguing that one of the theories (inflation, say) makes no testable predictions and is therefore unscientific?”

I think the only one that is even remotely testable and falsifiable is #1; it’s not so much a prediction of Inflation, but an implication. It might be testable by looking at the CMB, and maybe teasing out information that is there, but just beyond our (current) technological reach.

The rest… I don’t think they’re anything other than just speculation with complicated math. Probably not testable, ever. String theory is starting to look like the Phrenology of 21st Century physics; it’s untestable and some of its foundations (like SUSY) are looking mighty weak.

FrankH February 13, 2014 at 17:07

I forgot about Level III – if that’s Everett’s Many World’s Interpretation, then yes, it’s testable and robust… but I don’t think its “many worlds” is the same thing as the parallel universes of the other levels (including I)

david lewis February 13, 2014 at 18:34

Science or not, it’s fun to speculate. What would a species gain by reducing themselves to such a state?

If microscopic wormholes exist, or can be created, then maybe time travel. If something destroys one of their centers of civilization others could just hop through the nearest wormhole and give them warning. No disaster could wipe them out. Like I said, it’s fun to speculate.

If there is a time limit to the universe, the big-rip or whatever, then by living so small and fast they could live for what seems to them to be a much longer time. Heck, they could even just limit their population, live until the universe is about to die, and then hop back in time to its start on a new spot of land (or microscopic particle), and live through the lifetime of the universe again.

At this point in time we are, in my admittedly very uninformed opinion, just starting to scratch the surface of what science might one day allow us to do. Maybe such civilizations are impossible and it’s a waste of time to check for them. Then again, it would explain the silence. Even if every planet in this galaxy had developed intelligence and they all followed the same route then they could all be dancing on the top of a pin where we would never be able to see see them. At least I won’t be holding my breathing waiting for us to find them.

Peter Popov February 13, 2014 at 18:37

Paul, thanks for the clarification.

NS: there is nothing wrong with proposing theories which are radically different to what currently is used to explain nature. There are two key ingredients to any new theory: 1) you should be able to test them experimentally. 2) you should explain more facts than what your current concepts can explain. The need for the first should be self evident, unfortunately it is manifestly not the case. An example of the second kind can be found here:
http://iopscience.iop.org/0951-7715/21/11/T01
I knew one of the guys who proposed this, the idea is that you can model elementary particle as soliton waves. Nice mathematically, explains the same facts from particle physics (the say) and that is it. No new predictions. This is still nice, because maybe you get a fresh look at something old.

The big problem is when you propose models of reality which are untestable. Then, there is nothing you can use them for. It is like a castle in the sky. Should not be allowed in academia but happens quite often. The best analogy is fantasy books: you can easily make up some world with magic and faeries, you can make it non-contraindicative and that is it. It makes a nice reading but there is nothing you can use it for. This is the essence of Strings (do not add theory to this, please). I believe only theology, philosophy and literature departments should hire people who talk seriously about “multiverses”. I remind the multiverse crowd, that the idea is, absolutely, not new at all, c.f. e.g. “The Gods Temsleves”, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday 1972. If a multiverse guy can teleport me to Mars, I will change my mind.

Since the main purpose of this blog is how to get to the starts, in the time-space continuum that we are aware of, a very practical goal, one should stay away from fantasy concepts. It just will not deliver us to where we want to go.

A last remark, “radically” different theories do not exist, I think. To my knowledge, every new development in science is incremental (you are explicitly forbidden from saying this when you write NSF proposals). What looks radically different, turns out to be a minor modification to something well established. The best example is Newtonian mechanics/General Relativity. The first is contained asymptotically in the second. In practice, you very rarely need the second. But since GR explains exotic and captivating objects such as black holes, then it is usually considered radically different from Newtonian mechanics.

Brett Bellmore February 13, 2014 at 20:20

“The same game was tried with Nanotechnology. Since the electromagnetic interactions deals with atoms, once can therefore scale down machines to an atomic size. The problem with all such concepts is that the ENTHROPY INEQUALITY, a.k.a. second law of thermodynamics generally prohibits most concepts of such things doing something useful. ”

The basic problem here is that we can model the behavior of molecules fairly well, and demonstrate that, in those models, molecular scale machines actually ARE robustly possible. Then we can point to biological structures which function as molecular machines, such as the flagella motor.

Thermodynamics is no obstacle, like any machine, a nano-machine would increase entropy globally while doing it’s work. Essentially, you’re propounding obstacles which were comprehensively rebutted a decade or more ago.

NS February 13, 2014 at 23:36

To Peter Popov, you seem to have a binary view of new ideas in which they are either testable hypotheses or they aren’t, and the ones that aren’t are all equally useless. I think we need a more nuanced view. There are ideas that can be dismissed as outright BS and there are ideas that are inherently untestable and will never be scientifically useful (this doesn’t mean they can’t be useful in other ways though). But I would argue that there is such a thing as an idea that is not testable now, but is plausible and interesting and might be scientifically useful in the future. This type of idea should not simply be dismissed as non-scientific but kept in mind for further investigation.

JBE February 13, 2014 at 23:48

Re: Fermi Paradox
Since we’re into wild speculation territory here -
my favorite solution to the Fermi Paradox is the idea that sufficiently advanced civilizations will simply want to leave this universe for something better – probably a pocket universes custom created by themselves to their own liking. After all, there are a lot of things about this universe that absolutely suck for any expanding civilization. For example, far from being “fine tuned for life” our universe is 99.999…999% hard vacuum a few degrees above absolute zero. The places where one can obtain enough energy and resources to live and build a respectable civilization are so far apart that it will take decades to travel from one to another, at best, given that pesky light speed limit. And to top it all off, the place looks like it is doomed to either die a slow heat death, rip itself apart, or maybe have everything in it annihilated unexpectedly when the vacuum energy decays to a lower level (or something like that) . A truly advanced civilization might want to create its own pocket universe with a structure and physical laws more to its liking, move in, and then close off the wormhole that connects it to ours.

ljk February 14, 2014 at 11:27

During the Enlightenment, it was standard for scientists to dismiss the idea of meteorites as rocks from space, because all rational people knew that stones do not just fall out of the sky, except perhaps those thrown out from erupting volcanoes. So what if there were stories going back to ancient times of eyewitness accounts of meteor falls.

I was going to add the famous reaction by Thomas Jefferson regarding a meteorite fall in Connecticut in 1807 and came across this blog piece with an even more interesting, relevant, and real quote and the story behind it:

http://www.monticello.org/site/blog-and-community/posts/who-liar-now

“In actual fact, Jefferson’s reaction to news of this phenomenon was certainly cautious, but nowhere near as benighted as Silliman the Younger suggests. He wrote to Daniel Salmon on 15 February 1808:

“We certainly are not to deny whatever we cannot account for. A thousand phenomena present themselves daily which we cannot explain, but where facts are suggested, bearing no analogy with the laws of nature as yet known to us, their verity needs proofs proportioned to their difficulty. A cautious mind will weigh well the opposition of the phenomenon to everything hitherto observed, the strength of the testimony by which it is supported, and the errors and misconceptions to which even our senses are liable. It may be very difficult to explain how the stone you possess came into the position in which it was found. But is it easier to explain how it got into the clouds from whence it is supposed to have fallen? The actual fact however is the thing to be established, and this I hope will be done by those whose situations and qualifications enable them to do it. I salute you with respect.”

James D. Stilwell February 14, 2014 at 11:41

Saved JBE’s post and Popov’s too to remind myself of either end of the oddling web site which is called, CENTAURI DREAMS
Get it—dreams!—-JDS

ljk February 14, 2014 at 23:17

GEORGE DVORSKY FUTURISM February 15, 2014 at 8:10am

How would humanity change if we knew aliens existed?

We have yet to discover any signs of an extraterrestrial civilization — a prospect that could quite literally change overnight. Should that happen, our sense of ourselves and our place in the cosmos would forever be shaken. It could even change the course of human history. Or would it?

Last week, SETI’s Seth Shostak made the claim that we’ll detect an alien civilization by 2040. Personally, I don’t believe this will happen (for reasons I can elucidate in a future post — but the Fermi Paradox is definitely a factor, as is the problem of receiving coherent radio signals across stellar distances). But it got me wondering: What, if anything, would change in the trajectory of a civilization’s development if it had definitive proof that intelligent extraterrestrials (ETIs) were real?

Full article here:

http://io9.com/how-would-humanity-change-if-we-knew-aliens-existed-1522853799/+bricken

NS February 15, 2014 at 16:37

To ljk, until recently science also denied the existence of so-called “rogue waves”, even though they’d been reported by mariners for centuries and caused extensive damage (and sometimes total loss) to ships. Science tends to discount anecdotal evidence that doesn’t fit prevailing theories, which didn’t have a place for rocks from the sky or waves much larger than ordinary ocean waves. While this tendency probably excludes a lot of BS at times it may impede investigation of genuine phenomena.

Rob Henry February 16, 2014 at 6:19

Antonio, I understand your concern with the artilect solution to the Fermi paradox, but I see it this way. Biological entities are driven by the Malthusian imperative, artilects are not. One will always expand through the Milky Way, given any means possible, and the other will always fulfill the destiny set in motion by its progenitor event. For example, it seems reasonable to me that artilects might typically trap their creating species in a guided cage for their own protection.

Rob Henry February 16, 2014 at 6:53

There seems an interesting discussion going on here that is predicated on the definition of science. I reminds me of a creationist friend of mine (Jonathan Safarti), who made the incredible claim that many took science as being a set of naturalistic explanations for the world around us. I answered him in no uncertain terms. Ridiculous! No MODERN scientist would think that. Science was a set of decision procedures for for predicting the world around us tested statistically against a data base, and as such its progress could be measured in a gain that was orders of magnitude.

Years latter, I finally read literature on the philosophy of science and discovered that for a significant subgroup this is exactly how they defined science. Of cause, this would instantly render their analysis and opinions on any subject that might have implications for the existence of a creator null and void, just as Jonathan was claiming. IMHO the sooner we get rid of alternative definition and way of thinking the better. Dropping it would certainly help when your arguing against a creationist, as well as returning the focus to forever improving outcomes that can be used to the good of every sector of society.

swage February 17, 2014 at 7:46

“The same game was tried with Nanotechnology. Since the electromagnetic interactions deals with atoms, once can therefore scale down machines to an atomic size. The problem with all such concepts is that the ENTHROPY INEQUALITY, a.k.a. second law of thermodynamics generally prohibits most concepts of such things doing something useful. ”

“Then we can point to biological structures which function as molecular machines, such as the flagella motor.”

I’d like to second that. Nature shows us not only that molecular machines (and a flagella motor is a motor in the strictest sense of the word: a machine) that this concept is feasible, it also shows us that this concept is feasible as a Von Neumann Machine and superbly so. Just because we can’t duplicate the technology (?) it doesn’t mean its untestable nor impossible to reproduce, quite on the contrary.

Now, granted, we talk about technology which is particle based, which is an entirely new kind of game, however if you argue that it shares the same problems and we can see that these problems can be overcome… i think it may be a bit premature to deduce that it is untestable and i think its absolutely falsifiable. But to deduce that we have to look…

Joe February 18, 2014 at 11:49

This idea of nanotech intelligence growing ever more powerful reminds me of the Isaac Asimov short story “The last Question”: http://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm

ljk February 19, 2014 at 1:32

A new funding method for SETI?

Posted by David Eicher

on Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Guest blog

By Suzanne Jacobs

What if a signal from E.T. came with a big cash prize?

A new proposal to fund the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) through a lottery bond could give the decades-old endeavor a much-needed source of steady income.

Here’s how it would work: Investors would buy bonds at a fixed price, say $100, and receive a guaranteed rate of return until SETI scientists receive the first sign of extraterrestrial intelligent life, at which point all investors would get back their principal investments, and a random subset of them would win a lottery prize.

Every year that there’s no signal, a portion of investments would go to research, another portion would go to the lottery pot, and a third portion would go to interest rate payments.

Astrobiologist Jacob Haqq-Misra came up with the idea.

He said that he started thinking about new ways to fund SETI, which uses telescopes to search for extraterrestrial radio signals, after its longtime director Jill Tarter stepped down from her position to become a fulltime fundraiser.

“I remember when I read that story, I was pretty struck by it, that apparently SETI was in such dire need of money to keep their new projects going that Jill was willing to take such a drastic step,” Haqq-Misra said.

Tarter, who inspired Jodie Foster’s character in the movie Contact, was one of the founding members of the SETI Institute in 1984. She said that her efforts outside the lab have so far been unfruitful.

“It’s terribly difficult, and I’ve been a failure at it,” she said with frustration in her voice. “I’m just not succeeding. I’m giving an awful lot of talks, but I’m not turning that into cash for the institute.”

Ideally, Tarter would like SETI to have some kind of endowment that would guarantee a certain amount of funding each year. A lottery bond, she said, could offer that kind of stability.

But it would only work if people were interested in investing.

Robin Hanson is an economics professor at George Mason University with a background in astrobiology. He said that this method of funding could technically work, but he’s skeptical that it would attract more people than the current donation model.

Haqq-Misra disagrees.

“You can only appeal to a very small segment of donors when they’re really literally donating money for free and the only thing they get back is a tax write-off and maybe a good feeling,” he said.

Full article here:

http://cs.astronomy.com/asy/b/daves-universe/archive/2014/02/18/a-new-funding-method-for-seti.aspx

Andrew Palfreyman February 24, 2014 at 10:31

Based on what we know of star and planet formation and the age of our galaxy and solar system, and the number of stars and planets in our galaxy, we can take a stab at the most likely age difference between a more intelligent alien race and ourselves. Let’s attempt to at least bracket the figure. It is very unlikely to be more than a few billion years older because of the issue of later nucleosynthesis of heavy metals we imagine to be, in our limited anthropic way, necessary for life. It is also very unlikely to be less than a million years, due to the large statistical spreads possible on ages which number in the billions of years. So if I had to pick a maximum likelihood figure, it would probably be somewhere around 10 to 100 million years difference in our ages.

For that reason, I find it highly unlikely that speculations on the nature and behaviour of said aliens would be anything close to accurate. For a technologically advanced civilisation, tens of millions of years is one heck of a development gap.

ljk February 26, 2014 at 14:51

A new book on Artilects titled Smarter Than Us by Stuart Armstrong:

http://intelligence.org/smarter-than-us/

ljk March 12, 2014 at 9:56

Why There’s No Place Like Home

by Nadia Drake

Dad pulls a scroll of paper from one of the dozens of crumpling boxes stacked in a chilly warehouse near Santa Cruz, Calif. He gently unrolls it, and a familiar reddish ink pattern appears on the delicate grid.

“Ah,” he says. “This is Ozma.”

His fingertip traces the inky magenta line, and he squints at the faded, penciled-in numbers inscribed near the line’s peaks and valleys. “Is that your handwriting?” I ask. It doesn’t look anything like his. “Nope,” he answers. “It must be the telescope operator’s.”

The scroll my father, Frank Drake, is holding is more than a half-century old. It’s part of the data he collected during an experiment known as Project Ozma. Named after a character in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, the project was the first scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligent life.

From April to July, 1960, astronomers in Green Bank, West Virginia monitored two nearby, sun-like stars for artificial radio signals—signs that an interstellar intelligence inhabited Earth’s starry skies, that humans were not adrift in an incessantly quiet cosmic ocean.

The entire endeavor cost $2,000.

Full article here:

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/03/10/why-theres-no-place-like-home/

ljk March 13, 2014 at 14:53

The Search for Aliens Is Just Getting Started

Seth Shostak, SETI senior astronomer, tells PopMech why it’s no surprise our search for alien life has so far come up empty—and why, if there really is intelligent life out there, we’ll find it within the next few decades.

By William Herkewitz

March 12, 2014 6:30 AM

Over the past 50 years, several SETI projects have scoured the cosmos but have yet to turn up anything conclusive. What do you make of this cosmic radio-silence?

A lot of people do think of and refer to this as a silence, but I certainly don’t. Because of the limitations in equipment and money, we’ve carefully explored very little of the sky. Yes, the first SETI experiment was done more than a half century ago, but you probably have to look at a few million star systems at very high sensitivity before you score a success. We haven’t carefully examined anywhere near that number—a few thousand at most.

The thing to keep in mind is that we’re still in the very early days when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Saying there’s a silence is a bit like if Columbus, looking to discover a new continent, only sailed 10 miles off the coast of Spain before turning back to say, “Nothing out there! I guess that whole exploration gig isn’t going to work out.”

Full article here:

http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/space/deep/the-search-for-aliens-is-just-getting-started-16584156

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