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Dreaming of von Neumann

Science fiction has brought us so many concepts for colonizing the stars over the last hundred years, everything from interstellar arks loading thousands of colonists (the sea-faring metaphor) to worldships that see generations of crewmembers live and die during their long joiurney. Suspended animation can get people through a trip that takes centuries, while robotic wardens might oversee the safe passage of human genetic material that could be converted into a colony upon arrival.

von Neumann and ENIAC

If you want to be on the cutting edge today, though, better look toward what George Dvorsky talks about in Seven ways to control the Galaxy with self-replicating probes. Here’s a novel way to colonize a distant star system: Let a von Neumann probe find a promising planet and use the matter it finds there to establish a colony and fill it with settlers. Not the kind of settler that gets out of a suspended animation tank, yawns, stretches, and then walks out onto an alien landscape, but an uploaded consciousness that would be able to take physical (robotic) form to explore the new environment.

Image: John von Neumann, shown here with technology that might have been more to his taste, the 18,000 vacuum-tube strong ENIAC. One can only wonder what the sybaritic mathematician would have made of uploaded consciousness. If only he were here to tell us.

The awakening of a consciousness in an exoplanetary setting makes for still more science fiction fodder. And it’s an interesting take on where advances in computing might take us, one demanding artificial intelligence and supercomputing powers we may achieve sooner than we expect. The colony built with such methods could be quite large because it is limited solely by computational resources, and the von Neumann probe, with its assembler technology, can take care of that lack in short order. A single von Neumann probe using these methods spreads throughout the galaxy, offering strange new alternatives to travel. How about this:

Colonization probes could also construct data receivers and transmission stations so that uploaded persons could travel as digital data streams from one point to another. Consequently, the dream of traveling at the speed of light will some day be possible.

Traveling at the speed of light as a data stream gets you where you’re going with no perceived lapse of time (to you, at least), so that the journey to Andromeda is instantaneous. Which is quite enough to chew on, you would think, but Dvorsky’s fascinating article tackles the whole subject of von Neumann probes, breaking them down into categories ranging from explorer probes to berserkers, the ultimate in malevolent technology. All are intelligent devices capable of self-reproduction via molecular assemblers. You could put together a great science fiction reading list with treatments of all Dvorsky’s categories.

Ponder, for example, ‘uplift’ probes, most familiar through the work of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monoliths of the movie’s beginning enable the use of tools, an extraterrestrial civilization imparting gifts to the creatures it finds on a distant world, our own. Dvorsky also notes David Brin’s Uplift series and goes on to discuss motivations for uplift and its implications:

Uplift probes could quickly bring a civilization to a post-Singularity, postbiological condition. Such a force might appear as a colonization wave that sweeps across the Galaxy, transforming all that it touches into computronium. Such a scenario has been projected by such thinkers as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil.

Computronium maximizes computing power to the point where we might imagine a Dyson sphere or a Matrioshka brain — a set of concentric Dyson spheres — created to capture usable energy from a star for use in computation. If species take such a route, and if galactic colonization via von Neumann probes could be accomplished in as little as half a million years (a reasonable extrapolation), then is the absence of the computronium ‘wave’ a sign that extraterrestrials aren’t out there? Or is it a sign (as Adam Crowl speculated to me in a recent e-mail) that the wave has already passed; i.e., the notion that we are already living in a simulation gains a delightful speculative force (I don’t believe it for a minute, but then, I’m not much an admirer of the Singularity either).

My own thinking on von Neumann probes is that self-replicating technology like this is best used in Dvorsky’s category two, the Bracewell probe. Ronald Bracewell imagined probes set up in an array of communications relays and Dvorsky points to the obvious cultural example in recent times, Sagan’s Contact, where a dormant Bracewell probe awakens in the Vega system and began to transmit to Earth after receiving radio evidence that a technological civilization is nearby. Bracewell probes in our own system? The most encouraging thing that can be said about the search for such is that there is no shortage of places to look. Stable orbits around Jupiter make a certain sense.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dad2059 March 6, 2008, 10:57

    …but an uploaded consciousness that would be able to take physical (robotic) form to explore the new environment.

    Ahh, but where is the romanticism in that?

  • James M. Essig March 6, 2008, 11:20

    Hi Paul;

    Thanks for this wonderful article.

    It is interesting to note that potentially unlimited distances could be covered by persons up loaded and transmitted as data streams at the speed of light. Provided that the fidelity of the transmitted signal is maintained, the person should in the ultimate limit be able to cover indefinately large finite distances yet experience no time passage before being downloaded and reassembled. This includes distances of trillions of trillions of light years plus.

    Another interesting transport medium might carry the person to the remote destination in the form of neutrinos traveling at just under C. Since they have not yet measured a less than C value for neutrinos, perhaps they really do travel at C even if they have non-zero restmass. Thus, there might be some augmentation of special relativity required to explain any C velocity value of neutrinos that involves corrections for the weak force or the electroweak unification force in terms of relativistic quantum field theory. A beam of nuetrinos can travel through a light year of lead yet remain largely unattenuated and so would make an excellent transmission medium.

    Now the problem of capturing the neutrinos and down loading the transmitted person. Perhaps some enhanced weak force reacting mechanism could capture the neutrinos. Alternatively, a device for the same purpose might use enhanced weak force reactance produced by some type of novel and exotic electromagnetic force manipulation via the electro weak unifcation or the electroweak mixing parameter.

    Alternatively, hot dark matter particles might be used to transmit the person wherein the hot dark matter particles would be supersymmetric particles instead of neutrinos.

    Regarding physical robots that replicate, that is a real interesting idea. One can imagine robots made of organized carbon, carbon nitride, silicon carbide, tungsten carbide, tantalum carbide, carbon nanotubes and the like materials with extremely refractive properties, mechanical hardness and/or strength, mechanical toughness etc, to survive the interstellar journey and replicate nanotechnologically.

    However, if such robots were highly intellegent, with very quick reaction times, they might make horribly lethal berserkers. Can you imagine a robot that could engage an organic ETI in a millisecond or less with an electromagnetic gun with a muzzle velocity of say 10 km/sec to 100 km/sec or with a megawatt to gigawatt class laser. If we ever produce self replicating robots with these capabilities for the purpose of defending themselves and propagating their kind, some sort of value system would have to be programmed into their behavior, some sort of ethical, rule-based, behavioral self regulatory abilities, so that they would not attack ETI or perform any unethical behavior.

    Now that the very best chess players can be bested by supercomputers, the ability to simulate or perform such superfast engagement in the future is a possibility. Our military planners are keenly aware of the potential dangers of future intellegent combat robots that could act completely autonomously, and so for now, all plans for autonomous air combat vehicles and autonomous ground combat vehicles involve only remotely controlled or tele-operated machines that will open fire only when the command from a human controller is received. The point is be very careful with the deployment of self replicating interstellar machines or robots that are of highly advanced intellegence. For Al Turing showed that any logical algorithm that the human mind can carry out in so far as it can be represented in terms of a binary decision process can in theory be duplicated by a machine, no matter how complex.

    Still, I am sure there could be a major role for intellegent self replicators to ply the depths of the universe. We only need to be careful with the design of their intellegnce, but that problem I believe should prove solvable.



  • andy March 6, 2008, 13:50

    If I were going to put a “let’s hail aliens” radio transmitter somewhere where it would be noticed, I would not put it next to a gas giant.

  • Zen Blade March 6, 2008, 15:08

    Great post today.
    I’m also not a big fan of “THE Singularity”. I find these ideas to be interesting to think about, but not particularly realistic. This traveling at the speed of light and uploading consciousness is a very interesting concept. A similar concept to “transporters”… in essence, continuing consciousness while likely killing off the original consciousness.

    Great post. oh, and I could see us living as a simulation. That doesn’t mean our lives/world don’t matter. It just means that the question of “god(s)?” and “origin of life?” have definitive answers.

    -Zen Blade

  • Administrator March 6, 2008, 15:33

    OK, I’ll bite. Where would you put such a transmitter, andy?

  • andy March 6, 2008, 16:49

    Well, somewhere where there isn’t some great big object nearby spewing out loads of radio emissions would be good. Maybe an asteroid would be a better location, as they wouldn’t be expected to have particularly powerful magnetic fields, and hence radio emission would be more unexpected.

  • ljk March 6, 2008, 17:15

    This real project by IBM may allow us to upload minds
    one day:


  • James M. Essig March 6, 2008, 22:23

    Hi ljk;

    Thanks very much for providing the above link on mind uploading. A really cool idea would be to upload the imprinted memories of a human person into the simulated brain at least in copy form if not in actual form so as to transport the entire conscious psyche into the computer.

    Assuming that the Scholastic theological view of the human soul that I tend adhere to is correct, wherein the soul is accordingly a spiritual, immediately and directly created, immaterial, simple, unextended, incorruptible per addens and perse, free and rational essence wherein its substance is distinct from its accidents and which also exist intrinsically independently of the body and brain, I still see no reasons why the consciousness of the soul, which I tend to view as a merely accidental property of the soul and also for which I believe is merely if not entirely dependent on the brain for its functioning and perhaps even its existence, might not be transferable or hosted by a new brain, an artificial brain or a simulated brain. Even in the event that the human consciousness is somewhat transcendent of the brain, perhaps it can still be transported and attached to an artificial brain by means of a down loading the mechanism by which the consciousness is casually or deterministically coupled to the new or simulated brain.

    Note that this extreme dualistic view of human nature wherein the human soul is a spiritual, immediately and directly created, immaterial, simple, unextended, incorruptible per addens and perse, free rational essence wherein its substance is distinct from its accidents and which also exist intrinsically independently of the body and brain is more of a relic of ancient Greek thinking by folks such as Plato. Even Scholastic traditions during the Middle Ages or at around the 1st millennium AD did not hold to the extreme form of dualism that I adhere to and to which some of the ancient Greek tradition adhered to. As a result, I am a bit of a dinosaur in my would be so-called outmoded belief systems and I must admit that I could be completely wrong in my tendency to extreme spiritualist and dualist views. However, if I am wrong, then I believe it should be all the easier to transfer human and ETI consciousness to artificial brains or to down load such into simulated brain/bodies.

    One might further imaging downloading the human consciousness to a stream of photons. neutrinos, weakly interacting supersymmetruc hot mattergy particles or hot dark mattergy particles, or perhaps even gravitons or complex patterns of modulated gravitational wave energy for transport at or near C. If tachyons exist, perhaps these superluminal particles could embody a down loaded human consciousness for transport also.

    Very interesting link/article indeed ljk.

    Thanks again for providing the link.

  • ges March 6, 2008, 22:37

    Bear in mind, these things will be subject to natural selection — if berserking is reproductively advantageous, and there is any way at all that one of the trillions of probes can bypass our safeguards, it is a foregone conclusion that it will happen.

    Also remember that, depending upon the sophistication of the probes, we in all likelihood just sent along one of the best hackers the universe has ever known — and all that stands between it and galaxy-wide domination is some DRM? Hmm…

  • jh2001 March 7, 2008, 0:44

    Interesting post.

    Von Neumann probes that self-replicate and theoretically produce a human colony would arguably be the most efficient method of human transport from a mass and energy standpoint.

    Two related questions come to mind:
    1) Is there a minimum mass for a nano-tech factory that would be able to produce anything of nearly any size? (The mechanical analogy of a Turing machine)
    2) What mass could we accelerate to .1c from a LINAC on the moon (dual purpose mass accelerator) and would that mass be at least as much as the answer to #1.


  • jh2001 March 7, 2008, 1:02

    If we could send a very small probe that contained a nanotech factory then the first thing it could do would be to construct an antenna. That would give us 43 years or so to figure out what instructions to send for what it would make. I’m betting that 43 years would be quite a bit of time for R&D especially in the 2nd half of the 21st century.

    So, for an initial interstellar mission to thoroughly explore, develop, and maybe colonize a neighboring solar system perhaps the requirements might be limited to a power source, a linear accelerator, the smallest possible nanotech factory, and a way to decelerate. Innumerable such probes could be launched in the general direction of a given solar system until one of them hits an asteroid there. The probe constucts an antenna, awaits instructions, and then constructs everything necessary to further explore and develop that system.

  • Adam March 7, 2008, 2:12

    Hi All

    There’s no reason why we have to restrict transmitted persons to being just uploads – with organ-printers and artificial-cell machines being not too far around the corner there is no foreseeable reason why a full description of a physical person can’t be sent and replicated at the other end. They just have to accept their physical original being recycled back home… not for the squeamish.

    But seriously as brain implants become viable we have to tackle the philosophical question of personal identity – what makes you “you”? If we are our bodies and/or neurones then we lose identity all the time as cells die and are replaced. And what about an Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s patient who has parts of their brains replaced by medical implants?

    My personal view – reiterated here many times – is that the only way to really know there is continuity between you and a “copy” is for neurone-by-neurone replacement and subjective confirmation that your consciousness hasn’t changed.

    But what if you went to sleep with a wet-ware brain and awoke with a silicon replacement?

    My more basic point is that an advanced von Neumann Machine can make flesh-and-blood people as easily as any other complex machine. And there’s no reason why androids shouldn’t have flesh-and-blood bodies – our bodies are pretty damned good at a lot of tasks that robots struggle with.

  • Administrator March 7, 2008, 8:11

    I’m with Adam on this. A transmitted (uploaded) von Neumann consciousness would surely inhabit a biological body rather than a purely robotic one, or some hybrid in between. Our consciousness evolved in this physical form and its re-creation on the other end makes sense for all kinds of reasons.

  • ljk March 7, 2008, 9:57

    But for space exploration, would you want an organic body?
    I can imagine a mechanical probe with an uploaded mind that
    has groups of smaller independent manipulators for doing all
    sorts of required tasks in space, from survival to exploration.

    Not only would that make such a being/ship more versatile,
    I can also imagine it would be less vulnerable to radiation and
    other dangers in raw space. Plus if something does happen
    to the main “body”, presumably the mind could be transfered
    to another body/ship.

    I even see this having an advantage of genetically engineering
    humans to be able to directly survive in all sorts of environments
    found throughout the Sol system and beyond.

  • Administrator March 7, 2008, 10:20

    My contention is that a consciousness that evolved within a physical, organic body is simply not going to fare well translated into mechanical forms. The functions you’re talking about, Larry, would well be served by intelligent AIs, but I believe these would be usefully supplemented by a human crew — human within the context of the uploaded consciousness we’re talking about, and hence implanted in a biological form. Remember that we’re talking about vis a vis George Dvorsky’s post is a scenario where a human is ‘uploaded’ to a distant star system and then activated within some sort of local body. And I contend that body needs to be biological.

  • Administrator March 7, 2008, 10:25

    Adam wrote “…the only way to really know there is continuity between you and a “copy” is for neurone-by-neurone replacement and subjective confirmation that your consciousness hasn’t changed.”

    True enough, but the problem is that the original you is not the new you. The ‘copy’ thinks there’s continuity and that’s fine, but I occasionally hear people talk about achieving immortality through mind uploads, and I have to think that the one who achieves this immortality is not the original person. Remember John Varley’s The Ophiuchi Hotline, where people were re-created when something happened to the last ‘copy,’ and each new ‘copy’ assumed it was the original. Great book. Anyway, if I had the technology to copy myself this way, my duplicate would carry on as I would, but my original consciousness would still be gone when my life ended. So the continuity is very much one way. Not the sort of immortality I’m looking for.

  • Administrator March 7, 2008, 10:29

    jh2001’s idea is very similar to Robert Freitas ‘needle’ probe, a nanotech starship the size of a sewing needle that carries the necessary assembler technology to build scientific stations out of local materials when these are encountered. Launched in their thousands or millions, needle probes thus expand the human presence to the stars in relatively short order (especially if equipped with thousands of human ‘consciousnesses’ as uploaded personalities within the nanotech computer matrix within). You can see the other side of this coin, and Freitas writes about it: We need a code of interstellar law to tell us where not to send assemblers, where they can’t use their magic to mine local materials, etc.

    jh2001’s question re mass to accelerate to 0.1 c is rendered much easier to work with if we’re dealing with mass on the nanotech level like this.

  • Zen Blade March 7, 2008, 12:50

    The Admin is completely correct, the original you is not the new you. Although, I would argue that an uploaded consciousness may not be transferable into a mechano-organic body unless the transfer device also has those said properties. I have thought about this at length (and thus I must ALSO be correct!), and there are very different potential outcomes dependent on:

    1. What you believe
    2. The scientific truth of what is consciousness

    With regards to the “new you”, when it comes down to it… Does it really matter if the new you is “you”? For example, if we work through the following principle:

    Assume that we are copies, right now. You, me, everyone… what does that mean about our consciousness… it doesn’t matter, we still exist, and at some point we will cease to exist, but that’s it. That is simply the way things work. The consciousness functions such that it believes it has always functioned. If we view our consciousness as something more ephemeral, then maybe death isn’t so scary? [more on this in three paragraphs]

    Regarding, the ability to upload…
    From my perspective this really depends on what you want to upload. If you simply want to upload memories, then you probably need to copy neurons/synapses/pathways within the brain, “access” them, and then make the appropriate computer (choose your format) copy. You can then patch the memories together simply enough.

    However, if you want to recreate a real consciousness, then you first need to understand what this really is and how it works… and I don’t believe we are anywhere near there yet. I suppose a Mechanical-organic vessel could function to transfer a “current consciousness” into a new body… but even then, I could make an argument that consciousness could still die or be lost AND later reborn or regained by a new “current consciousness” that accesses all of the previous “current consciousness”‘s memories.

    The model I like to use/speculate about is when we lose consciousness, or when we go to sleep. What if that is the equivalent to dieing? We essentially reboot or restart the next time we wake up. We have all the memories, and in a sense there is a seamless transition… but the reality is, how do you know that you are really still “alive” or that you are the original…
    And does it really matter?

    The consciousness was originally developed/evolved as part of the body, but perhaps it is now much more of an autonomous agent in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the body: Mind-Body Symbiont

    Now, if only I was a Philosopher who wrote books….

    anyways, this stuff is always fun to think about.
    -Zen Blade

  • dad2059 March 7, 2008, 14:48

    I loved The Ophiuchi Hotline! At the time, it was one of the first trans/posthuman novels. If I remember right though, the intelligences sending the human solar system civilization information admonished them for not totally transcending their human form.

    Paul has a legitimate point about we humans not wanting possibly to discard bio-forms, it might be too hardwired into us.

    Author Greg Egan addresses these issues beautifully in his works. His “Amalgam” stories integrates these very ideas listed above into some of the best hard science scifi I’ve read in years.

    Still, I prefer the slow asteroid ark idea, studying various phenomena along the way.

    Some of us ol’ baselines are tactile creatures who use both heads and hands!

  • Athena March 7, 2008, 15:07

    Yes, very nice post, Paul!

    To address a few very interesting points raised here… Unless you subscribe to dualism, uploading (if ever possible) will indeed create a copy. I agree that our type of mind may require a biological body to function, although that does not exclude the possibility that other minds very different from ours exist elsewhere in the universe. As to what makes you “you”, the answer is: your brain neurons, which do not get replaced, unlike the rest of you — hence the personality changes in dementia or after a stroke. Sleeping is not equivalent to dying: the brain is very active during sleep and insomnia is physiologically damaging.

  • Frank Smith March 7, 2008, 16:29

    If there are other civilizations in our galaxy, it’s hard to see how VonNeuman probes do not already exist.

    They would be cheap. They could be effectively used at 1/10 c, so that would eliminate the major engineering challenges of interstellar flight. Even with thousands of years between doublings, every star in the galaxy would have a probe in a couple hundred thousand years.

    SOMEBODY, should have tried it by now…

  • philw1776 March 7, 2008, 20:32

    Somebody should have and had ANYONE done so, there’s been plenty of time for their spawn to have been here. We know little, but the most reasonable assumption is that there is and has been nobody else. Look to biologists and evolutionists, not to physicists. The improbability exponentials of evolution dwarf the number of stars and planets exponents.

  • Adam March 8, 2008, 4:02

    Hi philw1776

    Improbability in evolution is a nonsense. What biological forms exist are the end products of natural selection acting on random mutation – the mutations might be inherently unpredictable, but selection is a non-random process effectively extracting information from the environment and storing it in the genome. Time and time again evolution finds common solutions to the problems of survival – thus convergence and analogous structures in organisms, even across phyla.

  • Ronald March 8, 2008, 7:31

    @philw1776: “The improbability exponentials of evolution dwarf the number of stars and planets exponents”.

    No, strongly disagree (hopefully not the start of a pointless creationism-oriented discussion), the whole idea of biological life as a purely coincidental event is grossly outdated, scientifically. Even the formation of a single complex (organic, but still abiotic) macro-molecule, would be out of the question then. And yet it happens all the time, with or without life. Biochemical processes happen for good reasons, not as pure blind chance events. Thus very contradictory to the sometimes quoted ‘self-formation of an encyclopedia from the wind blowing through a pile of letters’, an absurd (creationist) argument. Some spontaneously forming organic molecules are like that.

    Rather, life is the result of certain biochemical ‘driving’ mechanisms, leading towards higher degrees of complexity and self-organization, ultimately self-replication. Provided that environmental conditions are favorable.

    In this view, biological life is not a unique chance event (which, again, would be scientifically absurd), but a rather logical, or at least not illogical, outcome of certain common biochemical processes. (This says nothing about intelligent life, BTW). As Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park: ‘life finds a way’.

    Evolution is often wrongly seen as a pure chance process, whereas it is truly an environmentally driven process with stochastic (chance) elements.

    The universe seems to be fit to produce life, and conditions for such are prevalent.

  • Ronald March 8, 2008, 7:53

    The fact that we haven’t found any beacons of of aby intelligence, the Fermi paradox in some form or another, can be for a few reasons:
    – there is no other *intelligent* life in the Milky Way galaxy (to limit the issue to our own galaxy for now, big enough to begin with).
    – any other intelligences have remained unable to establish contact (either staying at a lower level or extinguishing themselves too quickly each time).
    – any other intelligence is unwilling to establish contact, for whatever good reason and/or prior experience.

    There may be a (very) limited window of opportunity (i.e. survival period) for intelligent life to promote to interstellar civilization. hence, the chance of 2 or more such civilizations existing simultaneously may be very small at a galactic scale. After all, even for stars of approx. the same age, say 4-5 gy, 10,000 years is nothing.

  • Ronald March 8, 2008, 8:25

    (I realize this is my 3rd post in a row, sorry)
    Just two more observations:
    – we can keep speculating about chances of life and intelligence, but nothing, absolutely nothing else, no computer model whatsoever, beats scientific observation and discovery. So we’ll just have to find out, first telescopically, then by probes.
    – regardless of the actual presence of (higher) life, many locations in the MW galaxy seem suitable for our kind of biological life, i.e. biocompatible (temp, water, atmospheric gasses, etc.), and could probably potentially be colonized and/or terraformed to different degrees. So, to me the ultimate options are simple: either there is life elsewhere in the galaxy, or we are going to bring it.

  • philw1776 March 8, 2008, 10:20

    The Space Cadet religion reacts viscerially to any statement that questions the faith based doctrine that just because there are “billions and billions” of stars that therefore there must be other technical civilizations. It simply does not follow. Evolution is random. Although there does seem to me to be a not understood mechanism driving complexity in this universe, no known aspect of evolution including natural selection makes the emergence of an intelligent species with a cultural bias twards technology inevitable or even likely.

    The only data we have shows that a well situated planet with water and organics spent over 3 Gigayears doing diddly before eukaryots appeared finally at long last resulting in anything that we would call a motile animal, around 500 Myr ago. And of the innumerable species that have existed since the Cambrian, only one species and one culture has developed a technological civilization.

  • ljk March 8, 2008, 14:09

    What about ants, temites, and bees?

    They have a complex “civilization” complete with constructed
    living areas, a social hierachy, citizens with defined tasks to
    assist in the welfare of each colony, and they even have
    soldiers who fight wars.

    Maybe we haven’t been contacted because advanced ETI
    don’t see us as being any more intelligent and civilized as
    we do the social insects.

    And Phil, I know you don’t care that there are 70 sextillion
    stars in the known Universe, but don’t you think the odds
    don’t exactly hurt, either? And why do you assume that
    ETI must want to visit us for any particular reason? We
    haven’t exactly stood out in the galaxy since its formation
    10 billion years ago.

  • Ronald March 8, 2008, 17:31

    What Adam mentions is exactly the driving force that I meant: natural selection, inevitably leading to adaptation (or extinction), as dictated by the environmental conditions. Implication of the principles of convergent evolution and analogy might be certain similar traits among different life-bearing planets. Would be fascinating to find out how (far) convergence works.

    Phil, I understand you better now and I tend to agree with you that, indeed, high intelligence and technological civilization are not inevitable outcomes of evolution. As ljk also suggests, there are other solutions possible even for organized society, without higher intelligence. Intelligence is not an evolutionary goal, survival is and intelligence can just be a means toward that goal. Maybe even a short-lived one.
    The development toward such intelligence seems to be an oddity among certain mammals: mainly primates and cetaceans.

  • Adam March 8, 2008, 22:35

    Hi All

    What I was responding to was the claim of randomness in evolution that philw1776 made, and that somehow makes intelligence absurdly unlikely. Fact is we know very little about what exactly set a certain bipedal ape apart from other apes, and kicked off the process that led to our technological species. It might not have been a sure thing, but like any end-point of selection and mutation it happened because it could. Any species could be seen as an unlikely outcome of the process, not just us. To me it seems like an exaggerated attempt at restoring human uniqueness, and I’m not convinced that it’s any more likely than any other solution to the Fermi Paradox.

    Religion is about believing things you haven’t seen or don’t yet see – and believing in ETs could be seen as such, but then the contrary is as yet under-evidenced too. Unlike God, ETs aren’t presumed to be omnipresent and interested in human affairs.

  • Ronald March 9, 2008, 9:46

    @Adam: I tend to agree.

    However, another observation, besides the (un)likelyhood of intelligence.

    Even if intelligence arises, it may take on forms that are quite different from ours in focus and priorities, even almost beyond our recognition as intelligence, and/or not leading to any technological civilization.

    Ljk already mentioned the ‘collective intelligence’ (my chracterization for it though) of termites and the like, which have high levels of organization, construction, defence, etc., but without any significant individual intelligence.

    But even closer to us: dolphins and possibly other cetaceans possess high, almost human level intelligence, but their watery habitats have prevented them from developing any technology and would probably keep doing so even if they keep developing their intellects in the future.

    And elephants seem to have surprisingly high intelligence, self-awareness and even better memories than humans (not a fable), but have seldom or never shown an interest even in using tools, simply because they do not need to.

    In the history of humankind you also see that nearly always when a new technology was developed, there was both the possibility of, ánd the need for it. So environment itself and its selective pressures, besides intelligence per se, is equally important for development of a techno civilization, even if that intelligence is already present.

  • Adam March 10, 2008, 2:47

    Hi Ron

    Oh. Well I agree 100% with what you’re saying in that light, tho I differ on the implied odds of technological species arising. I think that in any viable biosphere there will arise billions of species over the aeon or so that an oxygenic biosphere remains viable. Multiply that by every possible biosphere and the number of possible species that become technological starts looking more likely – but not inevitable.

    Personally I think astrophysical conditions have changed in our Galaxy in recent billennia and that’s why we see an empty sky.

  • Ronald March 11, 2008, 4:44

    @Adam: “Personally I think astrophysical conditions have changed in our Galaxy in recent billennia and that’s why we see an empty sky.”

    But now you are making me curious?! What kind of changes are you thinking of?

  • jh2001 March 14, 2008, 19:02

    Again the Fermi Paradox arises. Perhaps a useful way of categorizing the possible solutions could be as follows:
    1) highly unlikely
    2) possible but something we cannot affect
    3) possible, something we can affect, but not something to be avoided
    4) possible, something we can affect, and worth avoiding
    This is a practical way of looking at it since it helps us determine what we should focus our energies on (i.e. category #4).

    If the odds against life evolving spontaneously anywhere is too small and a supernatural explanation exists (i.e. God) then this probably puts things in category #3 (i.e. God will probably prevent humanity from destroying itself). If life on Earth arose within our solar system then I think logically Fermi’s Paradox screams for an explanation when one considers the billions +/- of Earth-like planets out there.

    They’re being there and we not knowing about it would be either category #1 or #2. We can see radio signals at great distance. A 10,000 year old civilization would certainly be able to produce highly powerful radio transmitters and scan thousands of them across all directions. If they don’t want to contact us then we are in category #2 and not something to worry about.

    As I consider Wikipedia’s large list of potential solutions, I think that the most likely explanation in category #4 is that intelligent civilizations universally destroy themselves before they leave their solar systems and in a fairly short period of time (e.g. 2030 +/- our time).

    Here is my ranked list of what might cause that:
    #1 – physics experiment gone bad
    #2 – chemical nanotechnology
    #3 – artificial intelligence
    #4 – mechanical nanotechnology
    #5 – biotechnology
    You all might rank it differently or add some others.

    I think that this possibility is actually likely considering the fact that we are right now tinkering with all five and it seems likely to me that we’ll create something self-replicating in the near future and are conducting physics experiments using very high energies.

    A self-sustaining lunar base will not be sufficient because someone out there would have developed such a base prior to their “Earthly” extinction had they followed an Apollo-like trajectory rather than a Space Shuttle trajectory (i.e. we would have had a moon base by now). In my mind a “manned” interstellar mission becomes mandatory (or at least an outer planet colony).

    If this assessment is true then I believe that it provides some direction in which to go and a powerful motivation for specific strategies for avoiding existential threats as well as for a “manned” interstellar flight in the near term. It would still be a long shot since we (presumably) would be the only civilization to survive it.

    The specific strategies would include:
    – environmentally isolated habitats with people and biologic stock and systems that would sustain their lives long enough for them to develop an escape strategy.
    – isolated experiments that could demonstrate the reality of self-replicating threats without being released in order to shock the world to put the necessary resources into a “manned” interstellar flight.
    – protective measures (e.g. Lifeboat Foundation) to buy us more time to develop these strategies.
    There needs to be a foundation that pursues these strategies.

    As for an interstellar mission it would need to use near-term technology, be very low weight (e.g. 1gm – 10kg), moderately long duration (e.g. 200 yrs), using the least expensive source of energy, carry the smallest form of viable humanity (e.g. cells), have automated gestation and rearing systems, and launched pretty soon. Basically it would be the cheapest possible mission design in the near-term.

  • Bob Shaw March 15, 2008, 17:47

    My personal experience of the Bracewell Probe issue is that the adherents of such have much in common with religious cultists. If you truly believe that such artefacts exist, then all is well; else, you are (in the words of another such cult, Fair Game).

    Bracewell probes are fine, so long as we accept that there is no evidence of even such lowly examples of Galactic Empires, let alone the *serious* architectural constructions which a real, physical, non-Singularity civilisation (albeit fragmented) ought to demonstrate.

    We ought to be building them, complete with self-replicating machine intelligences; that’s the way to conquer the universe!

    And, speaking of replicators… …have a look at http://www,fabathome.com

    The future is here – and it’s Lego!

    Bob Shaw

  • Joe March 23, 2008, 9:22

    I am trying to think what will make uploaded counciousness into an artificial life form different from the original cellular life form. The first thing that comes to mind is one’s spirit. I suppose atheists would be in denial, That’s ok, they are entitled to their opinion.
    I believe in a counciousness that is related and tied to the human experience while its host body is alive and in my case on this planet earth. When my body dies my spirit is released to return to a cosmic dimension of some sort.
    I’ve come to this opinion through a near death experience that I experienced while accompanied by my wife who saw what she saw while I was having my own experience, very much different from what she saw. I have since related my eperience to the same feeling I get while dreaming.
    I can drift off to sleep very easily and will be visualizing things that are very different to the visuals I had while awake just befiore I went to sleep. As soon as I awake they vanish and I am accosted by an entirely new set of visuals that I will call my awakened reality.
    While I agree that any AI can be created to perform all the tasks of a human being, I don’t see the act of dreaming to be a programmable event. An AI will respond to stimulus mimicking human life, but it will never dream. Dreaming here is what you percieve of when you sleep. I do not mean dreaming in the sense of future desires or wishes. Dreaming in my context is an entirely human experience that transcends my awakened reality.
    I do not believe that an AI will ever experienc this. This is what will separate humans from AI. Downloading the thoughts and memories from a human being into a computer will not include the dreamstate of a human being becasue that is outside and beyond the realm of human thought. I think.

  • ljk May 28, 2009, 11:06

    Artificial brains that have simulated neuronic activity even when the
    brain isn’t “working” are under development:


  • All_Day_SCI-fi May 19, 2010, 17:03

    Explain von Neumann machines without addressing address lines. Heresy!