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Robotic Replicators

Centauri Dreams regular Keith Cooper gives us a look at self-replication and the consequences of autonomous probes for intelligent cultures spreading into the universe. Is the Fermi paradox explained by the lack of such civilizations in the galaxy, or is there a far more subtle reason? Keith has been thinking about these matters for some time as editor of both Astronomy Now and Principium, which has just published its fourth issue in its role as the newsletter of the Institute for Interstellar Studies. Intelligent robotic probes, as it turns out, may be achievable sooner than we have thought.

by Keith Cooper


There’s a folk tale that you’ll sometimes hear told around the SETI or physics communities. Back in the 1940s and 50s, at the Los Alamos National Labs, where the first nuclear weapons were built, many physicists of Hungarian extraction worked. These included such luminaries in the field as Leó Szilárd, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and John Von Neumann. When in 1951 their colleague, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, proposed his famous rhetorical paradox – if intelligent extraterrestrial life exists, why do we not see any evidence for them? – the Hungarian contingent responded by standing up and saying, “We are right here, and we call ourselves Hungarians!”

It turns out that the story is apocryphal, started by Philip Morrison, one of the fathers of modern SETI [1]. But there is a neat twist. You see, one of those Hungarians, John Von Neumann, developed the idea of self-replicating automata, which he presented in 1948. Twelve years later astronomer Ronald Bracewell proposed that advanced civilisations may send sophisticated probes carrying artificial intelligence to the stars in order to seek out life and contact it. Bracewell did not stipulate that these probes had to be self replicating – i.e able to build replicas of themselves from raw materials – but the two concepts were a happy marriage. A probe could fly to a star system, build versions of itself from the raw materials that it finds there, and then each daughter probe could continue on to another star, where more probes are built, and so on until the entire Galaxy has been visited for the cost of just one probe.

The combination of Von Neumann machines and Bracewell’s probes made Fermi’s Paradox all the more puzzling. There has been more than enough time throughout cosmic history for one or more civilisations to send out an army of self-replicating probes that could colonise the Galaxy in anywhere between three million and 300 million years [2] [3]. By all rights, if intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe does exist, then they should have colonised the Solar System long before humans arrived on the scene – the essence of Fermi’s Paradox. The conundrum it is about to be compounded further, because human civilisation will have its own Von Neumann probes within the next two to three decades, tops. And if we can do it, so can the aliens, so where are they?

To Build a Replicator

A self-replicator requires four fundamental components: a ‘factory’, a ‘duplicator’, a ‘controller’ and an instruction program. The latter is easy – digital blueprints that can be stored on computer and which direct the factory in how to manufacturer the replica. The duplicator facilitates the copying of the blueprint, while the controller is linked to both the factory and the duplicator, first initiating the duplicator with the program input, then the factory with the output, before finally copying the program and uploading it to the new daughter probe, so it too can produce offspring in the future.

‘Duplicator’, ‘controller’, ‘factory’; these are just words. What are they in real life? In biology, DNA permits replication by following these very steps. DNA’s factory is found in the form of ribosomes, where proteins are synthesised. The duplicators are RNA enzymes and polymerase, while the controllers are the repressor molecules that can control the conveyance of genetic information from the DNA to the ribosomes by ‘messenger RNA’ created by the RNA polymerase. The program itself is encoded into the RNA and DNA, which dictates the whole process.

That’s fine for biological cells; how on earth can a single space probe take the raw materials of an asteroid and turn it into another identical space probe? The factory itself would be machinery to do the mining and smelting, but beyond this something needs to do the job of constructing the daughter probe down to the finest detail. Previously, we had assumed that nanotechnology would do the duplicating, reassembling the asteroidal material into metal paneling, computer circuits and propulsion drives. However, nanotechnology is far from reaching the level of autonomy and maturity where it is able to do this.

Perhaps there is another way, a technology for which we are only now beginning to see its potential. Additive manufacturing or, as it is more popularly known, 3D printing, is being increasingly utilised in more and more areas of technology and construction. Additive manufacturing takes a digital design (the instruction program) and is able to build it up layer by layer, each 0.1mm thick. The factory, in this sense, is then the 3D printer as a whole. The duplicator is the part that lays down the layers while the controller is the computer. It’s not a pure replica in the Star Trek sense, but it can build practically anything, including moving parts, that can otherwise only be manufactured in a real factory.

Gathering Space Resources

3D printing is not the technology of tomorrow; it’s the technology of today. It’s not a suddenly disruptive technology either (well, not in the sense of how it has gradually evolved), having been around in its most basic form since the 1970s and in its current form since 1995. Rather, it is a transformative technology. The reason it is gaining traction in modern society now is because it is becoming affordable, with small 3D printers now costing under $2,000. Within a decade or so, we’ll all have one; they’ll be as ubiquitous as a VCR, cell phone or a microwave. This will have huge consequences for manufacturing, jobs and the economy, potentially destroying large swathes of the supply chains from manufacturing to the purchaser, but, whereas the factory production lines on Earth may dry up, in space new economic opportunities will open up.

As spaceflight transitions from the domain of national space agencies to a wider field of private corporations, economic opportunities in space are already being sought after, including the mineral riches of the asteroids. One company in particular, Deep Space Industries, has already patented a 3D printer that will work in the microgravity of space [4] and they intend to use additive manufacturing to construct communication and energy platforms, space habitats, rocket fuel stations and probes from material mined from asteroids and brought into Earth orbit. For now, they envisage factory facilities in orbit and the asteroids mined will be those that come close to Earth [5]. Nevertheless, it has already been mooted that astronauts on a mission to Mars will be able to take 3D printers with them and, as we utilise asteroids further afield, we’ll start to bundle in the 3D printers with automated probes, creating an industrial infrastructure in space, first across the inner Solar System and then expanding into the outer realms.

Archimedes concept

Image: A ‘fuel harvestor’ concept as developed by Deep Space Industries. Credit: DSI.

Here’s the key; these 3D printers that will sit in orbit and are designed to build habitats or communication platforms, could easily become part of a large probe and be programmed to just build more probes. All of a sudden, we’d have a population of Von Neumann probes on our hands.

Without artificial intelligence, the probes would just be programmed automatons. They’d spend their time flitting from asteroid to asteroid, following the simple programming we have given them, but one day someone is inevitably going to direct them towards the stars. This raises two vital points. One is that if we can build Von Neumann probes, then a technological alien intelligence could surely do the same and their absence is therefore troubling. And two, Von Neumann probes will soon no longer be a theoretical concept and we are going to have to start to decide what we want them to be: explorers, or scavengers.

A Future Beyond Consumption

It seems clear that self-replicating probes will first be used for resource gathering in our own Solar System. Gradually their sphere of influence will begin to edge out into the Kuiper Belt and then the Oort Cloud, halfway to the nearest stars. That may not be for some time, given the distances involved, but when we start sending them to other stars, do we really want them rampaging through another planetary system, consuming everything like a horde of locusts? How would we feel if someone else’s Von Neumann probes entered our Solar System to do the same? Once they are let loose, we need to take responsibility for their behaviour, lest we be considered bad parents for not supervising our creations. That would not be the ‘first contact’ situation we’ve been dreaming of.

On the other hand, Bracewell’s probes were designed for contact, for communication, for the storage and conveyance of information – a far more civilised task. But standards, however low, can be set early. If our Von Neumann probes are only ever used for mining, will we be wise enough to have the vision in the future to appropriate them for other means too? It seems we need to think about how we are going to operate them now, rather than later after the horse has bolted.

And perhaps there lies the answer to Fermi’s Paradox. Maybe intelligent extraterrestrials are more interested in making a good first impression than the incessant consumption of resources. Perhaps that is why the Solar System wasn’t scoured by a wave of Von Neumann probes long ago. The folly of our assumption is that we see all before us as resources to be utilised, but why should intelligent extraterrestrial life share that outlook? Maybe they are more interested in contact than consumption – a criticism that can be levelled at other ideas in SETI, such as Kardashev civilisations and Dyson spheres that have been discussed recently on Centauri Dreams. Perhaps instead there is a Bracewell probe already here, lurking in in a Lagrange point, or in the shadow of an asteroid, watching and waiting to be discovered. If that’s the case, it may be one our own Von Neumann probes that first encounters it – and we want to make sure that we make the right impression with our own probe the day that happens.


[1] H Paul Schuch’s edited collection of SETI essays, SETI: Past, Present and Future, published by Springer, 2011.

[2] Birkbeck College’s Ian Crawford has calculated that the time to colonise the Galaxy could be as little as 3.75 million years, as described in an article in the July 2000 issue of Scientific American.

[3] Frank Tipler’s estimate for the time to colonise the Galaxy was 300 million years, as written in his famous 1980 paper “Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings Do Not Exist,” that appeared in the Royal Astronomical Society’s Quarterly Journal.

[4] Deep Space Industries 22 January 2013 press announcement.

[5] Private correspondence with Deep Space Industries’ CEO, David Gump.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • xcalibur May 8, 2013, 4:01

    It took time to develop this ability. The history of life on Earth shows a progression to higher complexity, there can be no doubt about that. This threshold of culturization was always there, but it took time to cross it. We happen to be the ones who crossed it, but any other species before or after us could have done so with the same effect, sooner or later. We know too little about the nature of this threshold or the nature of intelligence to say when is the right time, therefore there is no conclusion to be drawn from its timing.

    Indeed, culture is what sets us apart. Which is why reading, writing, and keeping records is so vital.

    But, as Rob Henry has said, for an intelligent species the “niche” is the entire Earth. There is no room for a second niche.

    I consider it very unlikely that another species can emerge into intelligence/culture, not with us around to push them into extinction. Unless we decide we want that to happen, then we will facilitate the process, and it will happen even if it had not happened by itself.

    I believed this at first, but what if the two intelligent species are of a very different nature, in different habitats? If there was an aquatic species with intelligence, there would have been little if any possible interference from humans until the modern era. Of course an aquatic environment doesn’t support tools very well; but hypothetically, there could be an exoplanet with intelligent species living above ground and underground with little overlap.

    I would still argue that an intelligent species will tend to monopolize their apex position by taking control of all needed resources, but a divided situation may be possible.

    What do you mean by “so late”? What confidence do you have in your judgement that the time is took is surprisingly long, rather than, say, surprisingly short? I don’t think there is anything here that needs a rational explanation of the sort you are offering.

    It’s hard to judge without another biosphere (preferably several) in order to compare and contrast.
    It is known that life started at least 3 billion years ago, and the Cambrian Explosion occurred ~542 million years ago. Anatomically modern humans appeared 200,000 years ago, and behaviorally modern humans came along 50,000 years ago. Life slowly built up, gradually accelerating as more complex beings evolved. It does not seem like intelligence happened easily, especially with the dinosaurs preventing it (unless they had the potential for eventual intelligence, though their cold blood makes that unlikely.) Intelligence is more like a capstone that occurs after considerable development and with some luck. 4 billion years seems like a long time, especially in comparison to the brief window of human existence.

    But, without another biology to study, all I have is educated guesses on the emergence of intelligence. Did it take a few billion years for life to get to this point out of difficulty or low odds, or is that how it always works? I can’t say with certainty.

  • Alex Tolley May 8, 2013, 11:56

    Dinosaurs – at least some lineages were likely warm blooded. It isn’t impossible that one of the therapods could have become more intelligent.


    Consider the theories about human intelligence. We had very low level technology (e.g. the same flint axe designs for a million years) which may have been related to our intelligence. There is idea that perhaps cooking allowed our brains to enlarge as the energy for eating and digestion declined. That has to be a fortuitous change. Finally, what if our larger brains are sex selected as has been suggested. This last is a very random choice.

    Intelligence, however measured, has not been progressively increasing as measured by some species, but rather has had a much more irregular climb. But if we look back just 1 million years, humans, while probably more intelligent than their primate cousins, were unable to use that intelligence to develop more than a rudimentary technology. The “culture explosion”, starting sometime around 40 kya seems to have kicked off the more rapid cultural and technological changes that separated us from our close ancestors. Finally, it was only about 250 years ago that the industrial revolution started that quickly elevated us to our present level.

    None of these later events should be considered “inevitable”. In consequence, it is possible for life to be common in the universe, but there to be no inevitable star traveling technology to emerge.

  • Eniac May 8, 2013, 22:56


    If there was an aquatic species with intelligence, there would have been little if any possible interference from humans until the modern era.

    True, but the modern era is what makes all the difference. It is the very short period of time during which we have taken posession of the Earth. If there was another species, it might have competed with us to reach this stage, but whoever got there first would in the end be the only one, pretty much by definition. In other words, it is not very plausible for the Earth to be ruled by two species of our caliber at the same time.

    None of these later events should be considered “inevitable”.

    Perhaps not. However, in my opinion they are, as a consequence of the evolutionary drive towards better and better performance. It does not matter that the breakthroughs are random. If there are enough different ways, and enough time for one of them to be found by chance, the result can come arbitrarily close to inevitability. Like rising water behind a dam. You do not know where it will start breaking, or when, or how, it is a random process. But, break it eventually will.

  • Eniac May 8, 2013, 22:59

    Ooops, I forgot to annotate the second quote above. It was by Alex Tolley, not xcalibur.

  • Rob Henry May 9, 2013, 4:32

    Xcalibur, when Eniac or anyone else, postulates that intelligent life on Earth built up quickly, the reasoning tends not to be over 4 billion years. It’s more like this…

    Intelligent life is only likely if there is several thousand pascals of O2, and the rate at which it builds up is dependent on the rate of hydrogen loss through the exosphere, the rate at which reductants are brought to the surface through volcanism, and the rate at of production, deposition and burial of photosynthetically created organics. These factors would be unique to each planet and its biosphere, and so O2 would appear at very different rates on them.

    For that reason your starting the clock around the Cambrian explosion was reasonable, and intelligent life springing forth in just 5% of the lifespan of our sun once O2 levels allowed it, begins to look remarkably fast.

  • xcalibur May 9, 2013, 4:59

    Indeed Alex, I appreciate the elaboration on those points. I believe there’s plenty of simple life, a fair amount of more complex life, with intelligence being relatively rare. Of course, we need more samples – but it does seem like intelligence requires multiple factors and catalysts to develop, rather than emerging from a smooth rise. There are even more variables in becoming a star-faring species, and it’s plausible that some ETI may not take that step.

  • Dmitri May 9, 2013, 9:48

    African forest started change to grassland / savanna before 12 million years ago (1). Savannas were fully developed 6 million years ago (2). Human bipedalism developed around 6-4 million years ago (1). For the moment oldest fossils of the first bipedal ancestor discovered is 4.4 million years old and it lived in forest, not in savanna (3). Oldest Australopithecus afarensis, 400 000 older than Lucy, is 3.6 million years old (4). Well there is also Ardi, 4.4 million years, predecessor of Lucy genus (13). Tree dwelling ancestors as far as 3 million years back had bipedal traits (9). Change in ancestor diet dates back as far as 3-3.5 million years thanks to Australopithecus bahrelghazali. The carbon analysis and other methods shows presence of grass type in the teeth and we lack of evidence them eating grass-eating animals. The finding is best indication change to diverse diet. Humans had clearly diverse year-around diet over different seasons as fas as 1.8 million years back (8). Clear distinction in brain development between apes and early humans ancestor dates back as far as 2 million years. Due to lack of more substantial evidence the exact reign of Australopithecus sediba is unknown yet they were before Homo habilis, first in homo genus, dating back as far as 2.3 – 1.4 million years (7). Bipedalims was fully developed as far as 1.5 million years back (5), which developed over 2.2 million years (10). Homini exodus form the cradle of humanity has happened in 4 – 5 waves far back as 1.8 – 1.6 million years. Carbon dating shows the partial lower jaw found in a Serbian cave 2007 is at least 397,000 years old and could even be older than 525,000 years (11). This is such an important find that now there is discussion about the Balkan Gate and the Balkans importance in human migration as the Western and Central Europe was at that time in Ice Age and the migration path show towards Asia. The last human migration is considered to happen around 120 000 – 75 000 years back, with claims it might reach as far as 180 000 years back. First signs of human cognition can be traced back to 170 000 years (12). It somehow suggest that it much older than that. Climate in Africa started to shift 200 000 years ago (12). It’s in ballpark with end of last Ice Age. DNA mutation necessary for speaking happened 72000 – 45 000. The frequency of mutation started to incorporate to human DNA 50 000 years back (14). The same mutation gene is present in birds. There is a hypothesis human language evolved from birdsong (15). When juxtapose with babies congenital trait to distinguish language on 6th pregnancy month (16) it makes a bizarre mix when consider taht birds are successors of dinosaurs. Human oldest erected complex is Göbleki Tepe, 20 000 years old. Human oldest survived evidence of written language , the Sumerian slates, 7000 years old.

    Ancestors had chance to evolve 10 million years prior they actually started
    to diverge into Homini genus. Even with bipedalism it took 3 million years before we started migrating outside Africa. 2 million years before emergence of cognitive abilities. 120 000 years to language gene mutation. 10 000 to Homini making to Europe where Neanderthals are present. 20 000 years to Göbleki Tepe. 13 000 years to first evidence of written language. 400 years of science.

    The whole human evolution is just a bizarre fluke. If you take away written language we won’t have today’s modern society but it would not throw us back in stone age. It will severely hinder communication and will lead back to tribal / close proximity complex social interaction. Killer whales teach their cubs how to beach and grab seals. That trait is not innate, they are scared to beach as it might inevitably lead to be stranded and to their death. Mothers forcefully push their cubs towards the beach to teach the technique. Yes, marine mammals don’t have tools or written language but they pass on knowledge. It’s a bit tricky where would they keep their artefacts consider the marine environment specifics. Do they communicate with other litter (tribe?) is probably unknown but dolphins can interact w/ each other over long distances, resembling somehow human telepathy. 75% of Earth is water. That means dolphins and marine mammals have bigger and different environment compared to humans to settle. As the goal of DNA is to adapt and survive in accordance to environment conditions the ways of adaption will be different also all the other higher intelligent traits will be affected. When Gandalf blows a sailboat from the beast leaves from Shire we abstract it. It’s just a movie, we can’t do it in real life, but substitute inability by extrapolating into an imaginary world. Dolphis on other hand can do due to their environment specifics – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMCf7SNUb-Q. There would not be need for such abstraction if the environment naturally allowed it. Would humans need a language if they could telepathically connect over vast distances? Dolphins recognize themselves in mirror as we do, which means the have ERGO – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YBYU1eayaXs. They way we reasearch humans and other mammals is still the 18th century. The $10bn for a next decade to increase resolution of human brain scanning would give a quantum leap in the area as the goal is to extract the human thoughts as they appear in brain. Using such a technique on dolphins would open completely new chapter how we perceive them. This is not anymore an empirical observation. We could actually see what the brain does and how it works. Because they have not evolved to a level where we are (tools, written language) it’s difficult to understand them as we lack tools to make it comprehendbale for us.

    There are people who are calling to treate dolphins as non-human persons (17). Also their level of cognition raises many ethical questions (18).

    (1) http://phys.org/news/2013-01-long-held-theories-human-evolution.html
    (2) http://phys.org/news/2011-08-million-years-savanna.html
    (3) http://phys.org/news174218847.html
    (4) http://phys.org/news196350234.html
    (5) http://phys.org/news154880690.html
    (6) http://phys.org/news/2012-11-human-ancestors-grasses-earlier-thought.html
    (7) http://phys.org/news/2011-09-human-brain-evolution-insight-x-rays.html
    (8) http://phys.org/news82304368.html
    (9) http://phys.org/news188289229.html
    (10) http://phys.org/news/2011-07-ancient-footprints-human-like-began-million.html
    (11) http://phys.org/news/2013-02-human-fossil-eastern-europe-important.html
    (12) http://phys.org/news191176909.html
    (13) http://phys.org/news173615221.html
    (14) http://phys.org/news/2013-02-language-uniquely-ushuman.html
    (15) http://phys.org/news/2013-02-human-language-evolved-birdsong.html
    (16) http://phys.org/news176636288.html
    (17) http://phys.org/news181981904.html
    (18) http://phys.org/news185729677.html

  • James Jason Wentworth May 9, 2013, 10:59

    Dmitri wrote:

    [Last year July in Saaremaa (biggest island in Estonia and Baltic Sea) was a severe thunder storm. Lightning hit somewhere nearby at least once. Next day the trails and destruction of ball lightning was discovered. What makes wonder is how inanimate object, a ball of plasma, could behave like conscious being having human like traits and spatial knowledge – or at least the trails let to think so. All the descriptions in captions. The pictures were taken 2 weeks later.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/88736981@N08/sets/72157633415260283/ ]

    Wow–at least when a ball lightning “bolt” passed through the breezeway of my great-grandmother’s house, it only pulled up splinters from the breezeway’s wooden floor, beneath its path–nothing was charred! Also:

    You are definitely onto something regarding animal intelligence–*and* what humans’ failures to notice it imply for the possibility (and even the probability) of humans failing to recognize alien intelligence. In his 1975 book “Talking with Horses” (available from AbeBooks.com http://www.abebooks.com booksellers), the veteran English horseman Henry Blake made extensive references to the experiences of the dolphin trainer, film crew, and actors during the filming of the movie “The Day of the Dolphin.” Their conclusions were that they were either going mad, or the dolphins really *were* comparable in intelligence to human beings; since they all witnessed those phenomena of the dolphins, they opted for the latter conclusion. In addition:

    In “Talking with Horses,” Henry Blake presented the data from 20 years of scientific experiments (which included control groups and data reduction) that he and his wife Leslie had conducted with the horses on their farm (including wild ponies they had acquired from the surrounding mountains). He included complete descriptions of the experiment set-ups in the book, so that anyone could duplicate the experiments (none of which were harmful to the horses). Plus:

    As a result of their experiments, they were able to compile a dictionary of the equine vocal/visual/tactile language (which is included in the book). It includes several different “dialects” (variations of some of the same expressions), as well as expressions that domesticated horses have developed to communicate with humans; those particular expressions are unknown to–and not understandable by–wild horses, as he found. As well:

    Another discovery that they made regarding horses, which indicated that they have greater intelligence than is commonly assumed (and this was supported by the accounts of the people involved in filming “The Day of the Dolphin,” which Henry Blake discovered late in his and Leslie’s equine experiment series), is something that the British biologist Dr. Rupert Sheldrake http://www.sheldrake.org is doing research on: Namely, animal-to-animal, animal-to-human, and human-to-human extra-sensory perception and telepathy. And:

    Veterinarians commonly use both of these mental communication methods to help diagnose their non-human patients’ maladies (particularly non-visible internal pain sites), although most are reticent to discuss it. Henry Blake’s equine veterinarian reluctantly admitted to it, and I personally know two large-animal veterinarians who use them to help diagnose their patients’ problems. Being a horseman myself, I have experienced such communication from horses; that old saying, “There is no greater secret than that between a rider and his horse” is an acknowledgement of this. Now:

    This is common knowledge among horsemen and veterinarians, but its reality is denied by most scientists (Dr. Rupert Sheldrake is a rare exception). He has great difficulty in even persuading dissenting scientists to conduct similar experiments (even quick, informal ones when he has appeared on television programs to debate them) in order to prove him wrong; they just pronounce the whole subject “absurd”–which is *not* scientific. When he has asked them why they don’t want to look into this subject, they usually reply that positive results would fundamentally change current models of cognition, and perhaps even current understanding of physical laws (it’s not like *that* has never happened before in science…). My guess–and it is only a guess, as I’ve never met those people–is that their human “pride of primacy” would be shattered if they learned that other animals, even “dumb” ones such as horses, can think and express their thoughts. How much more humiliated would such people be if they encountered an intelligent alien?

  • ljk May 9, 2013, 14:26

    James Jason Wentworth said on May 9, 2013 at 10:59:

    “When he has asked them why they don’t want to look into this subject, they usually reply that positive results would fundamentally change current models of cognition, and perhaps even current understanding of physical laws (it’s not like *that* has never happened before in science…). My guess–and it is only a guess, as I’ve never met those people–is that their human “pride of primacy” would be shattered if they learned that other animals, even “dumb” ones such as horses, can think and express their thoughts. How much more humiliated would such people be if they encountered an intelligent alien?”

    I have always considered this to be one of the factors in our lack of real evidence for ETI, that many humans – especially those in positions of authority (and not just political, please note) – would be thrown for a loop if we encountered beings much smarter and more powerful than themselves.

    It is one thing to live in a vast and ancient Universe far bigger and older than Earth, for after all, it can be kept at a distance often enough and most humans cannot grasp just how large and ancient space is beyond the intellectual level. However, should an ETI send us messages or especially show up in our Sol system as living and well functioning beings, that is something they likely are not and will not be able to cope with any time soon, even if the aliens are non-hostile.

    So better to make ETI look silly and even unrealistic, or even as just potential threats rather than expand humanity into a wider realm and thus reduce the ability for terrestrial authorities to maintain control over the populace. Keeping SETI poorly funded is another device in their armory as well.

    Religion plays a very similar role for similar reasons in the ETI search as well. A collection of advanced beings who can live for ages, know so much more than we do, and have technologies that resemble what we would call magic are all potential threats to organizations that claim supreme knowledge about an all-powerful being that conveniently only talks to and through them for the masses.

    One day, humanity is in for a shock much bigger than finding out that Earth circles Sol. Our reactions will determine whether we are as smart and “worthy” as we think we are, or if we discover that the reason ETI have not contacted us is that they cannot really differentiate us from the rest of the fauna on this planet.

  • Alex Tolley May 9, 2013, 20:28

    Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas/theories are very much out of the mainstream – mainly because there is no mechanism known for them to work.

    When dealing with intelligence, it is really important not to fool oneself. Humans project agency even onto inanimate objects. When the phenomena is brought to the lab, it tends to disappear. Imbuing ball lightening with “intelligent” behavior is probably projection.

    OTOH, we also have to be careful not to measure intelligence only using human yardsticks, for example being able to speak.

  • xcalibur May 9, 2013, 22:55

    True, but the modern era is what makes all the difference. It is the very short period of time during which we have taken posession of the Earth. If there was another species, it might have competed with us to reach this stage, but whoever got there first would in the end be the only one, pretty much by definition. In other words, it is not very plausible for the Earth to be ruled by two species of our caliber at the same time.

    If there were two species with intelligence and aggression, building civilizations on the same planet… it’s highly likely that they would be in continuous warfare and conflict. Considering the amount of bloodshed in our own species history over resources and trivial differences, I could only imagine how much more intense the competition would be between two different species.

    Still, if there was a great difference between their available habitats (e.g. land vs ocean), it is plausible that they could co-exist. Though it is more likely that there would be overlap, causing various degrees of violence, and possibly culminating in genocide if one race gained a decisive advantage over the other.

    For that reason your starting the clock around the Cambrian explosion was reasonable, and intelligent life springing forth in just 5% of the lifespan of our sun once O2 levels allowed it, begins to look remarkably fast.

    I’ll conclude by acknowledging that it’s hard to judge without other biology’s to compare to.

    You are definitely onto something regarding animal intelligence–*and* what humans’ failures to notice it imply for the possibility (and even the probability) of humans failing to recognize alien intelligence.

    Telepathy is far-fetched. However, I will agree that animal intelligence is consistently higher than what humans assume it to be. It reminds me of the old view of dinosaurs as being lumbering, dumb brutes, before the dinosaur renaissance corrected the academic and scientific view. The universe is generally bigger, stranger, and more complex than it is assumed to be. The fact that exoplanets are common, when so many scientists doubted them, is another step in that direction. I’m led to believe that there is ETI, but it won’t be like the cultural projections of aliens.

  • Eniac May 10, 2013, 0:39

    Dmitri, James Jason Wentworth: You are correct that animals have intelligence. However, the notion that it is on a similar level as ours is patently absurd.

    Whale mothers may nudge their cubs to the beach to teach them not to beach (seem couterproductive, to me, though…). We sit ours down in schools 5 hours a day, 12 years of their lives. You want to tell me that there is not an enormous difference between these behaviors?

    A whale cub may remember her Mom’s lesson and not beach herself as easily. A human kid will learn about (and from) hundreds of long dead other humans such as Dostoyevsky, William Shakespeare or George Washington, providing her with inspiration and experience no ordinary mom ever could. Much less a whale. You want to tell me that there is not an enormous difference between these behaviors?

    Gigantic quantitative differences in cognition and learning aside, the key difference between us and any animals is qualitative: Only we are able to externalize our thoughts. We do not require brain scans to “to extract the human thoughts as they appear in brain”. We can do this naturally, using language.

    Animals have “language”, too, you say. True, they can say “there is food”, or “here comes a predator”, or “I submit to your leadership”. But that is not “extracting thought”. Compare it with, say, a book. A human author can recreate (or create) complex situations, personalities, and entire lives in exquisite detail. A book (or a story) is pure extracted thought, which can be replayed in the minds of others with astoundingly high fidelity. Sometimes rivalling or exceeding the intensity of actual experience. You want to tell me that there are cetacean storytellers out there in the ocean secretly doing the same thing? We just haven’t figued it out yet? I do not believe you.

  • Dmitri May 10, 2013, 5:50

    Third of human brain is dedicated to visual perception. That’s why we see creatures in cummulus or enjoy flocks of birds in flight creating dynamic solenoid patters. We don’t percieve them as conscious or living. Maybe it’s the case with perception of the world around us. The twinkling stars don’t call to them, it’s just an atmospheric perturbation which we percieve as the call for the stars. We regard human’s intelligent indistinguishable trait ability to percieve spatial surrounding with all senses. If inanimate thing such as ball lightning senses the same spatial surrounding in the way we comprehend, the human traits starting to be attribitued. This is most possibly the Magic Arthur C. Clarke talked. If inanimate object enters through door and in case if it’s closed makes the way through, but also exits through a solid object in the point where it percieves the gate opening to be, makes you wonder of cognitions and sensing the surrounding to be able make through so one spends minimum energy to wander around. This is the point where we either don’t understand the world around or the world around doesn’t care as our plains of existence does not overlap – earth, water, air, and incomprehensible dimension.

    There are moments where clearly mumbo-jumbo or voodoo things keep coming back gleaning a bigger picture over timespan, which starting to question the very belives you took granted.

    How insects with short lifespan (by our terms) know their function in world? How does bee know what it has to do right after hatching? Or ant it’s function in the ultimately complex hive society? How does spider know that in order to travel vast distances – even in our terms vast distances – you have to let to hang a longer thread of the spider silk and wind will carry up to 12km high, bringing you on places where you’ve never been before and still you do such things. Could it be DNA has memroy of these past knowledges? Could it be DNA is not just a tool to adapt to environmental picularities to allow survival of extremely complex creatures it creates but it halso carries the memroy, information and other important heritage? Do humans remember past due to education or there maybe other sources of sudden knowledge?

    Let’s come down to Earth in this far fetched idea, let’s go back to a recent news of 4th stage of water. Requoting my earlier post:
    “A fresh paper has been published regarding a new state water can be called body centered cubic (bcc). In principle it’s a state where oxygens forms lattice where hydrogen molecules can float around and is very stable. More stable than previous exotic state called face centered cubic (fcc). The team assumes the implication is directly related to Uranus and Neptune ice properties and geology.


    Gerald Pollack had a key note in January 2013 on “Electrically Structured Water” (find on YT) where he explains the principle down do earth. That’s fine. That’s is fine until you bump into this study:

    Water has Memory – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILSyt_Hhbjg

    I am sorry, but water as conduit of information? Structuring water by talking to it? Homoeopathy as science and not realm of lunatics?

    Thing is it might sound sarcastic but it has been coming back so many times in unprepared circumstances that it has gleaned into something which I have troubles to comprehend but starting to accept as possible way of nature.

    Human is mostly water. If water can “carry” “structured” “information” then we knwo for sure DNA carries it. But it also contains mostly of water and organic components. If we think for a second of robot replicators then their capability of reproducing themselfs and carry on instantly the purpose they are destined to born – yes, born, not created as ant is born into a functional being it does not morph into it – then the DNA (or “DNA”) the robotic replicators carry would be sufficent them to act according to their general destiny but also be hive minded entity. I can’t say much about concsiousness as it depends heavily on percieving past and future. If we assume for a second that DNA might carry legacy of far past then do the robotic replicators have concsious?

    Magic (Arthur C. Clarke)

  • ljk May 10, 2013, 9:50

    I am not a cetacean expert but from what I have read over the years, whale communication appears to be more complex than merely pointing out food, danger, and mates.

    I cannot remember the source but I read that humpback whale “songs” are more complex than human language. Perhaps because it is visual it has to be, but since whales do not have the means to convey information via books or the internet and their songs can be heard over thousands of miles of ocean, is it so hard to imagine that such forms of communication are about a bit more than krill?

    Here are some sources for further intellectual chewing:




    It is a good thing Sagan and company put a humpback whale song on the Voyager Interstellar Record. It may be the only terrestrial language ETI understand. :^)

    This is one of several big reasons why I want SETI to succeed: We need more than this one data point called Earth.

  • Rob Flores May 10, 2013, 16:00

    More likely, WE will have to shape an existing species
    into sentience to meet an alien mind. More probable than meeting ETIs out there in the solitude of empty worlds.

    I nominate our avian friends, (enough with the primates)

  • xcalibur May 10, 2013, 18:40

    To clarify further – while I believe that animal intelligence is greater than most assume, I wouldn’t credit them with human level cognition. It seems very far-fetched. While it’s difficult to prove what is happening in an animals mind, there are external signs of intelligence that are missing. In particular, we do not see technology, highly organized societies, and written records.

    While eusocial colonies fulfill the first two conditions, each individual is a mote driven by DNA, not an independent actor. In fact, the most plausible hypothesis for animal intelligence I can think of is the idea that a eusocial colony is a single sentient mind.

  • Eniac May 10, 2013, 23:59

    @LJK: I think the standard hypothesis for whale song is that they are mating calls, very similar to frog calls, bird song, cricket chirps, firefly light signals, and countless others. Most of them have extremely complex structure, but their semantics is very simple and universal: “I am here, I am real and I am what you are looking for. Come here and take me!”

    The apparent complexity is for authentication. Many a firefly has been eaten by predatory mimics that attract prey the same way a firefly of the opposite gender would. This competition between mating and predation (and also just the need for sufficient specificity in finding a mate of the same species) gives rise to the astounding complexity of mating signals, which has nothing to do with the complexity of the transmitted message.

    The further calls carry, the more complex they must be to be made out against the din of competing calls. In the case of whales, calls reach across entire oceans, which would well explain why they might be more complex than those of, say, birds. Mind you, I rather doubt they are. Bird song is pretty complex.

    If whales could talk, we would have long since learned their language and would be talking with them since ancient times. As codes go, language is one of the easier ones to crack. It does not matter whether human or alien. We have cracked much harder codes, of the variety that is intentionally designed to be undecipherable.

  • Eniac May 11, 2013, 0:10

    Before you remark that whales might not want to talk to us, let me remind you that we have no trouble at all finding individuals who are willing to literally jump through hoops at the slightest of hand signals in order to stay in our graces and be fed. Not exactly a sign of superior intelligence, but certainly one of the will to communicate.

  • Rob Henry May 11, 2013, 22:16

    Eniac, I agree that whale songs are most likely mating songs, but they (at least the famous humpback ones) do vary slowly over time, just as we would expect of storytellers. They also sometimes display other interesting commonalities with true language, as we have discussed before on these pages. I also find it interesting that many species seem to use personal names.

    I also agree that all those species that have been held in captivity, have been proven to be less intelligent than humans to a very high level of certainty. I am, however, uncomfortable with you making the same claim about those that have never been captive to us.

    Even here I concede that what data we do have on them is sufficient to imply a lower level of intelligence in them with one exception. This is the bit where I am beginning to sound a little obsessed, but, once again, I plead that we really really new more data on sperm whales.

  • Dmitri May 12, 2013, 6:03

    This is just-in. Hominis did hunt at least 2 000 000 years ago.

  • xcalibur May 12, 2013, 10:48

    I concur that we need more data in general on other species and the natural world. There are many blanks to fill in.

    As for animal’s will to communicate to us, an anecdote:

    Recently, I was walking through my college campus, my head dazed from finals week (also why I’ve been slow replying here). There are geese on my campus, and I came upon a group of them, with goslings, drinking from a puddle. As I approached, an adult goose looked around at me. And as I passed by, it reared up and hissed at me. I kept going and didn’t bother them. And although me and that goose only have the Chordata phylum in common, I clearly understood the message: “Don’t mess with my young”.

  • Dmitri May 12, 2013, 13:21

    In the 19th century Brockhaus Enzyklopädie ( German-language encyclopedia published by Brockhaus) described someone as follwing.

    “Has long torso, thick and stumpy legs, long and pencile hands, keeps palm of the hands outwards”

    Who is it about? Feels like about a primate, right? (*)

    It is not us vs they or us vs them. It is why we don’t encounter technological intelligence – no evident evidence. It is knowing the truth. How the world and univers is set up.

    * Does intelligent produce technological progress?
    * How intelligence emerges?
    * Does it diverge?
    * To which extent?
    * How much surrounding and the environment hinders intelligence progression?

    No need to convert to a beliver – we need arguments from both side. Truth is always stranger than fiction.

    The water world is acoustic world, not big need for visual perception, no boundaries on communication distance, not tactile one like ours, vast disctances, thrice as much space – better escape from predators and less stressfull life, nowhere to set the foot, let smth inanimate loose and you lose it.

    Eating fish for crow means pecking – intestines, piece by piece, swallow the remining whole. Eating fish for seagull – gobble, even if clearly choke. Adaptation. Intellilgence survival adaptation trait based on the piculiarities of environment. On the sea there is no place for pecking. Same genus, different strategies.

    Would have had a far located technological society recognized existence of intelligent life on Earth by analyzing it’s atmosphere during Pliocene Epoch? During Jurassic Period? This is important. Would James Webb Space Telescope recognise, not just is the planet habbitable. is there intelligent life. We *can* recognise tehcnological life if we spot it. Does habitable means there is life what we expect to be intelligent? We even haven’t raised such a question.

    Can’t answer because lack substantial evidence? Look for what one’ve got! Take the water world. Imagine such a world with climate is Venus like, which has developed into world where water is present as thicker clots in the atmosphere but no seas. Not a single obstacle to evolve within the whole planet’s astomsphere – from ground to upper atmosphere. If there would emerge an apex intelligence would we regard it as intelligent? Say something like octopus-squid-jellyfish crossbreed, tentacles kilometer long, trawling food from the surrounding, tribal complex social life.

    Take the Earth’s sea and turn upside down – thrice the Earth. Properties like in the sea – can’t have tools or slates, as let loose will lose it. Falls to the ground – for us, bottom. No limitation where to go. Communication over *vast* distances, no obstacles. No need for visual perception, maybe, but not as strong as might assume. Echolocation and sound / noise propagation best possible. Just fly around, take care, live long, enjoy the life, no hurry, no worry. Technical progress? What’s that? What for? What technological advanced pink earthlings?

    If we would discount available analogy we would not recognize seeing it. One can abstract from analogy and notice divergence. If divergences of analogy is understood then basis of emergence is more evident, comprehensible, acceptable.

    Bottle nose dolphins, the ones live in rivers, do have human traits – kill for pleasure, bully other litters and animals, fearcly dominant, gang rape, abduct and keep in captivity femal dolphins. There is something similar w/ us regardless are they are they not copy of us.

    (*) It was at that time widely accepted picture of Estonian by Baltic-German landlords. To be exact the description was about Estonian peasant, but it makes no difference. Nothing wrong with it at that time. Unacceptable nowadays.

    Before Darwin it was blasphemy to say man was a descendant of ape.

  • Eniac May 12, 2013, 14:27

    Rob Henry:

    I agree that whale songs are most likely mating songs, but they (at least the famous humpback ones) do vary slowly over time, just as we would expect of storytellers.

    If there really were stories, we would not need to resort to such superficial characteristics as “vary slowly in time”. We would be busy identifying the intricacies of grammar and vocabulary. Or rather, we would have finished this long ago and be seeing dolphins on talk shows, regularly.

  • Eniac May 12, 2013, 19:34

    xcalibur: I love the goose story. It illustrates perfectly how widespread primitive communication is among animals, and how we ourselves are still steeped in it. All that abstract stuff, the source of our great power, has been propped uncomfortably on top in a hurry. Underneath, we still snarl at each other and use all the other messages and behaviors that animals have since way back.

  • Alex Tolley May 12, 2013, 22:51

    @Dimitri – we have what is called an extended phenotype. The extension is our shaping of the environment. We shape the environment, make artifacts, which in turn shape us. Our culture and the artifacts we produce help us bootstrap and develop our abilities (but not raw intelligence).

    However intelligent our aquatic cousins, their extended phenotype is very limited, reducing their ability to develop. Whether that can be overcome on an extra solar aquatic world, can only be speculation.

    @others on whale song – my understanding is that the informational complexity level is well below that of human language. While we may be missing signals in our recordings of them, AFAIK, there is not the complexity we associate with human languages.

  • ljk May 13, 2013, 9:46

    I guess my next question would be, why did the dinosaurs apparently fail to produce someone as smart as humanity if not smarter? They were on Earth for 160 million years. Cetaceans can trace their ancestry back to about 30 million years.

    So how did we humans get so relatively smart in just a few million years on this planet? Indeed it would seem our switch from hunters and gatherers to a civilized society all happened in a matter of seconds on the cosmic scale.


    By the way, I am not completely naive when it comes to cetaceans and primates. As we have come to learn more about such creatures as dolphins and chimpanzees since the 1960s, they turn out to be rather nasty sorts. So does this mean that the smarter you get, the meaner you are? That the “gift” of intelligence and awareness is to increase your selfishness and cruelty because such things give you emotional pleasure and a sense of power and control?

    If that is the case, and biological evolution is fundamentally similar across the Universe as has been speculated, then we better hope the ETI that are able to conduct space colonization and interstellar travel have grown into the equivalent of peace-loving monks along with their technological progress. Either that or we better also hope that Sagan was right about “bad” societies destroying themselves before they can get off their home worlds and spreading their own brand of evil to others.

    Then we can get into the whole debate about what is good or evil for a species and those they might encounter. Now there is complexity for you.

  • ljk May 13, 2013, 10:50

    Here is a piece that should leave anyone with a working brain and a sense of ethics staying up at night pondering the implications:


  • Dmitri May 14, 2013, 4:24

    Reason why I brought in the Venus analogy is because of Leonid Ksanfomaliti (Леонид Ксанфомалити) interview who made in 2012 claim of likely existence of life on Venus. It was poorely received news and easily discarded as unlikely even by NASA because we all know that can’t be true. Does not fit the big picture.



    He was a scientist in Venus program, installed ligthning detector, seismic measurer and mic on the craft to listen what it’s sounds like on Venus. He made the same claim in 1974 purely based what the pictures show. They were poor quality, they could have been interpreted as one likes. Was mocked about it. He does not claim that there *is* life but does not rule out based on telemetric data and the pictures. Being perplex nobody seemed to want digitally processed the pictures with modern tools, he started it himself. Consulted with Kardashev on possibilities of Venus atmosphere and liquids. Venus can’t sustain water – 100 atm, +460C on ground level, above 50 km is highly concentrated H2SO4 1 micron droplets, between 50-20 km H2SO4 haze, below 50 km is fairly trasparent. The H2SO4 is basis of Venuse’s atmospheric circulation. Water is 1 part per 100 000, the most. Physicst consulted them that there are plenty of possible liquids in these circumstances but they have other properties, nothing like on Earth. The engineers who build the Venus cameras later aknowledge that they don’t like his recent conclusions but can’t explain otherwise what the pictures show. NASA’s claim was that these are pieces fall off the craft. If the craft would have such failure, it would not have worked next 66 minutes. The wind blow at that time 0.4 m/s – it makes force of 0.08N. A breeze. If something appears in one picture and if you take next one later then if the object is missing it has to be moveable. A 150 mm thing does not just do the disapearing game. The detail all the other miss is the craft on landing hit the ground with 50G force, knocked off the ground chunks. The craft was dragged little to the side. One of the cameras pointed to the spot where it happened and the appearing-dissapearing object was in the area.

    Ksanfomaliti claims we are so content water and carbon based life we easily discard other possibilities. There is some water and if there is life then it’s not carbon based and it’s with very slow metabolism. Not all life on Earth needs sun or oxygen – photosynthesis might be basis of energy. Day side of Venus has 3,9 klux of light. He actually makes convincing arguments and his reasoning is sound.

    In Russian, no subs – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI0EOucWt2A

    If we get lucky in 2024 (2016 is postponed) a craft will head towards Venus – Venera D (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venera-D)


  • Dmitri May 23, 2013, 3:14

    We have a saying – fits like a fist into the eye-socket.

    This is exceptionally well made web service putting time progression in visual perspective.


  • ljk October 1, 2013, 0:40

    Why Didn’t ETs, Or Self Replicating Machines, Colonize Our Solar System Millions Of Years Ago?

    By Robert Walker | September 28th 2013 07:13 PM

    In “Asteroid Resources Could Create Space Habs For Trillions; Land Area Of A Thousand Earths” I looked at a possible future where humans could colonize space and build habitats using materials from the asteroids. Later on, once we have fusion power able to build miniature suns to warm our new habs ,it would be easy to spread to the Oort cloud. Then, since Oort clouds of stars mingle, we would be well on our way to colonization of the galaxy

    So, why haven’t ETs colonized the galaxy already? It would be an extraordinary coincidence for an ET to evolve even as recently as a hundred million years ago, leaving plenty of time to colonize the galaxy. At first sight it seems unlikely that we could be the first civilization in our galaxy.

    So ETs should have colonized our solar system and the Earth millions of years ago. Where are they?

    Full article here: