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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

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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.

References

[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.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • GaryChurch April 30, 2013, 3:07

    “Since we will be able to beam data to reprogram any interstellar craft, one does not have to figure out how to create a self-replicating probe at the time of launch.”

    Hi John.
    In terms of freezing people one does not have to figure out how to reverse aging at the time of launch. We could concievably send senior citizens on their way to the stars with the assurance that when they are revived down the road they will not be old anymore. Actually I would predict they would be transferred to much faster ships with a century or two and perhaps revived to enjoy a time dilated wide awake voyage of a few years to their destination.

    But do not mistake what I am talking about for cryonics; I am discussing a revivable procedure.

  • JD April 30, 2013, 3:13

    Hmm this thread still continues… Adam, your proposal that we may be the “Elders” has merit. There are few possible scenarios that fit the observed data. Our galaxy is not even close to middle age yet and people rarely stop to think about how dangerous the galactic environment is until you graph time span over known dangers. Seriously, after giving it thought I’m surprised life on our planet has made it past the sponges. We’re still in danger. We are approaching the point now that our species could probably survive most planetary or even system level “reset” events. There appears to be no imminent stellar/galactic events that place us in danger so maybe just maybe we have a chance to leave the cradle and our species has a shot at immortality. My own opinion, we’ve been incredibly lucky so far.

    Tarmen, why does the concept of humanity possibly being the first intelligent life form to have a shot at spreading through this galaxy seem impossible or somehow wrong? Denying the possibility because humans are “egotistical” makes no sense. Some planetary species would have to be first so why not humanity? The laws of probability don’t care .

  • Anthony Mugan April 30, 2013, 4:26

    @JohnHunt, Vershner and Rob Henry.

    A very interesting question as to why some arbitrarily advanced ETI might not wish to make contact (and presumably the options are that they don’t wish to or they don’t exist – with the latter being not impossible but less likely than the first).
    There is a considerable risk of assuming ‘they’ will think like us – the incommensurability problem may be significant here. Assuming we can presume our logic is the same as theirs, options (including those already mentioned) might include:
    a) Concern for the impact of culture shock on the primitive culture
    b) Pragmatic considerations of not wanting to have to deal with a potentially unstable new culture rapidly acquiring new technological toys from the advanced ETI – we could be a problem that they just don’t need to bother about right now.
    c) They may not need to overtly contact us – any operational purposes they may have in the local area could be conducted with sufficiently stealthy technology as to be de facto undetectable
    d) They may simply not be interested in planets like ours – particularly not ones with all sorts of potential complications presented by the locals.
    e) They may be very interested – but not in us…or not in something that that would think of at this time (e.g. the Romans may not have thought about oil for example)
    f) We may not recognise them if we saw them – Arthur C Clark’s concept that any arbitrarily advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic may well be relevant

    In no way is the above intended to be a definitive list…but a good question. The last point would seem to be the only one we could potentially do something about, which is why it interests me

  • JohnHunt April 30, 2013, 8:03

    Vershner, with ETs being able to be reproduced from genetic information by Bracewell probes, they should be here and not stuck on some homeworld. So speed of light doesn’t explain why they are not here.

    Rob Henry, it’s not just “stress levels” we’re talking about. It’s existential issues for us & Earth’s species. So they can’t relate to existential issues? And we are not receiving any advice from ET at all. Rather, it appears no different than if they don’t exist.

  • James Jason Wentworth April 30, 2013, 8:42

    GaryChurch wrote:

    [Having been a technician and troubleshooter for most of my life it is my opinion that manufacturing and keeping things working is a far more complex activity than academia and engineers suppose. While the news has been putting out stories like this for half a century-
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/one-giant-leap-for-mankind-13bn-iter-project-makes-breakthrough-in-the-quest-for-nuclear-fusion-a-solution-to-climate-change-and-an-age-of-clean-cheap-energy-8590480.html
    -there has been no “breakthrough” and may never be. Why? Because while a star or a bomb can produce fusion energy as advertised, making a star burn in a little box is not like lighting off a bomb at all.

    Making “robot replicators” may be just as elusive. It may sound easy but what we do as evolved tool using creatures may be impossible to replicate with machines.]

    I agree. Self-replicating machines, artilects, and the Kurzweil singularity are articles of faith, which may or may not be realizable in practice; so–sadly–may be controlled thermonuclear fusion. That doesn’t mean that pursuing them is a waste of time (although I personally wouldn’t care to live in a “singularitized” world), but rather, that making plans *assuming* that they are realizable is folly. Likewise, so is the unease that some feel because there is no evidence of alien self-replicating probes in our solar system. Their apparent absence doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no intelligent aliens; it may simply mean that self-replicating probes aren’t possible or practical, for the reasons you’ve given above. Also:

    Given the tremendous energy requirements of reasonably fast interstellar space travel, I would not be surprised if most other civilizations (assuming they exist–I’m prepared to accept the possibility that we may be alone) would instead pursue the much cheaper option of studying other stars’ planets with home-based and/or gravitationally-lensed imaging systems, perhaps sending interstellar probes to selected, promising worlds. Judging by the other planetary systems that humanity has discovered thus far, promising worlds (ones worth “gambling” on the great cost of sending even ‘just’ starprobes to examine them) may be very few and far between, taking many Earth years (or even human lifetimes) to find.

  • ljk April 30, 2013, 9:09

    Aliens are called ALIEN for more than one reason.

    We need to stop assuming and hoping that some nice ETI will show up and solve all our problems plus give us the technology for FTL propulsion and teleporation while they are at it.

    Western society missionaries thought they were helping the poor savages they encountered in the South Seas and elsewhere. Often the real goal if not by the religious vanguard but those in power was to soften up or remove altogether the natives to take their land and resources.

    Carl Sagan used to speculate that some benevolent ETI were out there beaming the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Galactica throughout the Milky Way to uplift the less sophisticated (but still possessing radios) species. Would you give potential future competition and threats the means to one day run you over?

  • GaryChurch April 30, 2013, 10:37

    “Self-replicating machines, artilects, and the Kurzweil singularity are articles of faith, which may or may not be realizable in practice-”
    “-making plans *assuming* that they are realizable is folly.”

    Well done.
    I see this same kind of mistake being made by private space fanatics. They assume rockets can be made reusable, cryogenic fuel depots in space are a given, and radiation mitigation is trivial. IMO all are false assumptions and the atlas shruggers looking to buy their ticket to a libertarian Martian utopia are in for a disappointment.

  • James Jason Wentworth April 30, 2013, 11:28

    ljk wrote (in part):

    [Carl Sagan used to speculate that some benevolent ETI were out there beaming the equivalent of the Encyclopedia Galactica throughout the Milky Way to uplift the less sophisticated (but still possessing radios) species. Would you give potential future competition and threats the means to one day run you over?]

    Spot-on! This is a classic example of assuming (perhaps even unconsciously) that others have the same motivations as oneself. Carl Sagan was a scientifically-engrossed, peaceful person with idealistic motivations, whose colleagues also had those traits. The notion of taking advantage over others through violence was alien to him, which is why it never occurred to him that broadcasting an Encyclopedia Galactica could potentially create a beacon and a “How-to book” for predatory races who might want to “come and claim their prize.” Also:

    He once commented (in his book “Broca’s Brain,” if memory serves), regarding municipal sanitation workers who had gone on strike for higher wages, that they should have been offered educational benefits as well because “everyone loves learning.” Again, he and the people in his circle loved learning, but many people do not, and many actually hate school (which is no disparagement against them–I’d much rather go horseback riding than spend any time in a classroom, myself). These examples just serve to illustrate the fact that if highly-educated scientists could be so wrong about the motivations and interests of many of their fellow human beings, how much more wrong might they be in assuming that intelligent aliens would share their values?

  • Rob Flores April 30, 2013, 12:10

    Once you accept the possibility that there is an elder benevolent
    race, then there is no way to be sure that your data from probing instruments
    be they Telescopes or neo-VonNeuman constructs,
    will not be tampered with. To such a being(s) the galaxy would be akin to
    it’s garden, ameliorating any infesting growth or intrusion between flora.
    If these V-N machines are build by such Elder race. As some have said
    we will never find them, and will make sure we never find one of less advanced design but still with technology millions of years ahead of us.
    I prefer to discount the Elder race paradigm, because it’s a pointless
    unproveable postulate. At least we can rule out a 1st race of genocidal
    xenophobes. Unless of course the Elder Race is only a few hundred thousand years older than us.

  • Eric Kansa April 30, 2013, 13:39

    @Anthony Mugan, JohnHunt, Vershner and Rob Henry

    We’re forgetting that intelligence need not be adaptive in the long term. It may be needed to initially create robot replicators, but there is nothing to suggest that such replicators need to have intelligence themselves. Intelligence has fundamental costs (energy / matter). So over the long term, there could be a selective advantage to pair down intelligence to the absolute minimum needed to replicate. Perhaps space is such a boring and homogenous environment that after munching on the billionth comet in yet another Oort cloud (little different from any other Oort cloud!) replicators may have very little need to think about what they are doing.

    Dumb may just out-compete smart (on average) in the cold vastness of space. Perhaps the galaxy is one big idiocracy, with very little out there more interested (or capable) in conversation than lichen.

  • Brasidas April 30, 2013, 13:46

    The Fermi paradox essntially rests on a mathematecal model of the galaxy and the advanced civilizations in it. As with all mathematical models, it is a simplification, and, becuase real life tends to be incredibly complex, may not be accurate, or at least, may not accurately represent our present circumstance. In addition to the many reasons already thrown out there that we have neither seen nor heard from ETI, it seems likely that many more plausible reasons exist that we haven’t yet dreamt up.

    Here’s one possibility that I haven’t seen yet, which I draw from my knowledge of human history, which is essentially the only real-world example we have to go on of expanding civilizations: On earth, humans dominate, and have the capability to travel and observe any location on the surface, but there are many, many locations that humans have never visited personally, or visit only very rarely. Perhaps earth’s location in the galaxy is analogous. It seems that the earth is at least somewhat of an anomaly, being out on the fringe of a galactic arm. Perhaps all the action is near the galactic center, where stars are closer together, and the types of stars, the distance between them, or some other factor makes our neighborhood uninteresting or too much bother to visit. Again, this is only one plausible solution among many.

    I would also like to second the thoughts of Mr. Wentworth and Mr. Church, and note that the reason we might not see Bracewell probes or similar devices is becuase they may not be feasible even with technology far advanced from our own. Replication is a tricky business, especially replication of something as complicated as an interstellar transport and observation platform. GCRs change individual molecules, and they alone will induce innumerable random and unpredicatble changes over the decades to centuries needed to traverse interstellar distances, including changing stored plans, blueprints, and designs. When probes reach their destinations, differences and impurities in the compositions of gathered materials, inevitable flaws in the machinery produced, and even random impacts from passing metorites will introduce errors and alterations, which over multiple generations will accumulate, even with error correction mechanisms, causing the whole enterprise to deteriorate and eventually fail. Complex machinery tends to rust over time.

  • Alex Tolley April 30, 2013, 17:19

    @Brasidas – living systems are a demonstration proof that complex systems do not have to degrade over time. Probably we will be able build machines that are more like living systems. That may result in lots of non viable probes, but as a [evolving] species they should be fine.

  • David April 30, 2013, 20:29

    @James Jason Wentworth “Self-replicating machines, artilects, and the Kurzweil singularity are articles of faith, which may or may not be realizable in practice; so – sadly – may be controlled thermonuclear fusion.”

    I recommend David Deutsch’s “The Beginnings of Infinity”, which logically points out that either (a) all of these things are in fact possible, given enough knowledge, or else (b) there is some natural law that forbids them. None of the natural laws we know now forbids them, and it’s hard for me to imagine the shape of a natural law that did.

    It might take us hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of years to acquire the know-how, in which case anybody counting on it happening by 2030 is going to be disappointed. But in the context of this conversation, a hundred thousand years is a drop in the bucket.

  • Eniac April 30, 2013, 22:59

    xcalibur:

    Eniac, are you sure they could stay so pristine? Consider a cosmic ray hitting a replicator and flipping a few 1s and 0s in its “dna”. Those flaws and mutations would be passed down to the next generation, most likely becoming more aberrant over time until you get sterile robots.

    Those few 1’s and 0’s that are flipped by cosmic rays will be duly detected and corrected the next time replication happens, resulting in a perfect copy as if those bits had never been flipped.

    Perhaps you do not understand what error correction algorithms can do? Follow the link I gave, or look up “forward error correction”. Or, less mathematically challenging, imagine there are 20 identical copies of the “genome” stored in the machine, and during replication every bit is compared across the twenty copies, with the majority picked for that position. Do this twenty of times to get the twenty copies for the daughter machine. Fix the errors in your own copies while you are at it. Quite a number of bits could then be flipped by cosmic rays, or by inaccurate replication, with no effect on the accuracy of the resulting copy at all. With every generation, all errors are completely eliminated and the process begins anew with 20 pristine exact copies of the original information. Unless you want to postulate 10 cosmic rays striking at exactly the same position in 10 of the copies during one single generation. An astronomically unlikely occurrence.

    …as I like to point out, our first alien encounter may be with ruins and artifacts.

    This would require life to die out, somehow, leaving only artifacts behind. This might be remotely plausible for life which remains confined to a single planet, but there is nothing that can end life that is spreading from star to star.

    And using Earth as our only working example, biology here supports the hypothesis that intelligent life is rare. There has been a huge abundance of life on earth for most of its history, but we don’t know of any other intelligent races aside from the homo genus.

    I am afraid this does not support the hypothesis that intelligent life is rare, at all. Our advent has completely changed the equation. There can be only one such event, simply because it is irreversible with permanent consequences. From here on out, there will be only such lifeforms on Earth as we allow or create. Evolution as we know it has gone the way of the Dodo.

    There were in fact many other equally intelligent hominids competing with our branch to become dominant on Earth. We won, but others might have, just as well. The thing is, whoever became dominant first went ahead and drove the others to extinction, with deadly efficiency provided by the newfound intellectual capabilities. Today we are the only ones, but it is NOT because the advent of intelligence is somehow unlikely. If it hadn’t happened to us, it would have happened to some other species a efw hundred million years later. Time is working for us, here.

  • Eniac April 30, 2013, 23:39

    James Jason Wentworth:

    Judging by the other planetary systems that humanity has discovered thus far, promising worlds (ones worth “gambling” on the great cost of sending even ‘just’ starprobes to examine them) may be very few and far between, taking many Earth years (or even human lifetimes) to find.

    Yes, when thinking about a few human lifetimes, this may make sense. But a few million years later, do you really think our descendents will have stuck permanently to just those same few targets? Wouldn’t they tend to keep exploring new targets, until there is no more unvisited world left?

  • Eniac April 30, 2013, 23:44

    Brasidas:

    inevitable flaws in the machinery produced, and even random impacts from passing metorites will introduce errors and alterations, which over multiple generations will accumulate

    Alterations in the machinery will not accumulate, since the machinery is constantly rebuilt from instructions in the code. Only changes in the code can accumulate, and those are easily and completely avoidable with suitable error correction codes.

  • Eniac April 30, 2013, 23:53

    Brasidas:

    On earth, humans dominate, and have the capability to travel and observe any location on the surface, but there are many, many locations that humans have never visited personally, or visit only very rarely.

    True, but we have really had the run of the Earth only for a few hundred years. Give us a few millenia, and all the deserted places will be put to use in one way or another, I’d expect.

  • Anthony Mugan May 1, 2013, 6:07

    This is not an original point, but leaving aside the practicality of creating self replicating probes, or the issues around detectability I would be amongst those who would urge extreme caution before every releasing anything like that into an environment such as space.
    Here on earth self replicators suffer predation (usually) and our own population explosion over the last few centuries is a stark warning of what can happen in the absence of effective predation. We may presume that earlier, more advanced civilisations will have all this sort of thing covered and will quickly mop up any such devices before the get out of hand, but I don’t like the idea of taking the chance.
    I accept the point made earlier that generation times for these things could be very long, but as we seem to be discussing design aspects similar to or even explicitly including biological aspects, mutations may be a factor, and even long generation times simply put off the longer term effect of a Malthusian style population explosion.
    I am probably worrying about nothing here – we haven’t all been dismantled for new probe production so either we are first or the problem is covered off by ‘the boys topside’

  • Vershner May 1, 2013, 7:13

    Eniac:

    A camera team shooting a wildlife documentary do not usually step in to help the animals they’re filming.

    Maybe not some camera teams, at least no until after the shoot. However, researchers, game wardens, and veterinarians will definitely help animals in need. So will tourists and kids in their backyards. Are you ready to include any of those in your analogy?

    The point is that we can’t assume anything about the motivations of an alien species.

    As your post highlights, different groups of humans respond in completely different ways when interacting with other species. An alien species may have entirely different intentions.

  • Vershner May 1, 2013, 8:03

    JohnHunt:

    Vershner, with ETs being able to be reproduced from genetic information by Bracewell probes, they should be here and not stuck on some homeworld. So speed of light doesn’t explain why they are not here.

    It’s a massive assumption that such reproduction is possible or even desirable.
    – Firstly, just the process of reproducing a complex living being from base ingredients is incredibly difficult.
    – Secondly, that process requires either an AI rivalling the ETs themselves (to educate the reproduced beings), or some method of storing and implanting memories. Both of which may not be possible or desirable.
    – Also, our planets may not be suitable or desirable for their biology.
    – Lastly, they may have no interest in living here.

    Yes, we can just hand-wave it all and say that the ETs are ‘suitably advanced’, but once we start doing that the whole exercise becomes pointless because anything is possible.

  • Paul Gilster May 1, 2013, 10:27

    David writes:

    I recommend David Deutsch’s “The Beginnings of Infinity”, which logically points out that either (a) all of these things are in fact possible, given enough knowledge, or else (b) there is some natural law that forbids them. None of the natural laws we know now forbids them, and it’s hard for me to imagine the shape of a natural law that did.

    Am in the middle of Deutsch’s book right now and I agree with David’s recommendation. It’s a superb survey of what we know, what we might learn, and how we go about finding things out.

  • Paddy Manning May 1, 2013, 10:31

    Left unchecked a single Von Neuman Probe could devour the universe, replicating itself endlessly. Any such replicant machine would have to have a either a generational stop clock or simply barren offspring.

    The belief that life is common in the cosmos is based on no useful evidence whatsover. We may be the advanced civilisation we believe to be out there.

  • Magne moe May 1, 2013, 17:13

    @Paddy Manning
    True but two problems with it, fist why should anybody want that, only ansver I think of is mad AI.
    More imporatn self replication will be an very slow method of manefacturing compared with asembly lines. Yes you have the exponensial growth, however generations will take time, gray goo has the promise of fast generations but run into energy limits fast and would be pretty vunrable.

    Simply using checksums and reludancy will make this unlikely, and yes have the system send an helper ship if the first misbehaves. 99.999% of this would be that the probe who arives in an solar system is unable to reproduce.

  • Brett Bellmore May 1, 2013, 17:49

    “Any such replicant machine would have to have a either a generational stop clock or simply barren offspring. ”

    I certainly agree with that. And it shouldn’t be something as simple as a clock. Maybe a specific trace element the first probe carries with it, and which is needed to build successive generations, such that you can only reproduce as many probes as the initial supply. Circumventing this would be a lot harder than simply resetting a clock, it would require evolving a mechanism to collect that element. And with a finite number of generations, evolution can be prevented by suitable error correction.

  • Eniac May 1, 2013, 21:06

    Vershner:

    The point is that we can’t assume anything about the motivations of an alien species.

    Good, then, that was really my point, too.

    As your post highlights, different groups of humans respond in completely different ways when interacting with other species. An alien species may have entirely different intentions.

    Some of them may, others may not. Even a single species of theirs may have within it many different groups that are entirely as diverse in their motivations as we are. In fact, I consider that very likely. As they spread from star to star, the immense communication barriers between worlds should greatly foster such diversification.

    The real point is that defendents of the zoo hypothesis DO assume something about the alien species: That they ALL strictly adhere to the same “prime directive”, a very peculiar concept for which there isn’t even any real precedent in our own history.

  • Eniac May 2, 2013, 8:16

    I certainly agree with that. And it shouldn’t be something as simple as a clock. Maybe a specific trace element the first probe carries with it, and which is needed to build successive generations, such that you can only reproduce as many probes as the initial supply.

    The most important safeguard is going to be a sort of dead-man switch that prevents replication unless there is a recent message from the home authority, identified by a cryptographic key. The second most important is to maintain root access for that same authority, so that the entire network can be shut down by a simple command if it is decided to do so. In any case every bit of the systems programming is going to be constantly update and uploaded from the home authority, anyway. Unless authority is explicitly given away to some sort of AI within the system itself, the only danger is misuse by the authority, not from the system itself.

  • xcalibur May 2, 2013, 9:43

    @Eniac – I see. Forward error correction and copy-checking would be effective in this case.

    Unless purposely built to do battle, such machines would be extremely vulnerable and no threat to anyone. Pull the plug, hack the computer, bomb the CPU, your choice. The generation time would be years, if not decades, so it would be a slow wildfire, too. Mighty and overwhelming in the long run, yes, but only if allowed to proceed unchecked.

    I’d like to add that they may have kept their probes in check, which would make it plausible that we haven’t noticed them yet. Anyway, the Fermi Paradox doesn’t rule out aliens, even if they and their technological presence are clearly not ubiquitous.

    This would require life to die out, somehow, leaving only artifacts behind. This might be remotely plausible for life which remains confined to a single planet, but there is nothing that can end life that is spreading from star to star.

    An interstellar species is far more secure. However, a highly advanced, interconnected society could still possibly undergo systemic collapse. If they are not expansionist, it’s even more plausible.

    Today we are the only ones, but it is NOT because the advent of intelligence is somehow unlikely.

    I emphasized the homo genus because, as far as we know, intelligence only arose within our family of species. you’re correct that sapiens outcompeted (and possibly killed off) neanderthals and others. But throughout the evolutionary track record before this, we did not see intelligent species, reptilian or otherwise. The fact that intelligence only occurred in one genus supports the hypothesis that sentience is rare, even if there were multiple species in that genus.
    To clarify, I believe that life is fairly common, but it gets increasingly rare with greater complexity.

  • Rob Flores May 2, 2013, 11:03

    ENIAC:
    Once you consider an 1st Elder Species, which is determined to
    protect nascent Sentient beings, their advacement compared
    to all species that come afterwards means that they can mask
    and trick younger species. You could not work your will against
    their wishes, no matter if your cause is conquest or exploration.

    Think about a measly, 100 years technology differecence on Earth.
    A WWI destroyer could destroy all the Navies of the Napoleonic Period
    Combined, and never even get dented.

  • ljk May 2, 2013, 16:11

    “For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

    ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Eniac May 2, 2013, 19:54

    xcalibur:

    However, a highly advanced, interconnected society could still possibly undergo systemic collapse.

    True, but the condition “interconnected” can not apply to any society spread further than one stellar system, because of the communication lag. In fact, the term “society” itself is meaningless when communication takes decades. It is going to be at least one society per system, no matter how many (or few) original species there are.

    But throughout the evolutionary track record before this, we did not see intelligent species, reptilian or otherwise. The fact that intelligence only occurred in one genus supports the hypothesis that sentience is rare, even if there were multiple species in that genus.

    I tried to explain this before. The event is irreversible, it cannot repeat. It therefore happens at most once. Even if it is extremely likely to happen, we would not expect to see another occurrence. Had there been one before us, we would not exist, and it would be those others having this debate. There will be none after us, either, because we would never let it happen. Therefore, we cannot possibly expect to see another intelligent species, and the fact that we don’t is free of information and not evidence for anything at all.

    On second thought, if you suppose that an intelligent species can eradicate itself, or be eradicated easily, then it is conceivable that more than one evolved and disappeared again, over time. If you allow for this, the fact that we are the first can be evidence for either a) evolution of intelligence is unlikely (as you say) or, b) intelligence, once it has arisen, will never disappear.

    I much prefer the second explanation. Not only because it is better for us, also because: 1) Life is tough, it will never disappear, and 2) no non-intelligent species can hope to outcompete an intelligent one. The intelligent species will stay on top of the food chain, with or without technological civilization.

    Besides, such civilization, even if completely destroyed, is easily rebuilt as long as the species survives. It took us only a few thousand years to build ours, after all, and we did not have the benefit of relics of a previous one.

  • Eniac May 2, 2013, 20:04

    Rob Flores:

    Once you consider an 1st Elder Species, which is determined to
    protect nascent Sentient beings, their advacement compared
    to all species that come afterwards means that they can mask
    and trick younger species. You could not work your will against
    their wishes, no matter if your cause is conquest or exploration.

    We went over this. You are saying that all the members of this Elder Species, presumably far-flung across the galaxy, can think and make decisions as one unit. I have patiently tried to explain many times why I consider this unlikely: Communication lag makes such a degree of coordination implausible.

  • Eniac May 2, 2013, 20:09

    The “Elder Species” will necessarily consist of a large number of independent, insular (although possibly very large in numbers) societies each with their own morals, ambitions, and intentions.

  • James Jason Wentworth May 2, 2013, 21:34

    David wrote:

    [@James Jason Wentworth “Self-replicating machines, artilects, and the Kurzweil singularity are articles of faith, which may or may not be realizable in practice; so – sadly – may be controlled thermonuclear fusion.”

    I recommend David Deutsch’s “The Beginnings of Infinity”, which logically points out that either (a) all of these things are in fact possible, given enough knowledge, or else (b) there is some natural law that forbids them. None of the natural laws we know now forbids them, and it’s hard for me to imagine the shape of a natural law that did.

    It might take us hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of years to acquire the know-how, in which case anybody counting on it happening by 2030 is going to be disappointed. But in the context of this conversation, a hundred thousand years is a drop in the bucket.]

    Alas, just being possible is not enough; in order to be of utility, a technology must be practical from the standpoints of safety and cost. Space Shuttles (American and Soviet), SSTs (*S*uper-*S*onic *T*ransports, which were Franco-British and Soviet), flying cars (Moller’s “Jetsons-esque” VTOL models as well as “automobiles with removable wings”), and hovercraft “cars” all worked, but were abandoned because they were not practical. (Moller continues to experiment with flying cars, but the inherent safety problems of having millions of flying cars zipping about the skies are so onerous that government approval of them is highly unlikely.) So it may also be with other attractive technologies, which–while possible–may turn out to be impractical in the real world; such technologies will be, as an old Chinese saying goes, “Shiny on the *outside*–like donkey droppings.”

  • xcalibur May 3, 2013, 5:15

    True, but the condition “interconnected” can not apply to any society spread further than one stellar system, because of the communication lag. In fact, the term “society” itself is meaningless when communication takes decades. It is going to be at least one society per system, no matter how many (or few) original species there are.

    That is true. It is theoretically possible for an interstellar race to wipe itself out given sufficient destructive intent, but it’s highly unlikely. Life tends to survive, especially when it is scattered and varied. Which is why space colonization is the most important future goal for our race.

    As an aside, I believe the various interstellar societies of a species would diverge quite a bit – both culturally and biologically. I look forward to that in our own future.

    I tried to explain this before. The event is irreversible, it cannot repeat. It therefore happens at most once. Even if it is extremely likely to happen, we would not expect to see another occurrence. … On second thought, if you suppose that an intelligent species can eradicate itself, or be eradicated easily, then it is conceivable that more than one evolved and disappeared again, over time. If you allow for this, the fact that we are the first can be evidence for either a) evolution of intelligence is unlikely (as you say) or, b) intelligence, once it has arisen, will never disappear.

    I didn’t want to scroll the comments by quoting everything.

    Ah, now I see your rationale. Once an intelligent species arrives, it will outcompete all others and dominate resources, preventing intelligence from arising in any other species. That makes sense. The fact that homo sapiens replaced neanderthals supports the idea that an intelligent species will aim for monopoly on intelligence.
    However, I can’t ignore the fact that there have been ages of geological time during which there was life on earth. Throughout this, there is no evidence of any other intelligence arising except in the homo genus. This goes against the idea of frequent intelligent species destroying themselves. I agree with the resilience of life and intelligent life.
    An intelligent species should only be established once, but I ask – why did this happen so late in evolutionary history? It seems strange that intelligence did not arrive earlier. A rational explanation for this is that intelligent life is rare.
    My hypothesis is that the complexity of life is inversely proportional to how common it is. less complex = more common, more complex = less common. Earths biology supports this.

    To reiterate, the Fermi Paradox supports the position that there is a limited number of intelligent races in the Milky Way Galaxy, possibly as low as 1 (just us). It doesn’t disprove ETI, especially given our limited observational capabilities.

  • Dmitri May 3, 2013, 5:36

    @ xcalibur

    “Today we are the only ones, but it is NOT because the advent of intelligence is somehow unlikely.”

    I emphasized the homo genus because, as far as we know, intelligence only arose within our family of species. you’re correct that sapiens outcompeted (and possibly killed off) neanderthals and others. But throughout the evolutionary track record before this, we did not see intelligent species, reptilian or otherwise.”
    ————————-
    I feel urge to correct that standpoint. Next to us by intelligents is not primates but dolphines. Dolphines have almost the same brain capacity as humans but with thoroughly different structure. They don’t have hemispheres but instead can switch off a part of the brain for sleeping and continue its activities. Primates need switch off the whole brain. But the most important trait is language – dolphines communicate semantically in the way their ultrasound sensority allows, which drastically differs what humans take as language. Dolphin is as complex and abstract as life and environment around them throws at.

    After emergence of CymaScope by John Stuart Reid and Erik Larson, have been such studies allowed in more palpable way. Miami-based dolphin researcher Jack Kassewitz is the one who is openly talking having Human-Dolphine lexicon for *communication*. Actually dolphines have been on Earth longer than we have. What if we could ask them how it was here before? We all know dolphines peculiar interest in down syndrome, autistic and paralyzed people, escpecially the effects it has on the persons.

    There is some material on the subject:
    *) Breaking the Code – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxyXEvj3gjw

    *) Jack Kassewitz Dolphin Researcher – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-lZhAWlJlM

    *) We Are Not Alone. The Discovery of Dolphin – anguagehttp://www.speakdolphin.com/ResearchItems.cfm?ID=20

    *) (Mostly same as previous article from CymaScope perspective) – http://www.cymascope.com/cyma_research/oceanography.html

    *) The article which cracked my prejudice towards CymaScope and sound viusalisation – http://www.cymascope.com/cyma_research/astrophysics.html

    Now regarding extinction of neanderthals. Yes, the most accepted theory is Homo sapiens made end to neanderthals. There is also many other emerging theories of extinction reason like too large eye sockets (http://phys.org/news/2013-03-neanderthal-brawn-lost-social-human.html). We have to remember that humans emerged when there was Ice Ages. We have survived all the Global Warming periods since then. It is now proved beyound doubt that next to neanderthal, sapiens also co-existed Denisova hominin (http://phys.org/news/2012-02-entire-genome-extinct-human-decoded.html). This in other hand brings back to heated discussion is Homo floresiensis (Indonesian human hobbits) a new human species. Slightly it starting to be accepted but with heavy resistance. Still in general the hobbits are regarded as degenerated humans not as an intelligent species due to their significantly smaller brian size.

    Homo sapiens may have done many dark deeds in deep past but we can’t be responsible for deaths of all the the intelligent peers. Let the past been rest in peace – let’s see what we’ve got for now. Purely based on this body of evidence we don’t have to look far into space to ponder of divergence of intelligents. If science in general could see beyound the trees and take such studies seriously as the research of dolphines’ intelligent and brain we can have scientific evidences on living spiecies about divergence of intelligent. This would also allow to make conclusion on our extinct peers in past.

    Yet we have serious problems accepting emergence or existence of parallel intelligence on Earth. Jack Kassewitz may looks like a lunatic but luckily there are others who do scientific reaserch on the subject – Vocal copying of individually distinctive signature whistles in bottlenose dolphins: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1757/20130053.full

    Humans overperformed others will most probably result in contact with ET heated debate among earthling are THEY intelligent despite the technological advances. As past and present shows homo sapiens has serious problems accepting divergent of intelligents.

    My personal one direct and two indirect experience with ball lightnings made ponder why we regard this phenomenon as weather one rather than an intelligent being. Just last year I inspected the trail of a ball lightning how it entered and exited sauna and I was amazed how it know where to make entrance and how to exist. Especially the way it travelled looked like of a high intelligent beign knowing what it is doing and what to do. Everyhting there was was contraticting intuition, common sence and our persception how we see a ball of plasma would act and destroy things on contact. Although I made pictures must say they don’t look epic as people would expect.

    I think humans have all they need to study the intelligence on Earth, we just luck experience to notice it. This is not downside, we just have not evolved to comprehend this.

  • Dmitri May 3, 2013, 6:00

    Dang, sometimes I miss the edit button. Nomatter how much you review, there’ll be surprises after posting. Ignore the repaeting sections.

  • Rob Henry May 3, 2013, 18:11

    Xcalibur wrote “The fact that homo sapiens replaced neanderthals supports the idea that an intelligent species will aim for monopoly on intelligence.”

    But really it doesn’t. The first principle of ecology is that no two creatures can exist for long in the same niche. Once a species obtains intelligence it can use objects like clothing, and boats, so that its habitat becomes the entire globe.

    Also note how the encephalisation quotient has independently increased in many different groups during the entire existence of metazoans. Your are right in thinking that for most traits there is no arrow for evolution other than its major transitions, so that we may look back in time to the last major transition to see how often a phenomenon occurs. Here there is an arrow (unless you want to postulate that intelligence is not associated with brain size and complexity!), so that methodology is invalid.

  • Eniac May 3, 2013, 21:14

    xcalibur:

    An intelligent species should only be established once, but I ask – why did this happen so late in evolutionary history? It seems strange that intelligence did not arrive earlier. A rational explanation for this is that intelligent life is rare.

    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.

  • NS May 3, 2013, 21:40

    Charles Lineweaver points out that many areas of the earth were free of humans and other hominids until a few thousand years ago, yet there is no sign of other intelligent species evolving in them. So humans did not suppress other intelligent species (except for maybe rival hominids) because there was nothing to suppress.

    See also his discussion of “encephalization” from the perspective of elephants. [pdf file]

    http://www.mso.anu.edu.au/~charley/papers/ConvergenceIntelligence10.pdf

  • GaryChurch May 4, 2013, 0:12

    “Dang, sometimes I miss the edit button.”

    It’s ok Dmitri,
    Don’t waste time trying to be perfect. Quantity has a quality all it’s own and perfect is the enemy of good enough.

    “Alas, just being possible is not enough; in order to be of utility, a technology must be practical from the standpoints of safety and cost.”

    The Shuttle teaches a critical lesson in terms of understanding what is practical and what is not. Unfortunately it is not an easy lesson to understand for someone who is not a space enthusiast.

    The lesson being THERE IS NO CHEAP. Trying to go cheap is what made the shuttle an expensive failure and killed two crews. Counter-intuitive but true.

  • xcalibur May 4, 2013, 1:46

    Rob Henry: you’re right, I was sloppy there. Direct competition over an ecological niche will lead to displacement and/or conquest. That is what happened in the homo genus. So, it’s inaccurate to say that an intelligent race will wipe out/prevent other intelligent races. Rather, the same ecological rules apply to closely related intelligent races.

    As Dmitri brings up, there may be other kinds of intelligence that don’t occupy the same niche. In which case, they can definitely coexist. It is inaccurate to assume that all intelligent races on a planet must be competing over the same resources. If dolphins are intelligent as we are, that would be a definite example of varied, coexisting intelligent races.
    Although dolphins are highly intelligent mammals, I doubt that they have sentience and human equivalent cognition. Not that it’s impossible, but it seems a little extreme.

    There certainly are arrows in the evolution of intelligence. Intelligent races will tend to descend from social species and predators. Being social encourages increased brain development to handle those dynamics. Predators, after a point, gain a greater advantage from increasing their intelligence than prey species.
    We can infer from these concepts that ETI will be social, and be on the top of their food chain with the capacity for aggression. There is still plenty of room for variety, however – alien biology may take very different turns. A eusocial species may develop intelligence in the form of a colony of individuals. And then there are more exotic forms of life to consider. Dmitri’s thoughts on ball lightning are intriguing – maybe there are non-carbon-based life-forms out there, maybe even energy beings. But that is even wilder conjecture than dolphin sentience.

    Overall, I see biology as something like a pyramid. There are many simple life-forms on the bottom, more complex organisms further up, and intelligence at the apex. This is somewhat simplified, but provides a clear analogy for how I see the emergence of intelligence.

  • Eniac May 4, 2013, 11:22

    What puts us humans above all other animals on this planet is that we are able to amass information across generational boundaries. We call it culture. From songs and stories, via books and libraries through data centers and long term archives, this is the secret of human dominance. Dolphins have some interesting behaviors that resemble our own, but they do not have the mental capacity of humans, not even close. More importantly, they do not have our capacity to externalize thoughts by verbalization, to build and maintain a complex culture. A dolphin is incapable of, say, writing a book, no matter how much you prod her and no matter what assistive technologies you bring to bear. The utility of clever thoughts, even if they were present, is greatly diminished by the inability to communicate themacross space and time, in their full complexity, as we do.

    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.

  • Alex Tolley May 4, 2013, 13:31

    Hasn’t Kepler shown that Earth analogs – terrestrial worlds in the HZ – are apparently rare? If technological races need a terrestrial environment, that might be a problem for their development.

    Metazoan life have existed on Earth for only a fraction of its history. Our lineage, the chordata, only from the “Cambrian explosion” around 500 mya.
    During that time, only the chordates have shown much sentience. Our mammalian origins while deep, only really got going after a very fortuitous (for us) cosmic whack. The dinosaurs had a lot more time to develop higher intelligence but didn’t. The molluscs have had a very long time to develop intelligence, but their best examples, the octopus and squid have never ventured out of the marine environment. Their development seems fated to remain at best tool using, but pre-technological. The only other group that shows “intelligence” are the social insects of the arthropoda. They have been around since the Jurassic and really got going since the Cretaceous. Yet they are very limited even though they display colony intelligence. When we think about intelligent cetaceans, it is important to remember that they had terrestrial ancestors, so a water world would not have allowed their development.

    The point is that life has had many opportunities and a lot of time to develop high intelligence and technological phenotypes via several metazoan lineages, but it has happened only once on Earth, under some possibly fairly unique conditions and contingent events. The galaxy could be teeming with life, yet devoid of technological species throughout its history.

    Bacteria OTOH, could possibly colonize space because they need no technology to escape Earth and are able to survive in suspended states for millenia. This might even extend to some newly discovered metazoa.

    If the galaxy is full of life, it would open up whole new avenues of research for millenia, with a strong “Prime Directive”. OTOH, if the galaxy is mostly sterile, but with at least a few potentially terraformable worlds, then that opens up other possibilities. To me, the former scenario would be the stronger driver for developing interstellar flight as there would be a need to reach those worlds to study them, while the latter case might let loose explorers and colonizers, or result in a more solipsist society.

  • Dmitri May 4, 2013, 15:11

    @Rob Henry “Once a species obtains intelligence it can use objects like clothing, and boats, so that its habitat becomes the entire globe.”

    Rob Henry’s quote made me think maybe the flaw of human argumentation on missing intelligent beings on Earth and out there is in equating intelligence and (inadvertent) technological progress. So far humans have witnessed evolution from simple organic chemical reactions to prokaryotes to eukaryotes to complex being to intelligence. This is part of nature. Progress, as part of technological evolution, is not ingredient of natural evolution – evolution of nature. Progress of technical evolution is limited by level of abstraction of most intelligent species, it’s ability to evolve in complex social interactions and find drivers in such mixed environment for sustain further developments. This rises question of drivers of technological progress and its hindrance. We have evolved into species capable of understanding trading, economy and supply-demand essence. Ravens, crows, some fishes, primates have shown they have enough abstraction capacity to use tools for fetching / cracking / catching food. People also have the same ability by the environment limitations and vastness, but its hindered by their social and environmental challenges. For a Massai in a remote village of Africa’s vast savannas is more important does its cow’s udder have an ulcer or not. He/she actually would not give a carrot, even if he/she know exactly the answer, what spin a neutrino has – up, down or strange. This is not us-them like the developed-developing world case, rather it is a case of Maslow’s pyramid. It’s not question of intelligence per se but brain’s capability of plasticity. All the astronauts on the ISS have told when they get there they can’t sort out purely from the view from the cupola, at which part of Earth they are now. In two week times it suddenly comes naturally and starting to make out the details, varieties and connect w/ geographical knowledge. A massai would do fine giving remedy to the cow and surviving on the ISS, as would do a developed world person in the Massai village – brain’s plasticity. If the same developed world person would be straight from CERN he would byte a carrot rather than calculate a neutrino’s spin just because the priorities in the village are adjusted accordance to the Maslow’s pyrimade. Yet the massai sooner or later would be very interested in a neutrino puzzle as he can’t make out the new surrounding environment.

    There is theory that agriculture arose right after wheat ear developed double chamber which allowed the seed stay in longer and to be harvested – not just fall on the ground when ripe or on gust on wind. This happened in the Fertile Crescent and not long before Göbekli Tepe was built. This shows an intelligent being can adapt to changes but changes in surroundings play as crucial role as intelligents. Plasticity probably is the key for adaption of intelligent being yet such important advancements didn’t happened sooner nor there was need for tillage tools before. If evolution from complex entity to the next to put in a formula, all the following derivation would be significantly smaller set in size than the latter.

    eukaryotes > complex entities > intelligent beings > tribes > societies > bigger social interactions > civilisations > planetary being > near planetary space civilisation > outer space civilisation

    Hominis would not be around if the dinosaurs didn’t extinct (apex complex being). Dinosaurs didn’t evolve further than herds (tribes). Apes didn’t evolve further despite having evolution duration advantage (intelligent being), civilisation did not emerge before agriculture (some theories on Göbekli Tepe claim religion (faith) was prior agriculture) arrived. Only in last 3 centuries we truly started to appreciate the planet and the complexity of ecological system we live (planetary being).

    Maybe the great filter is complexity of surrounding environment and capability of abstraction of intelligent being, where plasticity is the key driver for the beings to evolve further. Nobody knows where the limit is or is there. From this we cannot presume emergence of technological progress even if intelligent being exist. Even in case of the latter we cannot presume that THEY, in moment of contact, have gone through all the steps of technological progress as we have + plus the extra mile we lack. We may have that they might lack.

    Maybe Drakes equation work, but not on galactic scale, rather on universe scale meaning the emergence of intelligent technological space faring civilisations are rare even on galaxy scale and if one emerges then it’s the only one per galaxy. Just the nature factors playing against beings reaching the next level are in such variety that it’s impossible to presume they have evolved further. With each reached new level the probability of survival of such species increases as far as it continues evolving either in nature way or in parallel in technological way. Dinosaurs were hundred of million years on planet. We have been around 6 million years. We have a billion years when Andromeda joins Milky Way, then we might expect a technological counterpart.

  • Eniac May 4, 2013, 20:54

    As Dmitri brings up, there may be other kinds of intelligence that don’t occupy the same niche. In which case, they can definitely coexist.

    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.

    Some of us are already doing their best to speak to Dolphins, and would not shrink from teaching them our culture well before they have any hope of developing their own. Not that I think Dolphins are smart enough for that, but if it were to happen, it would be much different from natural emergence.

    Natural emergence can happen only once, and it has happened once. No surprise in that, at all.

  • Rob Flores May 4, 2013, 22:45

    Great sport, Pychoanalizing what a 3 billion year old Species’ motivations
    and interests are. If there are 3 elder species
    separated by billion years each then this is analogous to:

    A bacterium trying to understand a primitive metazoan
    A primitive metazoan trying to understand a mammal
    A mammal trying to understand a species that has reached singularity a billion years ago.

    Even this example is a mild one. I am not a omnipotent being I would
    not pretend to gauge the mind of such advanced beings.

  • Dmitri May 5, 2013, 3:47

    @GaryChurch

    “The Shuttle teaches a critical lesson in terms of understanding what is practical and what is not. Unfortunately it is not an easy lesson to understand for someone who is not a space enthusiast.

    The lesson being THERE IS NO CHEAP. Trying to go cheap is what made the shuttle an expensive failure and killed two crews. Counter-intuitive but true.”

    In university we’ve studied the Challenger disaster in Ethics of Engineering. The fault in the O-rings was know already during the ground tests. They failed at -10C (14F) becoming friable, meaning they didn’t perform to specification. Roger Boisjoly, who discovered the fault, loudly objected on the launch of the vehicle and tried to send the warning to NASA managers. He ended up in heated arguments w/ his employer and NASA representatives. He later admitted that he could not watch the launch as he was sure Challenger will explode on the start platform. It didn’t happened only thank to soot from the propellant which blocked the gap in the O-ring. The soot plumage was actually noticeable on the launch technical footage. The O-rings gave way later up in the sky. Roger Boisjoly actually admitted that he rather wanted to be wrong. The stress of the events made him quit and go to Universities to lecture on ethics and responsibilities of engineers.

    Now in 2012 when the report on Columbia disaster came out all the previous memories and feelings of the Challlenger one clashed in my head. FFS, if NASA managers still are in position that knowing about a fatal malfunction is better to be hid rather than inform and take action is beyond me. To play down that the Columbia crew would have suffocated due to running out of oxygen and the rescue mission is impossible just does not fit into picture no matter how much you cut the corners. Not telling to the crew about the danger ahead of them is best option even when you are informed of the very likely consequence just is not in the picture what you’ve been taught in university.

    This is not no-cheap / cheap example, this is purely managerial ethics and decision making consequences example. IMHO neglecting humans life when priority is safety is sadly still a new chapter in Ethics of Engineering books.

    Now regarding your HLV and the Shuttles – Russian Energy-Buran (Энергия-Буран) program booster Energy was designed beyond bringing Buran to orbit. With modifications it could bring 200 tons of useful cargo to space. They made the plans for having 15 trips to LEO and after that the space ship to mars would have been assembled and ready for trip to the red planet.

    The Shuttle carrying capacity was 30 tons.

  • James Jason Wentworth May 5, 2013, 22:54

    GaryChurch wrote (in part):

    [The Shuttle teaches a critical lesson in terms of understanding what is practical and what is not. Unfortunately it is not an easy lesson to understand for someone who is not a space enthusiast.

    The lesson being THERE IS NO CHEAP. Trying to go cheap is what made the shuttle an expensive failure and killed two crews. Counter-intuitive but true.]

    This is nothing personal, but I am going to put this “There is no cheap” notion to bed once and for all, because if advocates of interstellar travel (and even solar system colonization) come to believe it, they may -cease- to be advocates–and since there aren’t that many of us as it is, we can’t afford to lose them.

    Professor Hideo Itokawa of the University of Tokyo didn’t get the memo that said “There is no cheap”–fortunately. Between 1955, when he began his rocket research with the tiny 9″ (230 mm) long “Pencil” rockets (see: http://www.jaxa.jp/article/interview/sp1/prologue_p1_e.html ) and 1970, when his team launched Japan’s first satellite, Ohsumi (see: http://www.isas.jaxa.jp/e/japan_s_history/detail.shtml ), his entire program–which included dozens of sounding rockets that were flown before, during, and after the IGY (International Geophysical Year)–cost only 189 million dollars! (This information is from page 95 of “The Observer’s Spaceflight Directory” by Reginald Turnill [BBC television’s pioneer space reporter, sadly recently deceased], published by Frederick Warne (Publishers) Ltd. in 1978). Also:

    The Lambda-4S launch vehicle that placed Ohsumi into orbit was a very simple, MCD (Minimum Cost Design) rocket which was derived from the Lambda sounding rocket; the four-stage Lambda-4S was *un-guided*, its only form of stabilization being the spin imparted by its fins and small spin rockets. Before the timer-ignited fourth stage fired, it was de-spun by gas jets, pointed in the proper direction by horizon sensors that actuated pitch & yaw jets, then re-spun before it separated from the gas jet-equipped control section and fired. In addition:

    The Lambda-4S was a test vehicle which proved out this simple “gravity turn” steering method for the considerably larger four-stage Mu-4S, which orbited one vehicle launch environment diagnostic satellite (“Tansei-1,” 63 kg, 990 X 1110 km orbit) as well as two scientific satellites (“Shinsei,” 65 kg, 870 X 1870 km orbit and “Denpa,” 75 kg, 240 X 6570 km orbit). The Mu-4S could inject a 120 kg payload into a 500 km circular orbit. A Texas firm, Aeronautics Enterprises Inc., intends to re-make the Lambda-4S, which would be an excellent microsatellite launch vehicle (see: http://orbitalaspirations.blogspot.com/2011/10/japanese-lambda-4s-launcher.html ). While Professor Itokawa did experience some failures along the way, they were easily-remedied oversights (“after-burning” third stages bumping fourth stages, a few motor igniter failures, etc.). Because the rockets were cheap, the launch failures were annoying rather than heart-breaking, and none involved explosions. As well:

    A new U.S. solid propellant launch vehicle called SPARK, which will be launched later this year, is also un-guided (just spin-stabilized) except for its next-to-the-last stage (Japan’s Mu-3C launch vehicle also operated in this mode, with its first and third stages being un-guided, and only its second stage having Thrust Vector Control). Here are SPARK launch vehicle links (see: http://www.space.com/20849-hawaii-small-satellite-launch.html and http://hsfl.hawaii.edu/HSFL_Overview_071910.pdf ). So:

    Yes, “there IS cheap” in spaceflight. Just as Professor Itokawa found (through sheer necessity, because his program was lightly funded) how to orbit satellites simply and cheaply, simpler and cheaper ways will be found to engage in deep-space operations, asteroid mining, and space colonization (solar sails, electric propulsion, lunar and Martian space elevators, and “Lunatron” electromagnetic catapults are just a few), which will one day lead to starprobes and starships.

  • Dmitri May 7, 2013, 15:04

    After consideration and weigh in I decided to post the picture of the aforementioned ball lightning aftermath. There is nothing special or sensational. It might look like human made, which is perfectly fine. In case if they would not have been my in-laws I would have myself difficulties to believe it. All critique or objection is welcome.

    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/