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The Milky Way’s Library

This is as strange a maze as e’er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.

That’s Alonso in Shakespeare’s late masterpiece The Tempest, a king of Naples who finds himself on a remote island where Prospero weaves his magical powers. It’s an apt passage for Timothy Ferris to quote in his chapter “The Central Nervous System of the Milky Way,” a part of the 1992 collection The Mind’s Sky that was the basis of yesterday’s post. For in an unusual conclusion to the essay, Ferris wonders whether the real purpose of a galactic network (and hence an ultimate goal of SETI) isn’t passing along not only our science but our broader culture to other civilizations. “Who knows what importance our existence, or some shard of our thought, might have to a scholar or artist — whether biological or artificial in origin — in a remote galaxy in some far-future time?”

It’s a pleasing thought for a species used to feeling dwarfed by the universe, and it would apply to all intelligent species whose work might find an enthusiastic reception elsewhere. But I return to Ferris because his essay looks out on a vista that is conceivably not just interstellar but intergalactic. A long-term, evolving network, growing by virtue of the very traffic it handles, may come to approximate the galactic nervous system of the title. Reaching another galaxy with a series of self-reproducing probes would obviously take eons, a project well beyond the intent of a biological species perhaps, but not out of the question for an automated, growing mind. Would such a vast communicating web ever run out of topics to consider? From the essay:

“…on no level, even that of a pangalactic intelligence, could mystery ever be wholly banished. The observable universe — meaning that part of the cosmos within which light signals can at any given epoch be detected — is eternally smaller than the totality of the universe. Even if the entire Virgo Supercluster is embroiled in thought, a million galaxies buzzing with lanky synapses that take tens of millions of years to connect, that vast intelligence will always have more to learn, and forever have room to wonder.


Image: The wreck of the Sea Venture off the Bermudas in 1609, an event thought to be an inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Will works of human imagination one day flow through a galactic network, preserving our art, science and philosophy beyond the lifetime of our species? Painting by W. H. Harrington. Credit: Bermuda National Trust and Bermuda Maritime Museum.

The Problem of the Probe

But back to a much simpler network, the one formed by early self-reproducing probes as they expand outward from the home world of their builders. One objection to self-reproduction is that the probes in question eventually mutate, become virus-like in their spread and run essentially out of control of their makers, with results we cannot anticipate (Carl Sagan raised this issue back in the 1980s, speaking about strategies for colonizing the galaxy). Ferris thinks that intelligent builders will understand the problem from the start. They’ll put the network together under the same principles that telecommunication companies today work under, expanding infrastructure only at a pace demanded by traffic, with the network in charge of replication rates.

That very significant concern aside, the advantages of running a galactic network are manifest. For one thing, civilizations anxious to preserve their legacy will be committing their output to a growing library that will outlast all civilizations (just as, to use a pedestrian comparison, I take a certain comfort in knowing that every word I type on this keyboard is automatically backed up on multiple servers in the cloud). A second virtue is the network’s ability to shield participating civilizations. We’ve had the METI argument before and will have it again. Messaging extraterrestrial civilizations opens the sender up to the uncertainty of not knowing what forms of intelligence receive the signal, nor what the result of the attempted contact may be.

The galactic network, if it is designed with clever parameters, gets around this by duplicating its data throughout the entire system, working with a time span that grows as the constituent builder probes continue to reproduce and spread outwards. Information about the participant worlds can be, in Ferris’ view, filtered in whatever way the local civilization chooses, allowing a culture to share itself with a carefully modulated dose of privacy. Here the Internet metaphor that runs through Ferris’ thinking betrays him, as we all ponder how hackers move through our existing worldwide networks even as security specialists try to find the holes that let them in.

Imagine that we receive an invitation to join such a network on some future day. Do we accept it? Here I’m thinking of David Brin’s recent novel Existence, where the question of whether interstellar visitors are telling the truth — and speculations about why they might not — form a part of the developing conversation about the consequences of contact. What happens if our expansion into the cosmos creates encounters with not one but several civilizations, and what if they each give us a different narrative about what we as a culture need to do next?

Stored Data and Communication Times

No, I can see many reasons for being skeptical of the emissaries of a purported galactic network. On the other hand, there seem to be many reasons to think of building one ourselves, once we have such capabilities. Network terminals established at locations between known civilizations would make information exchange a bit easier as we and they tapped closer sources of data. And I like the spirit with which Ferris approaches this possibility:

One is communicating, of course, not with living beings but with a computer, but the computer is rich with information deposited there by living beings, and one should not underestimate the value of such an arrangement. I can enjoy a play by the late Samuel Beckett without fretting overmuch about the fact that I cannot correspond with Beckett, and if I read a book or watch a movie or run a computer program I am in a sense communicating with the authors of those creations, regardless of whether they are dead or alive.

In that sense, of course, it’s hard to see how any great author is truly dead. As long as the ideas are being transmitted and received, the unique perceptions of that personality are still available to us. Imagine the riches of a network created billions of years in the past, laden with the science and poetry of countless cultures, many of whom are doubtless long gone. It’s a heartening thought that such a thing could exist if civilizations live long enough to launch this kind of self-reproducing enterprise into the heavens. We saw yesterday that Geoff Marcy’s work will now extend to a search for extraneous optical transmissions from extraterrestrials at work. If successful, that search would tell us that intelligent life is out there, but a single flash in the night without the keys to the library — assuming there is one — will long remain an enigma.

The Sagan paper I refer to above was written with William Newman. It’s “The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Vol. 24, No. 113 (1983). Its point is that self-reproducing probes of the sort Ferris describes will never be built because they constitute a threat to their builders as well as other sentient species that encounter them. Fred Saberhagen’s ‘Berserker’ stories invariably come to mind.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley July 26, 2013, 10:33

    ” Imagine the riches of a network created billions of years in the past, laden with the science and poetry of countless cultures”

    Which is a projection of our human values of cultural transmission and longevity. But will alien minds have the same interests? Eradicating signs of previous cultures is also a historical (and contemporary?) feature of Earth cultures.

  • CatharSeamus July 26, 2013, 12:06

    Maybe, only maybe, there is a database somewhere in the Milky way with studies and genetic code of lifeforms of Earth millions of years ago. It will be amazing to see that someone retrieved, stored and preserved such information about our planet.

  • David Cummings July 26, 2013, 13:29

    Of course none of us knows when we will be able to actually send a starship into the void with humans (either adult or embryo, and if adults, either awake or sleeping) aboard, bound for some destination such as the Centauri system.

    And of course many of us believe that such a trip is inevitable, whether in 100 years or 1000 years. It’s going to happen.

    But one thing I think we can be sure of, long before we send that cargo of humanity into the stars, we will already have some kind of interstellar network in place, probes of some kind (whether self-replicating or not), already sending signals back to us from our selected destinations, as well as other locations.

    It’s a lot easier to start building an interstellar communications network than to send that first starship with people aboard.

    And as far as fears of self-replicating probes either annoying other cultures or getting out of control, my personal opinion is those fears are over-blown.

    For one thing, it looks pretty empty out there. I think we’re going to have to go a long way to annoy someone. And for another, I think the technology that we use to actually build the probes will be sophisticated enough that we can reasonably limit what the replication process can do, and how self-aware it is. I trust we will have a lot of control over all that.

  • Mike July 27, 2013, 14:15

    To CatharSeamus, that’s a heck of a thought! Maybe our remote past isn’t lost forever but stored in great detail and length in the “Encyclopedia Galactica” to borrow Carl Sagans’ phrase. Almost as good as time travel that would be! To be able to study in detail the epochs of Earths’ history.
    To examine the rise of the Hominids with no gaps in the fossil record and to review the history of Homo Sapiens from the very begininning of our species with all the missing pieces of history revealed. I wonder what we have missed or over looked with our skimpy patchwork knowledge of our species past?

    Could the compilers of this record still be on the job?

  • Christopher Phoenix July 27, 2013, 18:18

    …as far as fears of self-replicating probes either annoying other cultures or getting out of control, my personal opinion is those fears are over-blown. …I think the technology that we use to actually build the probes will be sophisticated enough that we can reasonably limit what the replication process can do, and how self-aware it is. I trust we will have a lot of control over all that.

    I’m not so sure it is safe to assume that. Whichever way you slice it, a self-replicating probe is basically an organism in the only way that matters. It follows a genetic program (the instructions that tell it too, and how, to build copies of itself) and passes on this information to its offspring, in a manner remarkably like a living cell.

    It might be possible, if this coded information is corrupted, that this will lead to unplanned for changes in offspring which may not prove crippling, leading to the probes evolving in unplanned-for ways. Thus we will probably put instructions in the probe that program it to commit suicide if it begins to mutate outside of its original programming. Ordinary human cells have just such genetic instructions that cause cell death if the cell becomes damaged or lives too long. But, if these instructions themselves become damaged, the cell can mutate and begin replicating out of control- it becomes what we call cancer.

    So even such instructions might not guarantee that these mutations will not occur if those safety net instructions become corrupted, just as they do in living cells. So far our efforts to fight this sort of thing in animal cells have not been spectacularly successful- do you really think we are ready to tackle the same sort of thing with Von Neumann machines, with the whole galaxy and next few billion years as the petri dish? :D

    It is a funny thing… most of the technologists and self-avowed futurists apparently don’t recognize that fleshy “wetware” humans are basically similar to self-replicating nanotechnology. Just read about the structure of a human cell- they are basically mini-spacestations with entry and exit points, a transportation system, and industrial areas (ribosomes) for the processing and manufacture of various chemical compounds according to instructions copied from the “command center” (cell nucleus). The cell abounds with molecular machines, like ribosomes, which build molecules according to coded instructions from the nucleus, and enzymes that speed up the rate of life-giving chemical reactions by bring the proper molecules together. And the whole thing is capable of self-replication, splitting into two and copying the genetic information into each daughter cell!!

    Really, it isn’t too far from what we imagine for future self-replicating probes, is it?

  • David Cummings July 28, 2013, 11:50

    Mike, Could the compilers of this record still be on the job?


    As Haldane noted, the creator (if there is one) has an inordinate fondness for beetles. Well, maybe the compilers do, too. Maybe a tiny fraction of the vast number of beetles that crawl or fly among us are actually compiler-bots reporting back by quantum information links.

  • railmeat July 28, 2013, 16:43

    Paul, yesterday’s and today’s topic are fascinating, I hope there is more to come in this vein.

    When can we start building self-replicating relay stations/branch libraries/museums?

  • Alex Tolley July 28, 2013, 17:35

    Could the compilers of this record still be on the job

    Suppose that either RNA polymerase or a ribosome was transmitting the DNA sequences via some sort of entanglement to a local compiler? The data could be stitched together and then transmitted to the galactic network. All “automated” as long as life exists and that the compiler is still operating.

    But if the data for earth life is available on the network, it could also be recreated. Maybe there are humans being created in habitats even now?

  • Rob Henry July 28, 2013, 17:50

    ” Imagine the riches of a network created billions of years in the past, laden with the science and poetry of countless cultures”

    Alex Tolley, I think that you are spot on when you call that an anthopic projection, however I think that eradicating signs of other cultures is only one of many other alternatives. You might also find that they are support networks, rather like AA, in which more advanced cultures advise “You mean to say that you spend all this time on art and literature while others in your world starve. Stop it and get back to work – NOW!”

  • Sean M. Brooks July 29, 2013, 9:57

    I would like to correct a bit Paul Gilster’s mention of Fred Saberhagen “Berserkers.” Those were not harmless or innocuous von Neumann machines which somehow went bad. Rather, they had been deliberately created and programmed to destroy life where ever the Berserkers found it. Apparently, the Berserkers were first created long, long, before by another race as a means of waging war on its enemies.

  • Paul Gilster July 29, 2013, 12:37

    Sean, good point re the Saberhagen ‘Berserkers.’

    railmeat writes:

    When can we start building self-replicating relay stations/branch libraries/museums?

    Good question! I assume a fully functioning nanotech of great sophistication has to come first, and we’re a long way from that. Hard for me to make any predictions, though others may want to wade in on this.

  • Rob Flores July 29, 2013, 12:54

    I remember the Qeng Ho, traders from Vernor Vinges’ SF storylines
    This takes places in a post colonization of the galactic neighborhood by humanoids, where many colony planets have fallen into barbarism.
    The queng ho transmit libary information to promising rising cultural
    sites to speed their recovery in the hopes of arriving there (in decades of travel, on ram-scoops ships) later and trade with a future advanced industrial world. It was a gamble and sometimes the ship arrived to find
    there never was any flourish at all, and are stuck in a medieval civ, unable to
    trade or re-equip their ship.

  • Marshall Eubanks July 30, 2013, 18:24

    I think that self-replicating probes are really (at the deepest level) about the creation of silicon life, which may require (carbon) biology to kick-start it. No matter what correction protocols are in place, if you build self-correcting silicon probes (assuming that is possible) and unleash them on the galaxy, in a billion years you will have a galaxy full of varieties of silicon life to go along with the carbon self-replicating variety, such as ourselves.

  • Marshall Eubanks July 30, 2013, 18:31

    @Alex Tolley (& others)

    I would be by no means sure that, if there were extraterrestrials compiling the ups and downs of terrestrial life, that they would think of us (humans) as the interesting species here. For all we know, they may think that the place has never been worth much since the dinosaurs were taken out.

  • Eniac July 30, 2013, 22:36

    I assume a fully functioning nanotech of great sophistication has to come first, and we’re a long way from that

    No nanotech required here, in my opinion. It is far easier to construct replicators of the “clanking” kind, where we have lots of design-and-build experience, plus all the right tools (screw drivers, etc.). I would bet the first replicators will use toy-scale electro-mechanical designs.

  • Eniac July 31, 2013, 21:59

    Marshall Eubanks:

    For all we know, they may think that the place has never been worth much since the dinosaurs were taken out.

    As I am sure you know, the dinosaurs have not been “taken out” at all. This notion is so last century. The dinosaurs are still around; they just took to the air and got smaller. I can hear them sing outside, right now.

  • Michael Caton August 10, 2013, 4:16

    Why would it be in the interest of non-humans to contact us, establish a multi-species civilization, or reveal their existence at all? Life is about biology (survival) then economics; everything else is a distant priority. Assumptions made on the basis of aliens’ wanting to Tweet to each other are very likely to be incorrect. The degree of anthropomorphizing extraterrestrials here (and anthropomorphizing them into educated Westerners at that) cannot be overstated. Even countries composed of humans right here on Earth aren’t particularly interested in talking to each other beyond what it takes to assure safety and something to eat for the foreseeable future.

  • Sascha Wageringel August 14, 2013, 5:59

    there is one problem with Sagan’s assumtion: extinction

    a civilization faced with imminent extinction, especially one not being able to detect others may resort to this option as a last ditch effort to preserve genetic information and spread out

    there are other possible responses towards the Fermi Paradox; the one i prefer is that it doesn’t even exist and we have a problem with our perception

  • Robert E. Cobb September 23, 2013, 20:16

    Subject: The Forelaws Principle – Astrobiology – Paradigm Change

    The forelaws principle posits that empathy and compassion, seated within the genome of humankind and all intelligent life, are universal forelaws and empirical attributes of cosmic genealogy, unique to, and definitive of, humankind and all intelligent life. Its legitimacy and character affirmed through evolutionary empathy and compassion defining forelawsism from infinity to infinity, the forelaws principle unites humanity and intelligent life on all planets with intelligent life. Seen in light of cosmic genealogy and the forelaws principle, racism and international terrorism are societal anomalies . . . yielding timely and critically in favor of evolutionary empathy and compassion and a compassionate/cooperative global society.

    Realistically ending and/or mitigating weather-related phenomena such as (but not limited to) global warming, ice ages, droughts and desertification, as well as floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning-induced wildland fires . . . entailing refinement of the surface of Earth for surface reflectivity of solar radiation conducive and basic to climate stability (albedoism) . . . requires adaptive relationship with the plant kingdom, adaptive civil engineering, adaptive architecture, adaptive urban and rural planning, adaptive materials technology, e.g. polymers changing color with temperature changes, and global water equilibrium (the state of balance between amply available freshwater worldwide on one side and, on the other, relative constancy in planetary saltwater sea-level).

    “Location, topography, and the exchange of radiant energy between the sun and Earth ultimately determine weather”

    (from Retrieval of Surface Albedo from Space, December, 2002.) – John Maurer, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

    “Universities throughout the world are beginning to see astrobiology (merging astronomy and biology)

    as a way forward to understand our place in the Universe.” –

    Chandra Wickramasinghe, Director, Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, UK.

    “The historian of science may be tempted to claim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.” –

    Thomas S. Kuhn, from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962.

    Forelawsism on Earth in the 21st century (FE21) – evolutionary empathy and compassion – translates into veganism, a compassionate /cooperative global society (stressing emphasis on the nurturing of offspring and early childhood education), ethnicity revisited, global climate stability (albedoism), and United Albedo Regions . . . plausibly achieving before FE22 Earth’s destiny as a parent planet of intelligent life in the cosmic community of intelligent life. http://www.forelawsonboard.net/NewAge.html

    In forelawsship on board,

    Robert E. Cobb

    Forelaws on Board

  • Aleksandar Volta February 3, 2014, 1:03

    A Ferris Network might be in existence today, and even be spread out in the entire galaxy, but in such a way, that only few would be able to notice its existence at all. And those few, being highly advanced societies of the like we have difficulty imagining even. Not to get started on the Ferris Network Builders themselves.

    I imagine it being composed of subquantum particles that create a highly sophisticated mechanism able to receive and send data on N times the speed of light and still to remain largely undetected and undisturbed. Even those who detect it, not being able to understand its mechanism and processes, or the information its sends back and forth. Perhaps even not recognizing it as a Ferris Network at all.

    Weeeell, at least that’s how I’ve somewhat pictured it in my science fiction story anyway. Humans eventually discover it but are dumbfounded. They have no idea what to do with it and how to decipher the data stream.

    One might spring through our Solar system even today and we would have no way of knowing that, with the level of our development today. I agree with some of the comments, that space looks eerily empty, inviting Fermi’s knock on the door. But ‘seem’, is the key word here. Its a big vast space out there, and even those who are a bit more attention craving would find it a challenge to satisfy that hunger, and in my opinion, most would like to remain hidden, and that wouldn’t be hard at all. And if you want to remain hidden, you might wanna keep your version of the galactic-scale “Internet” also hidden, silent, subtle.

    I think I have commented a few times in the earlier days of this blog, but I do always read it. If I miss some material, I catch up quickly. Today felt like a good day to respond, especially with the topic at hand with the last couple of posts. Thanks Paul for bringing up these sort of subjects. Its as enjoyable as it gets :)