Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fermi Paradox review article - 2005

A comment on a past post of mine referred me to a 2005 article: SETI and the Cosmic Quarantine Hypothesis.

The essay is a good summary of the Drake Equation and its relationship to the Fermi Paradox. The author is clearly an optimist, he imagines a benign super-civilization blocking aggressive expansionism. That was the theme of a famous 1970s-era science fiction series, except the interventions were not benign.

It's a pleasant thought, but it seems unnecessarily complex. A simpler explanation is that all technological civilizations run into singularities long before they can attempt serious star flight. Whatever happens thereafter, it doesn't involve any wandering we could see. (Charlie Stross included a clever variant in a book - he speculated the post-singular civilization couldn't abide the poor connectivity of wilderness living.)

Mr. Soter misses the singularity effect in his estimation of the lifespan of civilizations. He's right that mere eco-catastrophe would not eliminate humanity, but technological singularities are (imagined to be) a different sort of extinction/transformation event.

I did learn one new thing. The novelist Michael Crichton, in addition to despising concerns about global warming, also hated the Drake equation. He was a kind of anti-Gordon, but a bit richer and better known than I.
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8 comments:

Augustine said...

OK, then. Having stumbled across your blog a year or so ago and having become an admirer, I think it's time to stick a fork in this singularity nonsense. Or at least offer a dissenting view.

First, I don't trust predictions that are based on extrapolations from current rates of growth. These predictions are, and will be, correct, but only for limited time frames. Extend them out too far and they become absurd. Moore's Law works fine, and will continue to work fine for a while I’m sure, but basing predictions on ever accelerating computing power is about as useful as imagining accelerating a given mass to the speed of light.

The greater problem, however, with the argument lies in the fact that we are at best imperfect predictors. To put it simplistically, we cannot predict what will change the rules based on which we have made a prediction. With technology, as with evolution, one may find that punctuated equilibrium--bursts of growth followed by stasis or regression followed by new speciation--is more likely to be normative than expansion ad infinitum. You cannot accurately infer a future singularity when you cannot know what will change the game before it happens, if you get my drift.

To put it another way, at any given time, we have imperfect information, and any information we do have is so deeply colored by our local environment--physical, temporal, sociological and intellectual--as to be virtually useless over long time scales.

Let’s pursue a thought experiment, but ground it in a real-world example. Let's assume the singularity DOES, or rather WILL, happen. Now let's compare that event with an historical event: the discovery and colonization of this very continent.

Prior to 1492, before the Americas were discovered, the denizens of Europe were arguably in a position not unlike our own. Another world might exist beyond the western ocean, but no contact with it had, and (as far as anyone knew) could, be made. If it did exist, which most people thought it did not, and if it was populated, which there was no way of knowing since nobody had been there, and if those people had ships anything like ours, which there was no reason to think they shouldn’t, then why the hell didn't we know about them? A dreamer or thinker in 1491 would, I suppose, have to develop a theory of the cosmos that explained why contact never, ever would be made. And yet, a year later, Columbus got there.

Obviously, there's a problem.

One problem here is the evidence now emerging that there WAS contact prior to 1492; that, long before Columbus, the Vikings had summer camps in Newfoundland; Celtic fisherman were trawling the Grand Banks; the 'Sea Peoples' (the pelagoi) of pre-classical Europe had mapped the Atlantic as far as the Caribbean; and the Maya of Tulum were trading far beyond their immediate coastal region, possibly as far as North Africa.

It's not that we hadn't made contact, but that the distances were so great, the contacts so occasional, the languages so intractable, the knowledge so protected (what incentive, after all, was there for the Celtic fisherman to publish news about the world's richest fishing grounds?) and record-keeping so sparse, that the information was constantly being lost in the seas of time.

Arguably, it was only with the arrival of printing, which permitted good documentation and extended knowledge-sharing, that we began to join the dots, that Columbus was able to launch his historic voyage, and that the New World was officially discovered in the public's imagination and state policy.

Continued below…

Augustine said...

Continued from above…

Moving back to today: it's not that we cannot, or will not, ever communicate with other galactic civilizations (if they exist). But rather that we are probably still a little too intellectually parochial to find them. We have still to develop the requisite science, commerce, communications and transportation, and we have to expand out own worldview (c’mon, what is 'life', and what would 'communication' mean?), before we can make contact--and, more importantly, 'know' we have made contact. And it has to become economically advantageous to do so, not just a matter of curiosity. If gold and tobacco had not been found, I suspect that 1492 would be remembered today only in infamy--simply as the year the Jews (ironically, the intellectual elite, the knowledge seekers of their day) were driven out of Spain.

The misconception behind the singularity (if it happens) is that it is assumed to be the moment when communication with the outside universe ceases. In fact, it may be the very opposite--it may be the exact moment when communication begins.

I feel I have to agree with Michael Crichton. The Drake Equation, and the Fermi Paradox and Theory of Technological Singularity too, are interesting, even elegant ideas but, as guides to the universe, they are about as useful as the c.1300 Hereford Mappa Mundi would have been to Ferdinand and Isabella.

On a final note, being myself an amateur prophet (a person who makes inductive leaps based on current knowledge), I would hazard a guess that life does exist elsewhere (how could it not?), but that sapient life in the galaxy is at the point where humans were 50,000 years ago--just starting to push their boats off the beaches. We're not even close to 1491 yet.

John Gordon said...

Marvelous comment! I'll have to think it over before I respond. Delightful stuff, thanks for posting.

Mthson said...

"I don't trust predictions that are based on extrapolations from current rates of growth."

Ray Kurzweil responded to that argument at the 2009 Singularity Summit in October.

Rabbits in Australia might breed exponentially, but eventually they run up against hard limits (limited environmental resources).

Exponential curves can't continue indefinitely. But the second part of that statement is *within the same paradigm*.

We're running up against the limits of current paradigm in computing now, but this has happened before in the last century. This is just the end of the 4th paradigm, we have the 5th already lined up, and we have a good idea about what to do with the 6th when we get there.

The end of a paradigm creates enormous research pressure to find the next paradigm.

That's a paraphrase of Kurzweil's talk responding to critics, viewable here: http://www.vimeo.com/7337535

(The rest of the videos from the Singularity Summit are here: http://www.vimeo.com/siai/videos/page:1/sort:oldest)

John Gordon said...

I put my response to Augustine's comments into a blog post ;http://notes.kateva.org/2009/12/singular-fun-with-fermi.html

Augustine said...

@Mthson:

"We're running up against the limits of current paradigm in computing now, but this has happened before in the last century. This is just the end of the 4th paradigm, we have the 5th already lined up, and we have a good idea about what to do with the 6th when we get there."

I agree. Although I hadn't heard of this articulation (I really should read up more on Ray Kurzweil before commenting), that's what I meant when I referred to 'new speciation' in technology.

My point, however, is that even successive 'paradigms' still cannot be extrapolated indefinitely, or even to some conclusion, such as a 'singularity.'

Intellectually, we can't avoid hitting a brick wall. And it doesn't matter! There's so much to be found out in the meantime.

Augustine said...

[Re-posting first half of my double comment (second half is at top). This vanished when John and I tried to fix a problem with a different post. Complexity attack? Revenge of the Machine?! LHC-like intervention from the future?!!]

OK, then. Having stumbled across your blog a year or so ago and having become a frequent reader, I think it's time to stick a fork in this singularity nonsense. Or at least offer a dissenting view.

First, I don't trust predictions that are based on extrapolations from current rates of growth. These predictions are, and will be, correct, but only for limited time periods. Extend them out too far and they become absurd. Moore's Law works fine, and will continue to work fine for a while, but basing predictions on constantly accelerating computing power is about as useful as imagining accelerating a given mass to the speed of light.

The greater problem with the argument lies in the fact that we are imperfect predictors: to put it simplistically, we cannot predict what will change the rules based on which we have made a prediction. With technology, as with evolution, one may find that punctuated equilibrium—bursts of growth followed by stasis or regression followed by new speciation--is more likely to be normative than constant, predictable expansion. You cannot accurately infer a future singularity because you cannot know what will happen, because you cannot know what will change the rules before it happens, if you get my drift.

To put it another way, at any given time, we have imperfect information, and any information we do have is so deeply colored by our environment--physical, sociological and intellectual--as to be virtually useless over long time scales.

This probably make no sense (sorry!) on the face of it, so let's pursue a thought experiment, but ground it in a real-world example. Let's assume the singularity DOES, or rather WILL, happen. Now let's compare that event with an historical event: the discovery and colonization of this continent.

Prior to 1492, before the Americas were discovered, the denizens of Europe were arguably in a position not unlike our own. Another world might exist beyond the western ocean, but no contact with it had, and (as far as anyone knew) could, be made. If it did exist, which most people thought it did not, and if it was populated (which there was no way of knowing since nobody had been there), and if those people had ships anything like ours, why the hell didn't we know about them? A dreamer or thinker in 1491 would, I suppose, have to develop a theory of the cosmos that explained why contact never ever would happen. And yet a year later, Columbus got there.

Obviously, there's a problem.

One problem here is that evidence is now emerging that there WAS contact prior to 1492--that, long before Columbus, the Vikings had summer camps in Newfoundland, Celtic fisherman were trawling the Grand Banks, that the 'Sea Peoples' of pre-classical Europe had mapped the Atlantic as far as the Caribbean, and that the Maya of Tulum were trading far beyond their immediate coastal region, possibly as far as North Africa.

It's not that we hadn't made contact, but that the distances were so great, the contacts so occasional, the languages so intractable, the knowledge so protected (what incentive was there, after all, for the Celtic fisherman to publish news about the world's richest fishing grounds?), and record-keeping so sparse, that the information was constantly being lost in the seas of time.

Arguably, it was only with the arrival of printing, which permitted good documentation and extended knowledge sharing, that we began to join the dots, Columbus launched his historic voyage, and the New World was officially discovered in the public's imagination and state policy.

Continued at top of comments...

John Gordon said...

Thanks Augustine, sorry about whatever I did to ax the original!