June 22, 2006

When did intelligence first emerge in the universe?

Here’s a question that has a direct bearing on both the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox: When did life first emerge in the universe? More important to the SETI discussion, however, is determining the earliest point at which a radio-capable or Singularity era intelligence could have emerged. My initial suspicion is that the conditions required to support intelligent life have been established for quite some time now – a conclusion that will only reinforce the Fermi quandary rather than diminish it.

A lot of hand waving goes on when people dismiss the Fermi Paradox. The fact that the universe isn’t already teeming with ETI’s and machine intelligences is more disturbing than most people realize. One such person is Ray Kurzweil who believes that we are the first (or among the very first) intelligences in the universe to approach the Singularity. I find this absurdly improbable, but it’s an hypothesis that I’m willing to entertain.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s set aside Ward and Brownlee’s Rare Earth hypothesis and invoke the self-sampling assumption about our conditions here on Earth. We can heretofore assume that the circumstances on Earth are extremely typical in regards to how life emerges and evolves.

According to cosmologist Charles Lineweaver's estimates, planets started forming 9.1 billion years ago. Obviously, radio-communicating or pre-Singularity intelligences didn't emerge overnight. So, how long does that take? Using the Earth as an example we can come up with a rough idea.

Life on Earth first emerged about 600 million years after its formation (that’s awfully quick – a strike against the Rare Earth hypothesis, I would say). Consequently, given similar conditions in other parts of the universe, I’d say that life could not have arisen any earlier than 8.5Gyr ago. What I’d be interested to know is, in what way, if any, were planets and solar systems different 8.5Gyr ago as compared to those which formed 4.57Gyr ago (which is when the Earth formed)? Would any of those differences negate or retard the processes of life?

The next factor to look at is the complexification of life. On Earth, it took RNA/DNA about 3.7Gyr to get to the point where it was able to express complex land dwelling organisms. This is the time when, about 220 million years ago, that dinosaurs emerged. It’s conceivable that hominid-type creatures and their attendant civilizations could have emerged around this time instead of super-predator dinosaurs. Let's work with this assumption.

Now, I suppose we should account for the mass extinction events that characterized the early phases of Earth. Given the short period of time in which it’s taken Homo sapiens to emerge from beast to virtual cyborg (less than 2 million years), it’s safe to say that the high frequency of mass extinctions wouldn’t have been a factor.

That said, NEO impacts and other mass extinction events have been the cause of drastic evolutionary re-starts, but have decreased in frequency over the course of our solar system’s history. The solar system is stabilizing. A fair question to ask is, were mass extinction events necessary for the emergence of intelligence life, and if so, why?

Given the length of time required to go from the ignition of life through to complex life, the earliest that civilizations could have emerged on Earth is 220 million years ago. I'm going to conclude that natural selection requires 3.7Gyr before it can express creatures that are morphologically sophisticated enough to resemble humans. As an interesting aside, that doesn’t necessarily suggest that organisms could have evolved the cognitive capacity of humans at that time. For all we know, the mammalian brain requires the 200 million years of evolution and accumulated/refined DNA data to get to the sophistication it has today. I’ll admit, however, that that’s a stretch; time-to-evolve is not a fixed rate and is largely dictated by the severity of environmental stressors.

Using the 3.7Gyr metric, the earliest that complex humanoid life could have emerged in our universe is 4.72Gyr ago. That figure does not negate the Fermi Paradox. Given the potential emergence of intelligent life in our galaxy around that time, and given Fermi’s estimate that an ETI could colonize the galaxy within 10 million years, our galaxy could have been colonized nearly 500 times over by now.

Let’s try to whittle the figure down even further. Assuming that an advanced civ could have emerged on earth 220 million years ago, what would they have used to fuel their industrial revolution? Working under the assumption that fossil fuels are a necessary prerequisite for an industrial revolution to occur, how many years of accumulated biomass is required? By the same token, how much biomass is required to get to the Singularity?

Today, considering the threat of peak oil, we don’t know the answer to that question ourselves. We know that human civilization had enough to get to an industrialized phase of existence, but we don't actually know if we have enough energy to get to the Singularity (although I'm inclined to believe that we do).

Let’s assume here, however, that we have enough energy to make it. Vast forests of clubmosses (lycopods), horsetails, and tree ferns started to cover the land 300 million years ago – biomass that decayed and eventually formed coal and oil. Let’s use that as our metric for the time required to establish energy needs. That knocks our figure of 3.7Gyr down to 3.4Gyr – barely a dent.

I’m making an assumption, here – that the presence of oil and coal are a necessary condition for the emerge of radio-capable and pre-Singularity intelligences. I remember getting into a discussion with Eliezer Yudkowsky about this a number of years ago who begged to differ. He essentially claimed that 'where there’s a will there’s a way,' particularly given long enough time frames (I think he used the example of solar power).

I’m still unconvinced and would argue that fossil fuels are absolutely necessary. I'm going to use that in our calculation to push back the emergence of complex civs in the universe from 4.72Gyr ago to 4.42Gyr ago.

There are undoubtedly a plethora of factors I’m either omitting or exaggerating. The exact conditions required for the emergence of human-like intelligences may be more complex than it appears, and the universe may only be intelliphillic at this unique time (a violation of the Copernican Principle, I know, but one that should be considered; is the universe entering a phase transition?).

Formalizing my argument about when intelligences could first emerge in the universe, I'm going to use this as a starting equation:

[y.a. planets formed (P)] – [years it takes for life to emerge (L)] – [years it takes for DNA to become hominid-expressible (H)] – [years it takes to accumulate required biomass for energy (E)] = [y.a. radio-capable civs first emerged in the galaxy (A)]

P – L – H – E = A

Using my figures (in Gigayears):
9.1 – 0.6 – 3.78 – 0.3 = 4.42Gyr

So, it’s conceivable that Singularities and outward galactic expansions could have happened as long as 4.42 billion years ago. This is still an immense amount of time, keeping the Fermi problem deeply relevant.

So, where is everybody?

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Aron said...

It's really quite simple. Our entire universe is a simulation. We are the first entities to reach super-intelligence and will rapidly consume all available universal resources prior to the natural evolution of any other intelligent species. We will then begin spawning additional universal simulations to solve several Very Tricky Problems (TM).

I've got proof for all this lying around here somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting question. One thought I had is that even if human level intelligence is not rare, the circumstance we find ourselves in, of being serious universe observers and contemplating galaxy exploration and all the rest, still could be.

Human level intelligence existed for many thousands of years with no signs of real scientific or technological progress or sophistication. We used our intelligence primarily to trick lesser animals and thrive at a very basic level of existence. The fact that we didn't simply carry on like that forever could be very unusual.

Consider Native American culture for example. Obviously we can't say for sure, but I think its very possible that left alone they would never 'progress' beyond where they were before the Europeans came.

Even today there are still 'pristine' human tribes which have survived through the years without any sort of modern technology or science as we know it.

So personally I think its possible that there could be many races through the galaxy with human level intelligence, who survive and do quite well yet never get beyond tribalism.

George said...

ryan wrote: "So personally I think its possible that there could be many races through the galaxy with human level intelligence, who survive and do quite well yet never get beyond tribalism."

Ryan, I often think about this as a distinct possibility. I believe Jared Diamond concluded as much (either directly or indirectly) in Guns, Germs and Steel.

Interestingly, I believe Drake factored this into his famous equation, realizing that not all civs will progress to the radio transmitting stage.

A.R.Yngve said...

Stanislaw Lem offered a very neat (and devastating) resolution to the Fermi Paradox in his novel FIASCO (recommended).

In FIASCO, humanity tries its hardest to reach an alien civilization... only to find that the aliens are so physically different from us, that ANY actual communication is impossible.

"They" may be both intelligent and technologically advanced, but what if they are slime molds? Or fungi? What business do fungi want with primates? Seriously.

But here's another suggestion...

I wrote an "alien contact" novel years ago (available to read for free here: http://yngve.bravehost.com/aboutalienbeach.html), and I assumed that "they" would have be distinctly humanoid or the "contact" was going to be a non-starter.

The humanoids in that scenario turn out to be tourists rather than invaders -- and just as damaging to the "natives" (us) as real tourists would be to any "unspoiled" island culture.

The answer to the question "where are they?" is suggested in my novel as follows: the major part of the alien civilization became so advanced that they merged with their technoloy and vanished out of sight, perhaps to another reality -- i.e. a "singularity" -- and the "tourist" aliens who visit Earth are simply the tiny "un-evolved" remainder of that culture.

Ergo: if we run into an apparent older-than-mankind alien civilization, it will not be the ACTUAL alien civilization -- but merely its rejects, retards and Luddites.

Chris said...

Does anyone know if any work has been done on the subject of how much waste heat would be generated by a singularity event? I'm thinking in terms of the fact that all computation, like all physical action, generates at least some degree of waste heat ( just no getting around thermodynamics) Assuming our civilization gives rise to a computational matrix that independently evolves in processing power exponentially, wouldn't that result in a catastrophic and possibly terminal heat-shock to the host-biosphere? Maybe that's the fate of all civilizations that reach singularities. I'd love it if anyone has any ideas to share on this...

Craig said...

I enjoyed your analysis quite a bit. The thing you didn't cover is the idea we still don't have a clue, which we don't. More treatments like yours, however will help us pick a good direction.

Anonymous said...

I have yet seen no satisfying explanation to Fermi's paradox, I am convinced at the best of my ability it is a paradox - which leaves me deeply troubled.

Worst, I can add nothing else. Ray's conclusion (we are first) is a stretch. But what other explanations do we have? Pretty few.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, just ran into it and it's now on my feeds.

In your previous entries you mention how quantum mechanics forbids a single history and although I have not yet begun to parse through your must know terms for today's intellegensia I'm assuming your fairly aware of other philosophies that share sentiments with these new theoretical physics. (to avoid ubersimplicity, I'll even ignore your interest in Buddhism.

Ontologically I am under the impression that intelligence is a state of consciousness which, like consciousness, is atemporal. Human beings simply have reached a level of complexity with our minds that enables us to experience this pre-existing intelligence. The Universe (defined as the set of all sets here, by me - who am I? some poor kid) is conscious and intelligent, because we are conscious and intelligent. We are a part of the Universe, and the Universe is greater than the sum of it's parts (think Eisetein's montage - film theory where two semiotics together form something beyond the sum of the original two).

Even in the case of multiple histories/futures/presents (all the same, personally I believe there is just 'now' and those are all reflections of 'now' manifesting as a myriad of space-time), there would in that infinite set have to be some timelines in which intelligence occured before our timeline. I am resisting falling into a loop here, but I'll leave it at -- perhaps if you go down our black holes and big bangs you'll just end up at the future.

Final answer: now.

Anonymous said...

I think the FIRST civ to attain singularity (a seemengly cosmological inevitability) has been FORCED - to guarantee its own long term survivability due to otherwise inevitable competition for cosmic resources - to make all in its powers (a LOT by definition) to make sure there will NOT be a second civ attaining tech singularity.
This does not mean they would wave to colonize-or-perish, nor that they would have to sterilize-or-perish.
They would just have to deploy self replicating monitoring/enforcment probes that would guarantee that no other civ guets to the point of being a potencial SECOND post-singularity competitor ENFORCING them to a permanent one-star-at-a-time noncompetitive survival mode by forcefully and sistematically DENIYNG them tech-singularity.
So this is my explanation for fermy paradox: ONE post-singularity civ does exits, surving in a one/few-star/s-at-a-time mode (no need for more), marveling at the diversity of evolution everywhere else while making sure that NO one else guets to the many-stars-at-a-time stage just because having many civs in a many-stars-at-a-time mode would lead to inevitable colision and destruction.

Anonymous said...

I have issues with the 3.7 billion year estimate for the development of complex life in the context of your article.

If earth was indeed rare, and life-friendly environments were extraordinarily uncommon then yes, it'd be safe to assume that your estimate is close to the minimum timespan required for the appearance of some kind of proto-intelligence.

The underlying argument, however, would also make it a lot less likely that planets with the necessary conditions for complex life formed in our galaxy anytime soon after planet formation became possible metallicity-wise, therefore reducing the likelihood of such life developing at a much earlier point in the history of our galaxy than today.

If, on the other hand, the mediocrity principle holds, it would seem reasonable to believe that the 3.7 gy you mentioned are closer to the average evolution timespan for earth-like planets, with the minimum being much lower.

Thus, under this assumption, intelligent life should have developed somewhat (maybe a lot) earlier than 4.42 gy ago.

Just some thoughts...

Anonymous said...

In direct response to your question "so where is everybody?", I would posit that the enormous distances between stellar bodies offers a solid and plausible explanation for the Great Silence(the closest observable planetary system outside our own biosphere by ground-based telescopes is only forty-one light years away, but still an incomprehensibly vast distance). The unsettling truth is that we are a speck on a speck within another speck called the milky Way galaxy. There are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the world. We exist on the outer bands of a galactic arm in a relatively empty region of interstellar space. Given this, even the most advanced civilizations in the cosmos(and they may in fact be quite abundant), beings millions if not billions of years ahead of us in the development of their science and understanding of the higher realms of consciousness may not even be aware of our existence, even if they have developed the technological capacity for inter-dimensional travel. We should not presume that we are anything more than practically invisible, just as our nearest sentient cosmic neighbors obviously appear to be.

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Anonymous said...

The whole of the article above assumes that our kind of life (planetary bound carbon based)is the only type to exist. What about plasma life forms that might appear on the surfaces of suns? Though purely conjectural we shouldn't dismiss the idea of both life and intelligence that are unlike our own.
The outcome of thinking about such things is that, in some cases intelligent life (of an incredibly alien kind) could have appeared much earlier than we presume.