March 5, 2008

Seven ways to control the Galaxy with self-replicating probes

So, you want to take over the Galaxy. A good career move. Ultimately, you're hoping to communicate with extraterrestrials, colonize entire sets of star clusters, and eventually lord it over the entire Milky Way.

You've got the motive, but what about the means?

Well, forget about generation ships, suspended animation or ringworlds – the best way for you to explore, colonize and ultimately rule the Milky Way will be through the use of self-replicating robotic spacecraft – what are sometimes referred to as von Neumann probes.

Von Neumann's idea

Back in late 1940’s the brilliant mathematician John Von Neumann wondered if it might be possible to design a non-biological system that could replicate itself. Von Neumann wasn’t thinking about space exploration at the time, but other thinkers like Freeman Dyson, Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas later took his idea and applied it to exactly that.

The strength of Von Neumann's idea lies in the brute efficiency of exponential growth. Given enough time and patience, a single self-replicating probe could produce millions upon millions of offspring; it would be like a massive bubble expanding outward into the Galaxy. It’s possible that these probes could come to occupy all four corners of the Milky Way in as little as half a million years – even if each probe travels at an average cruising speed of one tenth the speed of light.

In order to work, however, a von Neumann spacecraft would have to be put together using advanced nanotechnology and artificial intelligence -- technologies that we have yet to develop. In fact, the device itself would be a molecular assembler, capable of reconstituting matter into copies of itself.

A number of scientists and sci-fi writers have speculated over the years about the different kinds of probes we might want to construct once we're ready to explore space in this fashion. Other thinkers, namely astrosociobiologists, have wondered if extraterrestrials have constructed probes of their own.

I recently took a look at these visions and came up with a Von Neumann probe taxonomy. I came up with 7 basic spacecraft functions:
1. Exploration
2. Communication
3. Working
4. Colonization
5. Uplifting
6. Berserking
7. Policing
These tasks don’t have to be exclusive to a single probe. It’s possible that probes will be fairly versatile, able to change their functions as circumstances dictate. That said, you're likely going to need all these probes in your effort to take over and control the Milky Way.

Here’s how the different probes will work:

1. Exploration probes

These probes would be designed strictly for space exploration and surveillance; they would not contact or interact with other intelligent civilizations. We have already created such probes, namely Voyager 1 and 2 – although strictly speaking they are not von Neumann replicators.

Exploration probes could remain local and explore our Solar System (what has been dubbed Astrochicken probes), or they could be sent on interstellar missions to explore and transmit their findings back to Earth.

Admittedly, the timescales in question are significant – at least to modern human lifespans and our reasonable expectations for return on investment. But the information these probes could provide would be invaluable. They could study foreign solar systems in exquisite detail – and even alert us to the presence of extraterrestrial life.

These probes could also act as stationary reconnaissance stations. They could take residence in a data rich area and continuously beam that information back to Earth--all without ever being detected.

2. Communication probes (a.k.a. Bracewell probes)

The current SETI strategy of targeting stars and listening for radio signals has an extremely slim chance of success. It’s a needle-in-the-haystack approach. That said, given the assumption that civilizations want to communicate with us, a more efficient way for them to make contact would be to disseminate self-replicating communication probes across the Galaxy.

Dubbed Bracewell probes (named after Ronald N. Bracewell who thought of the idea back in 1960), these devices would work as an alternative to interstellar radio communication between widely separated civilizations. This strategy only makes sense given the inefficiency and weakness of radio signals emitted from the source planet.

Christopher Rose, an electrical engineer at Rutger’s University, has suggested that we should actually look for these probes in our own Solar System. He argues we should be checking the mail instead of waiting for a phone call.

Multiple Bracewell probes could also be set up as a distributed array of communication relay stations. Such a set-up was portrayed in Carl Sagan’s Contact. In this story, a dormant Bracewell probe was lying in wait in the Vega system. It began to transmit a strong signal after it received a radio signal from Earth. The device itself was part of a larger network of probes, as witnessed later by Ellie’s journey from probe to probe.

3. Worker probes

If we are going to embark on megascale engineering projects, we’re going to need robots. Lots of 'em. Projects like Dyson Spheres, Ringworlds and Alderson Disks would require fleets of specialized and artificially intelligent probes working in concert to construct these truly massive structures.

Given the sheer scale of these projects and the amount of matter that would have to be subverted, it’s not unreasonable to assume that millions of individual probes would be required. The most sensible way to construct and disseminate these probes would be through self-replication schemes.

These probes could also be put to work as mining machines that dig-out and transport matter across vast distances. Ideally, these probes would be programmed to work together and take advantage of swarming intelligence and emergent properties.

4. Colonization probes

The advent of molecular assembling nanotechnology will make it possible for probes to go about interstellar colonization. It’s conceivable that a von Neumann probe could find a suitable planet and use the matter around it to not just reproduce itself, but to establish a colony and seed actual settlers.

Such settlers would likely be uploaded consciousness patterns. This would obviously require an advanced mind emulation scheme, powerful artificial intelligence, and advanced supercomputing. Ideally, these consciousness patterns would be able to migrate to a robotic body for corporeal investigation of the environment. The number of settlers in any given location could be significant, limited only by computational resources.

Colonization probes could also construct data receivers and transmission stations so that uploaded persons could travel as digital data streams from one point to another. Consequently, the dream of traveling at the speed of light will some day be possible.

Colonization probes, sometimes referred to as seeder probes, could also perform double-duty as terraformers. Project Genesis, as portrayed in the Star Trek film series, utilized such a probe, which was able to transform a dead planet into one that suited the needs of its future inhabitants.

5. Uplift probes

Probes could also work to transform and 'uplift' other civilizations and their citizens. This scenario was explored in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an advanced extraterrestrial civilization used probes (called monoliths) to steer the direction of evolution on Earth. In the story, these probes endowed primates with the capacity to use tools, and later, the human David Bowman was transformed into the next stage of evolution, the so-called Star Child.

This scenario was also explored in David Brin’s Uplift series in which advanced civilizations brought sapience to primitive life forms--what’s more accurately termed biological uplift. Also conceivable is technological or civilizational uplift in which an extraterrestrial intelligence brings an entire civilization up to its own advanced level.

Motivations for doing so could involve meta-ethical imperatives meant to reduce suffering, to prevent civilizations from destroying themselves, or to ensure the safe onset of non-threatening post-Singularity intelligences. Or, it could be part of your plan to take over the Galaxy.

Uplift probes could quickly bring a civilization to a post-Singularity, postbiological condition. Such a force might appear as a colonization wave that sweeps across the Galaxy, transforming all that it touches into computronium. Such a scenario has been projected by such thinkers as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil.

6. Berserker probes

Unfortunately, you're going to have to look out for malevolent probes, what Fred Saberhagen dubbed Berserkers. Just as an intelligent civilization could use self-replicating probes to spread life across the Galaxy, another misguided or evil civilization could do quite the opposite and destroy everything.

Berserkers could be disseminated with the sole purpose of sterilizing every planetary system it encounters, forever eliminating the possibility for life to emerge and evolve. Should it encounter an inhabited planet, it could use any number of schemes, including nanotech instigated ecophagy, to quickly destroy all life in a matter of hours. By using a scorched galaxy policy, a civilization could sterilize the Milky Way in about 500,000 years.

Alternately, berserker probes could be disbursed across the entire Galaxy and lie dormant, patiently waiting for signs of intelligence.

Berserkers could also work to stamp out intelligent life that it deems dangerous. Anders Sandberg, Eliezer Yudkowsky and myself conceived of a strategy in which an advanced civilization (or Galactic club) could monitor for potentially dangerous post-Singularity mind-types and quickly stamp them out of existence.

7. Police probes

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that probe-making civilizations would also be thinking about defensive measures. Sandberg recently came up with an idea for anti-berserker policing probes (what I've started to call Sandberg probes). These devices would be on the lookout for bad news of any kind and take action.

Civilizations might want to establish quarantined areas; policing probes would ensure that nothing gets through the defenses and ensure the integrity of a specified region. Xenophobic civilizations might want to set up quarantined areas to prevent memetic infection, to protect themselves against invasion of any kind, or simply due to a fear of the unknown.

The best way of stopping a replicator, argues Sandberg, is to nip it in the bud. To do so, an advanced civilization would require widespread surveillance and enough power to deal with possible threats. And because replicators could emerge outside a given region of control, a civilization would want to have widely stockpiled defenses. The easiest way of doing this? Yup, you guessed it: make a replicator that spreads and builds these stockpiles and quietly waits for signs of something threatening.

So, where are all the probes?

Given all this technological potential, one must wonder why we haven’t encountered any extraterrestrial probes. Why haven't extraterrestrials communicated with us? Why haven't we be uplifted....or destroyed?

This conundrum was first articulated by Frank Tipler and has become a critical driver of the Fermi Paradox. It's been a cause of much the contact pessimism that has taken root since the 1970s (my own inclinations included). If it's so easy for probes to colonize the Galaxy, then where the heck are they? Tipler concluded that extraterrestrials simply don't exist.

Carl Sagan and William Newman came up with a different answer. They were convinced that Tipler had it all wrong and that all this talk of probes was sheer poppycock. Sagan and Newman, in their 1983 paper titled "The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence," calculated that von Neumann probes, should they exist, would eventually start to consume most of the mass in the Galaxy. Consequently, they concluded that intelligent civilizations would never dare construct such probes and would try to destroy any such device as soon as it was detected.

I'm not so convinced. Probes with even a modicum of AI and smart programming could be programmed to stop after a certain reproductive threshold has been achieved (time-to-produce schemes, maximum number of iterations, etc.). These probes wouldn't be simple mindless automatons. Moreover, the Sagan and Newman theory violates non-exclusivity; it might explain why most civilizations wouldn't dare embark on such colonization schemes, but not all. All it would take is just one.

And interestingly, Sagan and Newman seemed to be arguing for counter-measures against probes -- a strategy that Sandberg has argued would require self-replicating police probes. Moreover, as Sandberg writes,
One of the interesting things with police probes is that it makes strategic sense to announce that they are around to civilizations that might "break the law" - yet not reveal exactly how strong they are or what their modus operandi is. So the Fermi paradox appears to say that there are no police around here right now.
Further, says Sandberg, one species' police is another species' invader - we would probably not like having some alien probe impose their view of what is an unacceptable activity on us, and vice versa. And the process of making police probes will likely be indistinguishable from making other replicators. Consequently, there might be a race to set up the first interstellar police force.

At any rate, the reason for the absence of probes is still a mystery. And as the future ruler of Galaxy, you're going to have to assume this is the case. So you better get going and create a fleet of self-replicating probe before somebody else does it first.


TJ said...

The solutions to the Fermi Paradox is one of the Big Questions that we have yet to answer.

As to conquering the galaxy: wouldn't it be easier to wait until someone else has set up a replicating system then subvert and hijack it for our own purposes?

At this stage in history humanity is like the heroine in the darkened room who suddenly realises that someone could be out there in the darkness but has no idea where they are or even if they are there.

Another theory is the old chestnut: "we just don't know what to look for."

Back in the olden days when people thought about life on other planets they suggested planting forests into geometric shapes as means of communicating our presence.

It is entirely conceivable that there are whole fields of science and technology which we haven't yet stumbled upon and simply broadcasting radio signals is considered primitive, wasteful, and possibly rude.

Putting aside speculation on the manners of aliens, the "we don't know enough yet" explanation is an answer of sorts, but simultaneously unsatisfying and reassuring.

It means that we still have a lot more to find out but it also means that it is our ignorance that is holding back the discovery of alien intelligence, rather than the reticence of the aliens.

Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in this article should follow it by reading David Brin's fantastic short story Lungfish.

dataphage said...

Hmmm, macro-scale grey goo.

Occam's Razor applies here surely. We probably don't need to worry about these things as, if they exist - which in all probability they don't - they are essentially undetectable and non-interventionist.

Worry instead that we have the idea and in all probability will develop the capability to match. This then becomes an ethical question as pretty much all robotics/AI ideas become after long enough thinking about them.

John M. said...

One thing we should consider is the possibility of Von Neumann probes built on the molecular to subatomic scales. These sorts of designs could be robust enough to obviate
the potential hazards of interstellar travel. (easy on materials and less breakdown)

For colonization probes one could design DNA transporting 'spores', perhaps complete with nano-assemblers to assist with various tasks and self- replication. Fungus spores found here on Earth could conceivably survive a long trip through deep-space. (did I get that from Greg Egan?) With this in mind one could also imagine viral or bacterial type probes, as well.

Perhaps a technological species could somehow harness the speed of light by actually making their probes out of it, ie, encoded photons.

Then there are the highly speculative FTL possibilities. Perhaps harnessing quantum entanglement or some sort of dimensional transfer.

Micro to nano scale probes could then become a potential answer to the 'where are the aliens?' question. We just can't see them.

Also, these sorts of self-replicating probes would not need as much material to propagate; consuming the mass of the galaxy could be forestalled.

All in all, indeed a Big Question.

Anonymous said...

My strongest argument against that is, how could a probe *reliably* detect the presence of life?

It would have to be able to detect life 100% of the time, otherwise risk chewing up a whole species just for the purpose of harvesting materials to build a new probe.

Considering all the unknowns involved in extraterrestrial life, I don't think you could possibly build self replicating probes without running a small risk of eliminating an unknown species, and that is an unacceptable risk for a wannabe space faring species.

e.g. consider if there is a species of 'smart dust' which harvests energy from the sun and covers an entire planet to make one, or many distributed minds. How would we discern the difference between that and plain ol' dumb dust?

Anonymous said...

Maybe they have been here....and replicated to suit the environment...we call them viruses

David Brin said...

Great essay on Von Neuman probes, George! Cool and fun...

I'm glad my story “Lungfish” got cited. (In fact, I think that story covers a few bases that George missed.) George does (courteously) cite my Uplift notion as one of seven possible motives/goals for self replicating probes. (Thanks George!)

He also goes into a very smart riff about why we don’t see any of these probes yet, even though they seem logically to be the way to go. Indeed, at the Los Alamos conference on Interstellar Migration, back around 1982, I saw the work of Jones and Finney suggest that ONE such probe might fill the galaxy with it descendants in just three million years. An eyeblink that really pushes the Fermi Question hard.

One of the scenarios that George leaves out is the “voyeur-lurker” possibility. That probes might be out there, nearby, right now, listening in. Even tapping our... well... web discussion groups. See my take on this at:

great stuff. Let's hope the answer is benign.

With cordial regards,

David Brin

Anonymous said...

I'd like to hear how anyone thinks these probes could be possible considering the argument I stated above. Anyone interested in addressing that concern?

George said...

Hey David, thanks for the kind words. And wouldn't you know it, I had cited Lungfish in an earlier version of the article, but decided to pull it in the name of brevity. I particularly liked your idea of VNP seeder ecologies.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Great post and thanks. I am reminded of James P. Hogan and his wonderful "Code of the Lifemaker". The prolog is online and worth a read..

Regards, Meaux

Anonymous said...

Ryan F, why is the elimination of a species an unacceptable risk? If intelligent life is common, they are disposable... :-)

More seriously, if the probes are intelligent and nanotech, they could build a phyiscally small, but very intelligent community on arrival. There might be a football sized community in orbit around our sun with the equivalent of thousands of human minds in it, all busy studying the human race. We're not talking dumb automation here.

A more general statement of Fermi's Paradox as portrayed here is "First one to spread wins." The first species that makes a self-replicating probe gets to set all the rules. It's probes can do any or all of the tasks listed here, including judging which species are "worthy" in a completely idiosyncratic way, driven by the culture of the first race. If they like only intelligences with tentacles, and destroy all others, then those are the rules, and nothing you can do about it. They spread their probes to all stars in the Galaxy before anyone else and can eliminate the non-tentacled races before they become technological.

Michael Goodfellow

Anonymous said...

Probes can be pretty small but not arbitrarily small. In the paper I'm writing about police probes I came up with pen-sized Orion rockets using antimatter (nukes don't scale), but my favorite is something like Robert Forward's starwisp. The reason to make probes small is fast replication: according to Merkle and Freitas review, replication time likely scales as mass to the 1/4th power. Added to this is the benefit that less energy has to be expended in sending them. On the other hand, once in system the probes can build stuff to nearly arbitrary sizes.

In my paper I also looked at reliable intelligence identification. Maybe it is possible, maybe not (similarly for life). Depending on what you want to do it may not matter. A berserker probe might be programmed to destroy any planets where there is modulated radio emissions, nuclear detonations, objects rising to orbit *or* many right angles on the ground. That might miss some civilizations and nuke a few uninhabited planets, but it would on average likely get most emerging technological civilizations. That kind of crudity would of course be out of the question for a police probe. There is no need for human-level intelligence for most probe tasks (there are animal analogs of most of the seven functions), but it would be reassuring for some of the goals.

The main point of my paper is to demonstrate that given our present existence berserker probes are very unlikely mainly because they are likely quite feasible to build (!). Seeing an absence of hard-to-build probes is much less informative than seeing an absence of easy-to-build probes (there are some fine points here about the anthropic principle - we could not discuss this if we had been killed by a berserker 100 years ago). Unfortunately, that implies, as George pointed out, that we might have a strong temptation - or even, some might argue, a moral imperative to make replicators to spread truth, justice and the human way. It is like the cold war arms race, but we don't know if there is anybody over the ocean racing with us.

Martin Wurzinger said...

I can’t argue with the purpose such probes are put to – once you have them.

The problem is the self-replicating character.

I don’t want to contradict von Neumann, but his idea did come from the ‘40s. Since then we’ve had the Turing test (Tt) and the identified concept of autocatalytic closure (ac).

According to the Tt a machine needs to know when to stop a process, the knowledge for which needs to be above the information level of the process itself. A self-replicating machine needs more information than what went into the building of that machine.

As for ac, for a system to function on its own, its inherent elements need to be of a variety such that any modifications can be handled by the elements of that system (autocatalysis). If the complexity is such that any modified elements can be made use of by the system we have a. closure.

Look at it this way: suppose an error occurs, could the probe in the process of replicating itself handle it? And what if that ‘error’ was actually an advantage – would the probe know this?

Btw, ac originated in biochemistry, but has been made us of in other contexts as well.

Martin Wurzinger said...

I can’t argue with the purpose such probes are put to – once you have them.

The problem is the self-replicating character.

I don’t want to contradict von Neumann, but his idea did come from the ‘40s. Since then we’ve had the Turing test (Tt) and the identified concept of autocatalytic closure (ac).

According to the Tt a machine needs to know when to stop a process, the knowledge for which needs to be above the information level of the process itself. A self-replicating machine needs more information than what went into the building of that machine.

As for ac, for a system to function on its own, its inherent elements need to be of a variety such that any modifications can be handled by the elements of that system (autocatalysis). If the complexity is such that any modified elements can be made use of by the system we have a. closure.

Look at it this way: suppose an error occurs, could the probe in the process of replicating itself handle it? And what if that ‘error’ was actually an advantage – would the probe know this?

Btw, ac originated in biochemistry, but has been made us of in other contexts as well.

Anonymous said...

could it be possible that we already have come in contact with these probes yet haven't been able to tell because they are using some sort of technology to conceal their presence?

Anonymous said...

Also it's a matter of timing.

We live very quick lives; modern search for outer life not been especially long.

Probes may have come and gone half-million orbits ago or ... may arrive a few thousand from now.

Not just star to star 3D travel time, but starting from when --relative to humans.

Oris Bracken

Anonymous said...

One interesting solution to the famous Fermi Paradox, "Where are they?" is that they aren't. We're it. We are the only intelligent, sentient life in the entire universe. I know that the probability of this being the case is very small but it is nonetheless finite (that is, non-zero).

And consider this. Even if we are not "the First," sheer logic tells us that SOME intelligent species somewhere had to be. Over the course of the evolution of the universe and of life within the universe, there logically HAD to be one species that developed at least human-level intelligence first. And that species (wherever it came into being) would have agonized in much the same way over the question of other intelligences in the universe. And it might, indeed, have taken them quite some time to discover that there weren't any just because it would have seemed to THEM highly unlikely that they were the first.

Think about it....

Anonymous said...

"One of the interesting things with police probes is that it makes strategic sense to announce that they are around to civilizations that might "break the law" - yet not reveal exactly how strong they are or what their modus operandi is. So the Fermi paradox appears to say that there are no police around here right now."

These police probes may exist. Just because they aren't announcing themselves to us may mean:
A. That we haven't reached the technological level suitable for a warning.
B. If they are warning civilizations as to what they are they may be heard due to lack of technology or misinterpretation of any warning signals.

Anonymous said...

To W.M. Bear: Why is the probability of humans being the only sentient life low? Its purely a guess, given that we are dealing with a sample set of one when it comes to sentient life. The idea that we are the only ones is very solid because it is simple.

All the ideas as to why probes haven't been found are good, but have the same non-exclusivity problem George talked about.

So I think given what we know, the best assumption is we are alone in the galaxy. Anything else seems to add needless layers of complexity to our theories.

Anonymous said...

One very simple, obvious possibility, thus far overlooked by most noted theorists: We ARE the proverbial Von Neumann probes (albeit in a semi-degenerate, somewhate dysfunctional condition). Humans possess most of the required traits and capabilities (including the potential to colonize other worlds), and although modern academic science would have us believe we are an electrochemical accident unique to this planet, they are in an extreme minority on that point as far as world ideologies, past and present go.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if this was already postulated, but what if the beserkers already came and went? I think Brin had a story similar to this in one of his collections. Maybe the absence of detectable life means that the galaxy has been cleaned out and we've come too late to the party.

Anonymous said...

Gamma-ray burster. Maybe probes mainly sit around in space and are more vulnerable than biolife huddled under thick air and magnetic fields. Ten or so thousand years ago maybe -- zzzap! Mammoths go bye-bye. Last Neanderthals go bye-bye. Weather goes haywire and we get knocked about. Probes go bye-bye.

Ten thousand years later, we have flood myths and Atlantis myths and a mysterious minor recent extinction event without a smoking-gun crater, and a strange absence of extraterrestrial probes in the neighborhood.

Also, on the theme of berserkers and anti-berserker police-bots, the Greg Bear novels Forge of God and Anvil of Stars deserve mention. In these, a nonlinearity in QM allows FTL communication and remote alteration of matter, including into antimatter, which ends up being the main technology for power, weapons, and propulsion. Why FTL teleportation (or just mind-upload transfer) isn't done remains unexplained. :)

Anonymous said...

People should be smart enough to know that we dont control nature. Nature controls us.

Anonymous said...

no it just controlls the environment

pauljs75 said...

Police probes much like the police in most municipalities probably work best if they leave others to go about their own business unless they have actually broken the law. Thus if they do exist, we will not know about them unless we violate some rules or some other trouble-maker shows up in the neighborhood. I suspect humanity is considered pretty much a non-threat until we actually have proven that we can muck about beyond our own solar system. Until then, a police probe would just quietly keep an eye on things and make sure the "neighborhood" stays safe.

As for replication issues and tasks? I think the best approach would probably mimic the diversification and specialization within an ant colony. Only some probes would need to have the replication capability. For other tasks, the ability to make more probes is just extra baggage that is a waste of time and resources. Scouts would need to be light and fast and disposable, beserkers/police would need more dedication to weapons & countermeasures, etc. So what would happen is that scouts scatter pretty much everywhere, then signal points of interest or suitible resource rich spots for development. An interesting spot would be noted for further or more detailed observation, and possibly to be dealt with if deemed threatening. A development spot would see security drones move in and then followed by actual replicators. Replicators would then produce such and such amount of various extra units as needed and then mostly scatter with the others. To spread effectively and gather data, they would go dormant to ensure availability of future resources. Also there would be some requirement to restrict reproduction, since the idea in most cases is to spread out and gather data rather than consume all possible resources. So if such and such amount of your own probes is detectable within a given radius, a replicator would build no more than what would be needed to sustain a baseline population for maintaining observation and control.

Now if you wanted a good example of what could possibly happen if a few different groups of aggressive Von Neuman probes suddenly found them selves running into each other, then I'd suggest playing the game Total Annihilation. (Or Supreme Commander.) The whole principle of developing your base and resource management successfully in that RTS is a blatant example of Von Neuman probes in actual operation.

As for the Fermi paradox, I'd say zoo theory might not be that far off. The few people that do claim to be in contact with space aliens (if it's not delusional) describe it pretty much as being on the recieving end of a "tag and release" program. (Seriously. If you look at the abduction phenomena, it mirrors the tagging, tracking, health, and reproductive monitoring of a sample population of a species performed by wildlife researchers.)

Anonymous said...

...Maybe its silent because perhaps we live in a demillitarized zone, established by several probing parties that bumped into eachother long time ago and after wasting many resources on galactic struggle for power established some sort of truce

qraal said...

Here's a wacky thought... what if the 'gods' are 'police probes' or uplift probes, thus breeding us for intelligence or some such, before their influence waned (except in the susceptible) or their self-repair systems crapped out - thus explaining the lack of present day miracles? Too much like an old "Star Trek" episode, I know.

Unknown said...

One would have thought the most obvious solution to the Fermi Paradox would be that WE are the probes.

cycollins said...

The Fermi Paradox has a kind of self-referential, intellectually incestuous tinge to it. It first allows a very narrow and specific hypothesis - that probes are possible, conceivable, seemingly-feasible (we haven't actually built a self-replicator yet) and a pretty good idea in all kinds of frames of reference. It then uses the absence of detection of these probes as evidence of absence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. It's a bit like some of the classic, simple-minded arguments about the non-existence of God (God can't build a box that God can't open, so there's no omnipotent God - QED). Consider that it is only in the most recent few years of human thought that we could even have begun to conceive of these devices. It follows that there may well be discoveries in the near or far future might make the feasibility or advisability of such devices utterly moot. There may yet be discoveries or evolutions in human though that change our frame of reference on the subject of probes as much as the technological and scientific advances that allowed us to even think or talk about probes in the first place.

My argument against the Fermi Paradox is simple - who cares what Fermi thinks? You can't eliminate the possibility of ANYTHING in a universe as vast, deep and currently-poorly-understood as the one we find ourselves in. Nothing. Not God. Not extraterrestrial intelligence. Not the frickin' Tooth Fairy. Nothing. Certainly not based on a thought experiment done by a member of a species whose capacity for understanding is limited by its evolving and ever-changing frames of reference.

Since it seems common in this discussion to make reference to works of science fiction in this forum (I'm a new-comer), let me close with a thought from Douglass Adams. He proposes the syllogism that the Babel Fish is so useful that it could only exist by the hand of a creative God and that such proof excludes faith and that without faith God is nothing. "Up goes God in a puff of logic." Call that the Adams paradox. The Fermi paradox is only marginally less silly (and a lot less useful as an ironic bit of humor).