May 14, 2008

Cascio chimes in on Fermi

IEET colleague Jamais Cascio has responded to Nick Bostrom's suggestion that the detection of extraterrestrial life would be bad news.

Cascio is unconvinced that the parameters of Bostrom's argument are entirely correct, including the assumption that super-advanced civs take up interstellar colonization as a hobby.

Specifically, he argues that technologically advanced ETI's must be post-Singularity civs, and by definition, outside the bounds of current trajectorial models. As Cascio notes, "The demands and concerns and requirements of a post-Singularity civilization wouldn't be based on a pre-Singularity pattern."

Consequently, Cascio makes the claim that galactic empires are likely not on the post-Singularity to-do list. "To be clear, this isn't an argument that these interstellar-capable civs just sit at home. They could and would likely spread, and certainly explore," he writes, "But the notion that they'd hop from solar system to solar system planting their colonies, strikes me as terribly unimaginative, and definitely a pre-Singularity perspective."

I'm not entirely on board with Cascio here, but I will say that he is absolutely correct when he suggests that speculations about colonization-capable civs must presuppose their condition as being post-Singularity.

And I'll further this by noting that we should adopt a digital perspective. As NASA's Steven J. Dick has noted, we should be looking for post-biological brains.

Consequently, when we try to figure out what futuristic civilizations might look like, we should consider:

1. the demands imposed on a civ that's completely reliant on megascale computing
2. the potential mindspace of a post-Singularity superintelligence, its interpretation of utility, and the manner in which it achieves its goals

For the first point, we're talking about a postbiological modality that would likely require a hideous amount of computational power.

As for the second point, good luck with that one.

But where Cascio and I diverge is in how he deals with the non-exclusivity problem -- i.e. finding a solution to the FP that applies to ALL advanced civs.

Cascio argues that Galactic colonization is "unimaginative" and a "pre-Singularity" perspective.

Sure, this may be true. And perhaps 99.9% of all advanced civs would agree with him.

But it's the 0.01% that I'm concerned about.

It's not impossible or ridiculous to imagine at least one non-conformist civilization taking it upon itself to expand its presence across the Galaxy.

Moreover, the colonization process for a post-Singularity intelligence would be a rather pedestrian exercise -- one that doesn't really require much of a commitment. Interstellar colonization would be a largely automated process that exploits the happy consequence of exponential growth.

To be fair, Cascio does suggest that there may be an a universal upper bound to growth. Cascio notes, "Interstellar-capable civilizations that somehow remain wedded to colonization would inevitably fall into internal conflict because of speed-of-light communication/travel lag and divergent evolution (social or biological)."

I think the disconnect here is the notion that galactic colonization necessarily implies the expansion and interconnectedness of communication, economic and political networks. I'm not so convinced. Nodes spawned by Von Neumann probes could be stand-alone and completely segregated from its parent system. One could imagine a Von Neumann wave expanding outward, uplifting all life and matter in its path and leaving computronium in its wake; the probes would not be equipped with rear-view mirrors.

Cascio also presents another possible reconciliation to the Fermi Paradox -- the notion that we are not yet capable of detecting the activities of advanced civs. Specifically, he suggests that ETIs may use alternative communication schemes. Again, as Cascio argues, because we're talking about post-Singularity life, we simply don't know what we're supposed to be looking for.

Unfortunately, this doesn't really solve the Paradox. We are still still stuck with the colonization problem.

That's the crux of the the Fermi Paradox why it remains a non-trivial conundrum. It's also why the FP was given new life in the 1970s by Michael Hart, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, and why in recent times it has become more perplexing than ever.

The Fermi Paradox is alive and well.


Anonymous said...

I should put this link on Jamais's original post, too, but there was a very similar article this week on Centauri Dreams called "Rethinking Galactic Empire." It touches on these same issues: the motivations of an advanced civilization and the problems with the Kardashev scale. Definitely worth a read.

Anonymous said...

One thing that has puzzled me about all the logical arguments for detecting alien intelligence is the presumption of uncontrolled exponential growth. The non-exclusivity argument being a case in point - it treats the posited intelligence as being no smarter than bacteria or cancer in its expansion strategy.

Now suppose we do have a galaxy long since occupied by machine-based intelligences, probably making up an "ecosystem" of sorts in interstellar space. Such a civilization would have no particular need to dive into gravity wells such as Earth to sustain their resource needs. They probably wouldn't care much about biological infestations at the bottom of those gravity wells either, except as curiosities studied by eccentric "xenoanthropologists".

And the non-exclusivity argument? Well, what do we do when bacteria or cancer get out of control in our own bodies? As soon as they make enough damage to get noticed we stamp them out. Before that, they are ignored.

I think it's likely that we are the bacteria in this scenario, unable to see much beyond our immediate neighborhood. As long as we don't get troublesome we'll be ignored, because there's room for a few odd organisms in the galactic ecology. Space, after all, (to misquote Douglas Adams) is really big.

Unknown said...

George, how does your argument change if computronium turns out to be functionally impossible?

Just another technical blogger said...

Even if we make to a postsingularity civilization and the vast majority of sentients are happy living in virtual worlds of their own making, there will be that small number who will want to explore the "real world" and move out to the stars.
I suspect that other civilizations would be no different. If that is the case, then you are still stuck asking the question, where are they?

Anonymous said...

One thing that might be common to all races with 'space empire' capability is that they will all be *OLD*.
Vastly increased lifespan will soon be within our reach (though perhaps not in bodies like we have at present). Also we will soon have the ability to redesign our brain to remove all the evolutionary bodges we currently have.
Great age changes priorities. An old race won't be like 300 year-old teenagers, boldly going anywhere.

Anonymous said...

I belive all these conventional assumptions about post-singularity civilisations are much too conservative.
Why does anyone believe technology will stop at the nano-level? Our particle smashers now probe the attometer scale and will perhaps be able to probe into higher dimensions quite soon.
If a superintelligence is really so powerful as imagined by all those very bright people who suddenly stop thinking beyond nanotech and matrioshkabrains it will find out how to manipulate much much finer scales.
A post-singularity civilisation might very well be based upon planck-scale spacetime computing or move to higher dimensional spaces long before the first nanotech matrioshka-brain is completed.
I such a state they would be completly inscutable and fundamentally unobserveable for us.