March 29, 2008

Large Hadron Collider accused of being an existential threat

Walter L. Wagner and Luis Sancho are pursuing a lawsuit in a U.S. federal court to prevent Geneva's Large Hadron Collider from being switched on later this summer.

They're afraid that the new giant particle accelerator could destroy the entire planet.

That is, without trying to over-state the obvious, a rather extraordinary claim; it doesn't get much more serious than that.

Wagner and Sancho argue that scientists at the European Center for Nuclear Research, or CERN, have played down the chances that the collider could produce a tiny black hole or a strangelet that would convert Earth to a shrunken mass of strange matter.

They also claim that CERN has failed to provide an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

This case illustrates a disturbing new trend -- one that started with the development of the atomic bomb: we are increasingly coming into the possession of technologies that could cause the complete extinction of the human species.

Or, at the very least, technologies that we think might destroy us.

Memories of the Manhattan Project

We don't know for certain that the collider will create a black hole or cause some other unpredictable disaster.

But we suspect that it might. Thus, it has to be considered an existential risk.

This is now the second time this has happened to us.

Back during the early days of the Manhattan Project, a number of scientists voiced their concern that the explosion might start a runaway chain-reaction by "igniting" the atmosphere. It was decided that the threat was very low and, as we all know, the United States went ahead and detonated the first bomb on July 16, 1945.

But for a brief moment 63 years ago, some concerned observers held their breath and nervously watched at the bomb lit-up the New Mexico sky.

And now we have a new contender for the perceived existential threat de jour.

Let science be our guide

Is the Hadron Collider an existential risk? Well, based on our current understanding of physics, we have to conclude that there is a non-zero probability that the collider will act in a way that could destroy the planet.

Just how non-zero is the next big question.

Three years ago, Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom wrote a piece for Nature in which they took a stab at the question. They warned that humanity has been lulled into a false sense of security and that "the fact that the Earth has survived for so long does not necessarily mean that such disasters are unlikely, because observers are, by definition, in places that have avoided destruction."

To reach an answer, they combined physics, philosophy, probability theory (and most assuredly a hefty dose of wild-ass guessing) and concluded that a civilization destroys itself by a particle accelerator experiment once every billion years.

Admittedly, one in a billion seems excruciatingly improbable.

So let's have some fun and smash those particles together at extreme velocities.

But I have to wonder: what if they had concluded a one in a million chance? Is that sufficiently low? Remember, we're talking about the fate of all human life here.

What about one in a hundred thousand?

At what probability point do we call it all off?

How will we ever be able to agree? And would our conclusions cause us to become cripplingly risk averse?

I have no good answers to these questions, suffice to say that we need to continually develop our scientific sensibilities so that we can engage in risk assessment with facts instead of conjectures and hysteria.

The new normal

Moving forward, we can expect to see the sorts of objections being made by Wagner and Sancho become more frequent. Today's it's particle accelerator experiments. Tomorrow it will be molecular nanotechnology. The day after tomorrow it will be artificial intelligence.

And then there are all those things we haven't even thought of yet.

The trick for human civilization will be to figure out how to assess tangible threats, determine level of risk, and devise steps on how to take action.

But it doesn't end there. Inevitably, we will develop technologies that have great humanitarian potential, but are like double-edged swords. Molecular nanotechnology certainly comes to mind.

Consequently, we also have to figure out how to manage our possession of an ever-increasing arsenal of doomsday weapons.

It will be a juggling act where one single mistake will mean the end of all human life.

Not a good proposition.

I think I'd rather die in a bio-chemical terrorist attack, but thanks anyways

[Via Gizmodo]

March 26, 2008

Transhuman comic

[Via io9]

405 square kilometer ice shelf disintegrates

A gigantic Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing
and global warming is being blamed.

Kevin Warwick's presentation at the LIFT Conference

Check out this Google Video featuring Kevin Warwick at the 2008 LIFT Conference.

Warwick takes a look at four different mergers involving the use of implant technology and micro electrode arrays, robots with biological brains, deep brain stimulation for therapeutic purposes and neural implants to enhance human abilities.

Bugatti Veyron reaches 407 km/h

I love this video.

Careful Dean Kamen, or you just might win the Nobel Peace Prize someday

Dean Kamen, inventor of the most kick-ass prosthetic arm currently in existence, has figured out how to convert virtually any liquid into water.


From the Wired article:
  • It is designed to supply a village with 1,000 liters/day of clean water. (Colbert Report)
  • You can use any water source -- ocean, puddle, chemical waste site, hexavalent chrome, arsenic, poison, 50 gallon drum of urine. (Colbert Report)
  • Vapor compression distillation is not new. Doing it in such an incredibly efficient way such that it takes only 2 percent of the power of convention distillers is new. (R&D World and Gizmodo commenter)
  • There are no filters to replace, no charcoal, no anything disposable (just distillation). (Colbert Report)
  • The Slingshot (as its called) can use half the waste heat (450 watts) from a sterling engine electrical generator (prototype also being designed by Kamen's company) to boil its water. (TED)
  • The heat put into the water is recovered with a "counter-flow heat exchanger" and recycled to heat the next batch of water (that is part of the novel bit). (TED and Gizmodo commenter)
  • Slingshot will be less then 60 lbs. (TED)
  • The prototype slingshot was hand-built for $100K. The goal is to get production units down to $1,000 to $2,000. (CNN)
  • The sterling engine, used as an electrical generator, can produce about 200 watts of power (it will never be more then 20 percent efficient) and 800 watts of waste heat (the waste heat that slingshot uses). TED
  • Later sources say the sterling engine can generate 1 kilowatt or enough power for 70 high-efficiency light bulbs. (CNN)
  • The sterling engine can run on anything that burns, propane or even cow dung. (CNN)
  • The slingshot is a David and Goliath reference aimed at putting water and power back in the hands of the individuals. (AP)
  • Bailey to Vatican: "Is Suppressing Scientific Research Sinful?"

    So, the Vatican has declared "experiments [and] genetic manipulation" as "violations of certain fundamental rights of human nature."

    science correspondent Ronald Bailey has put a delightful spin on this and wonders if scientific ignorance and the suppression of vital biotechnological research is the true evil at play here:
    First, the Vatican has not spoken with clarity on the issue of genetically improving crops. Back in 2003, the London Times reported that the Vatican would soon come out in favor of biotech crops as part of the solution for world starvation and malnutrition. A year later, a message from Pope John Paul II expressed reservations about biotech crops. Last year, Filipino Archbishop Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales warned that "genetically modified crops and food products could be very harmful to the environment and to human beings." The Archbishop is factually wrong about the alleged dangers of current biotech crops. What are the divine penalties for the sin of scientific ignorance?

    The Roman Catholic and generally free market think tank, the Acton Institute, notes that some religious thinkers believe that it might be all right with God for us to modify plants, but not animals. The distinction is based upon the idea that while God commanded Noah to save animal lineages, the Almighty said nothing about preserving plants on the Ark. As evangelical biologist Calvin Dewitt explains, "These lineages are creations of the Creator, and they are... gifts to the whole of creation."

    However, the Creator doesn't seem to be much of a steward of His Creation, since an estimated 99.9 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct. And of course, argument against genetically modifying animals overlooks the fact that the genetic lineages of all domesticated animals have been dramatically modified by people over the millennia. Perhaps the souls of some of our ancestors are roasting in the infernal abyss for the sin of turning wolves into dogs and aurochs into Holsteins.
    This is a great article and I suggest that you read more.

    Postgender, now

    Talk about timely.

    The news this week of a pregnant transgendered male is exactly what Dr. J and I have been talkin' 'bout. You go, boy!
    To our neighbors, my wife, Nancy, and I don’t appear in the least unusual. To those in the quiet Oregon community where we live, we are viewed just as we are -- a happy couple deeply in love. Our desire to work hard, buy our first home, and start a family was nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until we decided that I would carry our child.

    I am transgender, legally male, and legally married to Nancy. Unlike those in same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships, or civil unions, Nancy and I are afforded the more than 1,100 federal rights of marriage. Sterilization is not a requirement for sex reassignment, so I decided to have chest reconstruction and testosterone therapy but kept my reproductive rights. Wanting to have a biological child is neither a male nor female desire, but a human desire.

    Ten years ago, when Nancy and I became a couple, the idea of us having a child was more dream than plan. I always wanted to have children. However, due to severe endometriosis 20 years ago, Nancy had to undergo a hysterectomy and is unable to carry a child. But after the success of our custom screen-printing business and a move from Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest two years ago, the timing finally seemed right. I stopped taking my bimonthly testosterone injections. It had been roughly eight years since I had my last menstrual cycle, so this wasn’t a decision that I took lightly. My body regulated itself after about four months, and I didn’t have to take any exogenous estrogen, progesterone, or fertility drugs to aid my pregnancy.

    March 20, 2008

    Goodbye Arthur C. Clarke, friend of the transhumanists

    'Nuff said.

    Thanks, ACC.

    Peter Berg to direct new Dune movie

    Director Peter Berg has been brought on by Paramount to create a new bigscreen version of Frank Herbert's classic novel, Dune.

    As the article notes, "The filmmakers consider its theme of finite ecological resources particularly timely."

    There can never be enough versions of this story.

    The spice must flow.

    Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary

    A number of years ago I became frustrated with both modern feminism and the utter dearth of a sensical male approach to gender issues. I began to speculate about how transhumanism could contribute to the discussion and offer a perspective that could meet the needs of both genders.

    And given the prospect of a posthuman condition, I also wondered what relevance 'gender' would continue to have for a technologically advanced species.

    I was inspired by Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, but felt that it was incomplete, unimaginative and far too female-centric. That's when I started to think of 'postgenderism,' the idea that both men and women should use advanced biotechnologies to reduce the gender gap and create entirely new opportunities for sexual expression.

    I've never fully articulated these ideas into anything formal, aside from an early Wikipedia article and the odd blog posting.

    This has finally changed. James Hughes and I have collaborated on an essay that is set to appear in a forthcoming book on gender and reproductive technologies. Dr. J has released a shorter version of the essay on the IEET site and we're hoping to get some feedback so that we may improve the final version for the book.

    Here's the abstract:
    Postgenderism is an extrapolation of ways that technology is eroding the biological, psychological and social role of gender, and an argument for why the erosion of binary gender will be liberatory. Postgenderists argue that gender is an arbitrary and unnecessary limitation on human potential, and foresee the elimination of involuntary biological and psychological gendering in the human species through the application of neurotechnology, biotechnology and reproductive technologies. Postgenderists contend that dyadic gender roles and sexual dimorphisms are generally to the detriment of individuals and society. Assisted reproduction will make it possible for individuals of any sex to reproduce in any combinations they choose, with or without “mothers” and “fathers,” and artificial wombs will make biological wombs unnecessary for reproduction. Greater biological fluidity and psychological androgyny will allow future persons to explore both masculine and feminine aspects of personality. Postgenderists do not call for the end of all gender traits, or universal androgyny, but rather that those traits become a matter of choice. Bodies and personalities in our postgender future will no longer be constrained and circumscribed by gendered traits, but enriched by their use in the palette of diverse self-expression.

    Download the Complete Document (PDF)

    March 17, 2008

    WTA, IEET and JET servers brought down by hackers

    The servers that host the websites and mailing lists for the World Transhumanist Association, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and the Journal of Evolution and Technology were hacked into this past weekend and brought down.

    Here's an email I got from James Hughes this morning,
    [You may have] noticed that the IEET website was down for three days, and that our email lists are still down. That is because the servers in London that host the IEET, the Journal of Evolution and Technology, the World Transhumanist Association and a variety of other like-minded groups were brought down by a hack attack last week. The servers have now been rebuilt, but our email list is still inexplicably down. (This is coming through the website.)

    We’re working on restoring the mailing lists, and hopefully will have them fixed shortly.

    We have no idea whether the attack was ideologically motivated or not.

    March 15, 2008

    His biology made him do it: why evolutionary psychology says we should cut Spitzer some slack

    Ryan McReynolds's recent post about prostitution has inspired me to scrutinize the Elliot Spitzer scandal a bit further.

    Typical media interpretations would have us believe that this is a story about corruption, hypocrisy and arrogance. Many of the commentaries that followed in the wake of the scandal offered explanations as to why men of power often risk everything and why politicians are so prone to sleaze.

    But very few pundits asked the harder questions, like, why did Spitzer go to a prostitute in the first place, and what are the cultural norms currently in place that prime men for such scandals?

    And even if they did ask these questions, I doubt that many would analyze it through the lens of evolutionary psychology, sexual selection and gender differentiation.

    No, it's much easier to point a holier-than-thou finger at someone and declare them to be weak and corrupt. It feeds our appetite for schadenfreude and our collective inability to question social norms.

    What's the underlying story, here?

    Did Elliot Spitzer break the law?


    Did Spitzer violate cultural mores and social expectations – particularly as they apply to politicians?


    Did he show lack of restraint and a possible abuse of power?


    But further, was Spitzer behaving in accordance to his biological programming, particularly that of a man with power and status?


    Now, I’m not making excuses for Spitzer, he clearly exercised poor judgment, and it’s probably for the best that he resigned his governorship. At the same time, however, this scandal shows how many of today’s social conventions can be artificial and even suppressive.

    The layers of this affair run deeper than mere political opportunism and indiscretion. Spitzer's dramatic fall from power is a telling story about our underlying needs and urges and just how much we're willing to put at stake to satisfy those latent desires. Humans are still very much gendered and sexual creatures driven by genetic imperatives. Society would have us believe otherwise, but the evidence is right there before us.

    Going back to a question I posed earlier: Why did Spitzer go to a prostitute in the first place? Well, it's not because he's corrupt or evil; those are labels applied to his actions after the fact. Rather, it stems from a deeply hardwired desire to get some action on the side, for sexual fulfillment outside of marriage.

    Simply put, he was being a typical guy.

    The science of infidelity

    The science of male-female differences is beginning to mature; it's providing us with an enhanced understanding of mate selection and sexual behavior.

    Evolutionary biologist David P. Barash has noted that males of most species are sexually aggressive and apt to engage in sex with multiple partners when they can. This strategy makes sense; males who succeed in doing so simply leave more descendants.

    Geoffrey Miller, another evolutionary psychologist, reached a similar conclusion in his book, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature. Fueled by Richard Dawkins’s selfish gene notion, Miller argues that humans have developed a complex psychology that encourages sexual choice.

    And Robin Baker, author of Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles, has shown that upwards of 10% of children are not fathered by their “fathers” and that all sperm are not produced for fertilization, but to literally fight off the sperm of other males (how telling is that!?).

    Interestingly, and perhaps quite obviously, infidelity is not specific to males. Baker also shows how women have “smart” vaginal mucus that encourages some sperm but blocks others. Women are also far more likely to conceive through a casual fling than through sex with her regular partner. Other studies have shown how women are more prone to ‘cheat’ during specific stages of the menstrual cycle; women select two types of men: those they partner with and those they actually mate with.

    From having wealth, status and power….to having to visit prostitutes

    Indeed, one of the most surprising discoveries of the past two decades has been the extent of sexual infidelity – what scientists call extra-pair copulations. As Barash has noted, "It's clear that social monogamy -- physical association and child rearing between a male and a female -- and sexual monogamy are very different things. The former is common; the latter is rare."

    Prior to the onset of the monogamous imposition, men of wealth, status and power typically acquired multiple wives and partners. Well over a century ago, a politician like Spitzer would have likely had a mistress and no one would have questioned it. Today, a successful male is likely to have a wife and a girlfriend on the side (along with the hope of not getting caught).

    But for men like Spitzer, a mistress is not possible. So instead they visit prostitutes and risk virtually everything. He is a victim of the times.

    Again, this is not an apology for Spitzer. As a politician, he knew the sacrifices he would have to make and work to fulfill the public’s expectations. He clearly failed in that regard.

    But we need to weigh his actions with a certain amount of understanding. Let's not be too quick to judge the guy and cut him some slack.

    [Photo credit: Art of Chad]

    March 13, 2008

    Ashley X parents speak out and defend their actions

    It's been a year since the Ashley X story hit prime time. This is the case in which the parents of a severely disabled child submitted their daughter to a hysterectomy, breast surgery and drugs to keep the girl small so that they could continue to care for her. The treatment was performed back in 2004.

    Despite her age, Ashley has the mental ability of a three-month-old baby and cannot walk or talk.

    This story is back in the news as Ashley's parents recently spoke with CNN to once again defend their actions and share their experience with other families.

    Ashley, who is now 10 years old, is 4 feet 5 inches tall and 63 pounds; this will likely be as big as she will ever get. The so-called Ashley Treatment permanently closed her growth plates and took more than a foot off her anticipated height

    According to her parents, "Ashley did not grow in height or weight in the last year, she will always be flat-chested, and she will never suffer any menstrual pain, cramps or bleeding."

    They remain convinced that what they did for Ashley is the most loving choice they could have made for their daughter and want that for other disabled children. "We feel that if our time and effort ended up helping a single pillow angel... then it is worthwhile."

    For more on this story and my own perspectives:
    Helping Families Care for the Helpless
    Ashley X story hitting prime time
    BBC video
    Certain minds and certain bodies
    Ashley X doctor commits suicide

    Another step closer to techlepathy

    From New Scientist Tech: Nerve-tapping neckband used in 'telepathic' chat.

    This is a great step forward, but just wait for future generations of this technology which will tap directly into your auditory cortex.

    More about techlepathy here and here.

    Dolphin rescues two distressed whales

    "I don't speak whale and I don't speak dolphin, but there was obviously something that went on, because the two whales changed from being quite distressed to following the dolphin willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea." -- Malcolm Smith, New Zealand Conservation Department

    The intersection of transhumanism and space travel

    Athena Andreadis, author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek, has penned an article about the implications of transhumanism on the future of space travel. In the article, titled "Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!," Andreadis correctly observes that most transhumanists with a "a socially progressive agenda" have very little interest in the whole idea of space travel and interstellar colonization.

    Indeed, outside of humanitarian efforts, most transhumanists would rather explore inner space than outer space.

    But Andreadis argues that transhumanists should take space travel more seriously. She writes,

    Consider the ingredients that would make an ideal crewmember of a space expedition: robust physical and mental health, biological and psychological adaptability, longevity, ability to interphase directly with components of the ship. In short, enhancements and augmentations eventually resulting in self-repairing quasi-immortals with extended senses and capabilities – the loose working definition of transhuman.

    Coordination of the two movements would give a real, concrete purpose to transhumanism beyond the rather uncompelling objective of giving everyone a semi-infinite life of leisure (without guarantees that either terrestrial resources or the human mental and social framework could accommodate such a shift). It would also turn the journey to the stars into a more hopeful proposition, since it might make it possible that those who started the journey could live to see planetfall.

    Ultimately, she makes the case that human intelligence, if it is to survive and prosper, needs to get off planet. Andreadis concludes by saying,
    Despite their honorable intentions and progressive outlook, if the transhumanists insist on first establishing a utopia on earth before approving spacefaring, they will achieve either nothing or a dystopia as bleak as that depicted in Paolo Bacigalupi’s unsparing stories. If they join forces with the space enthusiasts, they stand a chance to bring humanity through the Singularity some of them so fervently predict and expect – except it may be a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds instead.
    Read the entire article.

    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.

    March 1, 2008