March 30, 2013

What is the purpose of the Universe? Here is one possible answer.

It’s often said that Jupiter — or any gas giant for that matter — is a failed star. This sentiment riles a lot of people, who bristle at the suggestion that Jupiter is deficient somehow, or that it was even meant to do something in the first place. But the conjecture belies a larger, more important question. What is it, exactly, that the universe and all the stuff that’s in it supposed to do aside from just floating in space?
Well, it just so happens that there is a theory that gives a kind of raison d'etre to our universe and all the objects flying through it. If true, it would mean that our universe is nothing more than a black hole generator, or a means to produce as many baby universes as possible. To learn more, I spoke to the man who came up with the idea.
It's called the theory of Cosmological Natural Selection and it was conjured by Lee Smolin, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and and an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo.
"It's a scenario that explains how the laws of nature are chosen," Smolin told me, "and if true, these parameters are geared to maximize the number of black holes made in the universe."
Of cosmological singularities and baby universes
Indeed, black holes — and the cosmological singularities they produce — are central to Smolin's theory. These are regions of space-time where the quantities used to measure gravitational fields or temperature become infinite. It's also where general relativity stops being useful, making any kind of prediction impossible. Classical general relativity says that a singularity exists inside each black hole. But both string theory and loop quantum gravity suggest that black hole singularities can be eliminated — and when this happens, it may be possible to describe the future evolution of the space-time region within it.
"Everything that falls into a black hole doesn't just hit the cosmological singularity and just stop evolving so that time simply comes to an end," he says, "Time continues and everything that fell into the black hole would have a future where the singularity was, and that region is what we call a baby universe."
Moreover, Smolin says these baby universes are immune to whatever happens in the parent universe, including eternal inflation and its ultimate heat death.
"Black holes are predicted to evaporate by making radiation — what's called the Hawking Process," he says, "but only until they get down to an equilibrium with the temperature of the cosmic microwave background." This process, says Smolin, has to do with the properties of the horizon — and it's only the horizon that evaporates.
"The baby universe may come into a kind of contact with the original universe in a way it didn't before, but whether this happens or not depends on the details of the quantum gravity theory," he says.

A Darwinian model

And like Darwin's theory of variation and selection, Smolin also surmises that baby universes are slightly different than the parent who spawned them. In turn, this cosmological "mutation" — in which the parameters of nature have been slightly modified — may result in a new universe that's either better or worse in terms of its replicative ability.
For example, if the cosmological constant and speed of light were slightly tweaked, or if the law of gravity became too weak or strong, the new universe could be suboptimal in its ability to make massive quantities of massive stars. In such a universe, matter might not be able to coalesce into stars, or galaxies might be unable to form.
In this model, a "fit" universe, therefore, is one that has evolved such that its ability to produce black holes has been optimized. And this may explain why we observe a universe that produces large swaths of giant stars — each one an attempt to make a baby.
The idea of cosmological variation, however, is one of pure conjecture. "It's an hypothesis," Smolin concedes.
But that said, Smolin points to string theory as a potential mechanism. "There could be a connection there," he told me, "it describes a landscape of different cosmological parameters — different phase transitions between them — and this is almost exactly the kind of example I had in mind when trying to explain the variation of the constants."
Smolin is also unsure how many baby universes each black hole is able to produce — though he suspects that it's one per black hole. "The answer," he says, "will ultimately depend on quantum gravity theory."

Life as epiphenomenon?

We asked Smolin if life in the universe is therefore an accident — that humans and all other organisms are mere epiphenomenon, a sideshow to a much larger process.
"If the hypothesis of Cosmological Natural Selection is true, then life — and the universe being biofriendly — is a consequence of the universe being finely-tuned to produce black holes by producing many, many massive stars."
But he added: "Those if statements are important."
Other scientists have conversely argued that the universe is freakishly biophilic — that the laws of nature appear to be geared towards making life. Some even suggest that this is the ultimate purpose of the universe — that it's fine-tuned to spawn biological organisms (the so-calledbiocosm hypothesis).
Similarly, philosophers like to talk about the Anthropic Principle — the notion that any analysis of the universe and what happens within it must take into account the presence of observers (i.e. intelligent life). We're subject to an observational selection effect, they argue, which means we can only ever observe a universe that's friendly to life.
Smolin, on the other hand, brushes these lines of argumentation aside, saying that cosmologists should study and understand the properties of the universe in a way that doesn't connect it to life. The Anthropic Principle, he says, is simply incapable of making a falsifiable prediction for any kind of testable experiment.
At the same time, however, "Cosmological Natural Selection," he says, "is very capable of doing just that."
Moreover, the laws of the universe — and all the stuff that's within it — can all be explained without referencing it to life.
"It's not a coincidence," he says, "that we live in a world which has lots of carbon and oxygen in it, along with long list of suitable stars, and so on." The presence of these apparent life-friendly elements — like carbon and oxygen — has a perfectly good explanation outside of the biophilic paradigm. These elements, says Smolin, creates the conditions necessary for the efficient formation of sufficiently massive stars that form black holes.
The claims made as evidence by Anthropic Principle supporters, he says, can be explained in an alternative way.

The critics

Needless to say, Smolin's Big Idea has received its fair share of criticism. It's an extraordinary idea, after all, and extraordinary ideas often undergo extraordinary levels of scrutiny.
Cosmologist Joe Silk, for example, says the universe we observe is far from being an optimal producer of black holes. He speculates that other "versions" of the universe could do a much better job.
Similarly, Alexander Vilenkin argues that the rate of black hole formation can be improved by increasing the value of the cosmological constant. Smolin is wrong, he says, to hypothesize that the current values of all the constants of nature are perfectly adjusted to maximize black hole production.
Ruediger Vaas complains that Smolin's first mistake was to start making analogies to Darwinian processes. The fitness of Smolin's universes, he says, aren't constrained by their environments, but by the numbers of black holes. Moreover, although Smolin's universes have different replication rates, they aren't competing against each other — what he feels is a crucial component of any Darwinian process.
Writing in the Edge, Leonard Susskind — Felix Bloch Professor in theoretical physics at Stanford University — had this to say:
Smolin...believes that the constants of nature are determined by survival of the fittest: the fittest to reproduce that is. Those properties which lead to the largest rate of reproduction will dominate the population of universes and the overwhelming likelihood is that we live in such a universe. At least that's the argument.
But this logic can lead to ridiculous conclusions. In the case of eternal inflation it would lead to the prediction that our universe has the maximum possible cosmological constant, since the reproduction rate is nothing but the inflation rate.
When we asked Smolin about these objections, he said that many of these concerns were addressed in his book, The Life of the Cosmos, and that his upcoming book, Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, will also tackle many of these questions (the book also dispels the idea that time is a kind of illusion). And when possible, Smolin has addressed individual concerns (for example, the entire Smolin-Susskind debate can be readhere; and his retort to Vilenkin can be seen here).
Ultimately, however, the objections leave him unfazed.
"My impression is the idea has not been refuted even though several people have tried," he told me. "It doesn't mean the idea is true, but the idea has stood up to attempts to falsify it."
Pausing for a moment, and speaking more quickly now, he continued:
"Look, for me, the important part of the claim is that it is a scientific argument. The idea itself is not the most important thing — it's a very interesting idea, sure — but it instantiates a general claim that — if you want to explain the universe — one of the things you're going to have to explain is why we see certain laws of nature and not others. And the claim I'm making is that this question can in fact be answered scientifically — one that will lead toward a way for us to make predictions to see if the laws of nature are not fixed for all time, but evolved. That is the key point for me."
As for the exact mechanism of cosmological evolution, he says that a certain model or scenario might be right, or it might be wrong. The important point, says Smolin, is that science can only be completed to the extent of our ability to explain why the laws of nature are they way they are if they evolved over time.
"As far as the scenario of Cosmological Natural Selection is concerned," he says, "it's just an hypothesis just as much as it was for Darwin and Mendel — two scientists who figured out how natural selection worked before knowing anything about DNA or the molecular instantiation of genes."
This article originally appeared at io9.
Images: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Smolin pic: ideacityonline; galaxy/dna:

March 29, 2013

10 of the Weirdest Futurist Scenarios for the Evolution of Humanity

When science fiction writers and futurists imagine humans of the far future, they never think our descendants are going to look exactly the same as we do now. After all, we'll have access to powerful tools to turn us into cyborgs and hack our DNA, so there's no limit to how we could reinvent ourselves.
But just how weird could our progeny become? Here are 10 of the absolute strangest visions of our post-human future.
Top illustration drawn by Dougal Dixon and taken from a 1980s issue of Omni Magazine about what humans might look like in 50 million years.
1. Voluntary devolution
What better way to start a top 10 list of the weirdest visions for humanity than by considering the possibility that we take a massive step backwards rather than forward? Voluntary devolution is the idea that we should re-engineer the human species to the point where we're no longer advanced enough to be considered human. The basic premise here is that humans basically suck, and we should take it upon ourselves to regress, from an evolutionary standpoint, to a state of harmlessness. By becoming pre-civilizational, we would stop being a threat to ourselves, the animal kingdom, and the planet itself. This perspective could be interpreted as a kind of oxymoronic uber-Luddism, where progress is measured not by the increase and refinement of human capacities, but instead by its regression. The ultimate goal would be the end of civilization and our return to the jungle.
2. Voluntary human extinction
But why stop there when you can eliminate the human species altogether — and better yet, do it in such a way that everybody buys into it? Such is the goal of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), an activist movement that is actively working to phase out the human species, by asking us (very politely) to stop breeding. Armed with the slogan, "May we live long and die out," VHEMT's eventual goal is to return the Earth to its natural, healthy state. With humanity gone, all the remaining creatures on Earth could be free to live, die, and evolve on their own. Adherents of the voluntary human extinction model maintain that they're not misanthropic, they're just providing an "encouraging alternative to the callous exploitation and wholesale destruction of Earth's ecology."
3. The rise of the eco-human
Some environmentally conscious futurists aren't content to see humanity devolve or wither away into extinction — but they're also not convinced of our ability to address climate change and other ecological disasters. The solution to such problems, they argue, is to have humans voluntarily modify ourselves, to better live in harmony with the planet. In a paper titled "Human Engineering and Climate Change," philosophers S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg, and Rebecca Roache make the case that humans should resort to such measures as pharmacologically induced meat intolerance (since meat production is exceptionally hard on the environment), genetically engineering cat-eyes to reduce our need for lighting, and reducing our physical size to lessen our ecological footprint (they recommend a 21% reduction in body mass for men, and 25% for women). They're also hoping to see us increase our will-power, which they argue will have the peripheral effect of improving our feelings of empathy and altruism.
4. Transgenic humans
But, why limit ourselves to adding a few new traits, when we can borrow wholesale from the animal kingdom? Transgenic technologies, which allow for the genetic intermingling of human and animal characteristics, could allow for a nearly endless array of human-animal hybrids. There's plenty to envy among our non-human friends, too: Dogs hear and smell much better than we do, cats can see in the dark, some primates have better memorization skills than us, and birds have remarkably strong vision. Looking ahead to the day when we can apply transgenic modifications to ourselves, many would-be transhumans would like to acquire the eyes of a hawk, the scales of a lizard, or the seaworthiness of cetaceans — imagine being able to swim alongside a pod of bottlenosed dolphins.
5. All brain, and no brawn
This is the classic vision of a humanity that has evolved a massive brain at the expense of its body. In his obscure 1893 story, "The Man of the Year Million," H.G. Wells posited the idea that humanity's dependence on technology will ultimately result in a decreased reliance on the body, and more on the brain. Even the simple knife and fork, argued Wells, would eventually make the human jaw redundant. Modern conveniences like motorised transportation woud result in the withering away of legs, torsos, and practically all muscles — so our descendants would essentially become huge brains that walk around on their hands. But just how realistic is this vision? According to Darwinian principles, physical characteristics will in fact start to disappear if they're not continually reinforced by selectional pressures. The human appendix is a prime example — a classic case of "use it or lose it." As for massive, bulbous craniums like the ones displayed by theTalosians of Star Trek, that's probably unlikely, given that brain size is not correlated with intelligence, and the fact that we're progressively offloading our thinking to external devices. That said, American heads are getting bigger.
6. The Hive Mind
The hive mind, as portrayed by the insectoid-humans of Frank Herbert's Hellstrom's Hive or the infamous Borg of Star Trek, is a possible future state in which human social organization has taken on the form of a superorganism much like ants or bees. In such a state, individual human will is largely trumped by the demands of the collective, or some kind of overarching central intelligence or modus operandi. The totalitarian experiments of the 20th century were prototypes of this idea, mercifully limited by the primitiveness of their technologies. But looking to the future, it's easy to imagine the frightening prospect of renewed state efforts to control the thoughts and actions of the populace — using such things as ubiquitous surveillance and mind-controlling technologies (like nanobots or cyber-brain hacking). But an emerging hive mind could also be seen as a positive step forward in human communication and social organization — what some have referred to as the global brain or Noosphere. The big question to ask, however, is how much of the individual can be retained in an open sea of competing conscious thoughts?
7. Postgendered humans
Advanced reproductive and cybernetic technologies will have a profound impact on our biological nature. Currently bound by sexual reproduction, we are a binary species, consisting of females and males. But given the potential for cyborgization and such developments as exosomatic wombs, we may cease to become biological organisms in the traditional sense. Future humans, or what would really be posthumans at this point,could choose to be postgendered in the sense that they wouldn't be tied to one particular biological sex, instead acquring the best characteristics that each has to offer (a kind of technologically-enabled androgenization). Future humans could also choose to discard gendered traits altogether and become asexual. Even more radical is the possibility of creating brand new biological sexes, or amorphous gendered traits that could be altered on the fly.
8. Out of control morphological arms races
Assistive reproductive technologies like genomics will allow future couples to partake in the practice of human trait selection, or what is more commonly referred to as "designer babies." It's also possible that advanced somatic gene therapy will allow individuals to modify and enhance their genetic constitutions well after they're born. But a number of physical endowments could be used by people to gain an advantage in certain domains, thus instigating a kind of "arms race". Take sports, for example. Basketball players are competing for height, while swimmers are competing for the length of their limbs. Today, athletes have to come by these characteristics naturally, but in the future, those looking to gain a physical edge could take the extra step of seeing their genome modified to suit (or by parents hell-bent on seeing their child succeed at a particular sport). The modifications could exceed anything seen before by nature, leading to some bizarre and extreme physical forms.
9. Humans modified for space
It's no secret that humans in their current form have no business being in space. The long term effects of zero gravity and solar radiation make it a poor environment for the fragile creatures that we are. But this hasn't stopped some from speculating about how humans could be modified to withstand the rigours of space — and their solutions are anything but subtle. Nanotechnology expert Robert Freitas has outlined a plan for the elimination of lungs, making breathable air unnecessary. Ray Kurzweil has speculated that future humans won't require food, equipped instead with nanobots that can energize our cells. And even Craig Venter has chimed in, putting out the call to develop an advanced inner ear that can allow people to escape motion sickness, genes for bone regeneration, and DNA repair for radiation He's also suggested that we develop a small stature, higher energy utilization, hairlessness, and slower skin turnover. And yet others have speculated about transforming humans into gangly octopus-like creatures who would be far more adapted to slithering around in zero gravity environments.
10. Uploads
While the idea of uploading human consciousness into a supercomputer is weird unto itself, some of the visions of life after uploading are even weirder. Take Hansonian Uploads for example — the suggestion that uploaded minds might take it upon themselves to create virtually unlimited copies of themselves in order to compete in tough economic markets. Driving this suggestion is the suspicion that copying yourself will be fast and cheap, resulting an explosion of uploads. Another scenario could see an uploaded mind adjust its relative clock speed. With an agonizingly slow clock speed, for example, an uploaded mind could literally watch the unfolding of geological-scale events like the rising and falling of mountains. Uploaded minds could also hop from robotic body to robotic body, forever changing their real-world physical form. Another fascinating possibility could come in the form of altering the fundamental parameters of the computer-generated environment. This could result in something far beyond human comprehension, both in terms of the physical space (like adding dimensions or changing the physics of the environment) and the nature of psychological and subjective awareness itself.
This article originally appeared at io9.
Top image composed by Dougal Dixon. Inset images via (1) RedIce, (2) VHEMT, (3) Ecoliteracy, (4), (5) FutureMan, (6) Vegans of Color, (7) New York Fashion, (8) andrie-basket (Bol Manute) (9) Dougal Dixon, (10) FutureTimeLine.

March 23, 2013

Would It Be Boring If We Could Live Forever?

Some futurists predict that we'll be able to halt the aging process by the end of this century — if not sooner. The prospect of creating an ageless society is certainly not without its critics, with concerns ranging from the environmental through to the spiritual. One of the most common objections to radical life extension, however, is the idea that it would be profoundly boring to live forever, and that by consequence, we should not even attempt it.
So are the critics right? Let's take a closer look at the issue and consider both sides.
To help us make sense of the problem, we spoke to two experts who have given this subject considerable thought: Bioethicist Nigel Cameron, the President of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, and philosopher Mark A. Walker, Assistant Professor and Richard L. Hedden Chair of Advanced Philosophical Studies at New Mexico State University.
It was through my conversations with them that I realized how difficult this question is to answer — mostly because no one has ever lived long enough to know. But given what's at stake, it's an issue certainly worth considering.
Now, before we get into the discussion, there are a couple of things to note.
First, this is not idle speculation. An increasing number of gerontologistsbiologists, and futurists are predicting significant medical breakthroughs in the coming decades that could result in so-called ‘negligible senescence' — the indefinite prolongation of healthy human life.
And second, this discussion is limited to the question of boredom. Clearly, there are many other serious implications to radical life extension, but those are outside the scope of this article.
Boredom, Mortality, and the Meaningful Life
Most of us know what it feels like to be bored, and it's not pleasant. Thankfully, we're often able to change things up and move on to new experiences and settings. But what if things got so tedious and so repetitive that death actually seemed preferable? Given the potential for radically extended lives, could we risk being tired of literally everything — including life itself?
This is the concern of bioethicist Nigel Cameron who worries that extreme longevity will cause people to become listless and utterly dissatisfied with their existence owing to a complete lack of engagement, novelty — and purpose. It's the prospect of death, says Cameron, that spurs us to be motivated and to meaningfully engage in life. Living an exceedingly long life without the threat of death, he argues, will only impose meaninglessness to our lives.
Moreover, Cameron worries that extended lives will make an already bad situation even worse.
"If we assume an indefinite lifespan in a situation broadly similar to our present one," he told me, "the issue is not so much whether we would be bored as how most westerners, at least, would cope with the prospect when in our current situation they are already bored nearly to death — that's the baseline."
Cameron is concerned that we risk the extension of what are already exceedingly boring and diminished lives. "I am thinking of the blank expressions of reality TV viewers," he said, "and the bloated living corpses of Wall-E."
Chris Hackler, head of the Division of Medical Humanities at the University of Arkansas, agrees:
Let's face it, most peoples' jobs aren't all that fascinating. They put in a 9-to-5 and they're glad to have the weekend. So you wonder if having twice as much of this is a good thing, or if you'd get totally burned out.
Cameron makes the case that it's our mortality — and not necessarily the dearth of novelty — that contributes to a life worth living. "It is the prospect of our demise that gives richness and joy and anguish to each measure of our human experience, symbolized better than anywhere by the 'til death us do part' of the marriage ceremony," he told me. "To enjoy an indefinite human experience would require a willing commitment to constant reinvention, a kind of reincarnation, to which few current humans aspire."
Another concern is the suggestion that humans are not psychologically primed for living an indefinitely long life — that our psychologies didn't evolve to handle such long expanses of time and experiences. Cameron, like others, are worried that life would start to seem dull and without any kind of spontaneous spark. It would be dangerous and reckless, therefore, for us to go down that path.
It's All in Your Head
Boredom, along with the related condition of ennui (which is the general tiring of life), are at a fundamental level psychological conditions. While we can describe someone's life as being "boring", it's ultimately an emotional state that each of us feels.
It's because of this, says Dr. Mark Walker, that the question of boredom and extreme longevity must be framed as an empirical one. "There's only so much about psychology that you can figure out in your armchair," he told me. "We simply have no way of knowing if extreme boredom would kick-in after thousands or millions of years."
Walker notes that the elderly population don't tend to complain about being bored. He points to the example of Jean Calment who lived to be 122 years old, and was once quoted as saying, "I never get bored." And in fact, studies have shown that satisfaction with life increases with age. It's only when sickness and infirmary kicks in that most people lose their lust for life.
But satisfaction at 122 years of age is far removed from what a 1,222 year-old might feel like.
Walker is fairly convinced that some people will be bored in the future. "The larger question that needs to be asked," says Walker, "is if life could ever get so boring that death would be preferable?"
And indeed, Walker predicts that some people will get so profoundly tired of life that they will choose to opt out. "The unhappiest people may commit suicide," he says, "but the remaining people will be less likely to be dissatisfied with their lives." He contends that, as time goes by, a kind of self-selection effect will occur, resulting in a remaining population that's more impervious to boredom.
He also points to the realization that humans of the future will be something very unlike version 1.0. "By that stage," says Walker, "humans will have dramatically changed themselves."
And because boredom is an inherently psychological issue, he speculates that future humans will choose to deal with the condition from a neurological perspective. "I can imagine, for example, a way to compartmentalize memory, "he said, "by putting blocks around memories so that we can revisit experiences as if for the first time."
Essentially, Walker believes that we'll eventually develop the the technological means to overcome psychological boredom.
Walker advocates what he calls ‘experimental ethics.' His general sentiment is that we should give radical life extension a try and see what happens. We may very well discover that, after a certain period of time, people start to get weary of life and opt right out of it.
A Very Different Kind of Future
The bigger issue, however, is whether or not the threat of boredom is so severe that we should forgo the radical life extension project altogether.
Given that we all deal with boredom from time-to-time, and that most of us are able to move on in life, the concern may be dramatically overstated. Or perhaps Cameron is right, and that prolonged lives will be stripped of meaning and purpose.
That said, it's important to note that radical life extension does not imply immortality. No matter how advanced our medical technologies get, people will always be subject to traumatic deaths and other unforeseen accidents. We won't be able to bring everybody back. Life, therefore, will always have a certain degree of uncertainty to it.
Moreover, the future is likely to present an entirely new set of experiences and opportunities far more diverse than what we're accustomed to today. Extreme longevity will likely be accompanied by other forms of human augmentation (such as intelligence and heightened emotional states), along with a dazzling array of technological gadgetry to keep us all titillated. In fact, a strong case can be made that, even today, we are a society that's so wired in that we very rarely have an opportunity to be bored. The future could very well extend our levels of engagement to even new heights (for better or worse).
Lastly, it's worth noting that the human mind, even in its current configuration, is capable of conjuring up a tremendously large number of variable mental states. Writing in The Blank Slate, neuroscientist Steven Pinker has suggested that the human brain is capable of generating and experiencing an infinite number of thoughts:
With a few thousand nouns that can fill the subject slot and a few thousand verbs that can fill the predicate slot, one already has several million ways to open a sentence. The possible combinations quickly multiply out to unimaginably large numbers. Indeed, the repertoire of sentences is theoretically infinite, because the rules of language use a trick called recursion. A recursive rule allows a phrase to contain an example of itself, as in She thinks that he thinks that they think that he knows and so on, ad infinitum. And if the number of sentences is infinite, the number of possible thoughts and intentions is infinite too, because virtually every sentence expresses a different thought or intention.
All this said, the question of boredom as it pertains to radical life extension will have to remain unanswered for now. But regardless of where one stands on the issue, the future, it would seem, will be anything but dull.
This article originally appeared at io9.
Top image via Semmick Photo/ Inset images courtesy Nigel Cameron, Mark Walker, and Mondolithic Studios.

March 17, 2013

Shannon Larratt, 1973-2013

Shannon Larratt died this past Friday of a rare genetic myopathy. You've probably never heard of Shannon, but he was a big deal in the radical body modification community — a community that is absolutely reeling right now. He was their advocate, role model, and hero.

I first met Shannon at TransVision 2004, a futurist conference I organized in Toronto. Shannon showed up, along with an entourage of fellow body modders, to hear what we all had to say about transhumanism and the future of radical body modification. A fan of science and science fiction, he was curious to hear about the potential for cybernetics, genetics and other biotechnologies as they pertained to altering human function and form. It also didn't hurt that Australian performance artist Stelarc was also at the conference, another hero of the body modders on account of his cyborg sensibilities and suspension performances. You can watch Shannon's interview of Stelarc here. His write-up of the TransVision conference is here.

He was the founder and former editor and publisher of BMEzine (in 1994), the oldest and largest body modification website on the Internet. He also wrote the book, ModCon: The Secret World Of Extreme Body Modification. He was also an outspoken critic of censorship, and, in the late stages of his life, an advocate for right-to-die legislation.

Shannon, who was born in Victoria, British Columbia, will be remembered for his ceaseless advocacy of body modification and the right to alter our own bodies in any way we see fit -- even if it might seem extreme, dangerous, or offensive to some.

I interviewed Shannon for an io9 article several months ago called "What Does The Future Have In Store For Radical Body Modification." He was frustrated that I had to cut and trim the article (he wrote a very lengthy and detailed response). So, he decided to publish his entire response at his blog, and I suggest you check it out.

You can read Shannon's final words here. An excerpt:
Thank you to everyone who made my life wonderful. I love you all. I wish there had been more of it, and I wish I had more to give. I’m sorry there is so much unfinished, so much left to do, but I am glad to know many wonderful people who will complete it. Last minute reflections and bits of advice… seize every opportunity that’s in front of you and live life to the fullest. Even with everything I’ve done, there is so much more I wish I’d squeezed in. Don’t let a single day (well, maybe a single day) be idle. Have every adventure you can, and explore every street — although treat the one-way streets with caution. Don’t fritter you life away into television, random browsing, and pointless substance abuse (I have at times been guilty of all of these) — although remember there are valid uses for them, both for growth and entertainment. Have passion about the future, and in the present. Especially if you’re young, push your education and your skills to their limits on every level. Don’t just graduate highschool, get a degree, get a doctorate if you can. I know these things aren’t for everyone, they are for most, and they also open doors to some of the most special adventures. Even if you can’t afford proper schooling there are many, many ways to learn, free courses to volunteering, and so on. Value your health, and the health of our planet, and strive beyond its borders. We have such a glorious future, but never forget that your part in that future could end at any moment, so live a life that you can be proud of. And of course love and treat each other well.

As much as these last years have been the most difficult I can imagine, and there are still many deeds to be done, please know that I have had a wonderful adventure and enjoyed it immensely on the whole.

Live Long and Prosper!

Love always,

Shannon Larratt

This is a pic of me and Shannon back in 2004:

March 1, 2013

How to Measure the Power of Alien Civilizations Using the Kardashev Scale

We have yet to make contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. If they're out there — and surely they must be — we haven't the foggiest idea what they might be like. Or do we?

Given what we know about the universe and our own civilization, we should be able to make some educated guesses. And in fact, several decades ago, a Russian astrophysicist came up with a classification system to describe hypothetical aliens. Here's how the Kardashev Scale works.

Top image by Steve Burg.

The scale was devised by Nikolai S. Kardashev, a Soviet-era cosmologist who is still active today. Though he's 81, Kardashev works as the deputy director of the Russian Space Research Institute at Moscow's Russian Academy of Sciences. During the 1950s, while both his parents were in Stalin's slave labor camps, he became an astronomy student at Moscow University's Mechanics and Mathematics department. His primary interest was in astrophysics and the theoretic potential for wormholes, but he also shared a fascination with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (ETIs).

It was around this time that Frank Drake launched Project Ozma — a pioneering attempt to locate ETI's by scanning the sky for radio emissions. Accordingly, Kardashev began to wonder if a good number of alien civilizations might be millions of years ahead of us, and if so, what their radio signatures might be like. Just how "loud," he surmised, could alien transmissions truly get?

This prompted Kardashev to write his seminal 1963 paper, "Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations." In it, he proposed a simple numbering system — from one to three — that could be used to classify hypothetical alien civilizations according to the amount of energy at their disposal. More specifically, he wanted to quantify the power available to them for their radio transmissions.

Today, Kardashev's scale has been expanded and re-interpreted to include more than just the capacity for communications technology. Astrobiologists and cosmologists now use the scale to simply describe the amount of energy available to an ETI for any kind of purpose. As a result, the scale is often used to speculate about the kinds of technologies and existential modalities that characterize advanced civilizations.

Here's how it works.

Kardashev Type I

In his paper, Kardashev wrote that a Type I civilization would be at a "technological level close to the level presently attained on the Earth, with energy consumption ~4 x 1019 erg/sec." That's about 4 x 1012 Watts.

Kardashev's initial intention was to describe a civilization not too far removed from our own (again, for the purpose of rating its communicative capacities) — but one that has yet to exploit all of the solar system's resources (i.e. a pre-stellar ETI).

A Type I is typically associated with a hypothetical civilization that has harnessed all the power available to it on its home planet. As physicist Michio Kaku has said, it's a planetary scale civilization that can "control earthquakes, the weather — and even volcanoes." It will have taken advantage of every inch of space, and build "cities on the oceans."

For a civilization to attain Type I status, therefore, it needs to capture all of the solar energy that reaches the planet, and all the other forms of energy it produces as well, like thermal, hydro, wind, ocean, and so on.

More radically, Type I status would only truly be achieved once the entire planet is physically reconfigured to maximize its energy producing potential. For example, the entire mass of a planet could be reconstituted to take the form of a massive solar array to energize a civilization's power-hungry machinery.

Quite obviously, we are not a Type I civilization (at least not by this re-imagining of Kardashev's original description). Not even close. But Kaku predicts that we'll get there eventually, perhaps in a century or two.

But it could happen sooner if computational growth continues at its current breakneck pace (see Moravec, Kurzweil, and Bostrom). Hypothetically speaking, an artificial superintelligence (SAI) could get started in about three to four decades (either unilaterally, or by design).

Kardashev Type II

The next step is a big jump. And indeed, each increment of the Kardashev scale is an order of magnitude greater than the last.

Pre-dating Moore's Law and Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns, Kardashev noticed that the rate of humanity's energy consumption was increasing steadily. He wrote, "...the annual increase in this energy expenditure is placed at 3-4% over the next 60 years, on the basis of statistical findings." Consequently, he predicted that, in about 3,200 years, "the energy consumption will be equal to the output of the Sun per second...i.e. 4 x 1033 erg/sec."

This led him to speculate about a Type II civilization. For an ETI to reach K2, it would need to capture the entire energy output of its parent star.

The best way to achieve this, of course, is to build a Dyson Sphere.

Conjured by Freeman Dyson in 1959, this hypothetical megastructure would envelope a star at a distance of 1 AU and cover an inconceivably large area of 2.72 x 1017 km2, which is around 600 million times the surface area of the Earth. The sun has an energy output of around 4 x 1026 Watts, of which most would be available to do useful work.

It's difficult to predict when we ourselves could become a Type II, but physicist Stuart Armstrong says we could start the project in a few decades. And once underway, it would be subject to rapidly escalating construction speeds (fleets of robots would be powered by the newly-constructed portions of the Dyson shell).

With all this energy, an advanced civilization — probably one that's postbiological in nature — would use it to power its supercomputers and fuel its other endeavors (like interstellar colonization waves).

Kardashev Type III

Which leads to the next increment in the scale. Kardashev described a Type III like this: "A civilization in possession of energy on the scale of its own galaxy, with energy consumption at ~4 x 1044 erg/sec." Needless to say, that's a tremendous amount of energy — somewhere between 1036 Watts to 1037 Watts (give or take one or two).

Every inch of a K3 galaxy would be colonized, with every scrap of matter — and all its billions of stars — exploited for energy. From the perspective of an outside observer, a galaxy occupied by a K3 civ would appear completely invisible, save for the heat leakage which would register in the far infrared (around 10 microns in wavelength).

It would take a civilization anywhere from 100,000 to a million years to transition itself from a Type II to a Type III. Even at modest speeds, it wouldn't take a civilization very long (from a cosmological perspective) to completely colonize a galaxy.

From our vantage point, this would look like a hole in a galaxy, or an inexplicably large swath of open space.

Take the Bo├Âtes Void, for example, a huge chunk of the universe that's almost completely devoid of stars and galaxies. Speculatively speaking, this could be a large portion of the universe that has been overtaken by K3 civilizations.

Interestingly, Fermilab's Richard Carrigan has argued that we should look for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations not in our own galaxy, but in neighboring galaxies. His idea is that we should look for civilizations that are transitioning from Type II to Type III. These colonization waves would look like a massive bubble that's spreading outwards from the originating star.

Discovery's Ray Villard elaborates:

It's imaginable that a super-civilization would begin a wave of colonization that spread out to neighboring solar type stars from its home base. Each offshoot would "astro-form" the colonized planetary system by constructing a Dyson sphere around the host star.

Carrigan envisions seeing "Dyson bubbles" in nearby galaxies. These would be clusters of Dyson spheres that enclosed a grouping of stars colonized by a Type II Kardashev civilization. The logic is that after you've built a backyard fence you can start to conceptualize building the Great Wall of China and still hope to gain perspective on the process, Carrigan writes.

These would be detected as anomalous dark voids in a galaxy's disk. When these voids were observed in infrared light they would glow brightly with the heat radiation from the surfaces of Dyson spheres. This would show that they are not that simply voids where solar-type stars are conspicuously missing.

A good candidate for such a search would be the Andromeda Galaxy, which is only 2.5 million light years away. At most, we'd be glancing back a couple of million years into the past, which is not significant from a cosmological perspective.

What would an advanced civ do with all this energy? Well, if many futurists are to be believed, flipping one's and zero's. A Type II and III civilization may be completely based in digital substrate.

Kardashev Type IV? V?

Though Kardashev never went past a Type III, others have taken his idea to the next level. A Type IV would be an ETI (or merging groups of ETIs) that has harnessed all the power of a galactic supercluster, and a type V would — you guessed it — have the entire power of the universe at its disposal.

Unfounded assumptions?

While the Kardashev scale offers considerable food for thought, it is not without its problems.

First and foremost, and stating the obvious, no empirical evidence exists indicating the presence of K2 or K3 civilizations in our galaxy and/or galactic neighborhood. In fact, the Fermi Paradox — what's been dubbed "The Great Silence" — would indicate that civilizations never become migratory, thus making a Type III very unlikely. If Kardashev civilizations exist, we should expect to see large swaths of neighboring galaxies "disappear" from the visual spectrum — yet we do not.

We haven't found any Dyson spheres, either. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. Dysonian SETI is largely underway — an attempt to find the "gaps" in the stars.

Another problem with the Kardashev Scale is the assumption that advanced civilizations have an insatiable appetite for energy. No doubt, a K3 civ seems a bit excessive. It's not a stretch to suggest that a Type II civilization might be as far as these things go. Even a Type I for that matter. Ultimately, it all comes down to the consumptive needs of an "end stage" civilization — one that has successfully adapted to postbiological, post-SAI (artificial super-intelligence) existence.

Alternately, civilizations may choose to avoid these trajectories, either to honor some kind of Prime Directive, or for self-preservational purposes.

Indeed, turning a galaxy into a massive supercomputer may be the last thing an advanced civilization wants to do. ETIs may have other desires and goals that preclude it from this kind of intergalactic imperialism.

But we don't know for sure. So in the meantime, let's be sure to keep listening and looking.

This article originally appeared at io9.