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What if there are no alien species?
Posted by: Billy Hollis on Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nick Bostrom at Technology Review has an interesting article in which he challenges conventional wisdom on existence of alien species. I think the conventional hypothesis could be summed up thusly: There are billions of stars (no Carl Sagan jokes please), probably billions of planets, and billions of years for intelligent life to develop. If it happened here, it must have happened elsewhere, so there must be other species out there. Some of them must be older than us, so they should have had time to develop space-flight capability sufficient to colonize planets.

This is the implicit assumption behind hundreds of Star Trek episodes, and is pretty deeply ingrained in our culture. But what if it's wrong?

Bostrom keys in on the idea of a "Great Filter", originated by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University. Perhaps there is some barrier that is extremely hard to get past to get to an intelligent species on a particular planet. One or more such filters might make it so improbable to get to an intelligent species that we are the only ones. Besides the origination of life, the transition to multi-cellular organism and the creation of sex-based reproduction are possibilities. No doubt some would put discovery of nuclear weapons and probably subsequent annihilation in that category.

Or we might just have not hit the relevant Great Filter yet. That is, many species generally similar in capabilities to us might have evolved, but they all faced a challenge which we have yet to face and probably won't overcome because it's so hard.

My candidate for a future great filter is based on two inter-connecting factors. (This is purely my own speculation and isn't in Bostrom's article.) It's long been noted that once a society starts taking care of it's infirm members, evolution slows down or stops. In fact, I think it's possible that without sufficient evolutionary pressures, the natural entropy involved in genetic mutation would cause de-evolution.

Now couple that with the supposed transition to cyborg states as we start augmenting ourselves with technology. Some have posited a Singularity, as the acceleration of innovation hits a near-vertical curve, leading to all kinds of ways that we as biological beings might merge with technology.

I'm not a Luddite; I make my living on the bleeding edge of software development technology. But I'm also aware that increasing complexity in software systems is not an unalloyed benefit. Above a certain point, complexity leads to instability. I think it's an open question as to whether software can get past a certain point of complexity without failing due to it's own internal instabilities.

So I think it's possible that the transition away from biological evolution to technological evolution might contain within it some sort of Great Filter. Perhaps we just get so happy with living in a virtual world that we lose any desire to develop any further, for example. Or perhaps the inherent complexity of such a high-tech state is not resistant to natural disasters in some fashion we can't see right now. I already worry about what would happen in some sort of societal breakdown in a tech-dependent world where perhaps one in a hundred people would know how to feed themselves.

If you're the least bit interested in this subject, I'd recommend that you read the whole article. It's an interesting and well-argued counterpoint to conventional viewpoints.

(Found via GeekPress)
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Previous Comments to this Post 

Dude the reason there isn’t anyone knocking on the door is the Xul/We Who Are/Hunters of the Dawn...they’re coming for us one day too. Read Ian Douglas for an explanation of the concept. It’s quite a neat theory...alternatively think the Cricketeers from Douglas Adams.

I think the Great Filter is how each species deals with the quagmire of it time, in this case Iraq...a failure to constructively NEGOTIATE an end to the QUAGMIRE leads to a DECLINE of the species and its inevitable DOOM.
Written By: Jow
URL: http://
This would appear to be nothing more than a sloppy repackaging of the Drake Equation (which, since you brought it up, was discussed by Sagan in "Cosmos").
Written By: KipEsquire
I’m too lazy to look for it now, but a few months ago there was a story going around the blogosphere about some scientist who hypothesized that the human race was beginning to genetically divide into two distinct sub-types: a cerebral type and a low-brow type.

I don’t know what implications this would have for the survival of the species. Maybe the lowbrows will one day far outnumber the frail highbrows, and wipe them out in a Planet of The Apes scenario, before devolving back to animals without any higher consciousness at all.
Written By: Aldo
URL: http://
I might add if there are no alien species I’m gonna be saddened...because that means NO Green Orion Slave Girls!
Written By: Jow
URL: http://
A good book on the general topic is Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It’s fifty reasons why we have not made contact with aliens, assuming they exist.
Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
"I think it’s an open question as to whether software can get past a certain point of complexity without failing due to it’s own internal instabilities."
Software does generally get messy, complex, and unstable, but I think that’s a by-product of it’s creators and not inherent in the medium. Most software is written in a fairly non-disciplined manner compared to most other engineering activities and the idea of software creating software (much like robots making cars) has barely scratched the surface. I believe the code written for the space shuttle and related systems has an astronomically low bug rate. Of course that comes with a cost too. Anyway, just rambling.

Written By: Grimshaw
URL: http://
Grimshaw, that’s why I said it was an open question. Complexity looks like a real limiting factor at this point to me, but I’ve seen too many limitations overcome in my career to be certain that complexity can’t be dealt with. I could imagine new techniques, perhaps based on evolutionary algorithms, that would produce more bug-free complex software. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that such software would have some bugs but would optimized for its intended use on some appropriate metric.

But the problem of complexity is a non-trivial one. I’m not sure how relevant the space shuttle example is because the costs in rooting bugs out of complex systems with traditional techniques may very well go up exponentially with the complexity.
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
"a billion stars" (yes, I understand you meant "a crapload" not a "billion")

The Universe can’t end. What is there at the end? A restaurant, right? Well, what’s out the back door of the restaurant?

I personally think that it’s "an infinite number of galaxies" with "an infinite number of stars" and "an infinite number of planets" and with "an infinite number of planets containing intelligent life". How could it be otherwise in an infinite universe? Infinity is scary and extremely hard to fully understand (I don’t, not really, and I’ve been trying for the last 20 years), but it’s real.

For Big Bang theorists:

You would have to assume that the cluster of (a billion? a trillion? a brazilian?) galaxies that make up what we call The Universe is all there is to say there is not an infinite number of galaxies, stars, planets and planets with life.

Let’s say that the distance across the cluster of galaxies we call "The Universe" is one universal unit. What’s 18 universal units that way (points left)? How about 1,000,000,000,000 universal units that way (points right)? Emptiness? To think that seems pretty narcissistic and parochial to me.

For Steady State theorists:
The Universe just has to keep going on. Forever.

For ’Our Universe is a molecule in a pond’ theorists: the larger universe that contains that pond has to go on forever into larger and larger "molecules" in larger and larger ponds.

Any way you look at it that does not posit a God who created time and restricts space in a way that means the Universe can stop with nothing there, there has to be an infinite number of galaxies with an infinite number of stars with an infinite number of planets and an infinite number of planets with life.

I would suggest that it’s hubris to an extreme to think we’re the only intelligent life there is in an infinite universe that has existed for an infinite number of years and will exist for an infinite number of years.

Infinity is one of the scariest concepts there is.
Written By: Veeshir
URL: http://
Maybe we can draw the Aliens out with drivers licenses and reduced in-state college tuition. I mean, there’s plenty of jobs this Earthling isn’t willing to do....
Written By: Come on, Please
URL: http://
I have real problems with the conclusion to the article—the author talks about existential events, yet completely ignores them when discussing the possibility of finding evidence of microbial life on Mars. Aside from that, the rest of the article is just a great big exercise in navel gazing.

The author says that SETI’s failure after only 50 years to find evidence of life is evidence that no life exists. It would seem to me that 50 years is nowhere near enough time to draw that conclusion, and given our relatively limited ability to detect communication-style information in space it seems that the only valid conclusion you could draw is that SETI hasn’t discovered that there’s an extra-terrestrial civilization at roughly the same technological level as humans. (e.g., civilizations in Star Trek use subspace communications that we wouldn’t be able to detect.) The problem exists in reverse: Earth has only been spitting detectable information out into space for about 100 years. That’s an infinitesimally small portion of the universe that could be aware of our existence, assuming that no sort of FTL communication is possible.

It’s an interesting article for arguing with your college-age roommates, but I find it hard to believe that the publisher couldn’t find a better use of their resources.
Written By: Greg
URL: http://
The Universe can’t end.
Why not?
Infinity is scary and extremely hard to fully understand (I don’t, not really, and I’ve been trying for the last 20 years), but it’s real.

There’s an infinity between 1" and 2" . . .

Yes, the difference is only 1", but you can divide that inch an infinite number of times . . .

Just ’cause you can’t wrap your mind around something doesn’t mean it can’t be. For some time, scientists couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that the speed of light was a constant. They came up with a fixed reference point they called the "ether", and spent some effort trying to detect it, until Einstain ended the nonsense with special relativity.
Written By: Don
URL: http://
Veeshir, the universe is not infinite. (and other universes are only theoretical)
The Universe was originally a singularity (as best we know) and as such expanded with real and definite dimensions.

Furthermore it is still expanding which means that if there are any other life forms we are getting further and further away from them all the time.

I find it highly believable that the incredible circumstances which led to highly evolved life might not be duplicated elsewhere in the Universe.
Written By: kyleN
See also the the original article.

These ideas strongly inform my environmental philosophy. If we successfully get off this planet and spread life abundant throughout the Galaxy (and perhaps beyond), every environmental failing we had during our infancy will be so small as to be irrelevant. And if we don’t get off this planet, the biosphere as we know it is doomed in a couple thousand years or less when the next ice age moves in. I don’t support being stupid, but trading progress for hypothetical environmental improvement (since our track record on correctly guessing what’s good for the environment is actually pretty bad) is the worst conceivable trade. Efficiency, on the other hand, is an incredibly good thing... in fact, this is a far better reason to be efficient than any environmental reason, so in the end I end up looking like a hyper-environmentalist.

(This is an abbreviated discussion of a larger argument.)
Written By: Jeremy Bowers
Also, as the original article points out, it only takes a bare handful of entities to spread out. It only takes one entity that has the capability to spread to another solar system to say, "Hey, if I colonize that star over there, I can have it all to myself, and even if it takes a thousand real-time years, I’m just going to be asleep anyhow so who cares?" There will never be enough processor time.

If we’re in a cosmic zoo, it only takes one entity to break the rules to wipe us out.

And so on.

(If we’re going to play that game, my "favorite" theory is that Earth was in fact wiped out a long time ago, but out of politeness, it was scanned and allowed to develop on its own in simulation, resulting in us. This could have happened any time since before civilization, potentially even millions of (our) years ago.)
Written By: Jeremy Bowers
Kyle, There is nothing in an expanding universe theory that that states that any other intelligent life must be getting further away. It is possible that there is intelligent life in our own galaxy. It certainly isn’t getting bigger. It could be in a galaxy that is hurtling towards use and will one day crash through yours, Andromeda in about 3 billion years. Yes the universe is expanding but again it may one day collapse. Just because the universe is expanding its limits has no bearing on the objects that make up the universe.

I think part of what Veeshir is alluding to is bubble universes. If I remember correctly the idea was there are Big Bangs happening out there as well but until their universe boundary crosses ours we have no clue that they exist.

I find it highly unlikely that the circumstances that lead to the development of marginally intelligent life on in a very short time frame on a rather ordinary planet in orbit around a rather ordinary star are in any way astronomical. The catch to this is that maybe Einstein was right and nothing can outrun light. That is why there is no interaction. Even if they are right next door at 1000 light years we would never know it. They could have come and gone long before we ever started looking.
Written By: ScotSaxon
URL: http://
"... but a few months ago there was a story going around the blogosphere about some scientist who hypothesized that the human race was beginning to genetically divide into two distinct sub-types: a cerebral type and a low-brow type."

Cyril Kornbluth used that as the theme for a science fiction story in 1951, "The Marching Morons".
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
I was referring to "bubble universes" in only one instance. The "if you think our Universe is a molecule in a pond somewhere" instance.

I’ll try again and coin another word.

This is just for Big Bang theorists.
Just like "stars" make up "galaxies" and "galaxies" make up "universes" then "universes" make up the "Gluniverse".
I absolutely reject the idea that space and time can be created. They just are, and they are infinite. It has to be that way. How else? If Time was created, what was before time? How long was it before Time was created? How much time, in other words.

So in the Gluniverse is an infinite number of universes. How else could it be? How can the Gluniverse end? What’s at the end? A wall? How thick is the wall? What’s on the other side of the wall?

Our Universe is expanding. 1,000,000,000 universal units that way (points left), another Universe is expanding too. Or is everything that isn’t our Universe nothingness? Possibly, but it seems hubris to me to think that. Especially since it has to be infinitely deep.

For steady state theorists:
There is only one Universe and it has to go on forever. Infinity. How else? If there’s an end, how does it end? A wall? Again, how thick is the wall? What’s on the other side of the wall?

If either wall has thickness or if there’s something on the other side of the wall, then the Universe or Gluniverse didn’t end, did it?
That means that if you go 1 times 10 to the gajillion light years that way (points up), you can still go farther. Always, always, always. You can go 1 times 10 to the gajillion light years (squared) that way and still go farther. All of that is nothingness? It totally seems hubris to me to think that way. As if we’re special somehow. We’re just some hairless apes on a small planet at the edge of an ordinary galaxy somewhere in the Void during a small portion of Time.

So if you disagree and feel like telling me that you do, tell me why. Answer this questions:
How can the Universe or Gluniverse (depending on whether you’re a Big Bang theorist or Steady State theorist) be finite in either space or time?

And know that I refuse to accept that just because I can’t understand something (infinite universe) doesn’t mean that I will accept that some supernatural being created it any more than I will believe that the gods bowling is what makes thunder.

Written By: Veeshir
URL: http://
So if you disagree and feel like telling me that you do, tell me why. Answer this questions:
How can the Universe or Gluniverse (depending on whether you’re a Big Bang theorist or Steady State theorist) be finite in either space or time?
Ever looked into the mathematics of closed spaces? Perhaps the universe is a closed space.

A simple example of a closed space is the surface of a sphere. You can postulate that you can head in one direction forever and it must therefore be infinite, but if you actually try it, you’ll end up back where you started after you circumnavigate the sphere.

That doesn’t address the time element of your question, but perhaps it will give you idea of why some of us don’t assume an infinite universe.
Written By: Billy Hollis
URL: http://
How can the Universe or Gluniverse (depending on whether you’re a Big Bang theorist or Steady State theorist) be finite in either space or time?
The universe’s shape may be a closed manifold, an unbounded space with finite extent. (Not an unbounded shape; if you don’t understand what the difference is, you don’t understand the point.)

If you have a problem with that, I’d recommend learning more about topology before arguing. I’ve learned better than to defend mathematical ideas in public forums when the other person doesn’t understand the mathematical idea; inevitably, the argument becomes all about whatever misconceptions generated by not understanding the idea, and how the heck is anyone supposed to debate the fuzzy shadow idea that exists only in somebody else’s head?
Written By: Jeremy Bowers
Great, then the universe, and all the resources we can reach, are ours!

No talking kitties to fight, no giant bugs to bomb Rio. No Ringworlds, no Pak, no forerunners, no Halos, no "Flood".

What are you gonna do if you find out we really ARE descendents of the Golgafrinchan B-Ark ship, and that the intelligent life out there is US.
Written By: looker
URL: http://
A closed space is the surface of a sphere. What’s outside the sphere? I’ve seen plenty of spheres and they all have an outer shell with other stuff outside the shell.

Oh, I’ve studied the math and I’m aware of much of what you’re talking about.
But what’s outside the sphere? That’s the problem as far as I’m concerned.

Anything there is is finite, but there’s another thing next to it so the Universe that contains the thing has to be infinite.

I’ve even done the math on the various shapes. I know that there are an infinite number of points between 1 and 1.002, but there are also numbers that fall outside 1 and 1.002.

Now, I haven’t done the math lately so I doubt I could keep up on the fly, but I could figure it out if it were presented, I tutored calculus up to Calc III and Diff EQ for 2 years while in school (8 years ago, so it would take a while to get back up to speed, I haven’t done any math in years).

People refuse to accept infinity. The only person who didn’t seem hostile to it was my Calc III prof. He was pretty cool. We had fun one day talking about a scenario I thought of where Zeno’s Paradox works. You’re driving to NY. When you’re 60 miles away, the speed limit is 60MPH so you’re an hour away. When you’re 50 miles away, the speed limit changes to 50 MPH, so you’re an hour away... etc., etc. ad infinitum.

When I’ve tried to talk about infinity with others, I’ve been called names and I’ve been made fun of (my favorite was the lawyer/philosopher who called me ridiculous and then told me he thought infinity was a finite number beyond which you can’t count. That was funny. "Okay, so I’m infinity miles away. How many feet away am I? How many inches?), but nobody can explain to me how Time could have started and how the Universe can physically end except postulating some sort of deal where the beginning is actually the end or something equally esoteric, counter-logical (to me, and I know, logic can be merely a way to be totally wrong with confidence) and mathematically imprecise.

I’ll take Occam’s Razor, if I keep going that way (Points up), I can keep going. Forever and ever and ever.

And in an infinite Universe (in both time and space), it just seems like hubris to me to assume that our little piece of it is in any way important, unique or alone.
Written By: Veeshir
URL: http://
What’s so hard about infinity?
You must be arguing with people who are worried about how deep the pile of turtles is that the ’world’ elephant is standing on.

Remember, it’s turtles, all the way down!
Written By: looker
URL: http://
Gotta love the Fermi Paradox, although the extent to which it’s actually a paradox isn’t at all clear, given that we still don’t have anywhere near the information necessary to turn the Drake Equation into some sort of meaningful estimate of the probability that other sentient species exist. In any case, I note that one of the most plausible explanations isn’t addressed in the article (though I believe it is in Webb’s book), namely that given:

-How little of the available sky we’re able to scan for transmissions
-How tiny the window of observation is (calling it 100 years would be being pretty damn generous) relative to the history of the universe
-How little of our immediate vicinity we are able to investigate relative to the size of the galaxy, let alone the size of the known universe

And the biggest party pooper

-As far as we can tell, there’s still no avenue to circumvent the lightspeed barrier to the transmission of information (let alone matter).

There could be literally hundreds of thousands of alien civilizations existing "close" to us in time and space (close relative to the age and size of the universe, that is) and we’d still never see or hear a thing from any of them, and vice versa. Space is just too big, and light and RF is just too slow.

That said, as far as science FICTION goes, I’ve always found the idea of an Inhibitor species as the "Great Filter" compelling (that is, the suggestion that the reason we’re not hearing or seeing any other signals is that there’s someone or something out there sufficiently advanced to sit around and knock off any civilization achieving a certain level of technological advancement). There are several good SF treatments of the idea, the two favorites I can name off the top of my head being Alistair Reynolds’ books starting with Revelation Space, and The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. The latter is especially good for providing a very basic game theoretical rationale for pre-emptive xenocide on the part of the "Inhibitor" species: Summed up, "The few things we can know about any other sentient species is that A) they will place the survival of their species over the survival of other species, B) they will be capable of aggressive and ruthless behavior if only in self-preservation, and C) they will be smart enough to deduce A and B and assume that these truisms apply to any other sentients they meet. Add in D) that once you have developed relativistic space travel you have an unblockable, undetectable (that is, you can never be sure where a relativistic projectile IS, only where it was) first-strike WMD capable of destroying any populated planet with effectively no warning, and it’s fairly easy for a game theorist to determine that the only rational course of action is to either hide your existence from all other potential species, or to be prepared to make pre-emptive xenocidal first strikes against any species the moment you detect it lighting off its first relativistic drive system.
Written By: Lysenko
URL: http://
A closed space is the surface of a sphere. What’s outside the sphere? ... Oh, I’ve studied the math and I’m aware of much of what you’re talking about.
I’m sorry, but those two statements contradict each other. If you did study it, you didn’t study it very well. For one thing, your first statement is backwards; the surface of a sphere is a closed space, but closed space is not a surface of a sphere.

I’ll throw you one bone, because it is a common misconception: When they talk about the surface of the sphere, they are really talking about the surface, not the space enclosed by the sphere. If you’re a little 2-dimensional dude on the surface of the sphere, you can walk on in any direction forever, but your universe has finite area. (And note I use the term area, because we’re talking about the surface.)

You, 2-D Veeshir, argue that this isn’t possible, but every direction you can point just wraps right back around the sphere, because you’re stuck on it, entirely. In fact, every direction you look, you see yourself.

If you think that you can point and that you’re somehow pointing "out" of the sphere, I invite you to point in a direction "outside" of the real universe.

The same misconception comes up with wormhole diagrams showing a "tunnel" connecting two flat spaces; the wormhole is not the tunnel surrounded by the wall, it is the wall; the diagrams show a 2-dimensional wormhole connecting two 2-dimensional spaces. Almost no diagrams get this right.

But beyond this, I’d say: Study the math more. You’re mistaking necessarily-limited diagrams for reality.
Written By: Jeremy Bowers
What contains the space allocated to the sphere?

If I find a way to punch a hole in your sphere’s ’inner’ surface to the ’outside’ what do I find?

If I’m on the ’outside’ of your sphere looking away from it, what do I see?

"For the World is hollow, and I have touched the sky"
I invite you to point in a direction "outside" of the real universe
If it’s infinite, there is no ’outside’ there’s just an area where perhaps there is no clutter. The ’void’. I can travel forever in it, racing ahead of the expanding universe, never coming to an ’end’ and never finding a McDonalds.

I suppose what I percieve as the infinite void, extending in any given direction for infinity, could be contained in your sphere, but if I have an infinite amout of time to make the journey, the fact that you’ve given me a finite surface means my string will eventually lead me back to the point at which I originally tied it, no matter what direction I set off in, provided I travel along what will eventually be an intersecting line to my point of origin.
My perception is infinite simply because it is vast will be false.

If the sphere can and is expanding as our universe is supposedly doing the ’outer’ edge must be expanding into ’someplace’. If it’s just a smaller sphere, expanding into available space occupied by a larger sphere...what’s the larger sphere contained in?
Written By: looker
URL: http://
Reminds me of using a slide rule for calcuations....

4 divided by 2 is 1.99999999999.....

ah hell, call it 2.

Written By: looker
URL: http://
"Reminds me of using a slide rule for calcuations...."

Same with a computer, but you can get more than three digit accuracy. If you program the problem correctly.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
Hawking says the universe is finite, but has no boundary. Or something. Anyway, the universe is so big that I believe it probable that there is life elsewhere. It might not look like ’life’ as we know it- dogs and cats and Buicks and American Idol- and it may be so far away that we have no chance of encountering it in our lifetime. But I believe life exists beyond our solar system. And if we find so much as a single microbe on Mars or Titan, for example, then that would imply that life is quite common, and the universe is teeming with life. I hope that is what we discover. A living universe.
Written By: Barry
I would suggest that it’s hubris to an extreme to think we’re the only intelligent life there is in an infinite universe that has existed for an infinite number of years and will exist for an infinite number of years.

So, right now there are on the order of a hundred or so countries in the world, a similar number of languages, cultures, whatever. But it’s hubris to say that’s all there is.

Now, suppose we met an alien race that was advanced enough to check for life throughout the universe.

And say that they had found that there were a total of, say, ten living races and thirty dead ones. And say each race had on the order of 100 languages and cultures and so forth.

Now we would be saying, "the 4000 or so nations and cultures are all there are or have been."

Is that still hubris?
Written By: ben
URL: http://

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