Berserker Breakout

The universe looks dead. If it is actually teeming with ancient advanced life, why don’t any of them use all those resources we see? Yes, there might be other even more attractive resources we don’t see, but it still seems odd none specialize in using what we do see. Yes everything might be under the control of a unified collective, who agree on a preference to keep the universe looking dead. But pretty much any observation could be explained as due to a vast unified ancient power with an arbitrary preference to make the universe appear a certain way.

Moving to scenarios where many powers compete, one proposed explanation is that we are in a berserker equilibrium, where everyone hides for fear of being destroyed by others in hiding. For example:

The Inhibitors from Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series are self-replicating machines … dormant for extreme periods of time until they detect the presence of a space-faring culture and proceed to exterminate it even to the point of sterilizing entire planets.

Or consider the zoo of competing self-replicators from David Brin’s story Lungfish:

The Anti-Maker … does not waste its time destroying biospheres, or eating up solar systems in spasms of self-replication. It wants only to seek out technological civilizations and ruin them. … Berserkers, … wreckers of worlds, were rare. … And there were what appeared to be Policeman probes, as well, who hunted the berserkers down wherever they could be found. … Harm … did not seek out life-bearing worlds in order to destroy them. Rather it spread innumerable copies of itself and looked for other types of probes to kill. Anything intelligent. Whenever it detected modulated radio waves, it would hunt down the source and destroy it.

I have an open enough mind here that I think Earth should keep quiet until we’ve studied this issue more. But I really have trouble seeing how this could be a stable equilibrium for a billion years among competing space species.

First, when something becomes visible, your killing it would seem a “public good” act which benefits all species, but mainly costs yours. Your killing action takes up your resources, and risks making you visible to be destroyed by others. Unless you think this new visible thing is especially likely to compete with your siblings, relative to other competitors, you’d rather wait and let something else destroy it.

Second, it must be possible to reproduce in order to compensate for wear and tear. After all, if the mere act of reproducing yourself made you so visible that you’d probably be destroyed, on average population sizes would fall to extinction. But if reproducing to compensate for decay works on average, why not reproduce more to grow in number? If observers can’t tell the purpose of a reproduction, then only density dependent death could keep populations in check. The ability to find and kill others without getting killed yourself in the process would somehow have to rise naturally with the density of creatures.

Once the local density of creatures had risen to some local limit, the most common species there could consider attempting a “breakout,” via a burst of rapid aggressive reproduction to overwhelm the ability of other species to contain it. Once enough copies were created in a large enough volume, the low density of other nearby species might be insufficient to stop the breakout species from expanding indefinitely.

There are many more complex strategies that seem attractive, compared to a simple direct breakout.  For example, fake breakout attempts could be created to induce retaliation by other species, depleting their resources and revealing their locations. One might then target them for attack before making one’s main breakout attempt in the now weakened region.

I’m not saying it is obvious that a long term berserker equilibrium is impossible, but I do have great doubts. And I’d love to see (and even help with) attempts to find stable equilibria within computer simulations of such scenarios.

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  • Psychohistorian

    What percentage of available resources should be used? What percentage of available resources are used? You know the answer to neither of these questions. If alien civilizations were consuming massive amounts of resources, how would you know? What would that look like?

    You assume that is possible to operate on a consumption scale visible at cosmic distances. You also assume that it is possible to observe consumption at cosmic distances when you don’t know what you’re looking for. You also assume that alien species will invariably – or at least frequently – breed to Malthusian equilibrium and attempt to consume every available resource.

  • rapscallion

    I think the fear is the equilibrium where the first species to arise has a berserker ideology, and since they’re the oldest none of the younger species can compete with their tech. Hence the first species rules, forever.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      But how does that account for why we don’t see the resource consumption of the first species? If the first species successfully rules, forever, why would they not consume all of the free energy resources of the universe? And yet we still see starlight…

      • MichaelG

        If the first species invents a replicating nanotechnology that spreads through the galaxy, how long would it take? 100,000 light years across at 1% of c gets you 10 million years to spread everywhere.

        Perhaps the galaxy is so fertile that multiple technological species are fighting it out during that period. If none of them wins, we get some kind of ecology, which we should see.

        On the other hand, if life is rare, then the first species to cover the galaxy wins. It knows where all the biospheres are, and can select for anything it wants.

        I really think these speculations about species hiding or waiting for threats are not on the right time scale. The advantage of the first species is enormous.

        I’m think the right analogy is not nations conquering and spreading, but the origins of life on earth. How long after life emerged did it take for it to spread to all available niches? Could life originate again? Probably not, since it would occur in the most favorable niche, and there would already be life there.

        I think the Fermi paradox comes down to only a few alternatives that are consistent with what we see:

        – we’re the first species (or perhaps the universe is a simulation where we’re alone) Technological life is very rare.

        – the first species likes the galaxy this way, for reasons that could be completely cultural and arbitrary.

        – advanced life is unrecognizable to us — the universe is full of chatter, but it’s “radio” when we’re looking for “smoke signals”. AND the Earth is not a valuable resource to that kind of life — they live around black holes or something, and we’re in the sticks.

        I don’t think the “Star Trek” view of multiple competing races with nearly identical technologies makes any sense.

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        I think “we’re the first species cohort” is an important distinction from “we’re the first species”.

        Now that I think about it, we should be able to play with the probabilities of how many species would arise within the same cohort as us, from 1 to X order of magnitude of potentially instestellar-visible species.

  • rapscallion

    Good point. Several possibilities:

    i) One might posit that they hide themselves so as not to alert new species. Perceiving alien tech in space might spur them to develop technology more quickly or hide, neither of which the berserkers would want.

    ii) If most of the berserkers’ work is preemptive–e.g. altering the positions of potentially life-giving planets–then this might create vast dead regions of space with no useful resources, and the rare species that arise in these dead regions wouldn’t see any development.

    • anonymousfromUK

      “If most of the berserkers’ work is preemptive–e.g. altering the positions of potentially life-giving planets”

      This is indeed a scary possibility.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    A “berserker equilibrium” seems like a pretty weird and unnatural idea to me. We have a whole planet of existing experiments, and it seems pretty devoid of such systems – AFAIK.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    > But pretty much any observation could be explained as due to a vast unified ancient power with an arbitrary preference to make the universe appear a certain way.

    This sounds like a reason for thinking about what the preferences of a vast unified ancient power are most likely to be to me.

    The most plausable reason I can think of for them wanting to preserve incipient civilisations in an intact form past our stage is that such environments represent natural experiments that provide information relating to what types of hostile alien races might be encountered in the future.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    The biggest fallacy I see in discussion of aliens is the assumption that they all think and do alike. This assumption is incomprehensible to me. Technological innovation and economic growth increases the range of person options and opinions and life style choices. I see no reason this would be any different for alien or that this trend will reverse itself.

  • James Blair

    I’m not convinced that our dead looking universe means that there are no replicator aliens in our light cone. If it takes time to consume the resources of a solar system, the speed of light will impose network costs to leaving for more resources. Unless the first pioneers can take their entire civilization with them, they would be at a disadvantage as invaders would have the resources of their (already optimized) home system to use as a technological edge for wiping them out. Replicators would be wise not to leave until home consumption guarrantees either a slower rate of innovation versus what they could get if they started from scratch in another system, or the inability to launch waves that could catch up with them.

  • Evan

    Replicators would be wise not to leave until home consumption guarrantees either a slower rate of innovation versus what they could get if they started from scratch in another system, or the inability to launch waves that could catch up with them.

    What if they aren’t wise? There are lots of examples of humans traveling very far to do something stupid with a ludicrously low payoff (gold rushes being the prime example).

    The biggest fallacy I see in discussion of aliens is the assumption that they all think and do alike. This assumption is incomprehensible to me.

    I agree with this entirely. I think that even if an alien civilization as a whole develops a berserker ideology, its plans will probably all be ruined by the tiny minority of xenophilic peacenik aliens that send hello messages.

    I suppose it might be possible for the aliens to be more unified than us, but I think in practice it would evolutionarily unlikely. The more unified you are, the greater the potential evolutionary reward for cheaters and dissidents.

    Can anyone seriously imagine the human race unanimously implementing any of the berserker/colonization strategies discussed so far? We’re far too divided to do so today and that will probably remain the case in the future.

  • Gil

    In some respects the cat’s out of the bag – radio trasmissions are already 60 or so light years out. Then again we rely less on radio tranmission nowadays so we are becoming more “radio slient” anyway.

    http://www.astrobio.net/interview/1425/radio-free-earth

    • Jack

      It’s noisy enough out there that our radio transmissions are going to be undetectable that far away.

      • RichardC

        You hope so… undetectable that far away with our technology, maybe.

  • nazgulnarsil

    perhaps a prerequisite in joining the club is agreement to reproduction that only covers replacement.

  • Anonymous from UK

    Agreed with Robin that nothing in this idea-space seems anywhere near plausible. Cosmic zoo seems 10x more likely to me, because there are instrumental reasons for creating zoos.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    We do have plenty of beserker precedence in our planet’s ecological history although it may be statistically improbable and not ecologically universal (like it would appear to be in our dead light cone).

    I could see a beserker stand-off emerging without any planetary intelligence discovering any other planetary intelligence: it would just require “Great Filter” epiphany to emerge reliably enough for our light cone to look dead to us with our current technology and time spent looking. Beyond that I think it’s a probabilities question that I’m not competent to address rigorously.

  • Matt Flipago

    It’s one thing to assume that aliens are relativly non violent toward themselves. Nobody knows how they will feel about inferior life forms.

  • Grant

    As another counter-point, why assume aliens would want to annihilate each other in the first place?

    Culture A might spread by destroying its enemies and physically replicating. Culture B might spread by seeding its memes into other cultures, as well as physically replicating.

    In our current understanding of the Universe, memes can move much more quickly than weapons because they can move at the speed of light. So we might suspect culture B to be far more successful and wide-spread than culture A.

    Of course if culture A was widespread throughout the galaxy, we’d probably have noticed as soon as we discovered radio waves.

  • Eric

    Hmm… Here’s something to throw into the mix. Let’s say technological change “shortly” after industrialization because societies reach physical limits of what’s possible / feasible with technology in short time horizons (geologically / astronomically speaking). For example, we can imagine and model the “ultimate laptop” even if we can’t build one. But if Moore’s Law holds up for 300 more years, maybe we’ll get close to what’s feasible under hard physical limits.

    The point is, there may be a rapid transition from us to some end-stage level of intelligence and technology. After that, the physical constraints of the universe only allow incrementally better performance. One can imagine that once you transition to Post-Singuarity, it doesn’t really matter if your civilization is 1000 or 1 billion years old, since there’s little room left for further improvements or optimizations. After the first 1000 years, you can scale things up, but you can’t miniaturize any more or get smarter or more efficient.

    I’m not sure at all how this impacts Beserker scenarios, which I think are unlikely. But the current equilibrium state sure seems to favor “quiet and hard to notice” civilizations if they exist at all. Perhaps that means there’s a quick convergence to the realization that the best offense and defense is stealth, since if “they” can see you you are really, really easy to kill and other countermeasures are useless. Maybe we don’t see Dyson Spheres and the like because they’d be way to vulnerable to vandalism.

    Some other points:
    (1) If you wanted to wipe out rivals, it makes sense to do it well before they reach technological civilization. Otherwise, they can quickly transition into peers (competitors) of like power. Maybe wiping out all life (periodic gamma-ray bursts to sterilize a galaxy or at least ruin complex ecologies???). Maybe some active galaxies have a form of pest control. If we use advanced space telescopes and find no evidence for life in the atmospheres of terrestrial planets in habitable zones (or we don’t find terrestrial planets in habitable zones…) maybe the Beserkers have successfully suppressed most life.

    (2) Perhaps Beserkers know about Great Filters. They don’t bother to wipe out all ecologies, because Great Filters between multicellular life and technological civilizations make it generally not worth the effort, especially if they run a risk in exposing themselves to rival Beserkers. We’re lucky to make it through “natural” filters and have evolved technical civilization. Now we’re worth some extra risk in destroying soon before we become a peer and harder to destroy. More reason not to shout in the dark with powerful radio beacons.

    Fun stuff!

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Hopefully Anonymous, could you elaborate on the “species cohort” idea? And what berserker precedence there is in earth history?

  • Tim Tyler

    Re: “I suppose it might be possible for the aliens to be more unified than us, but I think in practice it would evolutionarily unlikely. The more unified you are, the greater the potential evolutionary reward for cheaters and dissidents.”

    The more unified you are, the greater the power you can collectively assert to prevent any kind of dissent or disharmony. Evolution has a major trend towards bigger organisms, exhibited in many lineages. Were it not for meteroite bombardment, we would all have united long ago.

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  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    TGGP,
    Nothing much to it.

    “I think the Fermi paradox comes down to only a few alternatives that are consistent with what we see:

    – we’re the first species (or perhaps the universe is a simulation where we’re alone) Technological life is very rare.”

    I’ve seen this a few times. I don’t get the logical leap to “we’re THE first/only species”, rather than “we’re part of the first cohort”, unless it’s statistically grounded to a model that shows that it’s more likely there’s just one like us instead of a cohort.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      So is the “cohort” idea that other similarly advanced species may exist, but they are far enough away and similarly young enough that we have not yet encountered evidence of them?

      • http://www.overcomingbias.com Hopefully Anonymous

        TGGP,
        yes, or if someone is saying “we’re probably the only one” instead of “we’re probably part of the first, young enough cohort” the distinction should be probabilistically grounded instead of assumed.
        Also, I’m cautioning here against an assumption that there’s not a civilization permanently ahead of us. It may be checkmate in 100 moves instead of in 10 moves.

  • Cryonicsman

    Robin says, “I’d love to see (and even help with) attempts to find stable equilibria within computer simulations of such scenarios.”

    I suggest creating a multi-player online strategy game and crowdsource the simulation. I would play!

  • Alexey Turchin

    Berserker ecology could be (and must be) based on nanotech. So nanoberserkers could undetectably exist inside this screen and even brain of the reader.

    The main question is what is the trigger that starts the killing program. This trigger must be ahead of us because we still alive. It could be result of observation selection. We could find our self only in such populations of berserkers, whos trigger should react only on technologically high civilizations.

    But such trigger can’t be arbitrary high. Because then we create our own nanotech we will soon be able to discover nano-bersercers and eliminate them. So the creation of the first nanobot should be very risky event, because it could start the killing program of nano-berserkers.

    In order to be not detected by other bersercers they have to show illogical patterns of behavior. Absurdity is the best caumuflage. (This could explain some observations of UFOs as clouds of extraterrestrial nanobots. UFOs is know for absurd behavior.)

    Also observation selection lead to the fact that we most likely find our self in the domain of most illogical berserkers, because logical ones would kill us much early.

    See more in my article “Ufo as global risk”, chapter “Extraterrestrial nanobots” http://www.scribd.com/doc/18221425/UFO-as-Global-Risk

  • Alexey Turchin

    Another type of berserker equilibrium which I forget to mention is equilibrium of SETi-attack radio messages.
    SETI-attack is sending description of AI and computer via radio to naive young civilizations, which will create this alien AI and destroyed by it. After it this AI would send its copies further.
    Different types of such messages will compete for appearing new civilizations which are the main resource in the Universe.
    This could happened only if density of civilization is very low (several for a Galaxy, perhaps), because this type of berserker is fastest (it is moving with light speed) and it will arrive in Solar system before any nanotech based material berserkers.
    See more:
    “Risks of SETI”
    http://www.scribd.com/doc/7428586/Is-SETI-Dangerous

  • http://www.ServoScientific.com Richard Duckworth

    These are all interesting scenarios, however the physical realities, will keep each civilization, safely confined to their home turf. No Beserker dictator, no matter how evil, will plan a blitzkrieg attack on his neighbors, which must be carried out by his distant relatives, after a 3,054 year journey. The natural human instinct to protect oneself, and his close relatives, (over his unrelated fellow citizens), probably loses its appeal, when projected more than 3 or 4 generations. In other words, there are not many parents, who concern themselves, with their future, grand-children’s well-being, in 200 years time, even though we all had great..great…grand-parents 200 years ago. Similarly, our, and other civilizations, individual occupants, will feel little incentive to plan events, when they and their relatives, will not benefit for 370 years.

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