Tag Archives: Aliens

Lazar’s Dreamland

I’ve always enjoyed science fiction, in part because such big things tend to be at stake there. But over the decades as I’ve learned more about the world, the less sense most of it makes. And I enjoy it less. Authors work hard to have their stories make sufficient sense to their median reader or reviewer, but not much beyond that.

Biographies are more realistic. They may not be exactly accurate, but they try harder to seem so. Not as many big things happen there, though I recently enjoyed Chernow’s Titan, a biography of John D. Rockefeller, wherein events are plenty big. I found I liked and admired him; he deserves a better reputation than he has.

Recently, I discovered that stories of probable hoaxes can offer a great compromise, as they try both to have big things happen, and also to seem realistic even to knowledgeable but skeptical investigators. In that spirit, I very much enjoyed physicist Bob Lazar’s Dreamland, the story of his working briefly for the US government in 1989 near Area 51 on alien UFO tech, and then publicizing that fact.

I was born seven months after Lazar, and like him studied physics, worked at secretive west coast US government labs, hung out with relatively colorful characters, and was prone to take more chances than the people around me. I was at NASA ’89-93 and Lockheed ’84-89, were I once had a top secret clearance. Lazar is a type of person I knew, describes a world I knew well, and does so believably.

Someone somewhere complained that Lazar isn’t very deep, which is true, but also realistic. Lazar is a much more hands-on intuitive guy, while I’m more of a theorist. He put a jet engine on his bike and car, and he throws around physics theory concepts in ways that I find sloppy. But that seems realistic for a person like him, and it makes sense that someone might think it would make sense to hire a person of his style to do the task he claims to have been assigned. His sort of person might even be tempted to embellish a few not-central-to-story details when telling his story.

I’ve also watched his documentary and Rogan interview, where Lazar comes across as more trustworthy than the people around him. So I’m inclined to believe him – except for that one fact: his key claims sound batshit crazy. Sorry, this isn’t the sort of thing I can believe on the testimony of one person, no matter how credible.

Reading Lazar’s Dreamland makes me a bit more eager to see a good overall stat analysis of a large dataset of UFO reports, where ideally his case is one datapoint. And more eager to read other probable-hoax biographies; what else ya got?

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Modeling the ‘Unknown’ Label

Recently I’ve browsed some specific UFO encounter reports, and I must admit they can feel quite compelling. But then I remember the huge selection effect. We all go about our lives looking at things, and only rarely do any of us officially report anything as so strange that authorities should know about it. And then when experts do look into such reports, they usually assign them to one of a few mundane explanation categories, such as “Venus” or “helicopter.”  For only a small fraction do they label it “unidentified”. And from thousands of these cases, the strangest and most compelling few become the most widely reported. So of course the UFO reports I see are compelling!

However, that doesn’t mean that such reports aren’t telling us about new kinds of things. After all, noticing weird deviations from existing categories is how we always learn about new kinds of things. So we should study this data carefully to see if random variation around our existing categories seems sufficient to explain it, or if we need to expand our list of categories and the theories on which they are based. Alas, while enormous time and effort has been spent collecting all these reports, it seems that far less effort has been spent to formally analyze them. So that’s what I propose.

Specifically, I suggest that we more formally model the choice to label something “unknown”. That is, model all this data as a finite mixture of classes, and then explicitly model the process by which items are assigned to a known class, versus labeled as “unknown.” Let me explain.

Imagine that we had a data set of images of characters from the alphabet, A to Z, and perhaps a few more weird characters like წ. Nice clean images. Then we add a lot of noise and mess them up in many ways and to varying degrees. Then we show people these images and ask them to label them as characters A to Z, or as “unknown”. I can see three main processes that would lead people to choose this “unknown” label for a case:

  1. Image is just weird, sitting very far from prototype of any character A to Z.
  2. Image sits midway between prototypes of two particular characters in A to Z.
  3. Image closely matches prototype of one of the weird added characters, not in A to Z

If we use a stat analysis that formally models this process, we might be able to take enough of this labeling data and then figure out whether in fact weird characters have been added to the data set of images, and to roughly describe their features.

You’d want to test this method, and see how well it could pick out weird characters and their features. But once it work at least minimally for character images, or some other simple problem, we could then try to do the same for UFO reports. That is, we could model the “unidentified” cases in that data as a combination of weird cases, midway cases, and cases that cluster around new prototypes, which we could then roughly describe. We could then compare the rough descriptions of these new classes to popular but radical UFO explanations, such as aliens or secret military projects.

More formally, assume we have a space of class models, parameterized by A, models that predict the likelihood P(X|A) that a data case X would arise from that class. Then given a set of classes C, each with parameters Ac and a class weight wc, we could for any case X produce a vector of likelihoods pc = wc*P(X|Ac), one for each class c in C. A person might tend more to assign the known label L when the value of pL was high, relative to the other pc. And if a subset U of classes C were unknown, people might tend more to assign assign the label “unknown” when either:

  1. even the highest pc was relatively low,
  2. the top two pc had nearly equal values, or
  3. the highest pc belonged to an unknown class, with c in U.

Using this model of how the label “unknown” is chosen, then given a data set of labeled cases X, including the unknown label, we could find the best parameters wc and Ac (and any in the labeling process) to fit this dataset. When fitting such a model to data, one could try adding new unknown classes, not included in the initial set of labels L. And in this way find out if this data supports the idea of new unknown classes U, and with what parameters.

For UFO reports, the first question is whether the first two processes for producing “unknown” labels seems sufficient to explain the data, or if we need to add a process associated with new classes. And if we need new classes, I’d be interested to see if there is a class fitting the “military prototype” theory, where events happened more near to military bases, more at days and times when those folks tend to work, with more intelligent response, more noise and less making nearby equipment malfunction, and impressive but not crazy extreme speeds and accelerations that increase over time with research abilities. And I’d be especially interested to see if there is a class fitting the “alien” theory, with more crazy extreme speeds and accelerations, enormous sizes, nearby malfunctions, total silence, apparent remarkable knowledge, etc.

Added 9a: Of course the quality of such a stat analysis will depend greatly on the quality of the representations of data X. Poor low-level representations of characters, or of UFO reports, aren’t likely to reveal much interesting or deep. So it is worth trying hard to process UFO reports to create good high level representations of their features.

Added 28May: If there is a variable of importance or visibility of an event, one might also want to model censoring of unimportant hard-to-see events. Perhaps also include censoring near events that authorities want to keep hidden.

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Non-UFO Local Alien Clues

[US] Department of Defense formally released three Navy videos that contain ‘unidentified aerial phenomena.’ … When the videos were published in 2017 and 2018 by The New York Times …, they gave new hope to those looking for signs of extraterrestrial life. … ‘it’s time that we make progress to understand the extraordinary technology being observed during these events.’ (More)

Still, when you run all the arguments through your mind, is it not possible to come away with an estimate of at least a one-in-a-thousand chance that alien visitations are a real thing? Even such a small chance would be worthy of more discussion. (More)

Alexander Wendt, a professor of international relations at Ohio State University. Wendt is a giant in his field of IR theory, but in the past 15 years or so, he’s become an amateur ufologist. … ‘It’s possible they’ve been here all along. … They could just be intergalactic tourists. Maybe they’re looking for certain minerals. It could just be scientific curiosity. It could be that they’re extracting our DNA. I mean, who knows? I have no idea. All I know is that if they are here, they seem to be peaceful.’ (More)

In the above, two social scientists, economist Tyler Cowen and political scientist Alexander Wendt, say to take UFOs-as-aliens more seriously. But in a quick search I can’t find any serious social analysis of this hypothesis. I see studies of why humans might want to believe in aliens, or why they might have a taboo against considering aliens. But not an analysis of alien social behavior, to help us evaluate the UFOs-as-aliens hypothesis. What I find is mostly like the above, “who knows?” So let me try.

To do Bayesian inference well, we need a set of not-crazy scenarios describing what might really be going on, we need a prior describing our beliefs about which of these scenarios seems how likely using our background knowledge, we need some more specific data to consider, and we need likelihood functions that say how likely each piece of specific data would be given each scenario.

Note: to study priors and likliehoods, I’ll need to make some assumptions, and see where they lead. That doesn’t mean I actually believe them.

While many UFO reports can be easily dismissed, a remnant of reports seems harder to dismiss, apparently showing artificial physical objects in the sky with amazing velocities and accelerations, but without the usual physical effects on nearby things.

Regarding these puzzling UFOs, I see three key explanation categories:

  • Measurement Error – What look like artificial objects with crazy extreme abilities are actually natural stuff looked at wrong. Perhaps due to intentional fakery. This is widely and probably correctly judged to be the most likely scenario. Nevertheless, we can’t be very confident of that without considering its alternatives in more detail.
  • Secret Societies – There really are artificial objects with amazing abilities, though perhaps somewhat overestimated via partially misleading observations. These are created and managed by hidden groups in our world, substantially tied to us. Secret local military research groups, distant secret militaries, non-state Bond-villains, time-travelers from our near future, dinosaur civilizations deep in the Earth’s crust, etc.
  • Aliens – Again these objects really do have amazing abilities, and are created by hidden groups. But in this case the relevant groups are much less integrated with and correlated with our societies and history. Little green men, their super-robot descendants, universe-sim admins, gods, etc. If these groups had a common origin with, competed with, or were much influenced by the groups that we know of, such things mostly happened long ago, and probably far away.

These three alternatives don’t obviously exhaust all options, but then again I can’t really think of much else.

Assuming that third scenario, hidden groups whose history and features are not much integrated with ours, we can confidently conclude that they most likely arose long ago and far away. Otherwise their space-time correlation with us would be an unlikely coincidence. Perhaps we and they arose from stars in the same stellar nursery, or Earth life was seeded by them, but that still leaves huge relevant durations and distances. And these pretty strongly support their having spectacular technologies and capacities. They have progressed and innovated for many millions and perhaps billions of years more than we. So they can travel very long distances, and survive very long durations.

Now it isn’t at all crazy to expect that many alien powers might arise over the scope and history of the universe. Our prior there has to start out high. But it is a bit more surprising that over billions of years this hasn’t resulted in visible changes to the universe we see. Somehow, all these advanced aliens have not widely rearranged galaxies, deconstructed stars, and so on. Once we condition on the “great filter” fact that we don’t see aliens out there, it become much less clear how likely we should consider aliens to be, especially aliens capable of and inclined to come near us. But that scenario also isn’t obviously impossible, so let us continue.

To consider UFOs-as-aliens, we must consider ancient aliens who were once very far away long ago, had spectacular tech and capacities, did not visibly change the universe, eventually traveled to here now, and are doing stuff around here now. The most likely scenarios consistent with that description tend to have those aliens be clearly visible around here. They’d be living near, building things, using local resources, dumping trash, fighting with each other, etc. But they are not clearly visible. So we must downgrade our prior again, perhaps a lot, to consider scenarios where active local aliens are clearly visible neither on cosmic scales nor on local scales.

For example, perhaps these aliens have found other attractive resources somewhere else hard-to-see nearby, perhaps dark matter or another dimension, resources so much more attractive than ours that they see no point in using the stuff we see. (But then why do their UFOs come here and interact with our matter?) Or perhaps they’ve coordinated to make our region into a nature preserve, not to be used much. Or perhaps they want to observe Earth and human evolution untouched and uninfluenced. Not crazy scenarios, but also not obviously the most likely ones consistent with our prior knowledge.

We have so far had to cut down our aliens prior to account for the lack of clear alien visibility at both cosmic and local scales. But we still have at least one more puzzling data point to integrate into our analysis: these aliens are sometimes somewhat visible as UFOs. Surely such advanced aliens are well aware of our existence, and can figure out roughly what we can see and infer about them. So either they are purposely allowing us to see glimpses of them in this way, or they are failing to prevent such glimpses.

So far, everything I’ve said I’ve heard before from others. Now come my original points, which I haven’t heard from elsewhere, though I wouldn’t be surprised if others have said them. (Far more is written on this than I have time to survey, as I lack good quality filters in this area.) Under either of these scenarios, purposeful or accidental revelation, it isn’t obvious that UFOs would be the only or main channel of such revelations to us about aliens.

If UFOs are shown to us on purpose, to influence our society in some way via a weak suspicion of local aliens, surely such capable aliens would also have a great many other way to influence us. And it is hard to imagine a purpose, or ability package, which would limit their influence to letting us see UFOs. They could edit our DNA, start pandemics or earthquakes, whisper hints to key leaders or innovators, kill off opponents, etc. And while they might be able to do all these things in ways that remain quite hidden, they could also work less hard to hide, and let some of us sometimes get glimpses of their influence.

Perhaps the fact that we see strange UFO behavior is due to accidental failures to sufficiently monitor or incentivize local alien actors who would otherwise want to influence us. Their abilities to prevent such failures would be quite good, but not quite perfect. But if so, similar failures could also allow local aliens to influence us in other ways. On our end, perhaps editing DNA, whispering hits, etc. On their end, they must at some points collect materials and energy sources, stay at home locations, and discard trash.

So under both types of scenarios, if UFOs are due to aliens we should also expect to sometimes see rare but striking alien influences in many other domains. Thus we should be able to get data to confirm or refute this UFOs-as-aliens theory by looking at many other areas of life, not just at strange objects in the sky. (Or in sea, caves, forests, and other sparse places.)

Sure, it is logically possible that aliens intend for us to see them only via strange sky objects. But our prior doesn’t at all favor that, even after modification to condition on low visibility at cosmic and local scales. So a lack of apparent alien influence in many other areas of life must count as evidence against the UFOs-as-aliens scenarios, both the purposeful-but-weak and the barely-accidental versions. Conversely, UFOs-as-aliens would be confirmed by a consistent pattern of rare but striking hard-to-explain influences in other areas of life, influences that aliens might plausibly want to cause.

I am somewhat of a polymath, pursuing a wider range of areas and topics than do most intellectuals or social scientists. So I consider myself to be more qualified than most to consider the possibility of strange influences on human behavior. And while I have in fact seen many strange things, for almost none does alien influence seem especially helpful in explaining what we see.

Now you might argue that aliens want to limit their purposeful revelations to one main most-effective area, or that due to varying costs of coordination and enforcement, one main area will end up being the hardest to control, and thus the area where the most accidental revelations occur. So why couldn’t strange stuff in the sky be that main area in either case?

Yes, that’s not crazy. But assume then that aliens are trying hard to just barely weakly reveal themselves in only one area, or that they are trying hard to prevent us from seeing them but just failing a bit in one worse area. Neither of these scenarios offer much encouragement for more careful analysis of this UFOs-as-aliens theory. In both cases, aliens are controlling how much we see, and so can plausibly quickly adjust their efforts to hide better if we surprise them with being more perceptive than expected. And if we are less perceptive than expected, they can relax their efforts a bit, to make it easier for us to see.

This is somewhat like the problem of inferring that we live in a sim via errors in the sim. If we lived in a sim, and the people running it could see us noticing errors, then they cold stop the sim at that point, back it up, and restart after putting more effort into cutting errors. So we’d only remember errors if they wanted us to remember them. In this scenario, if we just barely sometimes notice errors that we are not very sure are errors, our putting more effort into studying possible sim errors would only be rewarded by stronger efforts on their parts to hide their errors.

That is, if there really are gods around who don’t want us to easily see them, but who sometimes reveal themselves to some of us, we can’t gain much by trying to together better analyze our shared data, to see if they exist. They can control what we see, and control us more directly, in enough ways that we will only know and see what they want us to know and see. Yes, okay, maybe they intend to reward us by revealing themselves to us, but only after we do a good enough collective analysis of our data. But really, given all the other plausible motives and priorities that they might have, our prior has to count that as a quite unlikely scenario. Most likely, when they want us to see them, we’ll see them, but not before.

Yes, aliens might just happen to be at the edge of detectability to us, but not due to efforts on their part to prevent or encourage detection. Yet if that edge region in detectability space is narrow, then it seems that our relative prior on that scenario should be low. The fact that UFOs have remained near our edge of detectability for 80 years of improving sensor tech and increasing sensor density also weakly suggests that more than coincidence is at work here. However, an increasing taboo against UFO-as-aliens may be an adequate explanation for this, and the edge region of detectability space may not in fact be narrow.

Of course even more likely, perhaps, no nearby aliens cause UFOs. But if they do, the best hypothesis, for its combo of likelihood and productivity, seems to be aliens who can travel very far in space and time, who sometimes travel near us, but who care little about us or the types of resources that we can see or use. They do visit here sometimes, where we sometimes meet them accidentally. The rest of us only hear of such meetings when our taboo against reporting them happens to be especially weak. Weirder than I expected, but then the universe has been weirder than we’ve expected before.

Added 5a: A creative scenario is humans finding & using ancient alien tech. Alas, the prior chances seem quite low that alien tech would be abandoned near us, found, still functional after this long, functional outside supporting resources of their civilization, useable by us, and still kept hidden.

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Liu Cixin’s Trilogy

I just finished Liu Cixin’s trilogy of books, Three Body Problem, Dark Forest, and Death’s End. They’ve gotten a lot of praise as perhaps the best classic-style science fiction in the past decade. This praise usually makes sure to mention that Cixin is Chinese, and thus adds to diversity in science fiction. Which I think has shielded him from some criticism he’d get if he were white. To explain, I have to give some spoilers, below the fold. You are warned. Continue reading "Liu Cixin’s Trilogy" »

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My Circus Sideshow

If a fossil of an an alien, or any alien artifact, were put it on display, it would attract millions. Sure some would see it because of its objective importance. But most would come just because it is weird.

People used to see a traditional circus sideshow for similar reasons. But consider: once you know that there exist dwarves, sword swallowers, and women with beards, what do you learn more by seeing them person? Yes, in part you just want to brag about how much you’ve seen, but you are also actually curious about what such things look like up close.

Circus side shows are weird, but they are also far from maximally strange. Many ocean creatures are far stranger. The attraction is in part a mixture of the strange and familiar. Once a familiar thing has changed in one very big way, one naturally wonders what other aspects of it are changed and how. One doesn’t wonder that about something where all its features are strange.

Tyler Cowen suggests this as the appeal of my upcoming book The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life When Robots Rule the Earth:

The ostensible premise of the book is that people have become computer uploads, and we have an entirely new society to think about: how it works, what problems it has, and how it evolves. .. But this is more than just a nerdy tech book, it is also:

  • Straussian commentary on the world we actually live in. ..
  • A reminder of how strange everything is .. It’s a mock of all those who believe in individual free will.
  • An attempt to construct a fully rational theology ..
  • An extended essay on the impossibility of avoiding theology ..
  • A satire on the rest of social science, and how we try to explain and predict the future.
  • A meta-level growth model in which energy alone matters and the “fixed factor” assumptions of other models are relativized. ..
  • A challenge to our notions of wherein the true value of a life resides. (more)

I describe an entire world in great detail, a world that is a mix between a strange alien civilization and our familiar world. Any world described in enough detail must raise issues that look like theology, including free will and where true value resides. And any detailed strange yet familiar world can be seen as satire on social science and Straussian commentary on our world.

So the key is that, like a circus side show, my book lets readers see something strange yet familiar in great detail, so they can gawk at what else changes and how when familiar things change. My book is a dwarf, sword swallower, and bearded lady, writ large.

Okay, yeah, I can accept that as the main appeal of my book. Just as the main appeal of seeing an alien fossil to most would be its strangeness. Even if understanding aliens were actually vitally important.

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Monster Pumps

Yesterday’s Science has a long paper on an exciting new scaling law. For a century we’ve known that larger organisms have lower metabolisms, and thus lower growth rates. Metabolism goes as size to the power of 3/4 over at least twenty orders of magnitude:


So our largest organisms have a per-mass metabolism one hundred thousand times lower than our smallest organisms.

The new finding is that local metabolism also goes as local biomass density to the power of roughly 3/4, over at least three orders of magnitude. This implies that life in dense areas like jungles is just slower and lazier on average than is life in sparse areas like deserts. And this implies that the ratio of predator to prey biomass is smaller in jungles compared to deserts.

When I researched how to cool large em cities I found that our best cooling techs scale quite nicely, and so very big cities need only pay a small premium for cooling compared to small cities. However, I’d been puzzled about why biological organisms seem to pay much higher premiums to be large. This new paper inspired me to dig into the issue.

What I found is that human engineers have figured ways to scale large fluid distribution systems that biology has just never figured out. For example, the hearts that pump blood through animals are periodic pumps, and such pumps have the problem that the pulses they send through the blood stream can reflect back from joints where blood vessels split into smaller vessels. There are ways to design joints to eliminate this, but those solutions create a total volume of blood vessels that doesn’t scale well. Another problem is that blood vessels taking blood to and from the heart are often near enough to each other to leak heat, which can also create a bad scaling problem.

The net result is that big organisms on Earth are just noticeably sluggish compared to small ones. But big organisms don’t have to be sluggish, that is just an accident of the engineering failures of Earth biology. If there is a planet out there where biology has figured out how to efficiently scale its blood vessels, such as by using continuous pumps, the organisms on that planet will have fewer barriers to growing large and active. Efficiently designed large animals on Earth could easily have metabolisms that are thousands of times faster than in existing animals. So, if you don’t already have enough reasons to be scared of alien monsters, consider that they might have far faster metabolisms, and also be very large.

This seems yet another reason to think that biology will soon be over. Human culture is inventing so many powerful advances that biology never found, innovations that are far easier to integrate into the human economy than into biological designs. Descendants that integrate well into the human economy will just outcompete biology.

I also spend a little time thinking about how one might explain the dependence of metabolism on biomass density. I found I could explain it by assuming that the more biomass there is in some area, the less energy each biomass gets from the sun. Specifically, I assume that the energy collected from the sun by the biomass in some area has a power law dependence on the biomass in that area. If biomass were very efficiently arranged into thin solar collectors then that power would be one. But since we expect some biomass to block the view of other biomass, a problem that gets worse with more biomass, the power is plausibly less than one. Let’s call a this power that relates biomass density B to energy collected per area E. As in E = cBa.

There are two plausible scenarios for converting energy into new biomass. When the main resource need to make new biomass via metabolism is just energy to create molecules that embody more energy in their arrangement, then M = cBa-1, where M is the rate of production of new biomass relative to old biomass. When new biomass doesn’t need much energy, but it does need thermodynamically reversible machinery to rearrange molecules, then M = cB(a-1)/2. These two scenarios reproduce the observed 3/4 power scaling law when a = 3/4 and 1/2 respectively. When making new biomass requires both simple energy and reversible machinery, the required power a is somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4.

Added 14Sep: On reflection and further study, it seems that biologists just do not have a good theory for the observed 3/4 power. In addition, the power deviates substantially from 3/4 within smaller datasets.

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If Post Filter, We Are Alone

Me four years ago:

Imagine that over the entire past and future history of our galaxy, human-level life would be expected to arise spontaneously on about one hundred planets. At least it would if those planets were not disturbed by outsiders. Imagine also that, once life on a planet reaches a human level, it is likely to quickly (e.g., within a million years) expand to permanently colonize the galaxy. And imagine life rarely crosses between galaxies. In this case we should expect Earth to be one of the first few habitable planets created, since otherwise Earth would likely have already been colonized by outsiders. In fact, we should expect Earth to sit near the one percentile rank in the galactic time distribution of habitable planets – only ~1% of such planets would form earlier. …

If we can calculate the actual time distribution of habitable planets in our galaxy, we can then use Earth’s percentile rank in that time distribution to estimate the number of would-produce-human-level-life planets in our galaxy! Or at least the number of such planets times the chance that such a planet quickly expands to colonize the galaxy. (more)

New results:

The Solar System formed after 80% of existing Earth-like planets (in both the Universe and the Milky Way), after 50% of existing giant planets in the Milky Way, and after 70% of existing giant planets in the Universe. Assuming that gas cooling and star formation continues, the Earth formed before 92% of similar planets that the Universe will form. This implies a < 8% chance that we are the only civilisation the Universe will ever have. (more; HT Brian Wang)

Bottom line: these new results offer little support for the scenario where we have a good chance of growing out into the universe and meeting other aliens before a billion of years have passed. Either we are very likely to die and not grow, or we are the only ones who could grow. While it is possible that adding more filters like gamma ray bursts could greatly change this analysis, that seems to require a remarkable coincidence of contrary effects to bring Earth back to being near the middle of the filtered distribution of planets. The simplest story seems right: if we have a chance to fill the universe, we are the only ones for a billion light years with that chance.

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The Evolution-Is-Over Fallacy

David Brin and Jerome Barkow both responded to my last Cato Unbound comment by assuming that the evolution of aliens would end at somewhere around our human level of development. While aliens would acquire new tech, there would be little further change in their preferences or basic psychology over the following millions or billions of years. In my latest comment, I mainly just repeat what I’d said before:

Even when each creature has [powerful tech and] far broader control [over its local environment], this won’t prevent selection from favoring creatures who better use their controls to survive and reproduce. No, what is required to stop selection is very broad and strong coordination. As I wrote:

Yes it is possible that a particular group of aliens will somehow take collective and complete control over all local evolution early in their history, and thereby forever retain their early styles. … Such collective control requires quite advanced coordination abilities. … Anything less than complete control of evolution would not end evolution; it would instead create a new environment for adaptation.

My guess is that even when this happens, it will only be after a great degree of adaptation to post-biological possibilities. So even then adaptation to advanced technology should be useful in predicting their behaviors.

I’ll call this mistake the “evolution is over” fallacy, and I nominate it as the most important fallacy about aliens, and our future. Evolutionary selection of preferences and psychology is not tied to DNA-based replication, or to making beings out of squishy proteins, or to a lack of intelligence. Selection is instead a robust long-run feature of decentralized competition. The universe is influenced more by whatever wins competitions for influence; where competition continues, selection also continues.

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What Are Aliens Like?

Over at Cato Unbound, I respond to Jerome Barkow’s survey of possible influences on the evolution of alien culture and intelligence, as clues to the kinds of aliens we might meet. Alas, Barkow assumes that alien styles are largely determined by the specific biological environments in which particular alien species originally evolved. However:

This might make sense for aliens who are a thousand years more advanced than humans are today. But it makes far less sense for aliens who are a million or a billion years more advanced – far more likely timescales. Given how much adaptation could have taken place over such times, we should expect to see older aliens selected far more by their final environment than their initial environment.

I then offer five predictions about older aliens:

First, … [they] should be very well adapted to their final physical environment. … Advanced aliens are physically similar across the universe, unless significantly different social equilibria are possible and have substantially different physical implications.

Second, … sexual reproduction is quite unlikely to last. … This doesn’t mean signaling will end. …

Third, very old aliens should be accustomed to very low levels of growth and innovation. …  We’d [not] have much general information of use to such aliens. …

Fourth, … very advanced aliens should not be either generically friendly or generically hostile to outsiders. Instead they should be very good at making their friendship or hostility appropriately context-dependent. … Such aliens would ask themselves in great and careful detail, what exactly could humans eventually do to help or hurt them?

Fifth, advanced aliens should be well adapted in both means and ends. … Advanced aliens will be very patient, but also very selfish regarding their key units of reproduction, and quite risk averse about key correlated threats to their existence. (more)

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“Slow” Growth Is Cosmo-Fast

In my first response to Brin at Cato Unbound (and in one followup),  I agreed with him that we shouldn’t let each group decide if to yell to aliens. In my second response, I criticize Brin’s theory that the universe is silent because most alien civilizations fall into slowly-innovating “feudal” societies like those during the farmer era:

We have so far had three eras of growth: forager, farmer, and industry. … In all three eras, growth was primarily caused by innovation. …

A thousand doublings of the economy seems plenty to create a very advanced civilization. After all, that would give a factor of ten to the power of three hundred increase in economic capacity, and there are only roughly ten to the eighty atoms in the visible universe. Yes, at our current industry rates of growth, we’d produce that much growth in only fifteen thousand years, while at farmer rates of growth it would take a million years.

But a million years is still only a small blip of cosmological time. It is even plausible for a civilization to reach very advanced levels while growing at the much slower forager rate. While a civilization growing at forager rates would take a quarter billion years to grow a thousand factors of two, the universe is thirteen billion years old, and our planet is four billion. So there has been plenty of time for very slow growing aliens to become very advanced. (more)

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