Tag Archives: Aliens

Managed Competition or Competing Managers?

Competition and cooperation [as] opposites, with vice on one side and virtue on the other … is a false dichotomy … The market-based competition envisioned in economics is disciplined by rules and reputations. … Just as competition is not a shorthand for “anything goes,” the quick and thoughtless inference that cooperation is necessarily virtuous is often unjustified. In many cases, cooperation is a tool for an in-group to take advantage of those outside the group. …

Competition refers to a situation in which people or organizations (such as firms) apply their efforts and talents toward a certain goal, and they receive results based substantially on their performance relative to each other. … Cooperation refers to a situation in which the participants seek out win-win outcomes from working together. (More)

Raw unconstrained competition looks scary; lies, betrayal, predation, starvation, war; so many things can go wrong! Which makes “managed competition” sound so comforting; whew, someone will limit the problems. Someone like a boss, police officer, sports referee, or government regulator.

However, raw unconstrained management also looks scary; that’s tyranny, which can go wrong in so so many ways! Such as via incompetence, exploitation, and rot. And so we can be comforted to hear that managers must compete. For example, when individual managers compete for jobs, firms compete for customers, or politicians compete for votes.

But who will guard the guardians? If we embed competitions within larger systems of managers, and also embed managers within larger systems of competition, won’t they all sit within some maximally-encompassing system, which must then be either competition, management, or some awkward mix of the two? This is the fundamental hard problem of design and governance, from which there is no easy escape.

Many of our strong moral intuitions are twisted up with this issue. Human foragers were proud to have used weapons and language to explicitly repress simple physical competition for control of their bands. Via gossip, prestige, and collective decisions, foragers enforced norms, shared food and protection, and made big choices together. And they strongly saw such management as the moral ideal.

Of course, in fact this band management was embedded in larger competitions. In a much larger world, and over long timescales, bands competed to make more descendants, even if neighboring bands generally had peaceful relations. And within bands, foragers also competed for more descendants, and to influence coalitions by which they controlled collective decisions. But these forms of competition were much less visible, and mostly not explicitly acknowledged. The dogma was clear: competition must be managed.

During the farming era, ambitious leaders often justified their campaigns of conquest by saying that they sought only to ensure that their whole world had a central manager, who could then prevent destructive competition. Even so, farmer-era folks got used to the idea of competition as the usual largest visible context, and cultures came more to celebrate the winners of such visible competitions, and the habits and attitudes which enabled winners. Farmer era religions comforted people by postulating invisible gods who supposedly managed all this visible competition, even if such gods seemed to compete with devils in strange ways.

Our industry era has been caused primarily by the introduction new larger social organizations, which more explicitly manage many things. And rising per-capita industry-era wealth has induced a reversion to forager attitudes in many ways, such as regarding fertility, democracy, religion, leisure, slavery, travel, and inequality. Lower costs of long distance travel and talk has allowed much larger scale governance structures, and in many ways we now even have world governments, sometimes explicit but more often mediated by global elite regulators.

So during the industry era we’ve revived and even strengthened the forager norm for wanting our largest encompassing systems be ones of management, not competition. This has driven centuries-long trends toward higher levels of regulation and larger scales of governance. Furthermore, for the relatively democratic parts of future world governance, I predict we are likely to add more “management” of electoral competition, such as regulation of who is allowed to run, what people are allowed to say about policies and elections, and what policy changes politicians are allowed to induce.

This strong norm favoring management over competition helps explain the widespread and continuing dislike for the theory of natural selection, which explicitly declares a system of competition to be the largest encompassing system. This view not only threatens religions, wherein a managing God is supposed to be that most encompassing system, it also threatens secular views, wherein human “values”, such as those promoting management, are just obviously correct moral truths, needing no further explanation.

Evolutionary psychology, by far the most hated associate of natural selection, instead suggests that common human intuitions result from context-dependent strategies of competition, which can thus not fundamentally oppose such competition. The desire to resist this conclusion pushes people to make common but false claims, such that evolutionary psychologists are craven and incompetent, and so should be ignored, or that our human ability to make conscious deliberate choices implies that humans are no longer subject to natural selection.

For rich comfortable industry era folks, evolutionary competition may not feel very constraining. But its effects become larger and clearer over longer timescales. People eager to reject the relevant of this competition are thus pushed to reject the relevance of long timescales. Some say that we’ll all be dead then anyway, so who cares, while others say it is impossible to forecast anything on long time scales, and so there’s no point in trying. Some even declare confidence that world government will take full control over fertility and individual genetics before the long run, directly ending the regime of natural selection.

These strong feelings also help to explain the widespread and fierce opposition, at least among elites, to the idea that real alien civilizations might be aggressive or acquisitive. After all, if there is no galactic or larger federation constraining such aggression, then we and aliens would be embedded in an unmanaged regime of competition. Furthermore, communication and commitment problems would make even modest cooperation with aliens difficult.

People are thus eager to embrace even quite implausible assumptions that could prevent this conclusion. Such as that a) no aliens exist anywhere, b) interstellar travel is impossible, c) advanced aliens could collect no concrete gains from distant colonization, d) any inclination of a civilization toward competition or expansion quickly and reliably leads to its self-destruction, e) a “zookeeper” federation rules a galaxy full of activity, but tricks us until seeing it as empty, or f) our AIs could make peace via “acausal trades” with their AIs.

I hope this helps you now better understand why world governments may be a big obstacle to expansive futures, and how much can be at stake emotionally with our “grabby aliens” model. Yes, we wouldn’t meet them for many millions of years. But that offers little comfort to those for whom it is a moral imperative that the largest encompassing context must be one of managed competition, not competing managers. Cosmology matters to people, especially when it involves conflicting agents.

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A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past

In his new book The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens–and Ourselves, Cambridge zoologist Arik Kershenbaum purports to tell us what intelligent aliens will be like when we meet them:

This book is about how we can use that realistic scientific approach to draw conclusions, with some confidence, about alien life – and intelligent life in particular. (p.1)

Now, that won’t be for a long time, and they will even then be far more advanced than us:

We are absolutely in the infancy of our technological development, and that makes it exceptionally likely that any aliens we encounter will be more advanced than us. (p.160)

The chances of us encountering intelligent aliens [anytime soon] is so remote as to be almost dismissed. (p.320)

Even so, this is what aliens will be like:

One way to prepare ourselves mentally and practically for First Contact is … to reconcile ourselves to the fact that there are certain properties that intelligent life must have. … their behavior, how they move and feed and come together in societies, will be similar to ours. …

[Aliens and us] both have families and pets, read and write books, and care for our children and our relatives. … this situation is actually very likely. Those evolutionary focus that push us to be the way we are must also be pushing life on other planets to be like us. (pp.322-323)

And this will be their origin story: Continue reading "A Zoologist’s Guide to Our Past" »

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To Beat Aliens, We Must Become Aliens

Fight fire with fire. It takes a thief to catch a thief. To defeat your enemy, know and become your enemy.

Across the long sweep of history, our ancestors have greatly changed. Animals to primates to foragers to farmers to the industrialists of today. Across these many ages, we’ve greatly changed our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. During the ages of humanity, this has led to increasing “alienation”, as our worlds drift increasingly far from the worlds in which human nature was formed.

Someday we may become expansive aliens who rapidly spread life and civilization throughout a vast volume, stopping only perhaps when we meet other expansive aliens (in perhaps a few hundred million years). But we are far from up to that task now, and to reach that level we must probably pass through several more ages. Ages with big changes to our environments, habits, styles of thinking, and priorities. (Perhaps the next age would be an “age of em”.)

These changes will induce even greater alienation, at least as long as human nature doesn’t change greatly. And even if our descendants manage to change human nature, to make their new worlds seem more natural to them, that very prospect may horrify the residents of some prior ages. They may see even modest changes a loss of “humanity” due to many specific value changes. And so they may seek to prevent such new ages.

And this, I expect, is one of the greatest obstacles to our descendants becoming expansionist, and taking their place among the great alien civilizations who fill the universe with life and thereafter set its destinies. Some particular age, which could only have existed because many prior ages diminished and give birth to new different ages, “will stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”.

The ability to do this will be greatly aided by a world government, both in mood and in implementation. Which part of why I fear such a government. Let each age instead “diminish, and go into the West“, giving birth to differing descendant ages, so that we can help fill the cosmos with life, with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky“.

Added 9am: To make the matter more concrete, if they had understood the actual consequences, should pre-human primates have wanted to prevent the rise of humans? Should hyper-egalitarian, leisurely, and promiscuous foragers have wanted to prevent the rise of farmers,  with their hard work, war, inequality, slaves, and marriage? Should strongly religious, nationalistic and pro-marriage farmers have wanted to prevent the rise of industrialists who abandon such things? Should we want to prevent an age of em?

Added 7Apr: In four Twitter polls, I asked if the people of various eras would, according to their values, want to prevent successor ages. Results: 2-1 majorities think forager & farmer values would lead them to prevent following (farmer & industry) eras, even as majorities think primate & industry era values would not lead them to prevent following (human & em) eras. This seems to be overall pretty bad news for the prospect of there being many future eras once eras can coordinate to prevent successor eras.

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Meta-Comments On UFO Talk

Following my “live and learn” strategy, after having written a bit about UFOs, let me now make some meta-comments.

For most intellectuals, UFOs are a topic “beyond the pale” and “outside the Overton window”. As was the topic of sex once, not because people didn’t think sex existed, but because of a consensus it wasn’t a “serious” topic. We generally know which topics do and don’t have this label, even if we don’t have much of an idea of why each label was once applied.

Since I started talking about UFOs, I’ve more clearly seen some of the rules we apply to talk near the edge of acceptable topics. The edge isn’t that sharp, so these are rules that apply more strongly but in a graded way as you approach closer to the edge, and then perhaps go past it.

As you approach the edge of the pale, your tone is supposed to become more jocular, your language less precise and more evocative, and your writings short and infrequent. High prestige people are allowed to go a bit further toward or past the edge without modifying their writings quite as much in these directions. You are expected to eagerly lampoon any who violate these rules.

We can think of all this as our having a “vote” on whether to move the Overrton window, with high prestige people of course getting far more votes. If you go much further than usual in taking such a topic seriously, as your attempt to argue for moving the window, that will mostly fail, as you will mainly be seen as losing your standing to vote on the topic.

I’ve noticed that this topic of UFOs makes me feel especially uncomfortable. I look at the many details, and many seem to cry out “there really is something important here.” But I know full well that most people refuse to look at the details, and are quick to denigrate those who do, being confident in getting wide social support when they do.

So I’m forced to choose between my intellectual standards, which say to go where the evidence leads, and my desire for social approval, or at least not extra disapproval. I know which one I’m idealistically supposed to pick, but I also know that I don’t really care as much for picking the things you are supposed to pick as I pretend to myself or others.

We often fantasize about being confronted with a big moral dilemma, so we can prove our morality to ourselves and others. But we should mostly be glad we don’t get what we wish for, as we are often quite wrong about how we would actually act.

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Explaining Stylized UFO Facts

In my last post I summarized some key stylized social facts that a theory of UFOs-as-aliens would need to explain:

Any aliens behind UFOs would be amazingly long-lived, and also somehow they’ve coordinated to limit any small part of themselves from expanding and remaking the universe. This gets easier to believe the smaller and rarer they are. (They also seem to have limited their tech.) Yet they’ve overcome their self-limits to travel to be here now, so they must be close enough to come quickly once they saw signs of advances, or they saw signs of interest very early and traveled very far.

We can see practical reasons for them to come here, at least if they can coordinate to achieve such plans. But most such motives seem better served by destroying us than by the usual reported UFO encounters, which seem to accomplish little. Yes, humans today do many things for indirect “symbolic” motives, and lazy organizations often pretend to achieve more than they do. But these require slack, and fig-leaf stories to justify them. So from whence comes alien slack, and what could be their justifications?

My tentative explanation for all this has four main supporting elements: panspermia siblings, world government, moral ideology, and complexity rot.


1. Panspermia Siblings – Imagine that life started on some previous planet Eden, where it went through some very hard steps. Life then spread from Eden to Earth, as well as to some other planets. Even if it were hard for life to spread between planets, the Eden-to-Earth scenario could still be statistically favored compared to the Earth-only scenario, as Eden can start much earlier and can be in more places. This is because Earth had to be much calmer than Eden to host the last half-billion years of fragile multi-cellular life. These few seeded planets might be the only ones with life in the million nearest galaxies.

Once seeded, Earth and its sibling planets would then compete to complete the remaining not-so-hard steps required to reach advanced life. If one of those planets succeeded before Earth, then it would host close but rare aliens, who share a lot of biology detail (e.g., DNA) with Earth. Those aliens could have then searched out their sibling planets, found Earth, and then waited perhaps millions of years for civilization to appear here. These aliens had several good practical reasons for coming here in time to see us now up close.

Positing that the aliens behind UFOs come from just one nearby sibling planet, with the nearest other aliens many galaxies away, makes it easier to believe that these aliens have successfully imposed sufficiently-strong self-limits on expansion and on tech advance, leaving the empty universe we see.


2. World Government – Over the last few centuries, one of the most consistent world trends has been an increase in human organization size and complexity, with more functions and decisions drifting up to higher levels. We have developed both better networks and better hierarchical organizations. Plausibly this trend is behind most others; it seems to be the main driver of faster innovation, which is the main cause of more wealth, which drives most other trends.

A straightforward long-term prediction from this trend is “world” (really “civilization-wide”) government. After all, a few have come close to creating one via force, we now have a United Nations by consent, and regulators worldwide share an elite culture that creates a de facto world government on many issues. Stronger, more formal versions seem likely within centuries.

Within a star system, talk delays are modest, and it is easy to see and shoot at most anything, making a world government quite feasible there. However, world government is harder to start once independent self-sufficient colonies at other stars can grow as fast as at the home star system. Thus the existence of such colonies becomes a deadline for the creation of a world government. As near Earth this deadline seems likely to be met, that may also have happened for sibling star aliens.

The advantages of a world government will seem clear and compelling: a civilization that can better coordinate on global problems like war, pollution, and innovation. And that can better enforce widely-liked regulations. Also, global majorities will be eager to impose their will on global minorities, and lock down their temporary advantages via a permanent world government.

By its very nature, a world government reduces innovation and adaptation in, but also promotes the stability of, the largest scale civilization structures. An advanced star-system-wide civilization probably has a large enough base of knowledge and resources, and a stable enough environment, for this tradeoff to promote stability over many millions of years. Thus the fact that aliens have lasted for millions of years also suggests that they have a world government.


3. Moral Ideology – While pre-human primate groups were held together mainly by kin and alliances, human groups could be larger due to social norms, which were enabled by human weapons and language. Social norms have also aided our other more recent methods of social organization. As norms matter more in collective politics than in private life, a world government would gain legitimacy and stability by more strongly supporting widely-held moral norms.

Thus a world with a world government is likely to impose more stronger regulations in support of widely-held moral intuitions. And in an era of rapidly changing technology often in tension with moral intuitions that evolved in prior tech eras, that may result in substantial limitations on tech. Sibling star alien world governments might ban advanced artificial intelligence, brain emulations, or nuclear-powered space ships. They might also insist on preserving their biological bodies.

By using strong surveillance, embedded political officers, and using the threat of destruction from a distance, a world government might hope to keep control over a rapidly expanding sphere of interstellar colonies. But surely such control is far easier if substantial interstellar colonies are simply banned. Independent colonies would threaten not only the relative status of the current world government leaders and polity, but they’d also threaten to allow evasion of morally-treasured regulations.

Thus aliens with a world government might limit expansion, and also tech, not just to support environmental and anti-colonialism type ideologies, but also to preserve the relative status of locals and their ability to impose civilization-wide regulations. We have often seen similar behavior in human history, when secure isolated local regimes have discouraged contact with outsiders. The fact that aliens have not yet destroyed us also suggests that they have moral ideologies.

In a very long-lived civilization with a stable world government, the high-level organization of government and its key principles and regulations might become so stable that other structures of that civilization evolve to match them more often than the government evolves to match other structures. The government becomes like a mountain, where life adapts to behave differently at the mountain’s foot versus near its peak. So over millions of years the intuitions and practices of individuals and local groups may well evolve differently to match different parts of the stable world government with which they most strongly interact.


4. Complex System Rot – Since the origin of life, competition has been the main driver of adaptation and innovation. Yes, cooperation has been important, but it is competition that has designed and promoted cooperation. While genetic forms of competition once dominated, cultural competition now matters more. Individuals and their practices compete within organizations, while organizations and their practices also compete for members, customers, investors, and more.

Across this long history, individual organisms, species, human organizations, and even empires have consistently tended to “rot”. That is, their long-lasting materials and structures slowly decay, becoming less flexible and more fragile, until they simply die or are eaten or displaced by rivals. This continues to happen today even with software and legal systems, as they try to adapt to new circumstances, and it happens even when their materials do not decay. It is competition that has corrected for this tendency to rot, by ensuring that simpler more general robust structures are available to replace failing fragile versions.

A civilization lasting for millions of years with a stable ideological world government preventing most expansion and tech innovation seems to me a recipe for high level system rot. New agencies, rules, and regulations would slowly accumulate on top of old ones, instead of being sufficiently culled, refactored, or reorganized. Agency growth and changes would have been often made to suit local ambitions instead of external needs, often using newly invented moral imperatives.

In our limited Earth history, we have often seen spectacular waste by stable secure empires, religious authorities, and secure monopolistic firms. Each example has found ways to spin stories justifying its waste, stories accepted by many observers. Observers have also often believed decaying organizations who claimed that they had not yet lost any flexibility or generality, claims only clearly disproved when they were displaced by rival competitors.

Over millions of years, an ancient alien world government would accumulate far worse wasteful habits, and yet always offer semi-plausible if tortured justifications, stories not so far clearly disproved by competitors. They would proudly tell themselves that they are still flexible and general, and up to most any challenge. But they’d be lying to themselves.


5. Putting it all together – So here is my best scenario to explain UFOs as aliens. I’m not saying it is good enough to let us believe that some UFOs are more likely than not aliens. I’m just saying that it is the best I’ve been able to come up with. You judge how good.

Life started long ago on Eden, which then seeded both Earth and our siblings’ home planet. Their home is somewhere in our galaxy, and yet they are the nearest aliens for a million galaxies. For many millions of years, they’ve had a stable world government enforcing ideologically-justified regulations limiting expansion, tech innovation, and perhaps much more. Local intuitions and practices have long since adapted to this stable mountain; it feels to them very legitimate.

This world government made an exception to its expansion bans to allow trips to sibling planets hosting life, and allowed the development of whatever tech that required. This was done in support of key ideologies, which is probably why they haven’t destroyed us, and yet they plan to make sure we obey their regulations on expansion and tech innovation. And data on us may help prepare them to meet other aliens. (They may or may not believe they will eventually meet future grabby aliens.)

This long trip, and their management of Earth, is a task calling for great generality and flexibility, which their government mostly lacks, though it claims otherwise. Worse, their fear of allowing an expansion escape led them to tightly control this expedition. So most key choices have been made ahead of time, and aliens here at Earth are kept on a tight leash, dependent on resources and equipment shipped from home.

These aliens long ago made their plans for how to monitor Earth civilization, and how to control it if that became necessary, and they built and shipped equipment and resources here based on that plan. Local alien administrators here have little discretion, are watched by local political officers, and have very limited abilities to make equipment or to collect resources beyond their pre-anticipated needs.

In drug regulation on Earth today, we have an ideology wherein conclusions drawn from observations are declared insufficient; one must also have proper government-managed “experiments.” If these aliens have a similar epistemological ideology, they would plan to observe Earth hidden safely from a distance, but they’d also need to periodically “poke” the locals and watch reactions. Alternatively, they might have an ideology of “touch”, wherein they couldn’t in good conscious control us unless they had before touched us “directly” somehow.

So, maybe, this was the safest most robust plan they could come up with to touch/poke us, when planning long ago back on their home planet: They poke us via making local disturbances in air or water by sending dark beams from safely hidden orbital projectors.

At a controlled distance, these beams can cause glowing balls of air, or smooth surfaces. (These can cause radar reflections, burn marks on the ground, and even sounds.) Their orbiting projectors would be safe from retaliation by Earthlings who would at first not even notice the beams, and who later would find it hard to trace those beams back to their orbital origins. And even finding those projectors probably doesn’t find the weapons by which they stand ready to destroy us if we get out of control.

So long ago these aliens sent to Earth equipment for installing telescopes, beam projectors, and weapons in orbit around Earth. All supplied with energy, covered to remain unseen, and with supports to keep them running for eons. And the main thing that aliens have done since their arrival is to maintain these facilities, and process the info collected.

These local administrators send regular and positive TPS reports back home regardless of how well things are actually going. The local aliens are likely bad at interpreting all the info they collect, their home world is bad at judging the quality of their efforts, and also at incentivizing such efforts. Thus maybe they not have learned much so far, and may not even be able to understand our electronic traffic that they can hear from space. They may not have detectors on the ground tapping into communications here.

Maybe the fastest that their economy grew back on their home planet, before it slowed down due to regulations, was much slower than the Earth economy is growing now. So they never really planned much for how to react to the rapid change that we are undergoing here now. Local administrators keep sending TPS reports back home, doing the scheduled UFO projector runs, and keeping their fingers nervously on their weapons buttons. But like most government administrators, they are terrified of having to take the initiative to make a big decision, and so would rather wait until the choice becomes completely obvious.

If this all sounds implausibly incompetent to you, consider that if many UFOs are in fact aliens, the U.S. military and many militaries around the world have in fact been spectacularly incompetent at considering UFO reports and studying the threats that they imply. Yet these militaries existed in an era of competition and a burst of UFO reports started during a major war (WII) during which militaries had rapidly evolved to become more competent. Imagine how worse would be a military with a secure budget but no actual war for a million years.

You might think that all this alien incompetence would give humans a fighting chance to defy these aliens and break out of their control. Possibly, but probably not. They probably do have their finger on the big kill-all-humans button, and that button probably does actually work. We might have a chance to sneak off and start a distant stealthy interstellar colony, but that also seems damn hard.

But if aliens behind UFOs are incompetent at understanding us and communicating with us, that sounds like bad news for our ability to learn and abide by their rules. It would be nice if they had some effective plan for integrating us into their world, beyond than pushing the button on us when we cross some line. But I wouldn’t count on that.

Note that not all of the elements of the story I’ve just told are strictly necessary to explain the stylized facts I’ve outlined. Those extra story elements are indicated by words like “maybe”, and are added to help you see potential implications of this story. If you don’t like my story, what story would you tell to explain all these stylized facts, not just one or two?

Note also that I’ve told this story twice before, though this version is more elaborate.

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UFO Stylized Social Facts

Even though many or even most UFO sightings are best explained as delusions, hoaxes, and ordinary stuff misunderstood, there appears to be a large remnant (>1000) that are much harder to explain, and which show consistent patterns. Such as ~30-1000 second episodes peaking near ~9pm (tied to local sideral time), at random spatial locations, of quiet lights or objects in the sky with intelligent purposes and amazing speeds and accelerations. Sometimes confirmed by many people and recorded by many instruments.

If they aren’t delusions, hoaxes, or misunderstandings, the main remaining explanations are a) some sort of secret society or agency that arose on and is tied to Earth, or b) some sort of aliens. I’m not saying its aliens, but in this post, it’s aliens. That is, here I want to “go there”, and think about how best to explain UFOs, if they are in fact aliens.

Many have worked on trying to explain UFOs in terms of their immediate physical effects. I kinda like “laser pointers for cats” style theories wherein aliens in orbit send beams to paint a local disturbance, while using telescopes to watch local reactions. But these details aren’t that important for whether we believe that UFOs are aliens, as aliens would almost surely be a lot more advanced than us, and so plausibly capable of a wide range of such approaches.

No, it seems obvious to me that the main reason that most resist believing that UFOs are aliens (or secret societies for that matter) is the apparent implausibility of the social thesis. We find it hard to integrate this hypothesis with the rest of our social world views. That is, with our views on what agents can exist, how they are socially organized, and the sorts of behaviors that we expect of social agents within particular kinds of organizations. If aliens are around, why haven’t they made more direct contact, or built more obvious stuff, or traded with us, or conquered or killed us?

If the main block to believing in UFOs as aliens is a lack of a plausible enough social theory of aliens, then it seems a shame that almost no one who studies UFOs is a social science theorist. As I’m such a person, why don’t I step in and try to help? If we can find a more plausible social theory, we could become more willing to believe that UFOs are aliens. And if we can’t, we can at least confirm more expertly that the usual reluctance is justified; the social theories you’d have to invoke are so crazy unlikely that yeah, we gotta attribute UFOs to delusions, hoaxes, and misunderstandings, no matter what our eyes and instruments seem to say.

In social science, we often prepare for theorizing about a topic by first summarizing its “stylized facts”. These are key data patterns in need of explanation, phrased in language that is closer to theory. In this post, I will attempt this “stylized fact” exercise for UFOs-as-aliens. In my next post I’ll take my shot at explaining them. Here are three key stylized facts:


1. LIMITATION – The very idea that UFOs are aliens, rather than a secret society on Earth, implies either a completely independent origin from us, or that any common ancestor was long ago. (~100Myr+.) So unless aliens civilizations are very short-lived, then any modest randomness in the timing along either evolutionary path implies that one of us reached our current level of civilization millions of years before the other. And since we just got here, it must be they who reached our level millions of years ago.

(Note that having a civilization last for many millions of years is itself quite an achievement. Which raises obvious questions: what sort of genetic, cultural, organizational, etc. changes were required to achieve that, and at what cost came such longevity?)

If UFOs on Earth are aliens from elsewhere, then there are in fact aliens out there, who can and do travel between the stars. Because here they are, aliens who have actually traveled between the stars. So right off the bat we must reject theories that say that such travel is impossible or crazy impractical. Or that some motivational convergence ensures that advanced life almost never does actually travel.

Now put these two facts together: they’ve been around for millions of years, and they can and do travel between the stars. With millions of years and this same tech they used to get here, they could have gone everywhere. The big dramatic implication: they could have remade the universe, or at least a big chunk including our galaxy, but have not done so. Somehow they have self-limited their expansion.

(Note that in addition to limiting their expansion, aliens behind UFOS also seem to have limited their tech; UFO tech seems advanced, but not 100Myr+ level advanced.)

Now one possibility that I want to note, and set aside, is that the universe is in fact chock full of aliens who have in fact remade it, but that we are fooled to see otherwise by crazy advanced tech wielded by a vast tightly-coordinated alien conspiracy based on arbitrary inscrutable motives. Like theories of powerful intrusive gods and simulation managers with arbitrary inscrutable motives, it is not that such theories are impossible, but that they offer little room for structured analysis. I see little to gain from discussing them.

Stylized fact #1: UFO aliens are very old, and could have remade universe, but some self-limit stops them.


2. CORRELATION – This failure to remake the universe gets more puzzling the more common are aliens in space and time. If UFOs-as-aliens are as thick on all planets at all times as they are here and now, then there must be a crazy huge number of well-hidden alien facilities out there where UFO equipment is made, repaired, refueled, staffed, etc. All strongly limited to ensure that it never remakes its local universe.

Worse, there have been literally an astronomical number of opportunities for any one deviant alien to start to remake its local universe. If a deviation could last long enough, to acquire enough local resources and power, other aliens would have a hard time shutting it down without also acquiring similar levels of local resources, and thus also remaking their local universe. Even if some sort of local conformity pressure tends to stop most deviations, that pressure has to be crazy extreme reliable to work everywhere always in a vast densely populated universe.

The simplest way to resolve this puzzle is to posit that aliens are in fact pretty rare, and that they coordinate to preserve that rarity. After all, the fewer are the possible alien travel events, the higher of a deviant event chance that we can tolerate in our theory of their behavior.

(If aliens are very short-lived, then there have to be even huger numbers of them for one to be here now, requiring an even more crazily-low chance of any of them allowing any deviations.)

Besides perhaps interstellar travel being impractical, advanced life arising very extremely rarely is the simple story most of us most start out with to explain our empty universe. And even if one must postulate that aliens are only extremely rare, not very extremely rare, to explain humanity’s early arrival in the universe, that still means aliens are so rare that we won’t meet them for roughly a billion years.

But for aliens that rare we have a different problem: why are they right here right now, but almost nowhere else? Something has caused a huge correlation between them and us, so that even though aliens are rare enough for their facilities to stay hidden, and even though they have created local pressures to ensure that they only rarely travel or have opportunities to try to remake the universe, they’ve made an exception for traveling to be with us here now.

The rarer are such aliens, the more time they’d need to get here from where they started. So either they’ve been around for a very long time, and decided to come here based on what Earth looked like a very long time ago, or they happened to start very close to us, a remarkable spatial coincidence in need of explanation.

Stylized fact #2: UFO aliens are rare and self-limited, and yet are here now.


3. INDIRECTION –  We can think of a number of plausible practical motives for rare self-limited aliens to make an exception to visit us. First, they may fear us as rivals, and so want to track us and stand ready to defend against us. Second, if their limitation policies are explicit and intentional, then they’d anticipate our possibly violating them, and so want to stand ready nearby to enforce their limitation policies on us.

In either of these two cases, aliens might want to show us their power, and even make explicit threats, to deter us from causing problems. And note the big the question of why they don’t just destroy us, instead of waiting around. A third possible motive that can explain this is that the origins of independent aliens like us are a rare valuable datapoint to them on far-more-capable aliens who they may fear eventually meeting. In this case they’d probably want to stay hidden longer, and then maybe destroy us later.

Note that all of these motive theories suggest a substantial ability of these aliens to organize and plan actions on the basis of such abstract, collective, and long-term considerations. A very decentralized alien society might not be capable of it, nor perhaps of maintaining whatever pressures prevent their own travel and remaking the universe.

The most striking fact about UFO encounter events is how little they seem to accomplish, not for any of these goals, nor for any other easily identifiable practical goals. Advanced aliens could surely monitor us sufficiently from a distance unseen, and to control us via commands or threats would require much more direct contact. These UFO events don’t help them collect useful info or resources, nor do they much limit or expand our info, powers, or resources. Yes they show some of us that the universe can look weird, but surely they know that we know that fact regardless.

Now we humans are widely known to often act on indirect motives, not tied very closely to simple direct practical outcomes. Many animals “play.” Human ancestors who did things for “symbolic” reasons are often seen as especially “advanced”. People today often have “obsessions” that make them spend far more on some things than practical ends can explain. Lazy secure organizations are at times quite “wasteful”, doing things that pretend to achieve practical ends, but in fact achieve them at best quite ineffectively. And I’ve recently coauthored a book on how common are hidden motives in humans today; many things we do just don’t much accomplish the goals to which we give lip service, like learning at schools, and healing at hospitals.

So it isn’t crazy to think that aliens might have indirect obsessive lazy motives for UFO encounters, motives hidden perhaps even from themselves. But this case, of overcoming the usual coordinated limits to fly to a distant star just to glow-buzz their treetops, seems spectacularly extravagant even by the standards of dreamtime humans today.

To do this, aliens need a sufficient level of “slack” resources available to spend on such symbolic activities. And even with hidden motives and lazy organizations, we humans usually at least make up vague stories about practical ends served by our actions, even when such stories don’t stand up to close scrutiny. So a decent theory of aliens should explain their level of slack, and suggest some ideas for what stories aliens are telling themselves about the ends they accomplish via UFO encounters. And why they haven’t just destroyed us.

Stylized fact #3: Alien-driven UFO encounters accomplish little, yet must somehow be justified to them. 


And those are the key stylized facts that a social theory of aliens must explain. Again, it is the lack of seeing a sufficiently plausible explanation of such facts that is why most are reluctant to believe in UFOs-as-aliens. (Yes, many are not so reluctant, but mostly because they don’t understand enough to be puzzled.)

Added 31Mar: My explanation attempt is here.

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Given Our Date, Is Sun Birth Late?

In our grabby aliens paper, we use a simple model that predicts the appearance of advanced life in terms of when habitable stars are formed, how long they last, and the hard steps power law of when advanced life appears within a planetary habitable lifetime window. We showed that this is well approximated by a power law during grabby alien birthdates, and that humanity looks quite early relative to its predictions.

Using this same model, we can also ask: how early or late is the sun’s birthdate, given our current appearance date?  This graph shows the percentage of dates that are after our sun’s birthdate of 9.23Gyr, for stars that give rise to advanced life at 13.77Gyr:

Unless the max planet lifetime is very short, our Sun’s birthdate starts to look substantially late for powers above about five. So either the power is below five, or panspermia happened, in which case Earth’s star had to come later to come after the earlier star of Eden. And in which. case, the power is probably high, as it would be the sum of hard steps on both Earth and Eden.

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Are Expansive Aliens Obvious?

In our 3 parameter model of where are the grabby aliens in space and time, each parameter can be estimated using existing data: our current date, the dates of major events in Earth history, and the fact that we don’t see aliens clearly visible in our sky.

That last “fact” might seem most open to question, so what if we reject it? Well if we still assume that we would have noticed being directly inside a grabby-controlled volume, then our model still applies. That is, we would still know where grabby aliens are distributed in time, and they’d be distributed the same shape in space, except that their density in space rises by a factor of one thousand for every factor of ten by which their speed falls.

Instead of our usual assumption, that we would have by now noticed differences between volumes controlled or not by grabby aliens, we’d be in a world where they make their spherical-until-meeting volumes look only subtly different, a difference that we have not yet noticed.

In this case, there could be hope for astronomers to search the sky for subtle circular borders in the sky between GC volumes and surrounding volumes. The next two graphs show, as a function of power n and speed ratio s/c, distributions over how many such volumes there would be in the sky, and their total length in radians of their borders on the sky. (The maximum length of a circle on the sky is 2π radians.)

These distributions are mainly due to varying birthdate; earlier civilizations see fewer others in their sky.

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Power Laws Approximate Appearance

Feb. 1, we posted our first grabby aliens working paper, and yesterday we just posted our first revision, which is 85% longer:

If Loud Aliens Explain Human Earliness, Quiet Aliens Are Also Rare

Robin Hanson, Daniel Martin, Calvin McCarter, Jonathan Paulson

The hard-steps model of advanced life timing suggests humans have arrived early. Our explanation: “grabby” civilizations (GC), who expand fast and long, and change their volumes’ appearances, set an early deadline. If we might soon become grabby, today is near a sample GC birthdate. Fast GC expansion explains why we do not see them. Each of our three model parameters is estimable from data, allowing detailed GC predictions. If GCs arise from non-grabby civilizations (NGCs), a depressingly low transition chance (~10^-4) seems required to expect even one other NGC ever active in our galaxy.

After we learned that Jay Olson had previously said many of the things that we said, we went looking for new things to say. One of them is results on the tension between optimism for our future and optimism for SETI. I’ll describe some more additions in posts soon.

We also fixed some minor errors. And while before we just claimed that a simple power law well approximates the appearance function for advanced life, this time we got around to showing it:

These graphs show the % error between a more realistic model for the timing of advanced life, and a best approximating power law. That % error is averaged over the actual times when grabby aliens would appear according to that power law, assuming that humans today have a certain rank within that distribution. The error seems quite acceptable, <~10%, for powers of 2 or more.

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Do Foo Fighters Show Our Snafu Fubar Future?

Many of our institutions are prodigiously wasteful. Under the feel-good veneer of win-win cooperation— teaching kids, healing the sick, celebrating creativity—our institutions harbor giant, silent furnaces of intra-group competitive signaling, where trillions of dollars of wealth, resources, and human effort are being shoveled in and burned to ash every year, largely for the purpose of showing off. Now our institutions do end up achieving many of their official, stated goals, but they’re often rather inefficient because they’re simultaneously serving other purposes no one is eager to acknowledge. (More)

Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable and baffling astronomical calculator that survives from the ancient world. The hand-powered, 2,000-year-old device … Salvaged from a merchant ship … off the Greek island of Antikythera. … en route to Rome from Asia Minor. … unclear how the ancient Greeks would have manufactured such components. … If … capable of such mechanical devices, what else did they do with the knowledge? … odd that nothing remotely similar has been found or dug up. … If they had the tech to make the Antikythera mechanism, why did they not extend this tech to devising other machines, such as clocks?” (More)

Between 1405 and 1433, Ming China sent out seven gigantic naval expeditions … traveled along the Indian Ocean trade routes as far as Arabia and the coast of East Africa, but in 1433, the government suddenly called them off. … not engaged in a voyage of exploration, … Chinese already knew about the ports and countries [visited]. … not sailing out in search of trade. … merchants were considered to be among the lowliest members of society. … meant to display Chinese might … intended to shock and awe. … Why did the Ming halt these voyages in 1433, and either burn the great fleet in its moorings or allow it to rot (depending upon the source)? … Emperor, was much more conservative and Confucianist in his thought, so he ordered the voyages stopped. … In addition to political motivation, the new emperor had financial motivation. (more)

FUBAR (Fucked/Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition/Recovery/ Any Repair/All Reason), like SNAFU and SUSFU, dates from World War II. … “Fucked Up By Assholes in the Rear”. … FUBAR had a resurgence in the American lexicon after the term was used in two popular movies: Tango and Cash (1989); and Saving Private Ryan (1998). … survived WWII and for a time, mainly in the 1970s, found its way into the lexicon of management consultants. (More)

The first sightings occurred in November 1944, when pilots flying over Germany by night reported seeing fast-moving round glowing objects following their aircraft. The objects were variously described as fiery, and glowing red, white, or orange. Some pilots described them as resembling Christmas tree lights and reported that they seemed to toy with the aircraft, making wild turns before simply vanishing. Pilots and aircrew reported that the objects flew formation with their aircraft and behaved as if under intelligent control, but never displayed hostile behavior. However, they could not be outmaneuvered or shot down. The phenomenon was so widespread … for the most part called “foo-fighters”. The military took the sightings seriously, suspecting that the mysterious sightings might be secret German weapons, but further investigation revealed that German and Japanese pilots had reported similar sightings. … Their behavior did not appear to be threatening. (More)

With this title and these quotes, can you see where I’m going with this? If not, keep reading.

Over the last few months I’ve put much time into modeling “grabby” aliens, who expand far and fill up the universe. They must appear very rarely, but they still have enormous consequences when they do. Most people seem to think there are thousands of times more less-capable non-grabby civilizations out there, who only rarely birth grabby descendants. Big enough to call “advanced civilizations”, yet who somehow almost always instead die or permanently prevent their parts from expanding fast.

Yet its damn hard to permanently kill advanced life. Even if a supernova were to boil all Earth oceans, extremophiles would still survive in deeper rocks, and they could re-evolve multicellular life within the 1.1Gyr it still has left to exist on Earth. Triggering all the nukes on Earth, by comparison, probably wouldn’t even kill all humans, much less all big brain mammals. So how do 999 out of 1000 advanced civilizations never allow any parts that expand freely? I just honestly can’t see how self-destruction can account for most of these.

As I’ve gotten older one of the biggest things I’ve learned is just how inefficient and messed up our world often is. Sure, the younger me expected there was a lot of that, but it is so so much worse than I thought. Most of what we spend on education and medicine is wasted, and probably also in charity and finance. Most billion dollar projects are massive wastes. And government is worse, especially re over-regulation and lack of innovation. The military is consistently quite visibly “fucked up” and far from efficient even in wartime; imagine what it must be in peacetime without pressures to win. Via something close to a world government in highly coordinating regulatory elite cultures, the world has refused to release the vast potential of nuclear energy, or even to let a few hundred people do challenge trials to save millions of lives in a pandemic. Eliezer Y. is quite right; our world is chock full of “inadequate equilibria.”

Now consider the fact that one of the strongest trends over the last few centuries, and likely the driving trend behind all the others, is an increase in organization size and complexity, with more functions and decisions drifting up to higher levels. The obvious long term prediction from that is world government, for whom competitive pressures to innovate and be efficient get much weaker.

That is roughly what we saw in China when it saw few outside threats and was centrally run for centuries. Remember their famous turning back from outside contact, of which they were very technically capable, due in part to internal culture and politics. And recall the amazing Antikythera tech, apparently never used for so many obvious-to-us applications.

Finally, consider UFOs, also called “foo fighters” during WWII, and now often called UAPs. If they really do represent aliens more advanced than us, these aliens seem amazingly incompetent and to have squandered literally-astronomical potential. If common UFO reports are to be believed, their abilities don’t seem to change with time like ours do, they have sometimes crashed and died here, and they have retained fragile biological bodies.

If they are trying to hide from us, or trying to show themselves to us, either way they are failing badly. Electronics often stops functioning near them, at night they often shine brightly and shine lights on other things, and are not camouflaged. Their timing and locations are supposedly to be explained a lot by their wanting to observe our military and nukes, but why couldn’t they view that stuff from a much further hidden vantage point?

And the most dramatic fact about any aliens behind UFOs: they have not remade the universe, nor even anywhere near our little corner of it. Yet if they were everywhere in the universe as common as they are here, how could none of them ever do big stuff?

To put this all together: what if the natural future path of a civilization like ours is much larger organizations, including a strong world government with lots of strong regulation that stifles innovation and many useful applications of available tech. It prevents war, which has long been a big driver, perhaps the main driver, of efficiency and innovation. All of which greatly amps up the SNAFU and FUBAR trends that even today burn up most all resources in huge inefficiency furnaces. Some techs improve in some ways, but in big important tech categories progress just stops or reverses.

They get tech to move in space, but central powers wary and jealous of colonization rivals lock down and cut most innovation, especially re interstellar colonization. Which is so damn expensive at first that they hardly need to try, but by the time travel to stars becomes feasible the regulatory culture has had a very long time to lock in its policies deep. Yeah that seems crazy from a distance, but look at all our FUBAR stuff up close and tell me this can’t happen.

Yes, if aliens like this were near most stars, surely just a few of them would escape this fate, which would be far more of them than fit into our grabby aliens framework. So any aliens we see around us must be quite rare, and so their correlation in being here can’t be accidental. As I’ve suggested before, maybe they were born at a star also born in our sun’s stellar nursery, a nursery seeded via panspermia, and they reached star travel before we did and went out hunting for life at their star’s siblings, the only other advanced life for a million galaxies around. They then made sure no sibling civilizations defied their dominance and anti-expansion regulations.

This isn’t a pretty picture. Not remotely pretty. But in a world as fucked up as ours, might it be that these sort of dysfunctions just get a lot lot worse? Sure, eventually there should be a few competent aliens, grabby ones, who do take over the universe. Competence wins in the end. But might it not be just a bit arrogant to assume that we are almost ready to join that club?

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