Tag Archives: Future

Would UFO Aliens Be Our Gods?

In ancient societies, leaders and elites gained legitimacy in the minds of the masses via impressive displays of clothes, music, furniture, food, buildings, parades, etc., which made more plausible their claims to actually be a higher class of creatures. Religions also gained legitimacy by claiming to represent even higher classes of creatures, i.e., gods, with which they also associated impressive luxury displays. The masses worshipped and obeyed these leaders and gods, and deferred to their judgment.

One of the main reasons that we less worship and defer to such leaders and gods today is that we know more about them; we see leaders as less clearly superior, and gods as less clearly existing. But we are still the same sort of humans as the ancients, and so are capable of their actions, should we share their beliefs.

Which brings us to an interesting hypothetical I will now consider: What if the world soon comes to a general consensus that some UFOs actually are aliens? And what if our direct physical relation to these aliens doesn’t change much? That is, they still don’t talk to us, we only see them rarely, and we don’t find their “bases”, their origins, or figure out any of their tech. And what if this situation persists for another century, or for many centuries?

In this postulated scenario, I think the main way that our world changes is this: in our minds, these UFO aliens take over the top of our status hierarchy; we see them as the top dog in our “pack”. And as status is a big deal to us social animals, this ends up being a big deal.

The first obvious implication is that acting or looking alien-like would start to become higher status. Hovering, fast movement and acceleration, bright fuzzy lights, making no sounds, geometric shapes, and smooth shiny surfaces without protuberances. Because that’s just how status works; if aliens are high status, we want to look like them.

Some would fall in status as a result of aliens being top status. The highest would fall, as would those who seemed to have opposed them, such as governments who lied about them and elite academics who dismissed them. We’d also see our familiar human elites and leaders as less in charge of our long term future.

We’d guess that these aliens have some agendas, and so even if they haven’t actually done much yet, they may well intervene in some scenarios. Maybe we’d worry less about killing ourselves, if we think they’d stop that. And if aliens don’t seem worried that our AI experiments might create super-intelligences that suddenly explode to remake the universe, maybe we would worry less about that too.

We would gossip a lot trying to guess alien priorities, priorities we’d be reluctant to visibly resist. We’d more want to adopt their priorities as our priorities, because, again, that is just how status works. Just as people in firms gossip a lot about CEO priorities, and as courtiers of a king gossip a lot about king priorities. They gossip, and also try to pretend that the CEO/king priorities always were their own deepest priorities.

People do seem to believe that they can guess UFO alien motives. In a recent poll, 65.2% of respondents guessed that these aliens main motive for visiting Earth is to “study us as independent example of life evolution.” Which is a pretty high status motive, you have to admit.

We also have more direct evidence. First, aliens must be very old and stable, so they less want or experience innovation and change compared to us. Second, they aren’t remaking the universe much around here, or anywhere we can see, yet such remaking would have happened naturally unless they had coordinated strongly to prevent it. Thus they must have a strong “world” government, and also a policy of preventing mass colonization and remaking of the universe.

They haven’t killed us yet, and they also let us see them, so they can’t feel very threatened by us at our current level. Also, they refuse to talk to us, so they don’t respect us that much, and aren’t that interested in running the details of our world or our lives, or in converting us to their beliefs. In a great many ways, we are just “beneath” them.

Now when humans treat us like this, we are often offended, and expect observers to support our outrage. For example, 81% of respondents said that a small nation should see it an insult if the US refused to respond in any way to their request for a meeting. But only 36.6% of respondents said we should feel insulted if UFO aliens keep refusing to talk to us for another century. (Yet 52.3% said it would be an insult for a human to treat you like aliens are treating us now, in refusing to talk.)

This all suggests to me that we treat UFO aliens as very high status. You are far more likely to be offended if your sister refused to talk to you, relative to Bill Gates refusing to talk, as you accept that Gates is much higher status than you or your sister. Similarly, even though UFO aliens have come to visit our home, and are showing off their vast abilities, which they must know makes us nervous, most still don’t think we should be offended by their refusing to talk to us. Perhaps because they are as gods to us?

As the aliens have a world government, we’d be more inclined to give substantial powers to a world organization through which we study and deal with them. We’d also be more inclined to limit our physical and tech expansion, as the aliens seem to have also done this. We’d be more willing to slow down our rates of innovation and change, as aliens seem okay with this in their society. And we’d be more okay with just ignoring and refusing to talk to humans we see as beneath us, like the aliens seem to do with us. We’d also be less eager to preach and proselytize, as aliens don’t do that. Finally, if we keep thinking that aliens are mainly here to study us, we’ll be more eager to (from a distance) study other creatures of all sorts.

Of course not everyone would be eager fans of the aliens. Some would resent their ignoring us, and seek to resist their presumed dominance. In fact, being pro- or anti-aliens might become a big new axis of political orientation. Maybe even the main one. For every other existing political axis, we’d ask ourselves which side is more naturally the pro- or anti-alien side. Even regarding racism.

To me this isn’t that pretty a picture overall. But the universe doesn’t consult me before it paints its pictures, and I will first try to see what it has painted, before I think about how I might change it, if that became possible.

Yes, many of these predictions might apply if alien behavior did change after we became convinced of them. But hard to say more without knowing more about in what ways their behavior changes. For example, if they acted more hostile we might not see them as top dog in our pack, but as a powerful enemy pack.

Note that this scenario seems to work out well for the aliens, which seems to vindicate their choice to not talk yet also not completely hide. Maybe that isn’t as crazy and a priori unlikely a strategy as many claim.

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Theories Of Unnatural Selection

In my career I’ve worked in an unusually large number of academic disciplines: physics, computer science, social science, psychology, engineering, and philosophy. But on a map of academic disciplines, where fields that cite each other often are put closer together, all my fields are clumped together on one side. The fields furthest away from my clump, on the opposite side, are biology, biochemistry, and medicine.

It seems to me that my fields tend to emphasize relatively general theory and abstraction, while the opposite fields tend to have far fewer useful abstractions, and instead have a lot more detail to master. People tend to get sorted into fields based on part on their ability and taste for abstractions, and the people I’ve met who do biochemistry and medicine tend to have amazing abilities to recall relevant details, but they also tend to be pretty bad at abstractions. For example they often struggle with simple cost-benefit analysis and statistical inference.

All of which is to say that biologists tend to be bad at abstraction. This tends to make them bad at thinking about the long-term future, where abstraction is crucial. For example, I recently reviewed The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy, wherein a zoologist says that aliens we meet would be much like us, even though they’d be many millions of years more advanced than us, apparently assuming that our descendants will not noticeably change in the next few million years.

And in a new book The Next 500 Years, a geneticist recommends that we take the next few centuries to genetically engineer humans to live in on other planets, apparently unaware that our descendants will most likely be artificial (like ems), who won’t need planets in particular except as a source of raw materials. These two books have been reviewed in prestigious venues, by prestigious biology reviewers who don’t mention these to-me obvious criticisms. Suggesting that our biological elites are all pretty bad at abstraction.

This is a problem because it seems to me we need biologists good at abstraction to help us think about the future. Let me explain.

Computers will be a big deal in the future, even more so than today. Computers will be embedded in and control most all of our systems. So to think well about the future, we need to think think well about very large and advanced computer systems. And since computers allow our many systems to be better integrated, overall all our systems will be larger, more complex, more connected, and more smartly controlled. So to think about the future we need to think well about very large, smart, and complex integrated systems.

Economics will also remain very important in the future. These many systems will be mostly designed, built, and maintained by for-profit firms who sell access to them. These firms will compete to attract customers, investors, workers, managers, suppliers, and complementary products. They will be also taxed and regulated by complex governments. And the future economy will be much larger, making room for more and larger such firms, managing those larger more complex products. So to think well about the future we need to think well about a much larger more complex world of taxed and regulated firms competing to make and sell stuff.

We today have a huge legacy inheritance of designs and systems embedded in biology, systems that perform many essential functions, including supporting our bodies and minds. In the coming centuries, we will either transfer our minds to other more artificial substrates, or replace them entirely with new designs. At which point they won’t need biological bodies; artificial bodies will do fine. We will then either find ways to extract key biological machines and processes from existing biological systems, to use them flexibly as component processes where we wish, or we will replace those machines and processes with flexible artificial versions.

At that point, natural selection of the sort the Earth has seen for the last few billion years will basically come to an end. The universe that we reach by then will be still filled with a vast diversity of active and calculating objects competing to survive. But these objects will be designed not by inherited randomly mutating DNA, and will not be self-sufficient in terms of manufacturing and energy acquisition. They will instead be highly cooperative and interdependent objects, make by competing firms who draw design elements from a wide range of sources, most of them compensated for their contributions.

But even though biology as we know it will then be over, biological theory, properly generalized, should remain quite relevant. Because there will still be vast and rapid competition and selection, and so we will still need ways to think about how that will play out. Thus we need theorists to draw from our best understandings of systems, computers, economics, and biology, to create better ways to think about how all this combines to create a brave new world of unnatural selection.

And while I’ve seen at least glimmerings of such advances from people who think about computers, and from people who think about economics, I’ve yet to see much of anything from people who think about biology. So that seems to me our biggest missing hole here. And thus my plea in this post: please biological theorists, help us think about this. And please people who are thinking about which kind of theory to study, consider learning some biology theory, to help us fill this gap.

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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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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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Non-Grabby Legacies

Our descendants will have far more effects on the universe if they become grabby, and most of their expected effects come in that scenario. Even so, as I discussed in my last post, most see only a small chance for that scenario. So what if we remain a non-grabby civilization? What will be our long-term legacies then?

In roughly a billion years, grabby aliens should pass by here, and then soon change this whole area more to their liking. At that point, those grabby aliens will probably have never met any other grabby aliens, and will be very interested in estimating what they might be like, and especially what they might do when the two meet. And one of their main sources of concrete data will be the limited number of non-grabby alien civilizations that they have come across.

Which is all to say that these grabby aliens will be very interested in learning about us, and should be willing to pay substantial costs to do so. So in the unlikely event that our civilization could last the roughly billion years until they get here, those aliens would probably pay substantial costs to protect and preserve us, if that were the cost of learning about us. Of course if they had more advanced tech, they might have other less-fun-for-us ways to achieve that goal.

In the more likely case where we do not last that long, the grabby aliens who arrive here will be looking for any fossils or remnants that they could study. Stuff left here on the surface of the Earth probably won’t survive that long, but stuff left on the surface of geologically dead places like the moon or Mars might well. As could stuff left orbiting between the planets or stars.

Anticipating this outcome, some of us might try to leave data stores about us for them to find. Like we did on the Voyager spacecraft. As our long term legacy. And some of those folks might try to tie their personal revival to such stores. I’m not sure how it could be done, but if you could mix up the info they want with the info that specifies you as an em, maybe you could make it so that the easiest way for them to get the info they want is to revive you.

Of course if a great many people tried this trick, they might bid the “price” down very low. “They want you to revive them for a week to get your info; I only ask one day.” So elites might regulate who is allowed to leave legacy data stores, to keep this privilege to themselves.

Long before grabby aliens got here, they would pass through spacetime events where we’d be active on their past light cone. In fact, sending out a signal from here in most any direction should eventually hit some grabby aliens expanding in our direction. So if we could coordinate with them to send signals out just when they’d be looking at us (such as by sending signals following those from a cosmic explosion), we could tell them about us, and influence them, via such signals.

Some of us might want to try the trick of mixing up their em code with the info aliens want, to force their revival at the receiver end, but the bandwidth to send signals to be received in a 100Myr is rather small. However, as I’ve discussed before, one key function for such signals is that they can prove that they were sent on the date claimed. Later data stores found here are less trustworthy, as they could have been modified in the interim. So perhaps we could send out hash codes to verify datastores saved here now.

We could of course also tell them about any other non-grabby aliens we have discovered. But they’d probably already know about them, assuming they have vastly greater capabilities and tech at least as good as ours.

So is this an exciting legacy to you? A few stories about us that might help some other ambitious civilization calibrate how yet other ambitious civilizations will react upon meeting? No, well then maybe we should work on figuring out how to become grabby ourselves.

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Hail S. Jay Olson

Over the years I’ve noticed that grad students tend to want to declare their literature search over way too early. If they don’t find something in the first few places they look, they figure it isn’t there. Alas, they implicitly assume that the world of research is better organized than it is; usually a lot more search is needed.

Seems I’ve just made this mistake myself. Having developed a grabby aliens concept and searched around a bit I figured it must be original. But it turns out that in the last five years physicist S. Jay Olson has a whole sequence of seven related papers, most of which are published, and some which got substantial media attention at the time. (We’ll change our paper to cite these soon.)

Olson saw that empirical study of aliens gets easier if you focus on the loud (not quiet) aliens, who expand fast and make visible changes, and also if you focus on simple models with only a few free parameters, to fit to the few key datums that we have. Olson variously called these aliens “aggressively expanding civilizations”, “expanding cosmological civilizations”, “extragalactic civilizations”, and “visible galaxy-spanning civilizations”. In this post, I’ll call them “expansionist”, intended to include both his and my versions.

Olson showed that if we assume that humanity’s current date is a plausible expansionist alien origin date, and if we assume a uniform distribution over our percentile rank among such origin dates, then we can estimate two things from data:

  1. from our current date, an overall appearance rate constant, regarding how frequently expansionist aliens appear, and
  2. from the fact that we do not see grabby controlled volumes in our sky, their expansion speed.

Olson only required one more input to estimate the full distribution of such aliens over space and time, and that is an “appearance rate” function f(t), to multiply by the appearance rate constant, to obtain the rate at which expansionist aliens appear at each time t. Olson tried several different approaches to this function, based on different assumptions about the star formation rate and the rate of local extinction events like supernovae. Different assumptions made only make modest differences to his conclusions.

Our recent analysis of “grabby aliens”, done unaware of Olson’s work, is similar in many ways. We also assume visible long-expanding civilizations, we focus on a very simple model, in our case with three free parameters, and we fit two of them (expansion speed and appearance rate constant) to data in nearly the same way that Olson did.

The key point on which we differ is:

  1. My group uses a simple hard-steps-power-law for the expansionist alien appearance rate function, and estimates the power in that power law from the history of major evolutionary events on Earth.
  2. Using that same power law, we estimate humanity’s current date to be very early, at least if expansionist aliens do not arrive to set an early deadline. Others have estimated modest degrees of earliness, but they have ignored the hard-steps power law. With that included, we are crazy early unless both the power is implausibly low, and the minimum habitable star mass is implausibly large.

So we seem to have something to add to Olson’s thoughtful foundations.

Looking over the coverage by others of Olson’s work, I notice that it all seems to completely ignore his empirical efforts! What they mainly care about seems to be that his having published on the idea of expansionist aliens licensed them to speculate on the theoretical plausibility of such aliens: How physically feasible is it to rapidly expansion in space over millions of years? If physically feasible, is it socially feasible, and if that would any civilization actually choose it?

That is, those who commented on Olson’s work all acted as if the only interesting topic was the theoretical plausibility of his postulates. They showed little interest in the idea that we could confront a simple aliens model with data, to estimate the actual aliens situation out there. They seem stuck assuming that this is a topic on which we essentially have no data, and thus can only speculate using our general priors and theories.

So I guess that should become our central focus now: to get people to see that we may actually have enough data now to get decent estimates on the basic aliens situation out there. And with a bit more work we might make much better estimates. This is not just a topic for theoretical speculation, where everyone gets to say “but have you considered this other scenario that I just made up, isn’t it sorta interesting?”

Here are some comments via email from S. Jay Olson:

It’s been about a week since I learned than Robin Hanson had, in a flash, seen all the basic postulates, crowd-sourced a research team, and smashed through his personal COVID infection to present a paper and multiple public talks on this cosmology. For me, operating from the outskirts of academia, it was a roller coaster ride just to figure out what was happening.

But, what I found most remarkable in the experience was this. Starting from two basic thoughts — 1) some fraction of aliens should be high-speed expansionistic, and 2) their home galaxy is probably not a fundamental barrier to expansion — so many conclusions appear inevitable: “They” are likely a cosmological distance from us. A major fraction of the universe is probably saturated by them already. Sufficiently high tech assumptions (high expansion speed) means they are likely invisible from our vantage point. If we can see an alien domain, it will likely cover a shockingly large angle in the sky. And the key datum for prediction is our cosmic time of arrival. It’s all there (and more), in both lines of research.

Beyond that, Robin has a knack for forcing the issue. If their “hard steps model” for the appearance rate of life is valid (giving f(t) ~ t^n), there aren’t too many ways to solve humanity’s earliness problem. Something would need to make the universe a very different place in the near cosmic future, as far as life is concerned. A phase transition resulting in the “end of the universe” would do it — bad news indeed. But the alternative is that we are, literally, the phase transition.

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What Is At Stake?

In the traditional Christian worldview, God sets the overall path of human history, a history confined to one planet for a few thousand years. Individuals can choose to be on the side of good or evil, and maybe make a modest difference to local human experience, but they can’t change the largest story. That is firmly in God’s hands. Yet an ability to personally choose good or evil, or to make a difference to mere thousands of associates, seemed to be plenty enough to motivate most Christians to action.

In a standard narrative of elites today, the entire future of value in the universe sits our current collective hands. If we make poor choices today, such as about global warming or AI, we may soon kill ourselves and prevent all future civilization, forever destroying all sources of value. Or we might set our descendants down a permanently perverse path, so that even if they never go extinct they also never realize most of the universe’s great potential. And elites today tend to lament that these far grander stakes don’t seem to motivate many to action.

Humans seem to have arrived very early in the history of the universe, a fact that seems best explained by a looming deadline: grabby/aggressive aliens will control all the universe volume within a billion years, and so we had to show up before that deadline if we were to show up at all.

So now we have strong evidence that all future value in the universe does not sit in our hands. What does sit in our collective hands are:
A) the experiences of our descendants for roughly (within a factor of ten around) the next billion years, before they meet aliens, and
B) our influence on the larger mix of alien cultures in the eras after many alien civilizations meet and influence each other.

Now a billion years is in fact a very long time, a duration during which we could have an enormous number of descendants. So even that first part is a big deal. Just not as big a deal as many have been saying lately.

On the longer timescale, the question is not “will there be creatures who find their lives worth living?” We can be pretty assured that the universe will be full of advanced complex creatures who choose to live. The question is instead more “How much will human-style attitudes and approaches influence the hundreds or more alien civilizations with which we may eventually come in contact?”

It is less about whether there will be any civilizations, and more about what sorts of civilizations they will be. Yes, we should try to not go extinct, and yes we should try to find better paths and lifestyles for our descendants. But we should also aspire, and to a similar degree, to become worthy of emulating, when compared to a sea of alien options.

Unless we can offer enough unique and valuable models for emulation, and actually persuade or force such emulation, then it won’t really matter so much if we survive to meet aliens. From that point on, what matters is what difference we make to the mix. Whether we influence the mix, and whether that mix is better off as a result of our influence.

Not an easy goal, and not one we are assured to achieve. But we have maybe a billion years to work on it. And at least we can relax a bit; not all future universe value depends on our actions now. Just an astronomical amount of it. The rest is in “God’s” hands.

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Join The Universe

If you spend most of your time arguing with your immediate family, then even the family members with whom you most disagree are at the center of your world, and greatly define you. Or if you spend most of your time focusing on the “hot” topics and status conflicts within a particular academic community, then even the people there with which you most disagree are your close colleagues, and greatly define you. Or if you spend most of your time arguing about US politics, then even those who disagree with you most about that are near the center of your world, and define you.

That is, in general you are defined more by the topics on which you argue, and the communities in which you argue, than by which side you take on such topics. The people you most hate, you hate exactly because they are close to you, and in your way, as they are in your world.

These worlds I listed, even the US politics world, seem to me just too small and provincial to spend all my time there. So I invite you to instead, at least some of the time, come join my favorite world. Join the place where we argue about the biggest issues we can find in the universe. A conversation that may eventually be joined by creatures across many eras and perhaps even civilizations. Even if I completely disagree with you on such things, if you focus on arguing about them, then you are in my world. And you will help define me.

Here are 42 BIG questions:

  1. Did there have to be something, rather than nothing?
  2. Is the universe infinite, in spacetime or entropy?
  3. Why is entropy always lower in past directions?
  4. Are the speed of light, and forward causation, hard limits on info & influence?
  5. What is most of the universe made of, & can the other stuff make complex life & civs?
  6. Where are the universe’s largest reservoirs of extractable negentropy, and how fast can they flow?
  7. How cheaply can these reservoirs be defended & maintained, and thus how long can they last?
  8. In which of the many possible filter steps does most of the great filter usually lie?
  9. How far away is the nearest alien civilization?
  10. What % of alien civs evolve intelligence via routes other than our social conflict route?
  11. How willing are most aliens to cooperate with us, instead of competing?
  12. When will growth in tech abilities slow down due to running out of useful things to learn?
  13. When will growth of solar system economy slow down due to congestion & exhaustion?
  14. When will growth of Earth economy slow down due to congestion & exhaustion?
  15. When will artificial machines replace biology in running & doing things?
  16. Will that be late enough for genetic engineering or global warming to matter much?
  17. When will the dominant creatures around take a long view, or an abstract view?
  18. What types of competition and coordination (e.g., governance) institutions will dominate in which social areas when and where?
  19. What forms of governance will be most common in which different future eras?
  20. When will mental organization of dominant creatures deviate greatly from that of humans now?
  21. After that point, which kinds of minds will win which competitions where?
  22. After that point, what units of mental or social organization will matter most, and when or where?
  23. After that point, what will minds value, and at what levels will they most encode and coordinate values?
  24. What were the key causes and enablers of each past key growth mode (life, brains, foraging, farming, & industry)?
  25. When will the next growth mode start, what will enable it, and how will it differ?
  26. When, if ever, will all that we caused and care about end and die?
  27. What will be our deepest future collapse, short of extinction, how deep will that be, and how long to recover?
  28. When will be the next major civilization collapse, what % of world will that take down, and how different is the next civ?
  29. When will be the next big war, and will many nukes be used?
  30. When, if ever, will external genetic, econ, or military competition again drive large scale policy & governance choices?
  31. Where in space-time are most of the human like creatures who believe they are experiencing our place in space-time?
  32. What are our strongest levers of influence today over the universe?
  33. How long will how much non-human nature remain, and how wild will that be?
  34. What are the actual motivations that drive most human behavior today?
  35. What has been driving the main changes in values and attitudes over the last few centuries, and what further changes will they induce?
  36. What new practices and institutions can enable greatly increased rates of innovation?
  37. When, if ever, will more general & reliable truth-oriented institutions (e.g., prediction markets) offer estimates on a wide range of subjects?
  38. When, if ever, will average human fertility stop falling, and total human population rise?
  39. When, if ever, will human per-capita income stop rising?
  40. Will human per-capita energy usage ever start rising greatly again?
  41. When will humans become effectively immortal, and least re internal decay?
  42. For where did Earth life originate, and when did it start there?

(I will add more to this list as I hear good suggestions.)

Hamming’s famous question is “What are the most important problems in your field”, followed quickly by “Why aren’t you working on them?” If one of your fields is the universe, then why aren’t you working on one of these big questions?

Added 9a: I’ve mostly left out questions where it is unclear if the usual debates are about something real, rather than about how we use words.

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Elois Ate Your Flying Car

J Storrs Hall’s book Where Is My Flying Car?: A Memoir of Future Past, told me new things I didn’t know about flying cars. The book is long, and says many things about tech and the future, including some with which I disagree. But his main thesis is a contrarian one that I’ve heard many times from engineers over my lifetime. Which is good, because by putting it all in one place, I can now tell you about it, and tell you that I agree:

We have had a very long-term trend in history going back at least to the Newcomen and Savery engines of 300 years ago, a steady trend of about 7% per year growth in usable energy available to our civilization. …

One invariant in futurism before roughly 1980 was that predictions of social change overestimated, and of technological change underestimated, what actually happened. Now this invariant itself has been broken. With the notable exception of information technology, technological change has slowed and social change has mounted its crazy horse. …

In the 1970s, the centuries-long growth trend in energy (the “Henry Adams curve”) flatlined. Most of the techno-predictions from 50s and 60s SF had assumed, at least implicitly, that it would continue. The failed predictions strongly correlate to dependence on plentiful energy. American investment and innovation in transportation languished; no new developments of comparable impact have succeeded highways and airliners. …

The war on cars was handed off from beatniks to bureaucrats in the 70s. Supersonic flight was banned. Bridge building had peaked in the 1960s. … The nuclear industry found its costs jacked up by an order of magnitude and was essentially frozen in place. Interest and research in nuclear physics languished. … Green fundamentalism has become the unofficial state church of the US (and to an even greater extent Western Europe). …

In technological terms, bottom line is simple: we could very easily have flying cars today. Indeed we could have had them in 1950, but for the Depression and WWII. The proximate reason we don’t have them now is the Henry Adams curve flatline; the reasons for the flatline have taken a whole book to explore. We have let complacent nay-sayers metamorphose from pundits uttering “It can’t be done” predictions a century ago, into bureaucrats uttering “It won’t be done” prescriptions today. …

Nanotech would enable cheap home isotopic separation. Short of that, it would enable the productivity of the entire US military-industrial complex in an area the size of, say, Singapore. It’s available to anyone who has the sense to follow Feynman’s pathway and work in productive machinery instead of ivory-tower tiddley-winks. The amount of capital needed for a decent start is probably similar to a well-equipped dentist’s office.

If our pre-1970 energy use trend had continued, we’d now use ~30 times as much energy per person, mostly via nuclear power. Which is enough energy for cheap small flying cars. The raw fuel cost of nuclear power is crazy cheap; almost all the cost today is for reactors to convert power, a cost that has been made and kept high via crazy regulation and liability. Like the crazy restrictive regulations that now limit innovation in cars and planes, destroyed the small plane market, and prevented the arrival of flying cars.

Anything that goes into a certificated airplane costs ten times what the thing would otherwise. (As a pilot and airplane owner, I have personal experience of this.) It’s a lot like the high cost of human medical drugs compared with the very same drugs for veterinary use.… Building of airports remains so regulated (not just by the FAA) that only one major new one (KDEN) has been built [since 1990]. …

It seems virtually certain that if we had had [recent] cultural and regulatory environment … from, say, 1910, the development of universal private automobiles would have been suppressed. … By the end of the 70s there was virtually nothing about a car that was not dictated by regulation.

With nuclear power, we’d have had far more space activity by now. Without it, most innovation in energy intensive things has gone into energy efficiency, and into smaller ecological footprints. Which has cut growth and prevented many things. The crazy regulation that killed nuclear energy is quite unjustified, not only because according to standard estimates nuclear causes far fewer deaths, but also because standard estimates are greatly inflated via wide use of a “linear no threshold model”, regarding which there are great doubts:

Several places are known in Iran, India and Europe [with high] natural background radiation … However, there is no evidence of increased cancers or other health problems arising from these high natural levels. The millions of nuclear workers that have been monitored closely for 50 years have no higher cancer mortality than the general population but have had up to ten times the average dose. People living in Colorado and Wyoming have twice the annual dose as those in Los Angeles, but have lower cancer rates. Misasa hot springs in western Honshu, a Japan Heritage site, attracts people due to having high levels of radium, with health effects long claimed, and in a 1992 study the local residents’ cancer death rate was half the Japan average.

To explain this dramatic change of regulation and litigation, Hall says culture changed:

Western culture had essentially succeeded in supplying the needs of the physical layers of [Maslow’s] hierarchy, including the security of a well-run society; and that the shift to the Eloi [of the Well’s Time Machine story] could be thought of as people beginning to take those things—the Leave It To Beaver suburban life—for granted, and beginning to spend the bulk of their energy, efforts, and concerns on the love, esteem, and self-actualization levels. … “Make Love, Not War” slogan of the 60s … neatly sums up the Eloi shift from bravery to sensuality. …

The nuclear umbrella meant that economic, political, and moral strength of the society was no longer at a premium.

I’ll say more about explaining this cultural change in another post.

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Russell’s Human Compatible

My school turned back on its mail system as we start a new semester, and a few days ago out popped Stuart Russell’s book Human Compatible (published last Oct.), with a note inside dated March 31. Here’s my review, a bit late as a result.

Let me focus first on what I see as its core thesis, and then discuss less central claims.

Russell seems to say that we still have a lot of time, and that he’s only asking for a few people to look into the problem:

The arrival of super intelligence AI is inherently unpredictable. … My timeline of, say eighty years is considerably more conservative than that of the typical AI researcher. … If just one conceptual breakthrough were needed, …superintelligent AI in some form could arrive quite suddenly. The chances are that we would be unprepared: if we built superintelligent machines with any degree of autonomy, we would soon find ourselves unable to control them. I’m, however, fairly confident that wee have some breathing space because there are several major breakthroughs needed between here and superintelligence, not just one. (pp.77-78)

Scott Alexander … summed it up brilliantly: … The skeptic’s position seems to be that, although we should probably get a couple of bright people to start working on preliminary aspects of the problem, we shouldn’t panic or start trying to ban AI research. The “believers,” meanwhile [take exactly the same position.] (pp.169-170)

Yet his ask is actually much larger: unless we all want to die, AI and related disciplines must soon adopt a huge and expensive change to their standard approach: we must stop optimizing using simple fixed objectives, like the way a GPS tries to minimize travel time, or a trading program tries to maximize profits. Instead we must make systems that attempt to look at all the data on what all humans have ever done to infer a complex continually-updated integrated representation of all human preferences (and meta-preferences) over everything, and use that complex representation to make all automated decisions. Modularity be damned: Continue reading "Russell’s Human Compatible" »

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