Tag Archives: Future

Envisioning Artificial Life

For billions of years Earth has been filled with a great many small biological organisms. Each one is designed to not die, and to collect and process enough resources to make close but not exact copies of itself, copies which then must each search for and defend a niche wherein this story can be repeated.

Recently humans have introduce some new kinds of entities, including human organizations and artificial devices. It seems obvious to me that within a millennia all these things will merge into something new: “artificial life”. Which will then forever more dominate the universe (if it survives). And it seems worth trying to think through what this will look like. Here are eight key features I predict for artificial life:

Advanced – Over billions of years bio life has developed some amazing innovations, and used these to colonize a wide range of niches on Earth. But there are still many places near here where life has had at most only a mild impact. And in far less than billions of years humans have found a great many innovations that bio never found, or made much use of. Such as metal smelting, trains, jet engines, nuclear power, rocket ships, radio, computers, and far far more. Using these, humans have been able to go more places, use more kinds of energy, and do more things. Artificial life will mix up these bio- and human-discovered design elements in a huge variety of ways, and colonize a far wider range of niches. Artificial life will live on and in a wide range of planets, stars, rocks, clouds, and volumes, and reorganize such things to make whole new places and things. Artificial life will grow faster, at least until the solar system is nearly filled.

Specialized – Lone bio cells have to do basically everything themselves. Which means they can’t achieve the very large scale and scope economies possible via a division of labor. Multi-cellular organisms have more of an internal specialization, but still each organism must do most everything itself. Social animals allow still more division of labor, but even so only over relatively small scales. In contrast, artificial life can manage a civilization-wide division of labor, limited mainly by transport costs, allowing each particular part to take on very specialized roles. Most artificial creatures can’t forage, digest, reproduce, etc. by themselves very well, but are designed to function well mainly within large complex societies. Artificial life is quite inter-dependent.

Informed – Bio organisms mainly know about what they can directly see, and the insight implicitly embodied in their genes. In contrast, artificial creatures can also use large specialized communication networks and institutions to learn about a great many things. The main limits are data, costs of distance and computation, and strategic incentives to deceive.

Invited – Bio tends to just make stuff when it can, without attending much to if there is a demand for that stuff. In contrast, artificial stuff tends to be made when and where demand is envisioned. New firms are made when investors guess they can make a profit. New couches are made and shipped to stores where firms guess buyers are likely to want them. And so on. Invited creatures have to worry less about their place in the world, or wonder why they exist; they wouldn’t exist unless there had been at least a reasonable place for them.

Designed – New bio things tend to be quite similar to their creators, adding mostly random variations. In contrast, artificial stuff is often more carefully designed to be suitable for some demand, and substantially different from prior things. A building is designed to fit its lot, a firm is designed to fit its market, and so on. Compared to bio designs, artificial designs draw on a much wider range of prior designs, and a lot more effort goes into figuring out these new designs. Artificial life is more like one big civ-wide species, and less breaks into separate lineages with designs only derived from its species. Some artificial creatures specialize in designing parts of other ones.

Governed – Artificial creatures coordinate to avoid destructive conflicts via empowering governance organizations, such as firms, clubs, law, and government. Such governance tends to be of wider scope and more stable than other structures, and is thus harder to influence. Yet each such structure has some ultimate owners who control it over larger scopes of space and time. When interacting with an artificial creature, one may want to know about the larger governance units with which it is allied.

Varied – While before humans biological organisms had a huge range of sizes and abilities, our more recent era has been dominated by creatures with quite similar sizes and abilities. Namely humans. With artificial life variety will return, and greatly expand. Trying to count military or political power by counting heads just won’t work at all.

Owned – The bio world has little property; stuff can and is oft stolen. Only property that can be directly created and defended exists. But the artificial world has far more property (and liability) rights. As a result, to use resources one must create, purchase, or inherit them. Thus someone will have to pay for the resources and design effort needed to make each new piece of artificial life. Those who pay to create something will often reserve some property (or liability) rights over it, often in the form of debt or equity. Though the created thing will usually hold some rights in itself. Creatures and groups will often trade shares in each other as a way to align their interests more closely.

This last owned features seems the most likely to bother people today. But my job is to tell you what seems most likely, not what you want to hear.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Why Are We Weird?

The following has long been a useful heuristic: if your usual theory says that something important looks like a big outlier, seek another theory where it isn’t. For example, when some physics calculations suggested that most brains like ours in the history of the universe would be random fluctuation “Boltzman brains” in the distant future, many took that as suggesting that those calculations were wrong. Which it seems that they in fact were. Many now feel similarly about eternal inflation calculations suggesting we are very late in our inflation bubble’s lifetime compared to the average space-time volume.

This heuristic gives us doubts about theories which say that we today are weird compared to all the other “we”s that we could have been. For example, if the history of the universe so far is representative of its future, and if each of us could counterfactually have been any lump of matter in the universe, or even any small volume, then we should be very surprised to find ourselves among the very rare sentient creatures. And even if we think we could only have been sentient creatures, we should still be pretty surprised (even if less surprised) to find ourselves among the few most complex conscious creatures that have ever been on our planet.

Yes, we have clear evidence that we are not dead lumps of matter, nor simpler creatures, but even so we can be surprised to see such evidence. Yes, only creatures as smart as we are with language could even ask such questions via language. But that needn’t stop our surprise. Is there alternate theory that makes these less surprising?

What if we don’t take the past of the universe to be representative of its future? For example, our grabby aliens model predicts that the universe will fill up within a few billion years and then be densely and efficiently populated with artificial life, much of it intelligent and sentient. If we include all that among the creatures that we could have been, then we should be surprised to find ourselves so early in the history of the universe, out of all those future sentient creatures.

Now there must be some average number of future descendants per alien civilization that would make us today more typical, sitting midway between all those sentient animals in our past, and all that future artificial life before our civilization ends. But there’s no particular good reason to expect civilizations to have anything near that average number of future descendants. And even then we’d be unusual in living in a rare short special dreamtime between those vast pasts and futures.

I don’t really have any answer to offer here. This situation puts me on the lookout for a plausible theory that would make us less weird, but so far I don’t see one. Seems we are in fact weird. You might think this would make us more sympathetic to the more weird among us, but no.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

Seeing ANYTHING Other Than Huge-Civ Is Bad News

The great filter is whatever obstacles prevent simple dead matter from evolving into a civilization big and visible on astronomical scales. The fact that we see nothing big and visible in a huge universe says this filter must be large, and a key question is the size of the future filter: how much have we passed and how much remains ahead of us?

I’ve suggested that evidence of life elsewhere below our level makes the past filter look smaller, and thus our future filter larger. From which you might conclude that evidence of a civilization above our level is good news. That seems to be what  says here at Vox:

If (and I must stress that this is a quite unlikely “if”) UFO sightings on earth are actually evidence that an advanced alien civilization has developed a system of long-distance probes that it is using to monitor or contact humanity, then that would be an immensely hopeful sign in Great Filter terms. It would mean that at least one civilization has far surpassed humanity without encountering any insurmountable hurdles preventing its survival. (more)

But I don’t think that’s right. This would move the filter more to above their level, but below the level of becoming big and visible, without changing the size of the total filter. Which implies a larger future filter for us. In addition, any UFO aliens are likely here to actively impose a filter on us, i.e., to stop us from getting big and visible (or “grabby“).

So if UFOs as aliens is not good news, what would be good news re our future filter? Aside from detailed engineering and social calculations showing that we are in fact very close to becoming irreversibly grabby, the only good news I can imagine is actual concrete evidence of big visible aliens civilizations out there. Maybe we’ve misread their signatures somehow.

Looking out further and in more detail at the universe and still finding it dead suggests the total filter is larger, which is bad news. And finding any evidence of anything other than death suggests the filter is smaller up to the level of that finding, but doesn’t revise our estimate of the total filter. Which is bad news re our future. Thus a perhaps surprising conclusion: finding anything other than a big visible civilization out there is bad news re our future prospects for becoming big and visible.

Remember also: the SIA indexical prior (IMHO the reasonable choice) favors larger future filters. Beware the future filter!

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

We Moderns Are Status-Drunk

Twelve years ago I posted on how our era is a rare unique “dreamtime” of fast growth, wide cultural integration, and delusional beliefs. But I think I missed a big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. Let me explain.

The core idea of evolutionary psychology is that evolution shaped our behaviors to be adaptive in our ancestral environments. That is, we do stuff that gives us more descendants. But because our ancestors only experienced a limited range of environments, we only evolved behavior rules sufficient to induce adaptive behavior in those actual environments. This made our behavior indeterminate in the other new environments which humans have experienced since then. So a re-run of the process of evolution could easily lead to different behaviors in these new environments. That is, human behavior today results not just from adaptation to ancestral environments, but also from the many random ways that evolution happened to encode our behavior in rules.

For example, our ancestors needed to drink water to avoid dehydration, but because in their environments water always had the same combination of water smell and water feel, we could have evolved either to check that stuff is water by its smell, or by its feel. If those two water features always go together, and if both methods are just as easy, then this difference won’t make much difference to behavior. We find water, check that it is water, and drink it. But if later we encountered stuff that had water smell but not water feel, or water feel but not water smell, then these two different ways to detect water might lead to very different behaviors. For example, water-smell humans might drink stuff that smells but doesn’t feel like water, while water-feel humans would not drink such stuff.

In this post, I want to suggest that much of the “modern” human style which has arisen since the industrial revolution results from a particular way that evolution happened to encode human detection of relative status. This has made human history go surprisingly well in some ways, and surprisngly badly in others. Had evolution happened to have coded our status detection machinery differently, these last few centuries might have played out very differently. And perhaps they did, in alien histories. But before we get into that, let us first see how our status detection methods have shaped the modern human style. Continue reading "We Moderns Are Status-Drunk" »

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , ,

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 that 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 we 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.

No doubt the people who push each priority X would try to also push the view that aliens also prefer X. But we also have some more direct evidence on alien priorities.

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 which enforces 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. (And 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?

These inferred alien priorities have implications for our behavior. 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 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 its hard to say more there without knowing more about in what ways their behaviors change. 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. And talking could easily risk their being forced to admit strange repulsive stuff that would really put us off. Maybe their show-not-talk strategy isn’t as crazy and a priori unlikely as many claim.

Added 15Jun: If we come to believe, as I do, that aliens are most likely artificial, having transcended their biological origins, we may then respect artificial things more.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

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.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,

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.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

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?

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

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.

Added 4Nov: I missed a big potential legacy: Non-grabby aliens could help to mediate between and coordinate grabby aliens. Before two grabby aliens civs meet, they may have both seen and received messages from dozens of the same non-grabby civilizations. Messages sent by those mediators might set expectations and reference points that help the grabby aliens to coordinate. They might even distribute entangled qubits.

Such messages would be more credible if they embodied costly signals. So what could a non-grabby alien civ do, and show they did, to convince grabby aliens re their expectations of what will happen when grabby aliens meet?

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,

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.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , ,