Thursday, February 16, 2017

Interstellar Convergence and Intelligent Design

Interstellar convergence is a term, perhaps unique to this blog, that says that evolution drives organisms to optimality, and what is optimal on one planet is close to optimal on another similar origin planet. In other words, planets hundreds of light years apart both with the same mass, stellar class, composition and other details, will have organisms that look similar, and which are similar, down to the cellular level. Interstellar convergence has limits we do not know yet. If it turns out that DNA is the optimal coding chemical for genetics, most planets will have it in their organisms’ genomes. If neural nets are indeed the optimal information processing mechanism that can be grown from genes, then all intelligent aliens will have them. If hands are optimal for tool-using, then all intelligent creatures everywhere will have them. There might be some exceptions, but we are far from being able to figure them out.

Intelligent design is used here in its essence: if genetics is understood, creatures can be designed to fill in whatever niche is desired. It means that aliens, not necessarily super-creatures, but just ordinary, hard-working, well-motivated, intelligent aliens, would be able to design a genome that would lead to a viable, living organism, able to reproduce if that was desired, able to think if that was desired, able to do whatever it was that the designers wanted them to be able to do. They could have docile personalities or be hard-as-hell to manage; this is the designer’s choice.

Here’s another word: self-speciation. This means that an intelligent alien species would have the ability to modify its own genome, and create a different species, if they chose to do so. The different species might be better than the original aliens in some aspect. Evolution is expected to do a good job of moving species to the optimal, but it can’t work after a civilization gets started, so evolution would have created a species that was good for surviving and reproducing in a pre-civilization situation. It would be up to the aliens to modify their own genome, or create a brand-new one, to match what would be optimal for living in the world of giant cities and interplanetary travel.

When alien civilizations start sending their citizens into low planetary orbit and then into interplanetary space, and finally to other planets, satellites or asteroids in their own solar system, they will soon realize that the design that evolution created for life on their home planet was far from optimal for life in other, radially different, environments. They may well embark on some self-speciation to design aliens which were at home in space or on low gravity satellites. If they happened to originate in a solar system which had two planets with similar conditions, but only one which originated life, they might migrate to the other one and modify their genome to better match it. If it had 20% higher gravity, for example, they might want to redo their skeleton to cope with that, and their musculature as well, and perhaps their circulatory system. If there was a planet with less oxygen, the lungs might be modified. If the other planet was an origin planet as well, or life had spread there from meteoritic transmission or some other way from their home planet, and had grown up differently, they might need a different digestive system to be able to consume what grew on the second habitable planet. Once the genetic grand transition had been passed, all of these would be possible. If for some reason, there was not much benefit to be gained, as for example, their naturally evolved bodies tolerated space life with few problems, they could keep their own genome; this seems to be an unlikely possibility.

This self-speciation is not something that one out of all alien civilizations might do. They all figure out the same genetics knowledge, as knowledge doesn’t depend on the planet that finds it; scientific knowledge and technology is universal and the same on all planets.

The stage of interplanetary travel and migration would almost assuredly occur before they attempted any interstellar voyages. The technology developed for going to other planets in their own solar system is an excellent beginning for the technology needed for an interstellar cruise. That technology is quite diverse, involving figuring out how to make something last for a thousand years; how to carry enough energy and propellant to get the trip and the arrival accomplished and still have enough left over for whatever they were going to the new solar system for: as a probe, for colonization, or something quite different. So, it seems likely that they would have a species, similar to their own, that is better adapted for space, and which lives on constructed space stations around some of the planets in their solar system. If there were any satellites worth building a colony on, for mining or anything else, there might well be another variant species living there.

As an aside, an alien civilization at this stage of development is likely past the times of troubles that existed on their home planets. Just because they were a different species, they would not decide they wanted to go to war with the home planet. That is a device of science fiction: taking something of present day Earth and changing the situation to a future one where different planets were inhabited. Neurology and sociology would be well-understood sciences and would have eliminated such a possibility.

Now ask yourself what they would do for colonization, should that be part of their legacy goals for their own set of species. If there was an interesting exo-planet somewhere, and they found it was an origin planet, and already had an intelligent species, would they want to go and colonize it and subjugate the original inhabitants? Not likely. They would understand that the other planet would have evolved creatures optimized for that planet, and if they went and used intelligent design for a creature like their own to live there, they would wind up with something very similar to what was already there. So why bother?

Colonization is likely to take place only on worlds which do not have intelligent species already. It would be superfluous to go there and replace something almost identical. Colonization would go to origin planets with primitive life, not solo planets with intelligent life. This is actually a very small restriction, as life exists for billions of years on an origin planet, before it can evolve intelligent creatures. Much of that time would be suitable for colonization, if it were desired. Intelligent life only lasts for a brief interval, and technological life, probably less than a million years. This would eliminate only a small fraction of planets a space-traveling alien civilization would encounter. In essence, we don’t have to worry about being displaced by aliens. There might be other reasons they would interfere with us, but it is impractical for them to bother colonizing an already inhabited planet.

Monday, February 6, 2017

What Fluid Fuels Might Power Alien Civilizations?

Here on Earth we are in the first part of the industrial grand transformation, and so know a bit about basic chemistry and physics, so we should be able to shed some light on fluid fuels, as they might exist in alien civilizations. If we can list the functions that energy in general must perform in an alien civilization, we might figure out what would be the likely class of fuel used there.

Energy functions in providing temperature control, transportation, communication, power for robotics, preparation of nutrition, surveillance, research, construction, recycling, maintenance and repairs, information transmission and storage, mining and resource extraction, and health. While there may be others, this wide a spectrum probably covers the fuel requirements. Electricity can be used for most of these, and it can be generated at a power plant or locally from a fluid fuel. Power plant generation implies some means of moving the energy from the power plant to the cities where the aliens live, which can mean direct transmission in a network of wiring, or transportation of fluid fuel.

The trade-off between wired electricity and locally generated electricity might be done on the basis of efficiency, or its equivalent, cost in whatever accounting system the alien planet uses. Efficiency depends on how much storage is needed for the energy, as electricity is harder to store than chemical energy. Power plants might work continuously except for maintenance breaks, seasonally if dependent on some seasonal source of power, diurnally if dependent on some solar source, or with another periodicity, such as that related to a large satellite producing tides. There could be a large random contribution or none at all.

Likewise, consumption can have temporal fluctuations in it as well, diurnal, seasonal, or related to other cycles of the civilization. Arrangements can be made to modulate the fluctuations in both production and consumption, but there will likely be some residual mismatch, implying storage of energy is necessary. Storage of hard-to-store-directly electrical energy can be done by transforming it into thermal energy, gravitational energy, mechanical energy or chemical energy, and each transformation, one-way or round trip, has an efficiency cost, which might be of the order of 50%, as opposed to 5%. This does not include the inefficiencies in producing or collecting the energy, which might also be other order of 50%, to use an order of magnitude. The overall result is that most of the energy produced or collected is turned into heat at the production site, as opposed to at the consumption site. This is inevitable in our Earth society or in any alien civilization.

For most of the functional uses of energy in an alien civilization, electrical energy works fine, whether transmitted over long distances or whether generated locally. The utility advantage breaks down in transportation, as energy must be stored and then transported on the vehicle, except for transportation corridors which have electric transmission systems built into them and can couple energy into the mobile vehicles, either kinetic energy or electrical energy.

Inside an arcology, transportation could easily be done electrically, and if the large majority of movement occurred there, there would be no need for fluid fuels for transportation on the inside. On the outside, if there was still some substantial amount of transportation taking place, either gaseous or liquid chemical fuel could be used. Hydrogen is one obvious candidate for a gaseous fuel, but the energy content per volume is low, meaning that tankage needs to be large, and consume considerable volume and weight. The trade-off is between the efficiency of converting hydrogen to some other, more dense fuel, such as an alkane, and carrying around the tank weight. If the whole point is simply to transport energy to an arcology from a distant power source, then the tradeoff is between the production of electricity and then a network of conductors to bring it to the arcology, and the production of hydrogen or a gaseous alkane and then a pipeline or vehicle ensemble to bring it there.

If the energy at the power plant is initially used to create electricity, then it would seem that there is little to be gained from converting to a fluid fuel and then transporting the fuel to the arcology, where it would be converted back to electricity. Our limited knowledge of electrical transmission versus pipelines would indicate there is no way to made the latter more efficient, given the round trip inefficiencies of conversion. Thus, the only use for fluid energy sources would possibly be in transportation outside of the arcologies, in situations where it would not be most efficient to have a wired corridor, such as between two arcologies.

Thus, storage of large quantities of energy, such as at the power plant, and mobile vehicles using significant energy on non-corridor transportation, would be the only two possible uses of fluid chemical energy sources in an alien planet, once they are past the stage where there was abundant fossil fuels. Would the energy storage at a power plant be done with hydrogen or with alkanes? Chemical energy is one of the most dense forms, and so one of these would be the likely choice. The tradeoff of tankage versus chemical form might be based on the duration of the storage, which relates to the amount of material needed to be stored. Diurnal storage might be with hydrogen, as the amount of tankage is not so large, and seasonal storage might be with alkanes, for the opposite reason.

This route of technology would mean that all three of the energy modes, electricity, hydrogen, and alkanes, would be available at a power plant site, and the other use of chemical energy sources, irregular transportation, might avail themselves of either fuel, both originating from the same source. Since alkanes have a significantly lower tankage cost, and have about the same available energy per mass, assuming atmospheric oxygen is used for combustion, then it is likely that an alien civilization would, perhaps unexpectedly, have vehicles analogous to those on Earth. This would be a strange case of interstellar convergence, when the physics, chemistry and other laws of nature push all civilizations in the same direction.

The last use of energy for transportation is for interplanetary travel, or simply to travel into orbit around the alien planet. Here, energy per mass and energy per volume are dominant. To keep tankage costs down on the heaviest stage, solid fuel propellants are used by most Earth launchers with liquid alkanes being the alternative, with liquid hydrogen and oxygen used for higher stages, where energy per mass counts more than energy per volume. This optimum has been well explored, and might be also expected to occur on exo-planets that do not barren areas on their planet where nuclear thrust options might be employed.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Alternatives with Arcologies

Somewhere along the pathway from hunting to asymptotic technology, an alien civilization must realize the threat that resource exhaustion poses to their living standards and the status of their civilization. One of the responses to this threat is the adoption of recycling to reduce new resource consumption and substitute re-use and re-cycling.

If recycling is done on a civilization-wide scale, with all citizens participating in the same processes, the efficient organization of the civilization is to have everyone living into cities, structured like arcologies, with the logistics pathways for all goods and waste short and efficient. Efficiency is one of the other tools that the resource exhaustion threat demands.

If the assumption is relaxed that all citizens participate in the large-scale recycle in identical fashion, the concept of universal arcologies becomes superfluous. If the population is large, of the order of ten billion citizens with energy consumption rates perhaps ten times that of industrial civilizations on Earth, then the large majority would have to live in arcologies, but there could be a minority living with disaggregated recycling.

Another factor that might be decisive on the need for arcologies and the fraction of the population living in them is the final trade-off made between robotics and genetics. Robotics need manufacturing centers, but biological solutions to accomplishing some of the civilization’s tasks might need only some facilities for growing the proper organisms, and even these might be biological as well. If some of the population were dispersed, then recycling of all biological goods might be equally dispersed, and only manufactured goods would have to be transported back to some recycling centers, perhaps located in one of the arcologies.

The transportation costs might be ameliorated by some biological conversion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen and separated carbon compounds. This is exactly what photosynthesis does, but if it could be powered alternatively, such as by fusion-generated electricity, it would be more under control of the civilization. Once this was accomplished, some minimal amount of carbon compound liquids or gases could be used as the excellent energy storage medium they are, and a certain amount of transportation could be arranged for to accomplish the recycling of manufactured goods.

Manufactured goods would be designed for efficiency from a whole-life viewpoint, as opposed to what would happen in early industrial times, when the design viewpoint might be manufacturing efficiency or once-through consumption efficiency. If a manufactured item is designed without re-use of parts and recycling of everything else in mind, so that re-use and recycling costs are very high, then the total lifetime costs are very high as well, as the end stages dominate the cost cycle. If instead, manufactured items are designed with a full life-cycle in mind, meaning that a closed loop of resources is attempted, without only energy inputs plus a very small amount of resources to fill in impossible-to-control losses, then there is little energy cost expended in extracting resources and transporting them, as well as processing ores. Instead, the civilization’s energy use is more devoted toward immediate consumption plus recycling costs.

Consider the fraction of the alien population which is dispersed in whatever natural surroundings evolved on their planet. Aside from manufactured goods, everything else in the consumption arena can be recycled in the natural surroundings. Whatever they need for nutrition can be produced either from the surroundings or from wholly biological means, either involving the surroundings or in special micro-facilities, and either using evolved genetics or designed genetics. Most likely the most efficient way of organizing a community living outside the arcologies would be strongly dependent on the locale, the climate, the environment, and other factors that differ all over the planet. Community size could range from an individual, living outside the arcologies for some period of time, up to groups numbering in the order of thousands. Too large an outside community would seem to break the ecology of the area.

There would be costs of moving everything that needed to be moved between the arcologies and the dispersed population. These involve the two-way transport of manufactured goods, plus population transportation and the transport of specialized goods, like seeds or certain biological materials. The transport vehicles would likely be manufactured goods, which would be produced in the arcologies, and recycled there. Energy could be anything simple, such as hydrogen gas for land surface vehicles and carbon compounds for either land or air transport.

Energy production in the dispersed areas might be either locally gathered energy, or transported energy. If energy was not produced in the dispersed areas, this might be the largest single item for transportation. One example might be the frequent transportation of hydrogen gas to the dispersed areas, where it might be transferred from the transport vehicles to community tankage. Just how much energy such a dispersed community might need is probably beyond our estimation ability. If the community was largely utilizing biological means to provide the means of living, then photosynthesis might provide a large part of that energy. Other means of collecting energy from their star’s fusion could happen, but the efficiency that could be achieved is not easily guessed. Given a total control and understanding of genetics, how much of the solar energy falling per meter of planetary surface could be absorbed and turned into accessible energy or carbon-based products?

A few hundred million years of evolution has pushed the efficiency of Earth plants to a range of 0.1 to 2% conversion of solar photo-energy to carbon biomass. A different star would have a different spectrum of light, which affects conversion efficiency. Furthermore there is a second efficiency which relates to the utility of the carbon biomass the plant or other organism produces as far as the uses to which the alien civilization has for it. This efficiency is also low and highly variable, but for bred crop plants might get to a few percent. How much higher could this be pushed with a complete knowledge of genetics plus the ability to design and construct any genetic concept? This number indicates what the collection area might have to be for a community of a given size.

What are the extremes that we might observe with a giant telescope on a planet found to have an alien civilization? One is a planet with nothing but arcologies, perhaps hundreds, all of which would be emitting heat and serve as thermal point sources for the telescope. The other end is a planet with only one arcology, where all manufactured goods were produced, and the remainder of the population dispersed and making use of mostly biological organisms for their life support. Either could be the choice of the governance of the planet, and there does not seem to be any reason why a particular planet could not go one way or another, or more likely, something in the middle. The latter extreme case would have only one thermal source to observe.

Another way to consider alien options is to consider the design of an arcology. Could one be cubic and another be large, low and flat? Something to be considered at another time.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Smelting and Early Metal Technology in Alien Civilizations

The great development of the brain is associated with the stone age, when available materials began to be used as tools, and this use engendered the development of thinking and the evolution of larger brains. As far as we know, most planets like Earth and originating life will have available stone resources, so there is little reason to assume the lack of stone will be a barrier to the development of an alien civilization. The same goes for other items that could be used as improvised tools, such as sticks, hides, leaves, reeds, vines, and certainly others. Stone is the only one which lasts for a million years, so we have the ‘Stone Age’ in our pre-history books, instead of the ‘Stone and Stick and Vine and Other Stuff Age’, but that is the expected situation, lasting for a million years or two or maybe something a bit shorter or longer on other planets.

Gold is the only metal found predominantly in the metal form. Some copper is also, but most copper along with other early metals have to obtained from their ores by roasting, at the very least. This is the simplest form of smelting. The use of fire is necessary, and so the question is, how did metals become discovered? Clay was used on Earth around the same time, and clay can be dried to transform it into something waterproof and rigid, but heating it makes many clays even stronger, sometimes producing a coating on their exterior. That means hot fires are needed. Even earlier than this, certain stones were thermally fractured, notably flint, so in this situation we have a culture that is used to putting rocks into a hot fire, maybe in a pit, and seeing if they fractured into sharp edges. Putting rocks into a clay kiln appears much less likely, but certainly possible, perhaps to support the fuel.

The earliest metal droplets found in archaeological digs were tin and lead, although this may be affected by chance finds. Copper is the metal that makes all the difference. Roasting copper ores with charcoal can produce copper, which is a malleable metal. Some copper ores contain arsenic, which makes the metal much harder, which would be preferred for some uses, such as weapons. Arsenical bronzes, which are just copper with the major impurity being arsenic, were invented at least twice, in the Andes and in Asia minor, and possibly many other places as well.

These metals might seem a mandatory material for an alien civilization to proceed out of the stone age, but cultures which did not have them seemed to be able to produce all the trappings of a civilization without them. The Mayan states had no metal, but they had monumental cities, writing, a religious hierarchy, organized agriculture, craftsmen, paints, and other accouterments of civilization. They even invented rubber balls and ball games, which the Eurasians never did. But the Mayan civilization could not progress beyond the agricultural grand transition without metal. It is simply not possible to move to energy sources beyond animal power without metal, and energy is one of the inputs to an industrial civilization. Even animal power is difficult to make the best use of without metal. So, copper ore and in fact, metal ores for many other metals are mandatory surface items for civilization to develop.

To have copper ore on the surface of an exo-planet of roughly Earth size requires that there was copper in the initial gas cloud which condensed into the planet, and that there was a segregation of elements in the molten magma, leading to lighter ores which could rise to the crust and condense. Then they have to be exposed.

In order for life to form, there must be some minerals, but they can be principally phosphorus, magnesium and other lighter elements. Microbes do not need copper to exist and evolve, bu there are some uses for it. This implies that a planet can originate life without heavier metals, but some efficiency in chemical processing would be lost if they are absent. How far evolution could go on a planet where there were no or few sources of heavier metals is not clear, as we do not understand anything about alternative forms of life. However, if it is possible to evolve land animals without metals like copper, civilization would likely be stopped by the lack of metals at the agricultural stage.

There does not seem to be any reason why an alien civilization would not discover smelting of at least bronzes, just by chance. The Mayan example means that it takes time for the right accident to happen, or possibly that if smelting were discovered accidentally, something in the culture, like a theocratic decision, might have forbidden a continuation of the discovery.

After a culture has been in the bronze age for a period, iron is usually discovered, as we have seen in different regions on Earth. But iron ore must be heated to higher temperatures than copper ore if metal is to be extracted. Charcoal can produce such temperatures in the right type of vessel, but there are some requirements. Air does two things: it provides more oxygen for more combustion in the same region of fuel, and it cools the fuel by conducting heat away from the combusting surfaces. Clearly, the fraction of air that is oxygen controls whether the temperature generated by the combustion reaches the temperature needed. A planet with a lower fraction of oxygen would have lower temperatures in the same physical arrangement, and if the fraction were sufficiently low, would not be able to smelt iron ore.

Similarly, if the atmospheric pressure were less, oxygen would be delivered by convection to the burning fuel more slowly, and again, the temperatures generated would be less. This may help explain why the Inca nation, principally living at higher altitudes in the Andes, never made the leap from copper alloys to iron. Temperatures in most of their kilns were lower, and only the smaller number of low altitude regions could possibly do it, reducing the probability of the discovery of iron as a more useful metal.

Thus, if oxygen content and atmospheric pressure are either too low on an origin planet, the civilization that might develop there would not make the transition into an industrial era, not having iron or perhaps, if one of these two were significantly lower, bronze. Some more thinking into what controls these two quantities might be useful in helping us locate potential worlds with other civilizations.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Early Steps in the Climb to Asymptotic Technology

A species which evolves to the beginnings of intelligence and tool use is on the pathway to having a civilization and to developing asymptotic technology, which is the final state of technical knowledge and capability. There are some huge changes in the civilization as it advances, and these stages have been separated by great alterations in the civilization, which we have termed grand transitions. These include the transition to hunting from gathering, to agriculture, to industrial capability, to robotics, and lastly to genetic technology. These should occur more and more rapidly, and be finished before the civilization took to the stars, if it chose to do so.

On the other end, the changes are slow. There is little communication of new ideas, and few involved in devising them. There is a question as to whether there are some barriers to technological growth that occur very early in the technology sequence, and also as to whether there are planetary conditions which would be involved in these barriers. If there were, and we on Earth developed large enough observatories to detect these planetary details, we might be able to filter out some worlds as capable of originating life but not of supporting its climb all the way to asymptotic technology.

Having grasping appendages is the key and final evolutionary change that kicks off the climb in technology. This could evolve as one of the side-steps that evolution can do, where there is one reason that leads to an evolutionary mutation, but then that mutation proves to be useful in a different task. Tree-climbing to escape predators or obtain food can be the driver for grasping appendages, and then they can enable tool use, where the tool is a stick or a stone or a vine. Once this side-step happens, the road to improved tools is opened up, and that is all that a species needs to grow its brain and dexterity together.

Obviously, the planet would have had to developed in such a way that these very primitive tools were available in the area where the species emerged. Sticks can be found which are already pointed, but if a point can be developed, it can be a much better hunting tool. This requires trees with long straight trunks and hard wood, plus some exposed smooth stone surfaces for grinding the points. There does not have to be many of this type of tree, as the stick can be re-used many times. Such a tool would make a difference in the type of animal that could be killed for food. On Earth, hardwood grows in many different forests around the world, meaning that it is not climate-dependent. Outcroppings happen everywhere, so this requirement would not be a barrier on any world with tectonics similar to this planet. It would not happen on a planet without continental formation, where the only surfaces were sand and dirt.

In the hundreds of millions of years it takes for land surfaces to have photosynthetic plants and mobile creatures to use their energy, if there is no vulcanism or continental formation, there would be little chance for the co-location of forests and exposed rock surfaces. Soil would form a covering layer, except where sand was brought in by ocean activity. Theories have not yet been developed about exo-planet continental formation, so it is not clear at this point if planets of Earth size would necessarily have tectonics. It is certainly possible to imagine a more homogeneous mantle and crust where vulcanism doesn’t occur, and where there is much less vertical variation. Alternatively, vulcanism could be confined to the polar regions.

One signature of large variations in vertical extent would be the existence of large oceans, as opposed to only multitudes of lakes and rivers over the whole planet. An ocean would be observable, clouds excepted, on a planet out to a hundred light years or so by a space-borne telescope of a kilometer diameter, and this might be Earth’s only clue as to the status of a found origin planet.

The next steps in tool-using might involve clubs, which are simply found objects, and sharp stones, which might originate as found objects, but might have to be made. Sharp stones serve as cutting tools, although shells are also thought to have been used for that purpose on Earth. Large, hard shells pretty much need an ocean to form and exposed rocks to be sharpened, so we are back to needing an ocean. Sharp stones also required exposed rocks, but of a particular type. Basalt can be given an edge, as can quartz, and obsidian. These rock can be naturally exposed, such as by running water. Flint can also be used. Flint is a sedimentary rock, meaning oceans once again. There seems to be no avoidance of the necessity for continental upthrust and oceans on any world which gives rise to an alien technological civilization. Without these, it doesn’t get started.

Non-human primates have been observed using stones as tools, so there is no requirement for the development of any human skills, such as speech, prior to the use of stone tools, and this means that brains can co-develop with stone tools, rather than having to precede them. On Earth, stone tools with manufactured cutting edges have been excavated from sites dated over two million years ago, which is another confirmation that creatures that get started on stone tool-using do not have to be developed to the degree of homo sapiens. It must be the opposite, that homo sapiens, and similarly capable alien species, develop via the use of stone tools.

The list of necessary geology does not stop with the need for certain types of stones being available. After stone tools, almost in recent times, pottery developed, needing clay. Clay is weathered rock of certain types, with particle sizes of the order of a micrometer or smaller. It is widely available, and again simply requires exposed rock and weathering by water. If stones for stone tools are available on an alien exo-planet, clay should also be, leading to the first manufactured products. There does not seem to be any obvious requirements other than continental upthrust and oceans necessary to allow a species to step over from pre-civilization to civilization.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Is Industrial Gestation Magic?

Magic is a code word meaning that it cannot happen for scientific or economic grounds and industrial gestation simply means the growth of young organisms in industrial settings, as opposed to the evolutionary means, such as by budding, sprouting, seeding, chrysallis or pregnancy. On Earth, we do this with plant seeds continuously, and also with plant buds, insects and poultry, but not with mammals. The technology would be much more complex, but certainly not impossible in an advanced alien society. What is needed is a complete simulation of the environment that an embryo encounters. This includes the physical environment, as it develops along with the embryo, including the attachments if any, the nutritional and growth-controlling inputs, and the thermal and chemical baths. For some aliens, there may be tactile or auditory inputs as well. There may be a complex birth process. However, none of these would be beyond the capability of a highly advanced alien civilization. However, this does not mean that the costs could be borne if it was to become widespread.

What is feasible in a laboratory setting is not necessarily feasible on a mass-production scale. There are incredible savings possible arising from re-designing a laboratory scale device to mass production. For these industrial gestation devices, the care that might be needed in the laboratory setting would have to be automated. There would still need to be staffing, but significantly fewer per device. Robotics could be used for most of the operations, leaving staff demands for only the initiation or completion. Perhaps even the initiation could be largely automated. The separate production of the nutrient solutions or feedstock could be incorporated into the industrial facility, using less specialized ingredients.

One way to look at the cost feasibility of this technology on a mass scale is to compare the labor requirements to available labor. With everything automated to the maximum extent possible, perhaps one year of citizen-hours of labor might be required per new alien, principally at the last stage, but also at the beginning, for genetic choices to be made and during the middle, to monitor that everything was proceeding as desired. This might be an upper bound, on the premise that automation never becomes fully equivalent to an alien in intelligence or capabilities. Total citizen-hours of available labor per alien might be several decades of time, meaning that the labor costs are not prohibitive, even in this worst case scenario.

Resources are the other side of the ledger, but it is hard to imagine how these processes could consume large amounts of resources. The mass involved is not large, re-use would be overwhelmingly large, and most resources would not be unique in any way. Thus, neither from a technology nor a cost viewpoint is industrial gestation a magic concept.

The implications are extremely important. With industrial gestation, the alien civilization can much more easily take control of its own genetic makeup, and the training of young aliens as well. The development of this process would help revise the evolutionary path of older aliens having families to give rise to young aliens. The evolutionary path is one which is prone to being non-evolutionary, although this statement doesn’t make sense on first view. What happens is that as the alien civilization becomes more affluent, there is no evolutionary pressure toward genetic improvement. Genetic improvement only occurs when there is some sort of fitness testing, resulting in a difference in reproductive rate.

With no evolutionary pressure, the exact opposite is likely to occur, with the population distribution sliding toward emphasizing those genetic make-ups which maximize reproductive rate. If the alien civilization had a culture which emphasized success as a prerequisite for reproduction, some imitation of evolutionary pressure would still prevail; in the opposite situation, where reproduction was something which might interfere or distract from other goals in their society, then the reverse effect would take place. The nickname for the eventual result of this negative correlation is idiocracy, which is an unreachable situation, as the civilization would cease to function at its former level if a shortage of intelligent citizens occurred.

With industrial gestation, an attempt could be made to improve the genetics of the population, and any negative correlation between improved genetics and reproduction rate could be mitigated. However, this is a linear solution to an exponential growth problem, and it obviously cannot solve the problem by itself. As long as there is a subset of the population which uses evolutionary methods of reproduction and in which this negative correlation of genetic advantage and reproductive rate exists, there will be a growing fraction of the population with gradually declining genetic levels. Affluence is an unstoppable current in this situation.

There are many solutions an alien civilization could try to resolve this problem of affluence leading to negative genetic levels. The simplest is governance exerting some influence over the situation, through a variety of means. One would be education, another would be outreach, another would be regulation, another would be some sort of feedback taxation, and another might be a voluntary genetic improvement program. Any one of these might serve to tip the balance so that genetics could stay on the upward direction.

The feasibility of an industrial gestation process means that these solutions would not have to have as much of an effect as if there were no industrial gestation. The problem must be solved so there is no exponentially diminishing genetic level among any fixed fraction of the population, but the other side of the negative correlation between genetic levels and reproductive rate can be overcome with a constant supply of genetically improved citizens. Instead of having two sides of the problem to simultaneously solve, those in governance would only have to solve one side. The other side can be solved by simply devoting resources to the problem. Since there does not need to be a great amount of resources involved, nor an unavailable block of citizen time, there is no reason to assume that alien civilizations will be barred from star travel because of their inability to maintain good genetic levels among their home planet population.

Other implications of this realization are also large. This means that biological creatures can be created to design. If the civilization needs anything that a biological solution exists for, this will not be an insurmountable barrier for it. As one example, intellos, an artificially created biological, intelligent creature, could be created to fill various tasks or activities within the society, and if these are more cost-efficient that robotic solutions, they would be used. Other examples exist, and the availability of these solutions to problems of the civilization means it would have a very different character than one which was largely mechanical in nature.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Genetics and Magic

Magic is a nickname for something impossible to do but easy to imagine and portray. Genetics is just genetics. In an alien civilization, genetic manipulation of their own species may be so costly to do, safely and surely, that it cannot be afforded as a substitute for the random selection of genes that evolutionary breeding patterns provide. The goal can be as explicit as needed, meaning that the alien civilization would like to force evolution in the direction the civilization desires, meaning toward alien citizens with better health, longevity, strength, athleticism, intelligence, appearance, mental stability, and anything else that was considered a positive in their civilization. All that is necessary is for the civilization to figure out exactly how each gene in the genome works, not merely as a correlation with some observed attributes, but how it is awakened during the development of the organism from a zygote to an adult, and what roles it plays in the different cells of the organism, at each stage of its existence. They need to figure out how each variation that might be used affects the organism. This is a very formidable task. But is it out of reach for an alien civilization at the height of their research capability, when resources are plentiful and the existing population has sufficient genius-level members to undertake this research? If an alien civilization which is optimally disposed to be able to accomplish this cannot, the barrier must be universal and no alien civilizations will be able to.

Mechanization of DNA decoding, including epigenetic signals, might help make this feasible. Suppose there are a thousand different types of cells in the alien species. The task of determining the signaling that turns a gene on or off in a unique type of cell has to be determined, first of all. This might mean a thousand runs of a DNA decoding machine, which is negligible in costs. Extracting specific types of cells is also not prohibitive. Thus the map of chemical signaling which occurs during ontogeny is feasible; even we could do it within a century or two. Doing this for related species, numbering a hundred, in order to understand better what the signaling is, is also within cost bounds. Next the source of the signaling has to be found, in neighboring cells, or perhaps in something more distant once the initial equivalent of blood flow starts. Finding what molecule is used for the signaling is a chemical analysis task involving each individual cell type, and with the myriad numbers of molecules in any given cell, simple detection is not going to be a promising path to take.

Instead, some detailed research into the chemical classes of molecules that can be used in signaling epigenetic switching would need to be done, so that some markers that these classes have can be found. Each alien species might have its own, or there could be a sort of convergence. This does not matter as there would have been no contact between alien planets before this stage of civilizational development. In vitro experiments with DNA strands would be needed to narrow down the possibilities and then confirm the right one was detected for any particular transaction.

If we assume there are a thousand cell types, and double that to take into account unique cells in related species, and fifty possibilities for each cell, and ten citizen-years to solve one combination, that is a million citizen years of scientific and technical talent. Over two centuries, this means that there would have to be a staffing of fifty thousand scientists and technicians on this task. This is not a large amount for a population greater than a few billions. Thus, the signaling determination should be able to be accomplished over two centuries of work. Likely after the first ten percent was completed, ways to expedite the process could be invented, and the time reduced. But since the initial upper bound is feasible, this would not change the result.

Finding the source of the chemical signals would be a simultaneous research area, once the initial ones were found. Finding the source of these molecules in neighboring cells would not be anything like determining the chemical nature of the signaling molecules. Thus, it would be feasible to make a complete map of the development of cells within the alien species and within some related species.

Then comes the evaluation of the effect of each of the genes. At this point, knowledge is available of which genes are functioning in which cells, and this comes from knowing when they turn on and off. The effect of a genetic variant would be isolated to those cells in which it plays a role. Some genes would be functioning in every cell in the organism, and this might be the majority of them. Genes which function in all cells are likely doing the same thing in a wide variety of organisms, and these genes would be deciphered early in the genetic research period. However, these are not likely to be the genes that affect the qualities desired by the civilization for its successive generations of adults. Variations in these genes are likely to be fatal. There may be a few that have an effect on adult aliens, but the number would have to be quite small to have not been filtered out by the many generations that the alien species and all its predecessors underwent evolutionary pressure. Thus, work could be concentrated on a few genes in locations that were already found.

At this point, gene expression would have to be understood, if it was not already. That means that besides the map of gene signaling that was created, there would have to be a listing of what proteins are produced in each cell by each combination of genes, assuming that it is a many-to-one relationship in most situations. This listing should be deducible once the basic rules for the translation of genes to proteins are worked out. This again is not a show-stopper.

After the understanding is generated of what proteins are altered by a genetic variation, there would next be the task of determining the activity of each protein in a cell. What does the original protein do and what does the variation do? Most likely it is the same function, but not necessarily. If there are multiple copies of a gene, meaning many sources of a single protein, having a variation of one of those copies would produce a different protein without diminishing greatly the number of the originals. Thus, in some small set of situations, it might be necessary to re-engage the research task that determined the activity of each protein originally, in the baseline alien cell.

Neither the determination of the effect of a genetic variation, nor the unusual case of a single variation of a multiple copy gene, seem to take anywhere near the effort needed for the determination of the ontogeny of the organism down to the genetic signaling level. This can only mean that the determination of what gene copies the alien civilization would want to install in its citizens can be done, and it is not magic. Remaining to be addressed is the implementation of this knowledge.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What Genetic Modifications are Magic?

‘Magic’ is used here as a code word to mean something that, for one reason or another, cannot happen. Magic items can be impossible because of scientific reasons or economic ones. In this example, that would mean that there is some technical barrier that would prevent some type of genetic modifications from becoming universal, or that the cost of doing so would be prohibitive, even in an advanced alien civilization. One extreme case would be that any genetic modification would be feasible and affordable, and then the conclusion would be that no genetic modifications were magic. Another extreme case would be that the cost of a certain level of genetic modifications was comparable to the cost of raising a young alien from the first steps until they reached adult status, effectively doubling the cost to add a new alien to the adult population.

Since genetic modifications would create a tremendous difference in the nature of an advanced alien civilization, it is worthwhile examining this question. Previous discussions have assumed that the feasibility is there and the costs are low, but is this true?

There are two aspects to genetic modification. One is the technical side, meaning the procedures and equipment needed to either create a new string of genes, or to modify an existing one. It would also include the ability to map an existing string of genes, prior to any modifications. This is close to where Earth science is now. We on Earth have invented machines able to decipher and record strings of genes on almost any set of chromosomes, for any organism. The cost of such deciphering has dropped astronomically over the last few years. The modification part is also currently a topic of research, and appears likely to be solved within a few more years here on Earth. By solved, we mean the ability to remove any gene from a series, insert a new one wherever desired, or both, meaning replacing an existing gene with a different one. The methods used today do not do modifications of genes in place, but that step will likely occur over the next few decades. This last step will make modifications somewhat less chancy and more robust. But whether or not this step is completed here in a few years or much later than that, it does not seem to pose any feasibility problems.

The other aspect of genetic modification is further off for us, and therefore may be an obstacle not clearly envisioned. That aspect is the determination of what each gene does, in the context of the complete organism. The two ways of assessing the functions of each gene are the same two that appear in any investigation of a complex problem. One is statistical, and the other is normative.

With a large number of organisms of the same kind, with some genetic variation between them, a collection of attributes, perhaps quantitative, can be matched against the genetic code for each individual organism. For those genes where there are variations, it might be possible to determine a correlation between attributes and gene variations. This is easier to do with gene variations that lead to single changes, such as some non-fatal problem. When there are interacting genes, the problem of translating gene variations to attribute changes becomes much harder. First, there is no list of all attributes that might be affected, and creating a list requires more than just taxonomy. Second, there is no reason to assume that a single gene only creates a single change. Third, there is no reason to assume that genes do not cooperate to produce some attribute. These three reasons, and certainly more, mean that the statistical approach will be a slow one, and perhaps not successful.

Another problem with the statistical approach is that there may be no variations present in some genes. Without these variations, nothing about the function of the genes can be determined. Even if there are some variations, the numbers present may be small. If a gene variation is only present in one in a million individuals, there will be no good statistics without a very large population. This means genetic deciphering of a huge number of individuals, at a large cost. For bacteria this might be a feasible approach, but for larger organisms, not so much.

These and other problems with the statistical approach to interpreting the functions of individual genes means the other approach, the normative one, needs to be considered as well. This approach means that an understanding of the entire ontogeny of the organism. The problem with this is that the original zygote or equivalent is composed of identical cells, but they soon differentiate. This differentiation is one part of the genetic control of the cells, and this differentiation would not be solely controlled by the genetic code, but also by chemical signals from other cells. In other words, each successive modification of a pluripotent stem cell would have to be understood, as well as the determination of the signals which lead to each of these modifications. Some genes in the genetic code may be tail-end genes, which only come into operation after a cell has differentiated to the final stage, such as Kupffer cells, which are macrophagic cells only found in a liver, or photoreceptive ganglions in a retina or a thousand others. Others could be front-end genes that operate even in the stem cell. Others could be coding for the chemical receptors which govern differentiation.

To understand genes from a normative viewpoint, a complete ontogenic map would have to be drawn, showing what different differentiations occur, in all the different organs of the organism, and what genes control the differentiation and then which genes control the quantitative aspects of each differentiated cell. Genes do not differ between differently differentiated cells, but the epigenetic methylation on each gene can control how the gene operates, or if it operates at all. The question, is the situation simply too complex to be completely figured out? If so, the genetic transformation will not be able to reach the limits that can be so easily imagined.

It is possible to do, not a genetic transcription, but an epigenetic transcription. These would have to be done for each type of differentiated cell in the organism in order to figure out the functions of genes in different cell types. Knowing the difference in epigenetic controls in each type of cell would help to determine the function of the genes, but would certainly not provide the full story. There would have to be a coupling of the genetic variation information with the differentiation information, as well as the mechanisms by which differentiation happens. The very large amount of research needed for all this might never be supported on an alien planet, as the large majority of it does not lead to any clear benefits. Perhaps the best tentative conclusion would be that only in alien civilizations which have a surfeit of productivity at the time of the genetic grand transformation would be able to accomplish the transformation. Both the success stories and the failures need to be considered in assessing the presence, longevity, and traveling of alien species.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Is AI Magic?

AI is what everybody knows about. It is embodied in the idea that computers will someday be able to do everything a human mind can do. For instance, to play board games, to drive cars, to recognize people, to interpret human speech and respond to it, to design circuit boards and skyscrapers, to watch for intrusions, to keep track of bills or accounts, to look up interesting facts, and a thousand more tasks. It also means the computers will learn by themselves. Humans teach themselves many, many things, and in order to equal human intelligence, AI would have to do that as well.

One could quibble and say AI begins not at the peak of human intelligence, but when a computer is just as capable as a rather dumb person. This is not as mundane as it sounds. There is a lot a smart human being can think of that a dumb one cannot.

If we wish to go on and predict how AI will transform alien civilizations, and make them more efficient, or powerful, or anything at all, it is necessary to ensure that AI is not magic. In other words, AI is not one of those things that it is easy to think of and dream about, but for some basic reason, cannot happen. A prime example of magic is faster-than-light space travel. If physics weren’t already advanced beyond many other sciences, and it did not have a handle on what was the nature of force and energy in the universe, FTL might not be so easily recognized as magic. If this latter situation was accepted, alienology might be expecting space travel to be happening a thousand times faster than is actually possible, and be a thousand times more prevalent. This would result in a huge difference in what was predicted.

Perhaps AI is another form of magic, but it simply hasn’t been recognized as such yet. While this won’t have as strong an effect as FTL would, it would have a strong effect. So it behooves us to analyze AI more carefully. This means human intelligence, the target capability, needs to be sorted out in some more detail.

Human beings process data with neural nets, and that may give an illusion that AI must do the same. The recent work with what is called ‘deep learning’, which is the same thing that has been called neural networks for fifty years, may support that illusion. Neural networks can be used in recognition situations, where a machine can observe repetitions of an activity or an image, and draw conclusions from it. Humans recognize faces using a neural network – because they do everything with one. But it is not necessary to do that. Algorithms, meaning some mathematical formulas that can be embodied in an efficient computer program, can do such recognition much faster than a neural network, measured in processing units. Algorithms can replace neural networks in very many situations. Sometimes, it is not at all clear how to write such an algorithm or what values to use for it, and running a competent neural network might assist in figuring one out.

Motion is another example of where algorithms can be superior to neural networks. Having a robot move requires complicated algorithms, and the big breakthrough was learning how to write them in layers. Since the brain works in layers, this was not too surprising, but programming in this way was finally seen to make sense.

Algorithms are very useful in trying to get a computer to achieve AI, as it simulates a neural net very poorly, and has no chance of having the same number of processors as the brain does, as each neuron is a simple data processor. Nor could anyone expect to have the same variety of processors in a computer as in the brain: the number of discrete types of neurons is large, but controversial, as some differences are hard to detect.

It can be surmised that, if there are tasks which can only be done by a humongous neural network, and not a collection of algorithms, AI will not be achievable, even in computers as large as we wish to conceive of. So, are there any of these?

The brain’s neural net is extremely good at linkages. It can remember a long series of events, and many details about each. But each detail has linkages to other things, such as other events or series of events, and each of these will have details. Each specific detail is linked within the brain, in a way that a computer database cannot imitate. A computer can have an immense database, capable of recording much more data than the brain can, but the brain remembers unstructured data, or rather data where each detail has its own unique connections, features, linkages, and events.

Memory additions in a computer database have to have some structure that the program which interprets them understands. The brain has no such structures. It operates through something that would almost appear random, if there was any way it could be recorded and exposed to analysis. For example, a unique word might be connected with a book where it was first noticed, and much could be remembered about the book. Instead, it might be associated with some individual who used it more often than most, and that individual might have a huge assortment of details, able to be structured in many different ways. A particular color might be associated with a thousand different things, and the particular thousand that one individual remembers could be quite distinct from the number than another individual remembers. These things form the context of the thoughts that emerge from one individual’s brain, and lead to the creativity that humans possess. Can an AI program be made to operate with such complete randomness of structure? Is there any AI without such creativity?

Perhaps it can be said that simpler tasks, such as face recognition or object recognition or any of a huge number of individual tasks can be translated into algorithms, and a computer possessing the ability to perform these tasks might be considered intelligent in some degree. But to be able to mimic the thinking ability of humans requires destructuring data, and algorithms do not work with that. Furthermore, it is not likely that microprocessors can ever come close to simulating the huge number of neurons that function inside a human brain, so that even if there was some way to build random linkages, there would not be enough to become equivalent to a competent person’s thinking.

So, AI is not magic, as many intelligence tasks can be done by algorithms or neural networks, or combinations of them, but building an AI that has the equivalent of talented human intelligence is. Trying to describe an alien civilization following their reaching the final step of technology will be a bit harder as the line between these two levels of AI would have to be drawn, and then the implications of that line inferred.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Sustainable Interplanetary Colonies

When an alien civilization, with fully advanced technology, is making up its collective mind as to whether to travel to other solar systems, and colonize the best of the bunch, it has certain considerations. One of these is feasibility. Other solar systems are marvelously distant. Just getting a probe there takes a large effort. But even if we grant that they could be determined enough to commit the resources necessary to attempt this, there is the problem of sustainability. A colony in another solar system simply cannot depend on a supply line from the home planet. It is too far and too costly. So, plans have to be made for a finite commitment from the home planet, and after that, the new colony must be able to sustain itself.

This is one reason that origin planets, ones which develop their own life and evolve into an entire ecosystem, would be preferred far above anything else. There may be some incompatibilities between life on the colony planet and life on home planet, such as DNA differences, but these are small compared to the needs of a colony which is just planted on a lifeless rock and expected to generate everything it needs from mining there.

It may be the unfortunate actual state of the galaxy that there are very few origin planets anywhere. This means that an alien civilization has the choice to colonize planets not suited for life on the surface, not possessing the atmosphere needed by the aliens for breathing. This means domes or underground sealed chambers. This adds to the supplies that the original ship or ships must bring to the distant solar system.

One question to ask is, can there be a sustainable colony on a barren planet? Sustainability is not the same as feasibility. With enough resources flowing in from the home planet, the colony could continue to survive. This could happen on a planet or satellite within the home solar system. If the colony there was providing valuable resources, at a cost which was affordable, the colony could be supported as long as the resources kept coming. Having a supply chain within a solar system can be done in some expedient ways, but there is no analog of one for a planet or satellite in another solar system. There is one benefit that a home solar system colony provides: it is a prototype for a barren planet colony in another solar system.

This means that if there is some doubt as to how to do a colony, and the level of engineering on the alien home planet is not sufficient to determine some details of how a colony would function, they can attempt to do one without anything like the cost or risk of a remote solar system venture. By this time in their developmental progress, their engineering skills should be sufficient to answer most of the questions that would arise about such a colony, and their computational capability should likewise be able to determine, or assist in determining, if such a colony could be designed to be self-sufficient.

Consider for a moment what sustainable means in this situation. It means that every resource that is brought for the colony's use by the initial supply vessels must be located on the planet and obtained at a cost that can be accommodated by the energy sources that are found there. Energy can be thought of as the currency of the colony. The myriad materials that are needed for an energy source, such as a simple fission reactor, have to be found, as discrete ore sources, mined, converted, transported, refined, and then fashioned into useful parts and components. This has to be done for a fraction of the energy that these resources will eventually produce. It goes without saying that energy storage or distribution within the colony must also be accomplished within the same energy budget.

One aspect is the amount of fissile materials that are present. If the initial supply vessels brought with them fissile material in sufficient quantity, then simply mining fertile materials might be sufficient. A simple breeder reactor could be assembled using the ship’s fissile material and the newly obtained fertile materials, hopefully leading to a net production of fissile material. If the supply vessel did not bring this, for reasons of intrinsic radioactivity or anything else, then the mining operation would have to locate its own source of fissile materials.

The amount of this material is directly related to the age of the colony solar system. Uranium-235 is deposited in the planets and satellites of the solar system from the amount in the original cloud of dust and gas that formed the solar system, and after than formation, no more is made, any more than other elements are transmuted into existence. In an older solar system, much of the uranium-235 would have decayed into lead, leaving only very weakly enriched uranium-238 behind.

The other quantity that affects the distant colony's chances to become self-sufficient in nuclear energy relates to the amount of uranium in the original gas cloud, which in turn depends on the processes which formed it, notably the number of supernovas which have detonated nearby. This might not be a quantity which could be measured remotely, meaning that one or more probes would have to be deployed. Note that deploying a probe means a delay of centuries in the launch of the colony vessels.

If the solar system is old, or wasn’t bequeathed much uranium prior to its forming a solar system, the prospective colonists might just choose to bypass it, or else rely on some other energy source. There aren’t many to choose from. A barren planet not too far from its star might serve as a good place to collect solar photons. Again, can the materials needed to form such a system be obtained for the net energy produced during the lifetime of the system? We are not really sure yet about this aspect of solar power ourselves, but within a few decades it should become clear if a solar energy system infrastructure can be afforded based on its own power production capability. An alien civilization would of course know this long before they even contemplated interstellar travel and colonization.

One interesting takeaway from this is that we may be thinking a bit about out own interplanetary colonies, and the information we learn from this can be useful in telling us if alien civilizations could manage to pull off colonization. The very understandable return on net power calculations should translate over, with appropriate modifications for a different solar system, and inform us of this. If the answer is negative, we can say we have one very good reason why aliens have not spread throughout the galaxy: Too few origin planets and nothing else is sustainable.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Needs, Wants and Satisfaction in Alien Civilizations

It is easy to imagine alien civilizations with different levels of satisfaction of the citizens’ needs and wants. For civilizations past asymptotic technology, there are some additional considerations.

If we use the term needs to mean the biological needs of the alien citizen, meaning food, shelter and so on, and wants to mean everything beyond that, then by the time the civilization reaches this stage, they will completely understand how wants are formed in the alien brain, and will likewise understand the means for putting those wants there, mostly during the youth period of each alien’s life, but also during the adult period. What choices might whatever is used for governance in the alien civilization make?

The options they have and the motivation they might consider depend on the stage of the civilization, where we refer to the scarcity level currently being faced. An alien civilization, unless on a fairly barren planet, will have a period when its resources are abundant, and they could consume more per year if they chose to. Then there will be a later stage in which resources are no longer abundant. The decisions might be different.

In the abundance stage, the governance elements could make the decision to be as frugal as possible, or could decide to provide the citizens with a high level of consumption. The trade-off is with the length of time this abundance stage lasts. No matter where they live, the planet has finite resources that are obtainable with the best technology possible, or the solar system if the economics of interplanetary mining are favorable, and there is only the choice of how fast to use them up.

Since there is no guidance provided by the universe to an alien civilization, it has to make up its own directions and choices. There is no reason why they might be compelled to make resources last as long as possible, nor is there any reason why they might not. They have to make such choices in a vacuum. They have their own traditions, their own history to tap into, and they have a great ability to reason about their situation. But the choice of some particular tradition as a reference to follow is completely arbitrary, as is the choice of a starting point for reasoning about how to dole out resources and the products that are made from them.

The other side of this coin is that there is no pressure from the population to make any of these choices, in the long term. If, during some alien’s lifetime, the amount of satisfaction of needs and wants drastically reduces, they would experience some negative feeling, which are an inevitable result of the mismatch between the associations already established with their life and the level of resources provided. However, over the long term of large numbers of generations, resource provision can be gradually lowered with no reaction, as the neural associations associated with these resources and these effects of their consumption can be adjusted for each new generation.

A set of unsatisfied wants does more than simply provide unhappiness. If the alien civilization chooses to induce some feelings of self-reliance in each generation of alien citizens, the mismatch between wants and resources might impel the citizens to take on some tasks, otherwise done by automation or intellos, genetically designed and specially bred creatures serving to supplement or replace robots. If there was any savings in energy usage or resource consumption when aliens themselves performed some tasks in the civilization’s activities. It is hard to imagine many tasks where aliens could exceed the performance of robots or intellos.

Consider transport. For an alien to travel to a location, pick up an item, and then travel to a destination where it is left, there is the cost of moving the alien as well as the item. A specialized transport automaton would be expected to have less weight and therefore use less energy and materials. Only if there was some unique special transport situations where the versatility of an alien would be beneficial could it even be potentially possible for aliens to out-compete automatons. Only if the lack of sunk costs in the alien, as compared to the construction cost and maintenance costs of the automaton were a significant factor could this happen.

There might be some possibilities in the areas of interfaces with other aliens. Having dedicated automatons to interact with aliens again represents a cost, the energy and materials that go into constructing and maintaining it, while each alien is already provided for by the civilization, so the equivalent costs are not applicable.

This is reminiscent of the earlier eras of an alien civilization. When it first started, aliens may have been only hunters and gatherers, gradually transitioning into agriculture. There, the time horizon for planning was one or two generations. An alien would be most concerned about the survival of his group, whether that be a clan or a hunting band. After that, the young aliens might be considered. But resource usage was small in this era and the consideration of finite resources may not have even been dreamed of. It would only be during and after the industrial grand transformation that these ideas would percolate up. Thus, any traditions that the alien civilization could recall might lead to a high level of resource consumption, even without any consideration whatsoever of exhaustion. Exhaustion of individual deposits of resources would be the first sign that something different was happening, and only over time, as more and more individual deposits were exhausted, would there appear the general idea of all the resources of the whole planet being limited.

Resource exhaustion might first enter the thinking of the young alien civilization as a constraint on their growth in technology and living standards, meaning that the search for alternative deposits or substitutions would dominate their activity. There is no clear clue when an alien civilization will start thinking about itself in the long term, except that it is likely to happen after the very rapid change that happens in the various transformations leading to asymptotic technology come to an end, and civilization settles down into something quite constant for a long period. Then long term thinking might seep into the thought of the alien civilization. Then they would be ready to face the decisions discussed above, as to how long they wanted to survive before becoming extinct or declining to a very primitive level. It is this time when the alternative of star travel becomes quite interesting.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hydrogen or Antihydrogen?

Will alien civilizations in their asymptotic technology stage run on hydrogen or antihydrogen? The case for hydrogen is simple. It can be generated almost anywhere on their planet and transported, using some of the hydrogen itself for fuel, to any of the arcologies that aliens are expected to live in. It can be turned into electricity at the destination point. Even with our primitive knowledge of energy systems, it seems that making hydrogen can be done efficiently, meaning without much loss of energy. Splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and only storing the hydrogen means that the atmosphere takes on the job of moving most of the weight needed for energy transformation. We assume their atmosphere has oxygen, as that is the product of photosynthesis, which in turn is the most efficient way for plants to grab energy.

At the destination end, hydrogen can efficiently be turned into electricity for those uses of electricity the alien civilization still has. We think of fuel cells, and hardly use any, but efficiency falls out at about 50%, without trying hard. Add in some centuries of R&D, and a much higher efficiency, or alternatively a more efficient replacement, should be on the table. With no pollution but only water as an output, it is a simple solution to keeping their atmosphere unaltered.

On Earth, distributing fuel was the common procedure prior to the invention of electricity distribution systems. For example, each home might get a coal delivery or a whale oil delivery or a kerosene delivery, and it would use them for heat or light. On alien planets with advanced technology, having hydrogen tanks delivered to wherever they were needed goes back to this method, and much fewer scarce resources are needed, e.g., copper. All kinds of engines can work on hydrogen, so whatever is convenient and efficient might be used for transport. Fuel cells are small in size, and could be used wherever needed; whatever the aliens invent to replace or improve them would be more so. Recall that technology is absolutely independent of who does the research. This means that all alien worlds would use the same energy system so if hydrogen works on one planet, all planets will figure it out and use the same thing. Even the details should work out fairly identically. For example, if an engine of type X is found to be the most efficient in power per weight on planet Y, planet Z will figure out exactly the same thing, and also use engines of type X.

If transportation proves to be only a small increment of cost for the hydrogen system, fusion plants or hydroelectric plants or solar farms or whatever they finally evolve into can be anywhere where transportation can travel. To be more explicit, if you need a power plant producing N terajoules equivalent of hydrogen for a city, if the plant is located near the city, and the transport from a distant location takes 5% of that amount, you need a power plant producing 1.05 N terajoules located at the more convenient site.

Some transport wouldn’t do well with hydrogen because of the low energy per weight ratio, considering tankage. The aliens would no doubt, if they had uses for it, like aircraft, come up with an efficient hydrogen to liquid hydrocarbon conversion system, using octane, dimethyl benzene, xylene or any of dozens of other options or even a combination, so they could easily fly aircraft or whatever they chose to use for long distance rapid transport. Depending on the conversion efficiency of the hydrogen to liquid hydrocarbon system, it might even be useful to have a secondary system for transporting octane around. Liquid hydrocarbons are very efficient in energy per weight, tankage included, and if produced in a process that withdrew carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the conversion process, would be neutral in atmospheric contributions.

It may seem somewhat risky to assume we can figure out the energy system for an alien planet far away in the galaxy and far advanced over our technology, but we can understand that science for them is the same as science for us, and with an atmosphere arising from the evolution of energy-seeking cells, there are not many energy-efficient options that do not include a closed cycle. Perhaps they will find some way of simply packaging energy other than in chemical bonds in hydrocarbons.

One option is antihydrogen, the simplest neutral form of antimatter. We haven’t produced it and experimented with it so that we can't tell what the tankage requirements are. It may turn out that there is a high quantum barrier to annihilation, and so a simple hydrogen tank can be used for antihydrogen. All we know about is high energy reactions that are seen in accelerators. These may be incredibly misleading. If antimatter in a matter tank is stable, the energy to weight ratio goes up by many orders of magnitude. The waste products of annihilation are nothing. Annihilation produces pure energy and leave no residue behind.

There are a number of inventions the alien civilizations would have to come up to use antihydrogen. First, there would have to be a high efficiency way to make it. We have no clue at this point, but add a hundred years to our physics knowledge and it may be that there are simple ways. Second, there would also have to be a simply and compact way to cause it to undergo annihilation. If it is stable in tankage, this means it would be stable in contact with everything. Perhaps ionization would be enough to overcome the barriers. This would simplify energy production, but it would mean there would be risk from cosmic rays ionizing something in an antihydrogen tank, leading to an annihilation reaction. If this means a chain reaction might be initiated, we are talking about the equivalent of a nuclear bomb. On the other hand, if ionization does not work to produce annihilation, tanks are safer, but energy production is more difficult. At any rate, Earth physicists have a lot to work on for the next century or two.

If we ever build big telescopes, such as kilometer-sized dishes at a Lagrange point, and can see alien planets, we might be able to discern if they are using antimatter rockets in their solar system. This would be a clue that the antimatter production problem is solvable, but not that on-planet use was feasible. Given the distances, it will be quicker to figure it out ourselves rather than try to communicate over a few hundred light years and ask them about it.