Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Asymptotic Technology

In order to attempt to determine some facets of potential alien life on other planets, a particular concept is useful to facilitate discussion.  It is ‘Asymptotic Technology’.  This is the ultimate level of technology. 

It is hard to imagine that technological improvements can go on indefinitely, or that the getting close to the limit will take very long.  The first of these two ideas, that technology itself has fixed limits that cannot be surpassed, comes from the realization that there are natural laws that limit what can be done.  Consider the most obvious of them.  How fast will a spaceship ever be able to go?  Maybe the limit is the speed of light.  Maybe there is some means to surpass it, but that will have a limit as well.  Perhaps the limit comes from the laws of physics, or perhaps it comes from engineering tradeoffs.  Perhaps the limit is different for different particle densities, meaning that intergalactic flight can be faster (or slower) than intragalactic flight.  But whatever the limiting factor is, it is a limit.  The same concept is applicable to all types of technology.  How dense a memory storage device can be made?  Atomic limits should prevail.  How smart an organic brain, per cubic centimeter, can you design?  How efficient a genetic code can be invented, if DNA is not the most efficient?  What energy sources can be tapped for a positive net return of energy?  And so on. 

The point is simply that there are limits, not that we have much of a clue what they will be.  And if there are limits, different alien societies will find the same ones, if they keep pushing their technology.  So, the concept of asymptotic technology is a very valuable and important one for thinking about alien civilizations.  They will all have the same capability in technology.  One might have more resources than another, but technologically, they will be the same, if they have had enough time and have made enough effort to find these limits.

This leads to the second part of the concept. It doesn’t take too long to get to the end of technology development, where a civilization knows everything that there is to know about what it can do with technology.  Obviously there is an immense amount of data about the universe, such as details of all its planets, so knowledge itself is virtually unlimited.  But technological knowledge is not, and there is not all that much of it.  This last point comes from the rate of progress determined here on Earth.  Over a few centuries, we have made great leaps in developing our technology, even though it may still be very primitive compare to asymptotic technology.  This means that the asymptotic limits should be achievable in a matter of millennia, not millions of years.  Millennia are a flash of time in the life of a planet. 

Any civilization that passes through the technology phase and survives for long times afterward, meaning tens, hundreds, or thousands of millennia, is going to have the same technology.  This means that if one civilization were to contact another, they would not be able to trade technology, as both would have the same.  If there was an optimal way to communicate over long interstellar distances, they would both know it, and be using it. 

Technology will also spread to other aspects of society beyond hard science.  It will encompass every part of society.  For example, we will understand how our brains work.  This will lead to an understanding of what makes art impressive, and then we will be able to generate art of whatever kind exists that is maximal in its effect.  So there will be no art to share either.  Both civilizations will have the same capability.

Genetics will be subject to asymptotic technology as well.  We will know how to make organisms do anything we want up to the limits of genetics and biology.  And these limits will be the same for any civilization.  If it is useful to create some type of plant in one civilization, the other will find it useful to do so as well if the environment is the same.  In other words, technology will replace evolution.  Again, one civilization will have nothing to offer to another one that it does not already have. 

In all likelihood, civilizations that come into contact with one another will be in the asymptotic technology stage, and so be almost identical.  Their planets may be different, but if we assume that the aliens live in environments they construct themselves, these will be the same. 

If a civilization in the asymptotic phase were to come into contact with one still in its very short technology exploration phase, the younger one would have absolutely nothing of interest to offer to the older one.  No art, no creatures or plants, no insights about the mind, life itself, or psychology, no inventions, no nothing would be of interest to a society in the asymptotic phase.  There would be virtually no reason whatsoever for any sort of a trade arrangement, even if it turns out that trade over interstellar distances is feasible. 

Thus, benign interstellar contact can be predicted to be virtually nil.  The answer to the Great Filter question posed in an earlier blog is even clearer with this exposition on asymptotic technology.  No advanced civilization has any interest in interstellar communication, trade or tourism.  A society that was in the technology gathering phase might want to speed up its technology development by learning from another older society, but all it does it change the time to reach the asymptotic level.  Whether that is less expensive, considering the costs for interstellar interaction, than simply developing the technology at home, remains to be seen.  Consider also that traveling on a round trip to another civilization’s home only a hundred light years away is likely to take millennia, at least until some faster-than-light technology is developed.  Those millennia might be more than enough to finish off technology exploration at home, so that the return of the explorers with some new technology would be met with the home world already having found it themselves.  All in all, even for the brief length of time that it takes to develop technology, it is likely that interstellar exploration, tourism and commerce are losing propositions and will most likely will never come into existence anywhere in our galaxy.

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