Sunday, June 28, 2015

Roadblocks to Asymptotic Technology

Asymptotic technology is what you have when you finish science and have explored technology to its creative boundaries.  Maybe it would take a civilization a millennium to do so, maybe a factor of ten from this depending on all the circumstantial details of the civilization.  The point is that science is the same for all civilizations, and that anything that can be figured out will be figured out, if science and engineering progress is maintained.  Doing experiments or observations or theoretical calculations or other science development work takes time, but the details of the work are a function not of the civilization, but of the scientific questions.  For example, learning to separate transplutonics requires some effort, some thinking, some equipment, some materials, but these requirements don’t depend on the civilization that is learning this.  One civilization might have sharper people than another, or be more forthcoming with the money for the equipment, or be more prone to making mistakes, and many other factors could serve to determine the exact amount of effort and other items that this example of learning might take.  So perhaps there is a factor of ten up or down in the time it takes a civilization to do this and to come up with their knowledge of transplutonics separation.  But there is not a factor of a thousand up or down.  The science has a great influence on the time, not the civilization.  The amount of knowledge necessary to put together theories and specific data, such as ionization potentials for each element, is dependent on the world of science, not the world of the scientists to the orders of magnitude we are discussing.

Of course, the civilization could decide to stop doing science, to delay studying transplutonics or some other example for a while, or there could be a social breakdown taking a century to recover or many other things could happen to change the date when the civilization finishes its scientific work.  The society could exterminate itself, and the time to finish science could be indeterminate, as it doesn’t happen.  But under the assumption that the society continues at an advanced technology level, the time needed to finish their science and engineering work is pretty small, compared to other times, such as the lifetime of a star. 

Furthermore, the science that civilization A finds will be just exactly the same as civilization B finds.  Exactly.  Of course there could be errors made by civilization A, but we are discussing asymptotic technology, after the errors have been reduced to a tiny amount.  So, after a time of the order of millennia, asymptotic technology gets wrapped up by a civilization that chooses to and doesn’t wreck its own social infrastructure too many times. 

Is it possible that a civilization might not get there, and it instead reaches some plateau where it stays until it expires?  Could it lose some of its technology and decline in capability?   This blog post discusses how this might happen, and what might cause it. 

The alternative for a civilization that deliberately stops along the way to asymptotic technology is that it may regress, gradually losing its knowledge and the capability to use it.  It would seem that stability at a plateau is much less likely, as if the society which is in stasis undergoes some transition, they could jump back on the track to asymptotic technology.  On the other hand, if the factors which are preventing technology from advancing grow a little stronger, some more technology could be abandoned or lost.  So perhaps it is reasonable to conclude that a civilization would have to make a collective decision to stop technological development at some fixed point in some fashion and then work to preserve what had been done so far.  They could alternatively choose to maintain only a subset of it.  Yet even with a collective decision, there would still have to be scientists charged with preserving what was not proscribed, and they would be around if that collective decision was abandoned after a century or some short time, and able to start the process of science and technology development again.  If the number of scientists or the quality of their training declined, then the residual technology available to the society would decline, leaving the plateau in the other direction.

So, a little bit of thinking about what a society attempting to stay on a plateau would have to do indicates that the plateau is unstable, and easy to depart from.  Having a peak and a decline would seem more likely.

So, a better way to frame the question about reaching asymptotic technology is to ask what might cause a society to reach a peak of scientific and engineering knowledge and then start losing it.  Perhaps the loss would be slow, as measured in millennia, or fast, as measured in centuries.  We leave aside how to measure the amount of scientific knowledge the society has, as our understanding of what the ultimate of science is remains unclear. 

To build up science and engineering, the civilization needs thinking beings, access to observational data, equipment of a large number of types, funding to pay for all the work and materials, and some places to do so.  It needs a way for those involved in science and engineering to have their work checked and validated, and then gradually improved upon.   This means a mass of other scientists and engineers.  There are other things it needs.  In order to have no holes in science, there has to be permission granted by society, in terms of hard control or in terms of funding, to study anything.  Scientists and engineers are embedded in the civilization, and if the civilization has, for example, memes which prohibit the asking of certain questions, for example examining the nature of the sun god, then for as long as these memes hold sway, science cannot reach its ultimate level.  In this example, knowledge about the sun and all the things that it feeds into would be unavailable.     

If for some reason, thinking beings continue to decline in number, the rate at which science will progress must drop and then pass below a critical threshold.  If all the beings are thinking, but their population declines, or if only some subset is capable of thinking at a scientific frontier level and the population of this subset declines, science will peak and decline.

If there are restrictions on observations and experiments, science will work around it but holes will be left in the body of scientific knowledge and engineering know-how.  The size of the holes will determine the damage this does, and just as a plateau was unstable, these holes may grow or shrink with time as the decades and centuries pass.  Funding may be a problem, and if the society does not become sufficiently productive, more expensive experiments and observations will not be possible.  So, if for any reason the economy contracts, science can peak and decline, as the trained population diminishes, or the things which they can do is further restricted by the need to use the products of the society elsewhere.

Thus, there are two roadblocks to the achievement of asymptotic technology that are easy to see, and other ones appear to be unstable and not likely to be a conclusive obstacle, or else turn into one of the two main ones.  The first is the loss of creatures able to think clearly.  The second is the loss of productivity of society.  Either of these will result in a scientific peak and then a decline, and if they are both avoided, asymptotic technology should be achieved, without holes in it, as limitation memes are likely to be eroded with time.

This implies that any alien civilization with star-faring capability will have the same technology.  Perhaps star-faring will be possible at the 90% level of technology, but since interstellar travel is likely to take centuries, unless faster than light travel is feasible, the remaining technology will be just about wrapped up by the time they reach their destination.  

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