Friday, July 3, 2015

Minefields on the Way to Asymptotic Technology

As discussed elsewhere, asymptotic technology is the final result of scientific investigation and engineering development, where a civilization understands all the aspects of anything science can explain, which includes almost everything, and also understands how to do anything that is possible to engineer. It is a state of a civilization when it has finished researching everything from top to bottom. It does not take too long to get there, evaluated in the time scale of almost anything geological or evolutionary.

It is possible that an alien civilization, with intelligent creatures of some type, would not get to the final state, because of various reasons, such as running out of talent or resources, and these roadblocks were discussed in a different post. Things may get a bit more dramatic than cultural exhaustion or the other roadblocks which might occur. These we call minefields, as they can result in the self-destruction of the alien civilization. Because the road to asymptotic technology is so short, compared to evolving intelligence or changing the atmosphere of a planet, they can arrive in a minefield somewhat suddenly, leaving the civilization little time to respond. In other words, these minefields may be a possible Great Filter. As discussed in multiple posts in this blog, there are all kinds of possible Great Filters. Recall a Great Filter is an obstacle somewhere on the pathway from the stage of a planet with no self-replicating anythings to the stage where it is taking its first voyage to another solar system. A Great Filter is an obstacle that is common to all planets, and is such a serious obstacle that very few planets, if any, give rise to the ultimate stage of civilization, that of star-faring.

Great Filters were conceived of as one category of answers to the question of why we don’t see aliens around. They may also be related to the question of why we don’t see any signatures of them with our meager observational skills, but there are very many answers to that question as well which do not involve a Great Filter. Nevertheless, Great Filter concepts are great fun to think about, and may help us understand something about alien civilizations or the lack thereof.

By a minefield I mean something that blows up the civilization, rather than simply bothers some of the aliens personally or in groups. Blowing up a civilization does not mean some sort of explosion, but is used instead in a metaphoric sense. A civilization blows up when it ceases to function as a civilization at the same level, and reverts to some earlier, more primitive level. The civilization still exists, but it has been damaged and limited in function, and may be so traumatized that the decision is made by some collective body of aliens that they will never again get on the road to asymptotic technology. They may destroy some or most of the scientific literature that was accumulated or otherwise make it impossible to ever again attempt to advance science or return it to where it was when the minefield was encountered. They could eliminate any institutions involved with science or the training of new generations of scientists. There could be a persecution of individuals involved in it. But one way or another, science comes to a permanent halt on the planet, at least for a long time when the memory of the events that made the traumatization happen are forgotten.

This assumes that the alien civilization is unified, so that the trauma extends throughout the planet, or perhaps even to outposts on other planets in the same solar system. Recall that the pathway we are discussing extends to the first interstellar expeditions, not the first interplanetary ones. Interplanetary expeditions can be done at an earlier stage of technology, when some of the minefields might not yet have been reached.

It is not really conclusive that the first interstellar expeditions must await asymptotic technology, or that there is actually a date when asymptotic technology is reached, and the launch of the starship takes place the day after that. Instead, the concept of asymptotic technology is that technological progress, if you could plot such a thing, looks like a logistics curve. There are many varieties of logistics curves, but they have one thing in common which characterizes them, their shape. There is a long portion of the curve when it is near zero, slowly, slowly climbing until it gets near a transition point, and then the slope of the curve drastically increases, meaning that the development of technology gets faster and faster. Then an inflection point is passed, and technology progress gets slower and slower, until it again falls to near zero. But at the final phase, technology is at its ultimate state, and in the initial phase, it is non-existent. Since the curve is smoothly varying, there is no final date when the end is reached, but instead, tinier and tinier bits are done year by year, filling in some gaps which might not have been obvious before. It is hypothesized that star travel starts when technology is near the upper limit of the logistics curve.

In order to be designated a minefield, there has to be some way in which the civilization is severely injured or damaged. We may not see at this time what ones might exist, and there are probably some which are not even imagined now here on Earth, but some examples of possibilities will clarify what is meant.

Consider damage as death or debility of very large numbers of aliens in a short time. This might come from some biological weapons, invented by some faction and possibly deliberately or accidentally released. We do not have the knowledge now to understand the mechanisms by which biological weapons might be built by an alien civilization, as it would depend on their biology, but the concept of one is that it is transmitted somehow to a large number of aliens, and is perhaps lethal or debilitating to many or most of those who are recipients of it. This type of weapon would be made possible by advances in microbiology or perhaps genetics or other related fields, and technology advances may make it easy for the capability to construct such things to be in the hands of small groups or even individuals. In other words, the development of genetics might lead to a capability for mass destruction that would be usable by small numbers of dissident or disturbed aliens, who might for some reason desire to do it. This could be a Great Filter, if science is such that it leads inexorably to this capability.

Another minefield might lie in the area of artificial intelligence, but perhaps not even in the level of AI where it imitates the intelligence level of the aliens themselves, but only achieves some lesser level. If there is communication set up between controllers of different aspects of the infrastructure, it might be that some anomaly in the construction of these, or in the automated programming of them, that would lead to a destruction of critical infrastructure by the network of semi-intelligent controllers.

Surely imaginative people can today come up with other interesting possibilities for minefields along the way to asymptotic technology. But can all of them be anticipated and all blocked by an alien civilization rushing along on the way to more and more advanced technology? If not, we have a potential Great Filter.

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