Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Alien Bootstrapping Quartet

There are four players who have to harmonize in order for an alien civilization to advance to star-faring. One of the players is technology, which for this blog means both science and engineering together. Without technology, the know-how to design and build a starship would not be available, but that is the least of the problems that a society without technology would face. It would be stuck in some dark age, unable to progress to the next level of society. Depending on where technology fell off the track, they could be anywhere from agriculture-only to some point in advance of us. But that’s where they stay.

The second player is energy, which could be called a resource, but it is such a crucial one that it deserves to be called out. Energy is what drives the society. As technology opens the door to different classes of energy, from chemical energy in plants to chemical energy in fossil fuels to fission and finally to fusion, energy at each level sort of pays the bills. Energy is used to accomplish tasks within society. Of course, energy and energy technology is needed for a starship, but a society which runs short of energy fails to climb to the limits that civilization can reach, and perhaps collapses. Plant energy is limited in the quantity available, fossil fuels and fission become scarcer and scarcer as the centuries pass, and only fusion is available in the quantity and duration needed to power a civilization at high levels both through the millennia and through space.

The third player is resources, meaning material resources. Without a full spectrum of resources, not including those in the energy bin, a society cannot built the clever technological gadgets and equipment needed to accomplish the tasks it sets itself, such as maintaining a high standard of living. The most basic depiction of resources is simply chemical elements, as any other resource can be made from them. If there is scarcity of some elements, certain technological functions cannot be performed at all or can only be performed inefficiently, or to lower levels. In other words, almost all elements play roles.

The fourth player is intelligence. Intelligence here means the ability to solve problems, and to accomplish tasks. Alien creatures have adequate intelligence only if they have the genetic constituents for it, and are trained and educated to use whatever they have for brains, or other neural wiring systems in their bodies. It matters little if they have five distributed brains in different parts of their bodies or if they have only one like Earth creatures. What does matter is that they can collect and organize their knowledge, and then apply the condensed learning to solving problems as well as performing all the work needed to accomplish the various tasks that a full-blown civilization requires.

The players do not play alone, they play together. Without any one the civilization cannot progress. One does not get ahead of the others or fall behind. Like a quartet, they are playing the march to advanced levels of civilization and they all arrive at the end of the score together. But unlike musicians, each one of the four assists both itself in moving forward, but also the other three. In a sense, each one is bootstrapping its way to higher levels, but also bootstrapping the others.

Technology assists energy by devising ways to turn the basic energy resources into usable energy. Energy is best stored and used in different forms. On earth we are busy scouring the planet for different forms and then divvying them up to accomplish the various tasks we have in our society. We have many sources. An alien society on its planet may also have multiple sources, but they may also have move to a common fundamental power source and derive the secondary sources from it completely. In other words, they may need some chemical storage of energy, but they might use the power from a fusion plant to create that. This is something we cannot yet appreciate, as we are still in the dark mists of ignorance about much of technology in general, including energy-related technology.

Technology assists resources all along the pathway that resources take. As noted before, alien civilizations soon in their history have to learn to do a high level of recycling, so the main path of resources is a loop, where a resource inside an alien city is used and then moved to a recycling facility before it is transferred to a manufacturing facility and back to the site of use. We may be even further in the dark mists on recycling than we are on energy, but it is clear that technology must play a great role in designing, constructing, and maintaining this process. Technology also has to play a role in the input tail for the recycling loop, where materials are found and brought into the alien cities, either from somewhere on the home planet, such as being refined out of oceans, if there are any, or dug up from the crust. If the economics are positive, they might even be brought from other planets, moons, or asteroids.

Technology assists intelligence by developing an understanding of neurology, so that learning is understood. We have only a primitive understanding of it, but an alien society, over the long history of its evolution, will gradually or perhaps suddenly understand the brain(s) and its function, so that learning can be facilitated. It also provides computing resources, so problems too complex or too voluminous for a brain, even five brains, can be resolved. It provides the means of recording and communicating knowledge. It also provides genetic understanding of the basis for intelligence, so that this can be exploited during the centuries of progress to the final state of society.

Technology also assists itself, in that it also provides scientific equipment so science can progress, as well as the equipment used for engineering marvels to be created. Thus, technology assists everything in the quartet.

Energy does the same. Without power, and perhaps increasing amounts of it, technology cannot progress. Without power resources cannot be recycled, and higher levels of recycling may require higher amounts of power. Without power, learning can hardly be done. Early learning on Earth was done with low levels of energy, perhaps only the food energy needed by a brilliant theorist; higher levels of learning need energy for communications. And energy is certainly used in the development and testing of the next highest level of power, and also on all the sublevels that each level consists of.

Materials does the same, assisting itself and the other three. Material resources do not only consist of the chemical elements, but the uncountable combinations of them, both organic and inorganic. Materials are used as the inputs for other materials, and the means of combinations are immense, from colloidal suspensions to alloys, from hydrocarbon combinations with metals to polymers, from the materials learned about from biology to strange states of materials like superconductors. Materials also provide the basis for technology to advance itself using necessary equipment, for intelligence to be advanced with genetics, learning devices, communications and more, and for energy to move up the levels and sublevels.

Lastly intelligence does the same. Intelligence is what produces technology, what solves problems holding back development in energy and in the invention of new materials and the improvement of the properties of existing ones. It also solves problems in intelligence itself, by determining what obstacles lie in front of any alien creature who wishes to become as intelligent as possible, or who is working on developing higher intelligence in the next generation of aliens.

Thus we see that the advance to the highest levels of alien civilization is mediated by all four categories. This may help us understand where all the Great Filters might be that have stopped all other planets from achieving star-travel after we discover an absence of it. Alternatively, it may help us understand what life looks like on all the other planets where we detect the signatures of advanced civilizations.

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