Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Could Aliens Still Be Like Earthlings?

Many, many science fiction writers like to portray aliens as being like Earthlings, but with more technology. To be specific, they think about military technology, or starship technology, not any of the other many types of technology. Then the inevitable conflict between them and us can be portrayed. This is a common way to write dramatically, but does not make much sense.

Technology does not go forward in one direction only. We do not grow smarter only in how to build weapons. It can certainly be that we have found the technology to build weapons easier than the technology to develop political systems that satisfy everyone, or the technology to educate people in the many ways they need to eliminate personal and social problems, or the technology to cure genetic problems, or the technology to provide ‘power to cheap to meter’. We have not found the neurological technology to cure individual pathologies that cause social disruption. And so on.

This does not mean that we will not solve them, nor does it mean that any alien civilization which continues to advance in technology will not find them. Technology is like streams of water flowing down a glass window. As the rain continues, one stream may flow faster than another, but the other will flow also. There is no bar toward figuring out economics, but it might be harder than figuring out high-power lasers because of the difficulty of clearly defining the terms and deducing relationships. Hard does not mean impossible, it just means later. It also depends on the funding. Huge amounts of funds spent on weaponry have produced some impressive capabilities in weaponry. Less amounts of funds spent on neurology have produced less impressive capabilities on curing individual ills. But science is cumulative. When something gets discovered or invented, it stays discovered or invented. When an observation is made, the results are typically preserved if it provides useful insights, and often observations are repeated, in a different or improved way, and the results are verified or adapted to the new observations. Science just keeps building, and not only in the hard sciences, but also in those sciences that are really hard, in the sense of being harder to do.

We are looking to understand alien civilizations that have gotten to star travel, not sending one probe out on a one-way mission with almost no communication capability and a speed that is nowhere near a good fraction of light speed, like 10%. Going from where we are now, barely capable of sending probes to other planets, to sending starships out to another star system, will take us or an alien civilization time. I use millennia as a guide. Maybe one millennia of science is all it takes to get to asymptotic technology. But just think of a thousand years of doing science, not only in weapons and planetary probes, but in all the other areas, like political science, education, neurology, genetics, economics, governance, robotics, and fifty others. Suppose another thousand years of learning how to educate people, how to solve any personal disorders, how to remove genetic dispositions to self-harm or social disruption, how to increase everyone’s intelligence, and others branches of learning all happened and what would we have?

After all this learning and adaptation of learning, would we expect to see aliens blowing each other up, squabbling about allocations of resources, mis-communicating intentions, governing with tyranny, or doing any of the other things which lead to various unpleasantnesses today? It is almost unimaginable that progress in these areas would not result in problems like this being solved. And thus, when we think about aliens who have mastered that millennium of technology, and then for good measure, spent another few millennia tweaking it or completing the little details of it, they have left the problems we see today so far behind them that they may not even remember well what they were like.

This is after a few millennia. The age of the universe is measured in billions of years. Let’s think about a compromise, an alien civilization which is fairly new, only having existed for a few million years. That is a brief blip in the age of the universe. Yet they have there a thousand times more experience in solving problems and dealing with everything under the sun. If we expect, judging from the rate at which we are advancing technology, that everything will be completed in a thousand years at most, what possibly could remain undone after some millions? Is it anything like reasonable or even conceivable that an alien civilization would not work out all problems in that length of time? No. So when science fiction authors write about aliens as if they were humans in crab bodies or whatever amuses them, they are ignoring the fundamental time scales of the universe as compared to social development and technology advancement.

It is certainly possible to dispute that an alien civilization could last a million years, and it is one point of discussion in this blog as to why they might not be able to. There are many aspects to this amount of endurance, and perhaps they can all be discussed one by one. But if it is indeed possible, how could they not have developed solutions to every social ill that could ever occur?

Some far-fetched concepts are possible. Maybe the very successful aliens live a million years and establish an outpost on some planet, and then they all die out. Why? No reason, they just do. They leave behind all the manuals to their weaponry technology in easy to translate form, and some very new civilization happens upon it before they have solved their social problems. The new guys are still battling one another, and the group that gets the technology uses it, becomes the dominant power among their factions, and then decides to take over the galaxy. Then they come to invade Earth.

It is not impossible to concoct very improbable scenarios, probably with many loose ends that unravel upon examination, for some of the alien visions that science fiction has dreamed up. If the whole point is to create some dramatic situation, then so be it. If the point is to use science fiction to assist us in conceptualizing what an alien encounter might be like, then this is not the path to take. The path to take is to understand the flow of technology, meaning both science and engineering, and the timescales involved, and use that to create a scenario which can then be explored in detail. It is a question of entertainment versus a more visionary task.

One aspect of technology development is, as noted, it occurs in different rates in different areas. A possibility is that a new alien civilization develops in some technology areas, but for some reason, the other areas go very slowly. Then they might have some basic star travel before they learn how to calm their society, educate their citizens, and do the other tasks that will come. So, for a short period of time, we might have gunslinger aliens. The probability of encountering them for the few millennia it takes other areas of technology to catch up, instead of for the million years after it does, is very small. Perhaps scenarios in which these delays are exacerbated should be explored. A catalog of the ways in which an alien civilization could wind up exploring its local neighborhood of stars while still not completely at asymptotic technology might be an interesting exercise. So far, it seems the probability of these is very small.

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