Friday, October 16, 2015

How Asymptotic Would Asymptotic Be?

This blog is concerned about diagnosing the problem we are facing: aliens haven’t visited us yet. In order to understand this, the nature of an alien civilization has been explored, as far as possible. This exploration is made much, much easier by the concept of asymptotic technology. This concept can be explained simply. Technology, meaning science and engineering, continues to improve, but there is only so much that can be discovered. After the initial discoveries, the rate of progress picks up, but then later it drops off, as scientists and engineers find that most discoveries and inventions have already been made. Each further one takes more and more effort. This is the nature of anything that is finite. Sooner or later, a slowing must happen, and the total amount of science and engineering begins to approach the limit. The approach is gradual, and continually slows, as there is less and less left to find. This describes the asymptotic nature of technology progress – it ever more gradually approaches the limit.

This is all well and good, but there may be a problem hidden in the process. At any time, there may be unknown parts. Science discoveries and engineering inventions are discrete things, so the approach to the limit moves by small jumps, but there can be missing parts.

To try and understand what asymptotic closure means, consider an example. One part of science and engineering is genetics, and as it progresses, an alien civilization which continues their work in this area will develop better and better ways to design the genes that create intelligence. At any given time, there may be some discoveries which have gone so far unnoticed. In other words, if these discoveries are soon turned into genetic engineering advances, different generations will become smarter and smarter until the time between new ideas in this area becomes longer that the intergenerational time, and then only certain generations will be better, and the level of intelligence in aliens will stay constant.

It is more usual that the changes grow smaller and smaller as time progresses, but invention is a random process, and there could certainly be a discovery near the asymptotic limit which is large. In other words, after the alien citizens have been constant in intelligence for many generations, a surprise could happen and a remarkable improvement is found. The generation following this discovery is quite a bit smarter and more capable mentally.
This phenomenon of improvement near the end of the process occurring in fits and starts can happen in any of the fields within technology. In most areas of technology, this has nothing but positive effects. Just exactly when the alien civilization improves in intelligence does not seem to be crucial to their progress. But certain other areas may have problems.

Let’s call the gaps between the final state and the near-asymptotic state discrepancies. There would be discrepancies in all the fields of science and engineering, and they will gradually be removed. Suppose there are discrepancies in reliability engineering in some component critical to the infrastructure. Perhaps the alien civilization uses electricity generated in a central fusion plant. A failure happens. The infrastructure goes dark. This could create serious issues, but not ones which would devastate the society. Could there be any discrepancies which would?

To try and understand if there could be discrepancies which would devastate an alien civilization, and even so much as to halt their progress toward interstellar travel, it is necessary to form an idea of the concentration of effects. To actually halt progress toward star travel, the effect would have to be civilization-wide and unrecoverable. What systems could fail and create a long-term civilization-wide problem? If the alien civilization is laid out as has been thought through in a previous post, with many separated cities, a failure in one might be a devastating experience in the city in which it happened, but for other cities it would be a learning experience. One system that has been discussed which would cover the entire planet relates to climate control. If the alien civilization is engaged in climate control of their world, a failure in the process could conceivably affect many areas of the planet. But even this failure would only seem to affect some fraction of cities, perhaps ones which were in low-lying areas subjectable to flooding, or in a part of the coastline where cyclones or tsunamis could form.

Another option is something which could propagate from one city to another. If there was a discrepancy in the programming of robots or the training of intellos, perhaps something could be imagined which would have them communicating and organizing covertly, and then causing planet-wide disruption. As noted before in the discussion of a possible revolt of intellos or a master computer acting senselessly, most of the errors in training or programming would result in visible signatures and be correctable early on. But it is not inconceivable, only extreme in unlikeliness, that something global could occur.

This leaves one remaining option. Is it possible that discrepancies in psychology could leave some individuals interested in disruption of the civilization, yet with the ability to create civilization-wide devastation? This is almost like imagining some conspiracy with no rational end among highly intelligent and educated individuals. Again, it is not inconceivable, but so unlikely as to require a very open mind to even consider the possibilities.

If we assume there are a huge number of alien civilizations which reach asymptotic technology, it might be reasonable to think that a very few of them could be so unlucky as to have something like a robot revolt or a group of powerful individuals who coalesce into a conspiracy, or some failure in climate engineering, or something else able to create world-wide disruption so severe that the civilization could not recover from it, ever, and that it prevents the alien civilization from preparing to travel to other stars. While conceivable, super-discrepancies do not seem to be a means to explain where the aliens are and why they have not visited Earth.

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