Thursday, December 31, 2015

Affordability in Alien Civilizations Part 2

The previous post on affordability talked about how an alien civilization which was pressured by having a meme to go and do star traveling would still have to figure out how to fund it. It phrased the question in terms of allocating energy to construction and equipping a star vessel, as the total amount of energy production on the planet was limited by the tolerance of the planet to heat production. The maximum heat it could stand was labeled H, algebraic style, and the net energy produced was E(H). This E(H) did not include the energy consumed in the production of energy, which is why it was ‘net’ energy.

There are two sources of energy to build a spaceship, one is that produced on the planet, EP and the other produced off planet, wherever the ship was being constructed, EO. These quantities are rates, for example, H being measured in the number of joules, or terajoules, per year. The production of the first starship would take some years, so the total amount of energy needed from the planetary allocation would be EP.Y, if it was going to take Y years to build the thing and the energy use was averaged over the whole construction cycle.

The ratio EP/E(H) is an important quantity that the alien civilization would use to determine if and how it would fund the starship. If this quantity is much less than one, for example 0.1%, that amount of energy is almost in the noise, the stochastic variation of energy production year by year. They could just do it without worrying about affordability. If the ratio were a bit larger, say 10%, there would have to be major sacrifices to simply fund it out of ongoing energy production.

One way to fund it would be to store energy. In a post on the construction of a starship, there was a realization that there would have to be a very weight and energy efficient way to store energy, as the starship would need to transport energy internally. A lot of energy and stored for a long time, as these voyages might run for a thousand years. Under the assumption that this is true, and the alien civilization has truly solved energy storage, there is nothing to prevent the alien civilization from using this technology to bank energy for the starship construction over a long time, Y’. Then the ratio, EP/E(H), no longer is as important as it initially seemed. Instead, the ratio, EPY/E(H).Y’, takes its place. If this new ratio was down in the noise, as in the previous example, 0.1%, it is almost negligible, and would place no burdens on the society that would be noticeable.

Thus the first affordability conclusion is that long term, efficient energy storage is not only needed for the starship, but for funding it, in the case where the ratio, EP/E(H), was large. If it can be done on a starship, why could it not be done on the home planet?

If the alien civilization decided they did not want to put off their first star voyage for Y’ years, but wanted it sooner, so that the ratio, EP/E(H), was not 0.1% but 1% or 2%m they could still fund it without any strain. It is time to display another hidden assumption this blog has been, perhaps inadvertently, making.

Living standards might be expressed in terms of how much currency is spent per year by the alien civilization on each member. Perhaps that might just be counted as the ratio E(H)/P, where P is the number of aliens. Recall that the population, like anything else, is likely to be stable, unless some decision is made by society to change it. After the genetic transition, population numbers are a social decision, not the sum of individual decisions, as new members of the civilization are produced industrially and raised similarly.

One way to find 1% of the planet’s energy usage, E(H), and divert it to starship construction is to reduce the population by 1%. Then energy consumption per member stays the same, living standards are not even reduced by 1%, and the energy needed for starship construction can be taken out of the net energy produced and banked in the energy storage mechanisms that have been developed. The idea of using population as a control mechanism for funding has been discussed before, but in terms of coping with planetary scarcity.

In an alien civilization which has run into a scarcity problem, so that E(H) has to be reduced, living standards can be maintained by reducing population proportionally. If the scarcity problem is very gradual, this might hardly be noticed by the average member of the civilization. Only the master computer running the planet, or the network of them, or the governance committee, or whatever is in charge, would need to pay much attention to the gradual drop in population. However, for funding a starship, the gradual drop in population would only be temporary, lasting Y’ years, and after that it could be brought up to the former level. In the scarcity scenario, extinction is the final result.

Back to the hidden assumption. It is that living standards are expressible in terms of energy consumed per citizen and that every citizen want to have as high a living standard as is possible, and so the energy consumed would be driven to the maximum the planet could tolerate. This may not be true.

Making the assumption that living standards would require energy is simply an example of the flawed thinking pointed out in another post, that of making a snapshot trend into a long-term linear projection. It could very well be that the curve of living standards versus energy is a logistics curve, and it saturates. In other words, it approaches an asymptotic maximum, and more and more energy doesn’t make anyone any happier. This is a more realistic assumption, and if population is kept sufficiently low that energy production does not need to get near to E(H), then all the previous discussion is irrelevant. To be more specific, it might be that living standards don’t need too much energy and population doesn’t have to be so large for the civilization to maintain itself and to satisfy whatever goals it set for itself.

In this situation, energy for a starship could simply be provided for by building energy plants to make it. This situation still does have scarcity and exhaustion effects, but that is something for another post.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Affordability in Alien Civilizations Part 1

There has been much discussion in this blog about what is possible technologically for an alien civilization to accomplish, once they pass the hurdles to asymptotic technology. However, some of these items may not be affordable. This exactly means that the alien civilization would know how to do the task but using all the effort they could muster, they could not accomplish it.

The only way this cannot happen is if there is a cost to the task, and whatever that cost was, the alien civilization could not collect enough currency. Here on Earth we talk about using a resource as currency, typically gold, and it was used as currency for many factional civilizations here for different periods. Silver was also used. A few primitive cultures used other things, such as sea shells or carved stone objects. In a previous post, the use of energy as a currency was discussed.

As long as exchange ratios are roughly constant, it should make little difference if energy or a suitable material is used. For this purposes of this post, consider it is energy. Then affordability can be restated in very clear terms.

The building of some infrastructure, such as a large city capable of recycling very efficiently, has an initial cost and an operating cost. There are also maintenance costs, which might be bundled under operating costs. If the object, the city or whatever, has to be disposed of for some reason, as opposed to abandoned and given over to natural processes to eliminate, the disposal costs need to be incorporated in the total scheme of funding the object.

It is certainly possible to be able to fund the construction costs of something and then not be able to fund the maintenance or operating costs. This means abandonment. These different scenarios might just be the result of external events, for example some geological difficulty arose which cut down the annual production of energy, or scarcity costs taking over some of the energy production. Scarcity costs occur when the civilization depends on some type of material and the planet’s resources of it gradually become exhausted. Each of these scenarios might be expectable, or common, and add up to a reason why aliens haven’t shown up here on Earth.

Consider the whole cost scenario. The alien civilization has engineers par excellence who could easily design the object in question, along with all the construction plans and so on. They just need funding to do it.

As long as there is net energy production in excess of the civilization’s operating costs, there can be construction of new infrastructure. To put it a different way, an energy system, meaning everything from obtaining the materials to build all components plus the operating expenses, can be expanded if the total product of the expanded section is more that the total costs to build and operate it. To the most coarse level, if energy can be produced by a plant and only a fraction of the energy produced by the plant is needed to be returned to fund the construction of the plant, the alien civilization can go around doing whatever infrastructure they want to. However, there are details.

One of the details is the tolerance of the planet for energy production. There may be side effects to energy production, and some maximum clearance rate to these side effects. The most obvious one is thermal. Energy production is not typically highly efficient. Chemical and nuclear reactions produce heat, and this heat has to be turned into useful energy, which might be electrical or hydraulic. There must be waste heat generated by this conversion process – simply thermodynamics. How much heat can the planet stand? Let’s just assume someone tells us this number, H. That means the alien civilization can produce up to some amount of energy, E(H). Instead of building whatever infrastructure they want because they know how to build energy production facilities, the governance of the civilization has the process of allocating E(H) to different uses. This is not the simplest calculation to make, as some uses will involve transformation into more heat, meaning part of H has to be devoted to the conversion of useful energy back to heat, while some will transform some of the energy into stored energy, such as in chemical bonds when materials are made.

There is also a geographic distribution to be accounted for. Moving energy around uses energy, which turns into heat, using up some of the total, H. So locating infrastructure near the production of energy would be most efficient, except for the fact that energy plants are not necessarily what everyone wants to live and work near. If the aliens all live in self-sustaining, almost closed cities, is the plant inside it? That would mean a large cost of moving the waste heat out of the city, which probably makes it prohibitive. So the energy plant is near the city, but not inside it.

Just this one detail of affordability changes the way to talk about being able to build infrastructure and other objects. If you ask, is star travel affordable, and the alien civilization is living on the surface of a planet, you have really asked, is there spare amounts in E(H) not already accounted for that could be diverted to all the energy costs of building a starship? Furthermore, you have changed a meme-driven mission into a complicated energy allocation decision. In this blog, we talked about memes for star travel as being a necessary pre-existent social factor for star travel, as there is no inherent need for a civilization to do it. But if the meme butts its head into the full allocation of E(H), it calls for a sacrifice of things already agreed to. Recall that alien civilizations beyond the full transition to asymptotic technology are stable, meaning E(H) is already allocated and has been for a long time.

What sacrifices would the alien civilization make so that energy could be found to build star ships? This question might need to be phrased differently to be clear. Some construction of starships might be done on an asteroid, or a satellite, or in space. There, more energy production factilities might be built that do not fall under the allocation process for E(H). In fact, they would have their own energy production limits, maybe E’(H). But there is still some costs that have to fall under E(H) such as the transport of materials, people, robots, or whatever from the alien civilization’s sites on the planet off it to the starship construction site. So some sacrifices will still have to be made. Instead of asking if there is a star travel meme in an alien civilization, we might instead ask if the star travel meme is strong enough motivation to mean some deprivation would be experienced by the members of the civilization to do star travel.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Avoiding Authoritarianism

The title word, authoritarianism, is being borrowed here. It has a generic meaning, which is of having a central authority running everything instead of individual liberty, whatever that might mean. Perhaps authoritarianism is the opposite of libertarianism, as it is currently described. Authoritarian means something like dictatorial, where a person in control uses their authority to exercise control, rather than being permissive, which might be a tolerable opposite. Authority is somebody who is an expert on a subject and doesn’t have any compunction about expounding on it. So the adding of suffixes to the core word changes the meaning drastically.

I would like to use the full word to mean the process or act of relying on authorities rather than on logical deduction from experimental facts or proven theories. This moves the meaning of the core word up to the full double-suffixed word. I think it is a better meaning than the originals.

Authoritarianism means in this new, adapted, use the reliance on quotes from some person of importance instead of on original thought or individual derivation. It is used by someone who does not want to take the time to reproduce the thinking necessary for a conclusion, so they use the abbreviation of “So-and-so said that aliens were all green” instead of deriving the reason why they are green. This makes things difficult if it is used to contradict a conclusion, as the person making the conclusion has only a phantom to reason with and nothing but a search in order to hold up the conclusion, followed by a rebuttal of an absent non-contributor.

For this reason, this blog will avoid references and quotes. Anything stated will have some basis for it. This might be thought of as denying previous work its due, but that type of referencing belongs in scientific papers in journals, not in blogs. In reading scientific papers and writing them, time can be taken to ferret out where the original remarks were first made, and the preceeding remarks that showed the direction for the original remarks, and the three attempts made before that that shed light on the subject and led the original remarker to his remark, and so on. This is all fine for someone writing for attribution, but in a blog, using references reeks of authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism, at its worst, consists of substituting quotes for thinking. Perhaps this is not the worst. The worst is when the quotes are replaced by paraphrases, and the paraphrases make no mention of the conditions and caveats that went along with the quotes. Most scientists are very scrupulous about listing the conditions under which their conclusion might be valid, but these restrictions are often lost by those dependent on authoritarianism. instead, the conclusion is stated as a law of nature, not to be disputed. This is a misuse of authority.

I was wrong. The worst is when the authority involved is not an authority on that subject at all, but just someone who was backed into a corner and asked to give an off-the-cuff opinion. Many scientists will absolutely refuse to do this, but sometimes they have done some thinking about the topic, and in a venue with others sharing the same interest, they will share their early opinions. Woe to the scientist whose early opinions are quoted in the press. It is a chain that forever binds.

I was double or triply wrong. The worst is when the authority quoted is not even an authority on anything, just an important person or a celebrity, such as a politician. Granted, some people are better at making intuitive deductions than others, and sometimes these lucky holders of good intuition become famous or rich or prominent. If they are not scientists, they might not even have the well-trained reluctance to pontificate on subjects they are not experts on. They simply are loose-tongued speakers, whose celebrity grabs the attention of the media, and whose words become recorded in a casual way in the press or in social media.

No, I take that back, what is the worst is when the authority quoted is not an authority at all on anything, but pretends to be. This version of worst is made possible when the people reading the quotes are not sufficiently sophisticated in appreciating the difference between casual opinion and nuanced deductions, based on evidence. The readers may not even be familiar with how science works or with any deep parts of science. The only thing they might be familiar with is deciding if some poser is writing or speaking as if they were an authority, when they have no reason whatsoever to make that claim.

We live in a world in which only five percent or less of the population has received the elementary training that everyone should be entitled to. I am talking about what is called STEM training, referring to the words, ‘science, technology, engineering, mathematics’. No one should be denied this training, nor should they be denied the necessary precursor training that would enable them to embrace the STEM subjects and make use of that training to expand their own internal capability to think clearly. STEM training makes an excellent basis for anyone interested in reasoning about any topic, within STEM subjects or outside them.

With so many people denied this essential training, it is no wonder that authoritarianism is rife. What is someone to do who has not been allowed to understand the basic methods of reasoning that STEM training provides? There may be a very small percentage of people who gain the ability to reason about scientific subjects without having been trained in any of them, where we include all STEM areas in this. These people are like the early scientists who simply taught themselves how to reason. Unfortunately, this percentage is tiny.

So, to repeat the choice made here, there will be no harking to authority on any points, no referencing someone else’s conclusions, no matter who they are. Everything will be justified, or at least an attempt will be made to show the plausibility of it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

What Exactly Is Intelligence?

Intelligence is a word thrown around everywhere, without all that much definition or explication. In general, things can be defined by an operational test. For intelligence, one could come up with some test to give to proposed intelligent creatures, and if they achieved some score, on what is called a metric, they would be classed as intelligent. One you could define intelligence as a continuum variable, instead of a binary choice, as say it is the score that some creature gets on a standard test. Quibbles about what test to use can be endless, futile and meaningless, and again, there can be some pretty stupid choices made for intelligence tests.

One nonsensical test was called out in a previous blog. The memory test. As if being able to remember labels for things requires intelligence. If this was used, any computer would be a genius. The kind of questions people who should not be allowed to use the word intelligence come up with sound like this:
1) What birds fly from Canada to Venezuela each year?
2) Who was the sixteenth secretary of state for California?
3) Where is the source of the Nile river?
4) Name fifteen named asteroids?
5) Which author wrote ‘The Old Man and the Sea’?
6) Where is Tasmania?
7) Name the dynasties who ruled China?
8) How far is Alpha Centauri alpha from Earth?
9) What is the largest city on the African continent in population?
10) Which element conducts electricity the best if purified?
These questions might merit a gasp from someone who does not think much about what intelligence should be and how to measure it. Each of them requires nothing more than a database look-up. Real intelligence testing would require problem solving, and depending on the variant of the definition, might require more media than words alone.

Metrics measure intelligence or anything else, and decide if something deserves a label or alternately, attach a number to the thing being tested. This creature has an IQ of 100 is an example of the quantitiative aspect of testing. Metrics can be used for black boxes, and there may be some use for them. However, if you want to build a good metric and a good test for measuring it, you should understand what it is that you are measuring. Creating something because it sounds good may impress the inexperienced, but good metrics come from a deep understanding of the processes that go on when the testing is done, and when the attribute being measured is being used.

To be more explicit, if you don’t know how intelligence works or what it does, you cannot come up with a good test for it. You can certainly come up with a hundred tests for it, and quibble forever about which one to use. But until intelligence is described not by a metric or a test, but in terms of a process, it cannot be well measured.

Simple things don’t require much knowledge of the process. If you have a thing you found in a kitchen, and you want to test to see if it is a toaster, you can put some bread into it, plug it in and turn it on, and see if toast comes out. That’s because you have defined the output, toast, as bread which was heated on both sides until it desiccates a bit. What do you do when you find some creature in an alien starship crashed here on Earth, and you want to find out if it is intelligent? You don’t. That isn’t a good question.

What is the purpose of labeling some alien creature, which might be the pilot or might be his pet, as intelligent? It could be useful in the media. It could be useful in communicating with it, unless it was the alien equivalent of a parrot. What you need to do is determine what you want to do with the alien, and test for that. It is the same for a child here on Earth. You need to determine what it is you would like the child to be able to do, and then test for that. Give it problems to solve.

Back to the details of intelligence. Intelligence, as a process, is the processing and interpretation of data, and certainly not developing a one-to-one correspondence between a description and a label. It is the ability to reduce data to a model, to extract trends from data, to see analogs and relationships between different parts of the data, to see structure in the data, to create structure out of the data so it is useful, to find differences between near identical sets of data, to filter out meaning from data, to connect multiple separated blocks of data together to create something coherent, to see where blocks of data have natural divisions or natural trends, to interpret it in a one, two, three or more dimensional way, and many other things. Intelligence has the ability to determine from a collection of data in a context, just what to do to it, choosing from among the previous list or from a larger subset.

Intelligence at higher levels means more sophisticated processing of blocks of data. Testing for this can be done at an elemental level, like finding some pattern in a large body of data, or on a more complex level, like determining the best way to describe a data set or to model it in as few elemental constructs as is possible in order to capture the main variation in it. Intelligence is certainly quantitative, and not much can be done without quantitative skills. Pattern finding does not require arithmetic type skills, but pattern finding is still a quantitative exercise, but of a different type. The word quantitative often is used to connote arithmetic aspects, when it should instead be used to connote anything more than verbal associations. Describing the structure of something is quantitative, even if the structure can be described in simple and discrete terms.

Thus, to measure intelligence in a proper way, for an alien or a human, requires coming up with a list of the ways in which data can be processed, and then deciding on how to measure the subject’s ability to do it. Recognizing the method to be used is often included as part of the challenge. There is no well-known intelligent intelligence test. Perhaps it is worth doing at this stage in Earth’s history.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Early Achievement of Star Flight

This particular post looks at distorted alien civilizations. Specifically, it looks at an example of one where the civilization is so totally enamored with star travel that they concentrate their best efforts on it, their funding, their top scientists and engineers, and whatever else is needed to achieve it. The counter is that they neglect anything that doesn’t contribute to the goal of star travel, such as neurology, sociology, philosophy, art, political science, and so on, all of which might have made great changes in their society. Instead of uniformly approaching asymptotic technology, where all fields of knowledge are brought to their maximum possible, they just work on getting out to the stars.

Perhaps they had some leader or a few leaders who just insisted on doing star travel, and these leaders were both revered as founders of something or another, or lauded for their achievements in other areas, or served as examples of dedication to a goal, or some such thing. Bottom line: somebody got them all charged up on star travel and to the devil with the rest. They are going to be entering space like primitive creatures in many respects, but they have a star ship. They are sort of like what we create movies about. Twentieth century people with twenty-fourth century travel capability.

Is this even possible? Can science be turned off or turned way down in most fields for the purpose of pushing one way beyond everything else? Let’s assume the answer is yes, and some alien civilization somewhere does it. Even if other fields are slowed down greatly by a lack of funds, they will catch up when the fervor of star travel dies away. Maybe this is after the first ships take off. Recall that a reasonable travel speed is 0.01 times the speed of light, and that distances between great planets might be hundreds of light years. So, rush, rush, rush, send out a ship or two or three, and now let’s wait ten thousand years to get their messages back. In that ten thousand years, or better, in the first thousand years of waiting, they are going to get to asymptotic technology.

Perhaps after this first millennium, they will ask themselves, why did we ever do that? One of the possibilities of practical omniscience is the answering of questions about choosing the goals of society. If there is some reason why all alien civilizations in the galaxy do not explore it, but simply stay within their own star system, but the reason only becomes obvious upon reaching asymptotic technology, this example of early achievers might be the only ships ever to travel the stars. The alien civilization which happens to get a distortion done in their advance of knowledge sends out a few star ships, and then realizes, like all other alien civilizations, that it is not worth doing.

The first ships sent out are likely to be probes, with some technology able to communicate back from the destination solar system what is there, relative to the exo-planet that was chosen to be its target. In the ten thousand years of waiting, the alien civilization might just decide to forget about listening any more, as it wouldn’t interest them at all, or they might just keep the listening devices on to satisfy their curiosity as to whether their early technological breakthroughs are actually going to work after all that time. Star travel, at the first, must be highly experimental, as the alien civilization would not wait ten thousand years as an experiment to see if things last that long before sending out ships. If they are so crazy about star travel, they would likely not have the patience to wait ten thousand years of reliability testing, but just take their best shot at it. If they did wait ten thousand years, they would have achieved asymptotic technology, and not bothered to launch the star probes, at least in our constructed example where all alien civilizations that achieve asymptotic technology figure out different goals for themselves.

So, heaping extreme on extreme, their ships get to other solar systems, they make years of investigations and all the hardware works, they erect some large antennas and beam back what they found to the home planet, who, despite all expectations, is still listening for it. Now they have data about Planet X and Planet Y and Planet Z, and they can store that detailed information in their databanks. They have figured out that star travel is not worth doing, for some reason only known to civilizations with asymptotic knowledge of everything, and they don’t do anything with it.

This is a fine example to think about, but what about changing a hypothesis. Suppose all alien civilizations reaching asymptotic technology do not decide not to travel into space, but they divide themselves into the categories talked about in this blog. Some decide to go, some decide not to. If the early achiever civilization falls into the first category, after learning all they can, they have a bit of an advanced start toward accomplishing it.

What did they save by concentrating their efforts on star travel? Almost nothing. The problem lies in the time scales. Asymptotic technology takes a millennium or two to accomplish. Star travel, for a probe going to a fairly nearby solar system, takes ten millennia or so. Ten is bigger than one, and so the saving of time is almost meaningless. By the time they have their probe information back, they are in the same boat, technology-wise, as every other alien civilization that waits until they achieve the technology limits before sending out their ships. They have the ability to build the same ships as everyone else for the second round of probes or the first round of colonization. Nothing gained here, except some percentage of time. Compared to the other timescales in the galaxy, evolution, being a billion, evolution to tool-using, being a hundred thousand here on Earth and likely elsewhere, planetary formation, being ten million, solar death, being ten billion, and so on, saving a millennia is negligible. A millennium is in the noise in the time it took this alien civilization to evolve from primordial chemicals to smart creatures. Because the travel times are so long, there is little effect on anything anywhere in their sending out probes early. They don’t propagate their primitive culture by being early achievers. They don’t show up in the backyard of other alien civilizations looking for conquest and pillage, as by the time the next round of ships goes out, they are past that phase.

So, being an early achiever, in star travel as in Earth education, amounts to nothing. It is what happens after asymptotic technology is achieved that shapes their future.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Would Intelligence Be Abandoned?

This whole blog has a conceit. It pretends to know that intelligence is somehow the goal of all alien civilizations and they would all strive to gain as much of it internally as possible, and then keep it. All of society is affected by the gradual change in intelligence, and technology is just a fallout effect of it.

Is this true? Perhaps when aliens get to a certain level of intelligence, they decide it is not necessary, or some aspect of it is not necessary, and they simply decide to let it decay, or they take deliberate steps to remove all or part of it. This is an underlying assumption of everything written here, and it is about time it was discussed.

Let’s use one of the common thinking tools available for highly uncertain situations, bounding, and see what it says. Suppose we are looking at an alien civilization that has passed the genetic grand transition long ago, has achieved the maximum possible in the intelligence of each member of the civilization, has also achieve the ability to create whatever creature they want to with the specific characteristics they choose, and is living in a stable situation. They decide to review the goals that their civilization chose long ago, but with one difference. They decide to figure out if they want to continue their species as an extremely intelligent one, or change it to a lesser intelligent one, or even change it more dramatically.

If their civilization is one which has a meme, a credo which is designed to be self-replicating across generations, that says go spread out to the stars, obviously intelligence is useful to accomplish it. More generally, if their civilization has some mission, however defined, that involves the use of technology, intelligence is a critical asset and cannot be abandoned. If their civilization’s goals is to maintain a highly advanced technological civilization on their home planet, without spreading to the stars, but just staying at home and loving it, they need intelligence for maintenance and problem-solving. Whatever the mission, if it includes technology, it presumes intelligence.

What if they do not have such a goal, but have one of maximizing the enjoyment of their lives? Designing creatures to be happy to the maximum possible is a complicated task, but it might not require that those creatures be intelligent in the same way as their creators. Here on Earth we often talk about happiness, and maximizing it on an individual basis. People say they want to be happy and they also say they want those they care about to be happy. The latter part of this is simply a reflection that happiness or some surrogate goal in an individual may be triggered by observing happiness in certain others.

Weird splitting of the brain into two competing portions has been observed in some individuals, and perhaps the most dramatic examples are named masochists. They achieve happiness in one part of their brain, the dominant part, by arranging for pain to be felt in another part. Strange, but observable. Milder examples exist, where someone will choose a life of deprivation, such as a hermit, to achieve happiness in another portion of the brain. But by and large, brains of us humans are not split so clearly, and we look for happiness where we can find it, subject to social constraints or learned constraints.

Happiness is neurologically understood as part of the reinforcement mechanism for learned information. We get these feelings, caused by neurochemicals, when the neurochemicals are being generated to reinforce learning in a situation where we have satisfied some primary or secondary desire. We learn how to do this repeatedly, and the feeling of happiness is a side effect.

So, if aliens in this advanced civilization we are discussing get to the point of realizing that life is pointless, that nothing in the universe they have found cares about them as a species, and nothing they do will have any permanent effect, they might just say, let’s do some deliberate evolution of our own selves, into creatures that will have the best chance to be happy, outside of a technological civilization. Perhaps they are clever enough about neurology to understand that some alien citizen who is extremely intelligent cannot be extremely happy. In other words, designing the brain to learn and learn and think and think more or less excludes so much opportunity for happiness that they regret doing it, from a solely happiness-oriented point of view.

The obvious alternative is they could say that happiness is not worth the effort, as it is solely the result of some trace amounts of neurochemicals, and how important can that be? The options are: transform themselves into happier creatures, ones who are designed to find happiness in the maximum from all sources, social, environmental, artistic, or whatever else maxes out happiness, or stay intellectual and keep thinking of great things, and enjoying hard-to-appreciate art or develop social rituals that produce intellectual satisfaction, or something totally different.

One aspect of this discussion involves technology. Perhaps living in a technological world, totally synthetic, is not able to produce as much happiness as living in an ecological world. Thus, it is not intelligence that might put an obstacle in front of the maximization of happiness, but the application of intelligence to tool use. Tools, whether they are stone axes or rocket ships, might be interfering with the achievement of happiness. An alien civilization, omniscient in the most practical way, would be able to figure out how to make such an evaluation.

So, to label the extremes of their choices, travel the stars or enjoy life in the outdoors. Are these exclusive? Can they build their civilization to achieve happiness, even with a level of technological use that is asymptotic in degree, the maximum that is useful and affordable, for part of the time and then for part of the time experience the more primitive and evolutionary type of happiness?

It is good to ask these questions, even though we lack the information to answer them, as knowing their existence allows us to see the choices facing an alien civilization, including those choices which would interfere with them ever visiting us. So, this post says that one reason no aliens ever show up on Earth might be that they all turn themselves into some happy creatures at home, like dolphins perhaps, and get rid of the technology they developed.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Eco-habitable planets

Not so long ago, Earth science knew only the planets in our own solar system. Now we know about thousands, all on other solar systems, and the possibility that there were no aliens visiting us because there were no other planets in the galaxy has vanished in a puff of smoke. Since we know about so many, it makes sense to categorize them in different ways.

One aspect used for categorization that has been around for a long time is habitable, which, to an astronomer, means having a temperature where liquid water could exist. This is a bit fuzzy, as a planet could have these temperatures on a part of the planet, as Earth does, rather than everywhere on it, and it still qualifies. What about planets with liquid water during part of an eccentric orbit? What about liquid water buried deep? Many have discussed more specifications that might be added, and many have discussed ways in which such temperatures might be modified by various orbital aspects, atmospheric effects including circulation, and so on. Perhaps we will discuss these in a post, but not this one.

In this blog, we have talked about one categorization of planets, related to habitable, but much more specific: solo planets. These are planets which can originate some form of life, which are self-reproducing organisms. These are the planets which provide the minimum necessary to start the process of evolution. Since we do not know with certainty how life originates, or even how it originated here on Earth, we do not know the conditions to set when looking through the known exo-planets to see if they have them. So for now, the term solo planet is one in which the definition is not reducible to astronomic or exo-geological parameters. It is about as fuzzy as habitable in the non-astronomical sense.

The rest of the planets, not being solo planets, cannot originate life, by definition. However, they might be able to harbor life, if some were spread there. One idea which has gained currency is that perhaps life could originate on one planet, and then be blasted into space by a meteor strike or some such, and then the rock carrying it would someday land upon another planet, and fortuitously the life was still intact or at least capable of regenerating its ‘livingness’ upon landing in the right conditions.

The purpose of this post is to try and define a further breakdown of the non-solo planet category, into ones which can harbor life, and ones which cannot, and then take it a bit further. Let’s start from the back end. Define a planet as uninhabitable if even the smartest alien civilization cannot install living creatures there, themselves included, and have them stay alive. They might be too hot, have too high gravity, have horribly toxic, acidic atmospheres, constant volcanism, no land but just toxic seas, and certainly more. The fuzziness here is how long to survive there. A very hot planet could have a ship set down with thermal shielding and then take off again before the heat from the atmosphere penetrated into the ship’s interior. Life stayed alive on the surface. Venus has a cool band in its atmosphere, where a ship could float, buoyantly, for a long period, and not descend to the surface, where things are too hot. So, does Venus qualify as uninhabitable? Let’s grant ourselves the luxury of making definitions even before they are all needed. In this blog, uninhabitable means a permanent outpost cannot be set up anywhere on the surface, under the surface, in the atmosphere or in a body of water there. An uninhabitable planet cannot have a mining station upon it, and all mining would have to be done robotically or in an very expensive way, by landers going up and down within the tolerable time limits. Robotic mining might certainly be affordable, so perhaps inaccessible should be a subcategory of uninhabitable related to robots. An inaccessible planet cannot be used to provide resources of any kind, save by scooping the atmosphere’s upper bands.

This means, if we can define inaccessible in terms of planetary conditions, we know where not to look to find evidence of large-scale alien mining activity. Ones which are uninhabitable, but not inaccessible, would be excluded if the signatures we are able to detect relate to the presence of biological aliens.

In the large gap between solo planets and uninhabitable planets there are many varieties, and all of them might harbor life in a permanent way. Life might be anywhere for some planet in this gap, perhaps under the surface on an airless planet, perhaps under the oceans on a planet with tremendously high wind gusts, under ice on a snowball planet, in the atmosphere on a Venusian analog, or on the surface. There would be many possibilities for signature detection, some much less promising than others.

Let’s consider wide-spread life, which is more likely to be detectable. The title phrase, eco-habitable planet, is defined here to be a planet in which life can sustain itself using only the resources available on the planet. Quibbling about a two-planet solar system where each one is needed for some resource type, including energy, is not allowed here. So, on an eco-habitable planet an intelligent species can create an ecology, maybe consisting only of one intelligent alien species or type, that can survive for a long period, measured in star travel timescales, of millennia at the least. This can range from the sole inhabiting species, perhaps tailored for the planet, extracting energy and resources from the planet including using solar photons, which does not need imports to survive up to something where a monstrously large variety of organisms can live there.

The narrow end of this range might be exampled by an underground Mars colony, which mines uranium for power and finds every element it needs in various ores there, and does so in a positive energy way, so that all the building and mining and extracting and so on are paid for, energy wise, by the power gained from the mined uranium. Obviously if imported energy is needed to keep the colony alive, it is not eco-habitable by definition.
The wide end of this range might be exampled by Earth with a change. Let’s suppose we know the only way life can originate is by volcanic vents in a deep ocean, and in the Earth-prime, there are no such vents. The crust is a little thicker or the oceans a little thinner or whatever. So Earth prime can support life, if started in the right way. No chemotrophs living near the vent to give life a start, but if seeded with chlorophyll plants, enough resources can be extracted by the plants to produce an oxygen atmosphere and from then on, life can blossom in countless ways. There could well be a thousand eco-habitable planets in the galaxy for every solo world.
If the ratio of eco-habitable planets to solo planets is a really big number, like a thousand or fifty thousand, then the few solo planets that can generate intelligent civilizations can spread their civilization, with little impediment other than seeding, all over the galaxy. This situation would be reminiscent of what early humans found after evolving into tool use and finding a whole world of opportunity for their own use.

Right now, we do not have quite enough data to tell what this key ratio is. We only know it is extremely important in determining how we should look for signatures of life, and more so, in deciding what we want to do with ourselves.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Cosmological Philosophy

An alien civilization past the asymptotic technology transition will certainly have asymptotic philosophy, just as they have asymptotic status in all fields of science, and science will cover all fields of knowledge. A previous post considered what asymptotic philosophy might look like. This post covers a narrow niche of philosophy and how it might affect star travel and indeed the entire alien civilization.

Cosmology, as Earthlings know it, covers the origin of the universe, its life, and then its death. We on Earth have not been studying it for very long, as its study is predicated on there being a good understanding of astrophysics, and even more importantly, of there being good observational devices. We have built some recently, in the last century or so, and have developed a concept for ourselves of the birth of the universe some thirteen billion years ago, and have developed some competing ideas on how it will end, after some more billions of years. The basic ideas is that the part of the universe we see is expanding fairly uniformly, and will continue to do so, unless it doesn’t, and then it will change to contracting, and compress itself again. These ideas will all be worked out in due course.

In the alternative of continued expansion, nothing much happens except the energy in the universe gets transformed into a diffuse heat, there being not much entropy left. The longest lived stars are red dwarfs, and their computed lifetimes might be in the hundreds of billions of years. So, when an alien civilization is contemplating its future, if its view of cosmology is finite in time scale, that no matter what they do, they will go extinct. All life will go extinct when the stars burn out, unless some way is found to extract a bit more energy from the stuff that is left, and they can live a bit longer on some planet or on a nomad spaceship, until finally all the additional energy they can obtain is used up. To summarize, our cosmology says life is finite in time, and if theirs does too, they have to cope with this in their philosophy. That is the meaning of the title of this post.

Since we are so new at cosmology, this view may not be valid, and the universe may go through cycles of some sort we don’t currently imagine, recycling entropy in a violation of the second law of thermodynamics in some clever way, and the aliens will all figure this out and have a different view of cosmological philosophy. Perhaps so, but let’s assume the very basic ideas of thermodynamics have some say, and life will end, along with everything else. In a macro view, this is sort of silly from a cause and effect point of view, as how did the universe get started, if after it ends nothing changes. But putting silliness aside, what happens to an alien civilization that finally figures out cosmology and it turns out that there is no survival past some time in the future, which might be ten billion years or a thousand billion years. There is a time that they will figure out and it is a definite end to everything.

Now consider these brilliant aliens, all intellectually equal to something smarter than the greatest genius Earth has every produced, with their hands on all of science and engineering, facing a problem that has no solution. In this hypothetical setup, the universe ends at time t, and after that there is nothing. They are setting goals for their civilization. Consider the goal they set related to survival as a civilization. Should they set it as t minus a billion years, or as close to t as possible, or just forget about it and set it for as long as it takes them to use up the resources in the galaxy they inhabit, or take a lesser length of time such as the length of time for their star to burn out, or even shorter, or maybe right away.

Recall that a civilization has a different way of thinking than an individual. Mostly, individuals opt for living as long as possible, with exceptions being when physical or mental pain is too great, or a sacrifice is needed for some good for others, or when depression strikes, or life has become unbearable. Individuals on Earth are programmed that way by evolution, as are many creatures on Earth. Aliens may eliminate the desire for long life in their own members, or not, but whether they do so is not relevant to the decision that the entire society makes. And a society does not have instincts arising from evolution, just memes, which are reviewed by individuals.
So, supposing the alien civilization is reassessing its memes related to its own survival, and is doing so in conjunction with the setting of long-term goals for itself, what do they do about cosmology’s inevitable conclusion that the civilization will be vapor after some time t? They would ask, why are we bothering to worry about the future? Let us just set our goals to be having good lives right now.

The problem is, if you do not set goals for the future, but only for the present, there is nothing to survive for. If the civilization cannot survive past t, why bother to survive past t/2? Why bother to survive past t/10? Why bother to survive past t/100? Why bother to survive past the current generation?

There is no philosophical answer to this. The alien civilization is forced to make a choice as to when it will cease to exist, and there is no basis coming from cosmology that tells them what to choose. They have to arbitrarily make a choice. Should we have a thousand more generations and call it quits? How about only a hundred? Nothing in the universe provides an answer. The memes they have were created during the genetic grand transition, most likely, and didn’t include anything about how long to survive, only to survive as a civilization.

What do they do? Should they go exploring the galaxy, planting clones of their own civilization on other planets, or starting life on other planets that cannot originate it but can support it, or struggle with solving the intergalactic transit problem, or what? Any clone worlds they start will be gone by time t, as will every instance of life they start, along with life on Andromeda or the Magellanic Clouds or anywhere else in the local group. Thus, cosmological philosophy asks a question that undermines their memes. Maybe this is why nobody comes by Earth from another star. They understand philosophy, and are just enjoying a quiet life at home.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

How Important is an Atmosphere?

When we talk about looking for planets with aliens, the atmosphere is one potentially visible signature. Oxygen in large amounts, such as we have on Earth, is something that could be seen with the right observational equipment.

If we are talking about solo planets, ones where life originates, oxygen resulting from photosynthesis might be a sign that evolution took whatever chemotrophs that originated there into a higher energy plane, where they start absorbing photons. There is, in most situations, so much more photon energy from the nearby sun than there might be chemical energy, that the chlorophyll transition makes a tremendous difference in what life can become. Chemotrophs as we know them are very limited, extremely limited, compared to life which lives directly or indirectly on the solar fusion energy which arrives via photons.

In the series about interstellar nomads and especially the post about speciation, it was considered how alien genetic engineers might come up with a new species that did not need an atmosphere to survive. This would be much better for living in a spaceship, as the problems of maintaining an atmosphere disappear, as does the threat of depressurization due to impact or to age-related ruptures. In place of breathing, some source of oxidizer has to be provided, so this could be either a liquid that is ingested, or gas in a quantity that can last for hours between ‘feeding’. Instead of purely carbohydrates for intake, there would be both the carbohydrates going into one digestive pipeline and the oxidizers going into another digestive pipeline, or in the case of gas under pressure, into some organ that can withstand more than normal pressures. Since there would be no atmosphere, there is no standard by which pressure can be measured in an alien body of this type, but pressures could be larger than are present in our atmosphere and still not rupture a specially designed organ.

Once this design is completed, the genetic code for it optimized and turned into a set of chromosomes, and the problems of ontogeny worked out, there is a creature which is capable of living in a much wider variety of planetary situations than atmosphere-dependent ones. A small planet without any atmosphere would be suitable, provided there was some protection from solar UV. Even if there was solar UV, the creature could be designed to have skin and surface organs as immune to damaging effects as possible. A cave on such a planet would provide even more protection.

Temperature would be another problem for a small planet, as a creature on its surface would be exposed to the vacuum of outer space. The surface of the planet would be at the same temperature, so there would be heat loss both from conduction through surface contact and radiation into space. Obviously the solution would be for internal heating to compensate for this, and as much shielding, either part of the creature’s hide or as clothing, as possible would be necessary.

Another hazard would be high-energy radiation, particles of some sort, such as cosmic rays. Too much of this would lead to genetic damage, and, while genetic repair can be done, there must be limits to the rate at which repairs can be done, both from an operational standpoint and from an error-correction standpoint. Too high a rate of damage and the repair mechanism is overwhelmed. Too high an accumulation of damage and the repair mechanism itself becomes faulty.

These are the known, obvious problems that would face any genetic engineer seeking to design a sentient creature able to function on a planet without a satellite. Caves and thermal clothing would help and reduce the requirements on the design. The same design might be useful for satellites that have no atmosphere.

Gravity is another issue. On a nomad ship, if there was never much acceleration from propulsion, designing the organisms that live there for zero or small gravity would be ideal. This is a design problem for digestion to a small extent, and for locomotion for a large extent. Having adhesive pads on the end of limbs might be the most efficient way to move about, but then using tools might be affected by the constant stickiness present. Perhaps four limbs with adhesion and two without would be an option. For planets, gravity creates structural issues, both for simple standing and for the impact that jumping can cause. On the nomad ship there is no need for a strong bone skeleton, but on any sizable planet, there is.

The issue of how to design a biological organism that would be intelligent, mobile, dexterous and strong enough to handle heavy tools for any planet is an interesting one, and should amuse the engineers of an alien civilization as much as designing robots amuses our engineers. The functionality should have many similarities, but beyond that, not much in common. The issue of doing without an atmosphere is one challenge that seems to be solvable, but we are at such a primitive level of understanding of these engineering skills that almost nothing sensible can be said. It is like asking a medieval peasant to decide what kinds of robots might be created. He would simple have no background whatsoever to assess the potential of the technology.

What we can discuss, however, is the implication of being able to design species that can inhabit airless planets and satellites. When astronomers talk about habitable zones, they are thinking of planets where some sort of life, similar to what we know on Earth, might be able to live. There are extremephilles here, able to tolerate heat and cold, salinity, pH in both directions, and other conditions we have here. But conditions we do not have here might be able to support life as well, if the life that goes there is designed by intelligent technologists. Our search for life in the galaxy might have to have the assumed boundaries widened. If such technologists could create life able to survive on the moon, we need to even consider all possibiities for life. Since we are so far from understanding the ultimate limits of intelligently designed life, the only answer might be to simply look everywhere for it.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Why Study Alien Civilizations – Part 3

The first part of this series talks about the amusement aspects of studying aliens. They are not funny people, but it is intellectually amusing to think about what they might be like. The second part of this series talks about the intellectual advantages of postulating some alien civilization and trying to reason what it might be like. Then do it again with some change in assumptions. And again. Pretty soon you are seeing some trend, or some relationship stands out that didn’t before, or some new question sticks its head up and demands to be answered. In other words, it is like a little idea laboratory where you can do mental experiments.

This part comes up with another reason to study aliens. There might be some.

This blog has discussed alien life-forms in all varieties, from simple chemotrophs up to those who inhabit networks of communicating colonies. Since we inhabit the same galaxy, and at least the upper end of the spectrum of possible alien life-forms, those who travel or have travelled to other solar systems than their own, might someday and somehow come into contact with us, we should do whatever we can to get ready.

Advanced alien civilizations range in what their opinion might be of us or any other life-form they happen to encounter in their touring of solar systems. Typically they would not have any reverence for life itself, just regarding it as another chance event in the galaxy, one that might get in the way of their colonization work. Others regard their mission in the galaxy as propagating it, irrespective of what kind it was. And there can be something in-between.

One viewpoint is that alien civilizations, and we mean alien to them, the ones who are traveling from star to star, are too much of a bother to deal with and simply ignore the ones they notice, and move on to more pristine planets, ones without some primitive intelligent life. That’s where we fit into their scheme of things.

Another viewpoint is that alien civilizations, meaning us, are simply another thing to clean up before settling down on a desirable planet and starting to build infrastructure that suits them. Maybe they have done this before, and we are another in a series of primitive alien civilizations that needs to be removed. Is it likely that we are easy to remove?

If they use the same DNA coding scheme as we do, they could simply fit into the ecology that was here initially. If not, the ecology is just a source of carbohydrates and other proteins, some of which might be indigestible to them, but not to their bacteria or whatever novel biological things they have developed to solve the conversion problem.

Among Earth’s life, about 20 different coding schemes have been developed, most of which differ only by a small amount. The differences appear in single celled life, and in mitochondria, which likely was a sort of single celled life before it was absorbed by a larger cell and converted into an energy processing globule inside the larger cells. This implies, but certainly does not prove, that evolution on our planet experimented early on with variants of DNA, before deciding on the one that the overwhelming majority of organisms on Earth use. If aliens evolved under somewhat similar conditions, back on their own home planet, their version of evolution may have also experimented with different varieties of DNA, and the same selection was made.

It is possible to make DNA out of other amino acids, but no one has ever succeeded in making DNA of a different coding variety reproduce itself. This may be because it is almost a useless exercise, and few science labs would want to devote time to it. Compare research into the origination of life. Little has been accomplished, and that certainly is a more prize-winning subject than figuring out that 10 other varieties of DNA can’t produce the complexity necessary for a cell.

If it is true, and as far as we know it is, our DNA is the one which works best, an alien ship visiting here might be content with simply eliminating us, leaving the rest of the life on Earth alone temporarily. Getting rid of us might be very simple, but removing other Earth life and replacing it with Planet X life would take much time, and have to be carefully done, as the biome has planetary effects. Our biome affects the albedo of some land areas, maintains the oxygen in the atmosphere, builds reefs, and probably more, so it shouldn’t be simply terminated suddenly. We have planetary effects as well, but none that the planet cannot do without.
So, one reason we might want to understand alien civilizations is to understand how likely it is that some could come here with colonization in mind, what methods they might have to do it, what their asymptotic psychology might be like, how they might do cost-benefit analysis to see if it is better to leave us alone, and possibly, how we might defend ourselves against termination.

It might be nice to understand what planets they would prefer, or to see if it is a selection process based upon the whole solar system, and maybe the star type as well. Perhaps we live in an undesirable solar system, and won’t have to worry about any but desperate aliens coming here to evict us.

If we ever figure out the mysteries of the origination of life, and can apply that to exo-planet distributions, we might find out that there are only a few places in the galaxy that can originate life, and none of them are nearby, and they have to be on the outskirts of the galaxy, meaning not very much older than we are. This would mean any other civilization’s colonization attempts wouldn’t be here before we graduate to star traveling ourselves, if we can make the grade.

We might also want to know if, for some reason we can figure out after a lot of thought, that colonization is simply not being done and never will be. Although we are not alone in the galaxy, nobody will ever visit. This probably would mean that our solar system is it for us, and when our sun gets a bit warmer, we are goners. This may not be something we even want to know.

So to summarize, learning about aliens through whatever means possible may be a useful activity, on the basis that we may encounter some of them someday, somewhere in the galaxy. Obviously, being prepared is not just for Boy Scouts.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Lackadaisical Extinction

The genetic grand transition has been mentioned many, many times in this blog, and sometimes it was spoken of as the most revolutionary one, among many revolutions, that technology wreaks upon the members of a civilization. The genetic grand transition is really a conglomeration of technology steps that fit together to make the future of an alien civilization completely different from its past.

The obvious key step is the understanding of the genetic code, and whatever that entails, including epi-genetics and the drivers of it, ontology, mutation, and the microchemistry of cells. This step alone is obvious a huge undertaking, but since aliens are inside it, so to speak, its benefits are almost boundless. One of the subsidiary steps is gestation. Another is improvement of the aliens themselves, which is the application through engineering of the just-mentioned understanding of the code. Another is the rewriting of the entire ecology of the planet, to the degree the aliens choose to. Another is the creation of tailored biological servants, or whatever they might be called, who are intelligent enough to perform whatever tasks are needed. They are called ‘intellos’ in this blog. And there are certainly more.

Another major thread in this blog is that of memes, which constitute the credo that young aliens are taught to live by, and to take life goals from. The one that concerns those of us who are peering upwards looking for aliens is the one related to star travel. This is only one of many. As noted elsewhere, science does not provide goals to intelligent living creatures, they have to provide it to themselves, or better, to each other. This needs to be done for young aliens, and that is the primary impact point of memes.

Memes are not the same as laws. Laws are precise statements of what can and cannot be done in a society, and represent the boundaries of behavior. One could have a meme restating a law, but that is a very restricted view of what memes' principal benefit is. Memes tell alien citizens what they should do, and the training that accompanies it tells them both how to interpret the memes in various diverse situations, and associates happiness with fulfilling them. This assumes that aliens have associative brains, which seems to be the only option for evolved creatures.

The clash between one particular aspect of the genetic grand transition, that of increased intelligence for all members of the alien civilization, generation by generation until they were all as smart as their type of brains allowed, coupled with the correct training to take advantage of it, and, the meme for the preservation of the species, or whatever replaced their species if they did deliberate speciation or something even more exotic, has been discussed in a post. It was about the erosion of the memes in general. Applied to the meme or memes for species preservation or civilization preservation to be more correct, this can be fatal. It can lead to a type of voluntary extinction, when the memes are not properly transmitted to successive generations. This is the essence of erosion of memes.

Unfortunately for those of us who are still waiting for aliens, there is another method by which this clash can take place. As aliens become more and more intelligent, they find more and more ways to amuse themselves and find enjoyment. An animal can be said to have enjoyment, when it fulfills two of the drives that underpin evolution, nutrition and reproduction. Survival is a release of fear, which is related to these two. Lower animals must have these two, or three, drives, or they go extinct.

Aliens after the genetic grand transition, or very intelligent aliens in general, find enjoyment in other things, which are not necessarily connected with the second of these mandatory events, reproduction or better, replication of future members of the civilization. With gestation being done industrially or in biological factories, or by some sort of biological creation, the thrill of having descendants vaporizes. What is left is a meme-generated happiness to see that the civilization is on the track to preserve itself.

The point to be made here is this: Other enjoyments may bury this interest in the midst of other activities, so no attention is paid to ensuring this process is carried out properly. Worse, it can be simply ignored, and if it does not go right, no one is watching to fix things. Automation is wonderful, but over hundreds of generations, errors may creep in. With no aliens caring much about the process, as they are totally involved in more exciting, more enjoyable, more intriguing activities of their own devising, these errors may accumulate until some point is reached where the civilization cannot continue. This is the title phrase: lackadaisical extinction. Aliens in the civilization subject to this are not interested in having their civilization go extinct, they do not feel it is faulty or evil or has any other attributes that would make it just in some sense to go extinct, and they would not vote to have it go extinct.

What does happen is that they simply don’t pay any attention to it.

Again, the problem is timing. If this difficulty with replicating the next generation happens and someone catches it, and the problem is fixed, the next time it happens something will happen, such as an automatic repair or the summoning of someone able to organize the repair. But if it happens for the first time, when the genetic grand transition is still underway, and all kinds of checks have not yet been put in place, the end might arrive. Seeing fewer aliens around might alarm some, but not if they are all of the very first universally intelligent generation, and are caught up in the process of figuring out how to live in such a civilization. Never before was there so much intelligence, and what to do with it? All the attention of society might be paid to the incredible options and alternatives that are being presented to the civilization, and not much left to maintain essential functions, which are fairly boring anyway.

Running out of water would raise an alarm, as every intelligent alien would see it and be ready to use their intelligence to fix the problem. Running out of aliens might not raise the alarm, if the population concentrated in smaller areas so that the actual count was not obvious like having no water would be. Perhaps this is a problem that is wholly imaginary, and no alien civilization could be so caught up with the revolutionary changes in society that they forget about the next generation, or be so distracted with intellectual interests that the basic requirements of society, meaning the next generation, were ignored. Or perhaps it is not.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The “It’s Too Hard” Argument

Let me give the argument in its full-blown glory. “Some science thing is too hard to do so it won’t ever be done.” For an alien civilization, this is what we call beyond asymptotic technology. Unfortunately, the argument is thrown around like rice at a wedding, and should only be used in those few cases where the technology has been shown to be impossibly hard, by being against some physical laws, or impossibly expensive, or some other such robust barrier.

Being too hard to do is a reaction that an individual might have, when faced with a task that they are not capable of. Being too hard to do for the science community is not a feeling, but a conclusion that is drawn from deep investigation of the details of the task. It also has to do with time. Something may indeed be too hard to do today, but science is like a juggernaut. It just keeps rolling forward. It covers all areas, albeit at different speeds. Science is simply remembered and organized knowledge. Knowledge keeps being accumulated.

This blog has discussed how technology, which is science and its application to living, might be derailed on its way to its final destination. Everybody could die first, which certainly would put an end to science. Everybody could be so upset about some horrible result, that they kill off all the scientists and refuse to train any more, which would end science. A few more examples might be given, but they are extreme instances, conjured up solely to prove that scenarios can be created in which the road to asymptotic technology could be mined.

Otherwise, things don’t get too hard to figure out. Figuring out things is what scientists get thrilled about. “Too hard” is a label that attracts attention, not repels it. Everyone wants to be the one, or part of the team, that solves the “too hard” problem that stumped everybody else for a year or a century. Those who have not participated in scientific endeavors might have feelings about giving up when something is too hard, and indeed, scientists give up all the time, but others take up the gauntlet and just keep going. Scientists give up because the time is not right, as the necessary predecessor work has not been done, and there are too many uncertainties to proceed. They may divert their work into figuring out how to reduce one of these uncertainties, which eliminates one of possibly many obstacles to solving the original problem.

Scientists may give up because of a loss of funding, but this does not mean that the interest in solving the problem in the heads of the scientists goes away. On another day, the funding might be there, or some solution of another unrelated problem might just show a clue as to how to solve the one that lost its funding, and with the impetus of an easier solution, funding comes back. Or some political obstacle might arise, and not so somewhere else, where the task gets done.

Complexity is the name given to many “too hard” problems. Such and such a physical phenomena is very complex, and therefore it will never be understood. We on Earth have these problems in many areas, and the areas change with time as the complexity is transformed by some new points of view into something easy to understand. Right now, genetic coding is hard, neurology is hard, psychology is hard, politics is hard, economics is hard, and there are many, many other examples that could be given. Yet in each of these areas, scientists or other thinkers are chunking away at the complexity, gradually contributing their own insights. Some insights are certainly wrong and need to be replaced, and will be. But none of these areas possesses some intrinsic obstacle that makes it “too hard” to ever solve. Each of these areas will, in time, become as easy to understand, with the proper definitions, metrics, relationships, and algorithms, as others are today, such as chemistry.

Once science is done with a field, the engineers take over. When knowledge is codified and able to be used, it is used. Perhaps some type of social restrictions are applied, but over long periods of time, they are satisfied. Reliability of changes is a demand that society may impose on engineers. As science takes on more and more powerful areas, in terms of the effects they might have on the civilization that uses it, more and more time is demanded for areas of testing, validating and verifying, and checking for side effects. This is only reasonable, and is certainly not justification for slapping the “too hard” label on the engineering side of technology.

Judging that here on Earth something is currently facing popular opposition or government restriction or some other social obstacle and therefore no alien civilization would be able to do it is not realistic. These obstacles are likely to be temporary. For science, obstacles are sometimes even outflanked, as related scientific progress makes the blocked tasks trivial. For engineering, once trials have been done and fears satisfied, the propagation of the possible technology through the civilization can take place. Cost may limit the rate of progress, and so can the need to accommodate changes. For example, in some posts, ecological cities with massive recycling have been forecast as mandatory for alien civilizations beyond some point in their development. The changes from little to lots of recycling might take centuries, as the infrastructure of the city would need to be revamped, almost totally. Cities are too expensive to tear down and rebuild, just to satisfy a social need. This needs to be done in accordance with the normal wear and tear of the city, so that costs are manageable in the same way as they would be with other rebuilding efforts. However, this requirement is not a “too hard” restriction, just a timing issue.

Timing is really the cure for “too hard” science and engineering problems. With time, anything that is possible can be done, given the minefields of scarcity and the perils of the planet do not impact the civilization. There really is no reason to project our very short-term view of what is “too hard” onto any alien civilization. They won’t find it so.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Implications of Finding Aliens – Example 5

The first four examples in this series of posts represented different ways in which the question of where aliens were is answered affirmatively. They seemed to have different responses from humanity, depending on what we learned and how we learned it. This example concludes the series with yet another option in this parameter space.

SETI is kept going for decades and then centuries, searching not just for beacons, but for any sign of intelligent aliens. It is funded to search for alien civilizations on planets, or in transit between planets of different solar systems, or simply on ships inside a solar system. It finds nothing.

The study of how aliens might exist continues as well, and the major gaps present at the early stages of this questioning are gradually filled. One of the largest is the origination of life. When this puzzle was first answered, it opened up some options for SETI to explore, but unfortunately, life by itself, without intelligence, gives few unmistakable signatures. The crawl from the initial forms of life, which can be different varieties, to various stages of better use of energy and better use of resources, was eventually understood as well, and so the characteristics of planets where life might become smarter and smarter were determined. Still nothing was detected. The age-old question of why aliens haven’t visited us was pretty much figured out, as to what obstacles existed.

During this time, technology advanced, and came closer and closer to having a complete picture of how to engineer anything that was doable, and how to know what was not doable. One of the subjects that became known was how to build a space probe, and how to make it able to communicate, and how to power it for very long periods of time. Reliability was not the key to long-lived space probes capable of going to other solar systems, regenerative, developmental systems were. It was realized that the most efficient way to send a probe out was to shoot for a speed approximately 2% of light speed. It was also realized that the nearest exo-planet likely to have intelligent life on it was 310 light years out. This means a more than six thousand year voyage. The ship would have to be simple at first, able to regenerate itself for that period, and then to finally build whatever it needed at the destination solar system. Once the design was done, Earth of the future had to decide if they should send it.

What difference would it make to a generation of Earthlings six thousand years in the future to hear that there was an alien civilization exactly where it was predicted to be? Why would one generation of Earthlings, of whatever shape they had turned into, want to expend those resources? Six thousand years might be sixty generations, or perhaps six if longevity research was very successful, but even six generations out is a large step. Why do it?

Already there was little to be learned. Alien civilization studies could predict there was an 80% chance that there was an alien civilization on that exo-planet, already aeons old, and knowing the answer, yes or no, would not affect Earth six thousand years from the launch date at all, except for one aspect. The solar system would be barren of four types of critical resources needed by a hundred thousand years, unless Earthlings cut their population down to a minimum. Recycling simply cannot be made efficient enough, and the costs of refining diffused wastes would require more of these very same resources as would be recovered. It was a matter of Resources Recovered for Resources Expended, a RR/RE ratio. If the exo-planet were uninhabited, Earth could move its civilization there.

This means that finding aliens on the targeted exo-planet would be of no use and no value whatsoever, but not finding them would. Since all civilizations converge on their uses and almost everything else, aliens being present there would mean the solar system would be barren or partially so. If they had gone extinct, it would be as bad as having them there, as planetary tectonics and other processes would not have made more resources available for millions of years.

So the question of where aliens are becomes, as time progresses and asymptotic technology is reached and passed, unimportant and the important question is where aliens are not, restricting the scope of the inquiry to solar systems which were eminently habitable. When Earthlings become the aliens they once dreamed about, aliens are no longer of any interest; resources are. Traveling long distances through space to say hello is not something future Earthlings were about to do, for they could come up with no good reason for it. But if they have decided to maintain their civilization, finding another location to do it would be the key variable. If aliens cannot be detected by remotely visible signatures, then probes would have to be used to find them or to find out their absence. Nothing else is worth the expense of resources or in particular the long, long wait for the answer.

Only a civilization that had passed into a very stable phase, as made possible by asymptotic technology in the whole spectrum of knowledge, would be able to project that millennia in the future, they would be just as interested in knowing where aliens were not as they would be at the time of launch. Stability for millennia is something that comes with the territory. One a civilization marches into asymptotic technology, the technology stops changing as it is complete. And since technology drives the form of the civilization, the form of the civilization stops changing as well. All the problems that beset an early form of civilization eventually get solved, and once they are solved, there is nothing left to cause changes, with two exceptions. One is perils, of the planetary, stellar or galactic variety, and one is resource exhaustion. If a choice has been made to continue the civilization, then to avoid a peril or to find new resources, some star traveling is necessary.

The answer to the question: “Where are the aliens?” gets eventually answered. We become the aliens, and they are right here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Implications of Finding Aliens – Example 4

This example continues the set of three already posted by postulating a situation in which we learn something about aliens, and then speculating about how it would affect Earth. The first three examples had no communication with aliens in it, and worse, they had no direct observation of aliens. They were all at-a-distance scenarios. This example continues the parameter excursion to include something a bit more close-at-hand, but still not exactly contact.

Suppose tomorrow morning some astute amateur astronomer notices a new comet. Looking to have his name attached, and to reap the fame of being the first to find it, he announces the astronomical coordinates of the new comet, which is simply a barely discernable point of light. As with all new comets, many other observers turn to corroborate the finding, in the usual courtesy of the amateur community. It is there.

Now comes the period of watching it to observe its motion, and to begin to plot its orbit, and see just how interesting it would become. Comets which barrel into the inner solar system and outgas in various jets provide a more interesting show that those which simply continue to be points of light at the edge of detection.

After some time of watching its motion, with the kind collaboration of some larger dishes, it is clear that it is on something like a deep elliptical trajectory, and will make the discoverer proud, as it is coming into the inner solar system. It poses no threat to Earth. A little more observation over some months indicates that it is coming straight into the inner solar system, and it is not in orbit. Its trajectory is not an ellipse. Now comes the fun for astronomy buffs. What could make it depart from an elliptical trajectory? It is too far from the sun to be outgassing. Thermal signatures of the comet indicate it is outgassing, but with a high energy jet? Now things get really interesting. This is novel, and a few more big eyes are set upon it. It is something novel. It is a decelerating alien ship.

The signatures are unmistakable. This huge thing is decelerating, and heading into the inner solar system. Since approximately 99.999% of the Earth population haven’t thought about aliens except by watching a few movies about them, the level of speculation goes wild. Are Earthlings going to be eaten by these creatures? Are they going to rescue us from some problem or another, or tell us about a problem they have with other aliens? Are they refugees escaping from the clutches of a galactic federation of evil overlords? Are they going to blast our planet into bits? Unfortunately, the ship looks rather nondescript, without anything that looks like a weapon, but then they might be concealed inside the hull. Our military is put on alert, as if they had any capability to do something against a high technology alien ship. At least they can help clean up any destruction. The trajectory is plotted, but since the deceleration direction is changing, no destination can be chosen. What part of Earth will they land on? Will they just orbit and expect Earthlings to go up to them? What do they want from us?

It turns out, nothing. They go into orbit around Europa and run some shuttles up and down. Over and over. We watch them. We assume they are refueling before they come here. We send them radio messages, at every frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum. We compose the kindest welcome possible. We still have the military flying around and making speeches. We wait.

They keep shuttling down to Europa. We keep waiting. They just keep doing it. How much stuff do they need from that satellite? They keep doing it. A wretched year goes by. They are still doing it. They don’t respond to any of our messages. They send nothing. They signal nothing. They just keep shuttling down to Europa and back. Obviously they are mining. We can see the excavations even from ground telescopes and orbiting ones. Every available observer is looking there. The aliens just keep mining and ignoring Earth. After a while, the more astute Earthlings realize that the aliens don’t give a damn about us. They just want some resources from Europa. We make plans to send a space probe to Europa, but the thing will take ten years in conception, design, construction, testing, launch and flight, and nobody can agree on what to send. So we just send some scientific probe to examine their ship and their site. We launch it.

More years go by. The news about the aliens is pretty repetitive. We have a close count of how many shuttles go down to Europa, as they are regular in schedule and we assume the ones going down when the ship is out of view, eclipsed, are the same. The numbers are getting high. We still speculate about them coming our way when they are done, but the absolute lack of communication indicates this isn’t likely. Then they make our probe disappear before it even has a chance to decelerate into orbit around Jupiter. Some laser blast and it turns into dispersed atoms. Not a very pleasant greeting.

Then they leave. We have no idea what to do.

This example continues the series of the first three in adding one more piece of information about alien civilizations to what was postulated to be learned in the first three. We learn space travel is possible and aliens are doing it. We learn they need resources but they don’t need us. We learn we are not very important to aliens, at least the ones who came by on an expedition. Instead of the exhilaration of previous examples, such as number three, where we accidentally intercept communications and think that with a lot of effort, we can join in the network, there is the realization of the utter unimportance of mankind. This is a worse sociological impact that the first example, which was the realization of loneliness. This is the realization that nobody wants to bother talking to us, even when they are nearby.

We could adopt the opinion that we need to continue developing and then we might become something of importance in the galaxy, but that is countered by the expectation that if this was the case, the alien ship would at least have said something to the effect that we were just too young, and we should keep working. But they didn’t. So the result is that we recognize Earth is an uninteresting backwater, and will always be. Mostly, life goes on, but our spark is diminished, and maybe just burns out. Should we go on to space? Why bother? We are nobodies. Should we take offense and prove them wrong, and try and become a civilization worth talking to? They have probably figured out we won’t make it. So why try? Maybe we should just enjoy our time here on Earth, and not worry about aliens. Maybe we should go out to Europa and try and figure out what they were digging up there. Maybe they left something behind. Do we want to do some interplanetary dumpster diving?

The implication of being ignored has been with us since we first started asking about where all the aliens were, but in this example, we learn where the aliens are and we are still ignored. This is an awakening and perhaps represents a conclusion to our progress towards space. Why not just forget about it?

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Implications of Finding Aliens – Example 3

In the first two examples related to the importance to Earth and its population of finding out something about aliens in our galaxy, the amount of information received was started at almost nothing, and then increased. Let us try and continue to explore what implications there might be by constructing another example, with a bit more knowledge about such aliens to be gained, and think through what might happen. These thought experiments are a way of exploring the parameter space of gained information. Different steps along the variable trying to measure quantity of information need to be taken in order to see the changes wrought by a simple increase. Recall that exploring along a parameter line if one of the chief methods of gaining insights about something more or less unknown, but with much associated, useful information that can be coupled into it.

In this example, suppose we continue on as we have, building telescopes on the ground and in orbit, of a great variety, with also a great variety of associated spectroscopic devices, and a great variety of information processing equipment, and a great variety of specialists poring over the data after having devised interesting research programs, mostly to find out more information on every possible thing in the galaxy and beyond, from stars to exo-planets to clouds to nebula to supernova to anything at all. By and large, the research is successful, and our knowledge of astrophysics and astronomy, and some new niches of science, just keeps growing. This is wonderful, both for the scientists involved and those involved in building the toys they need. It is also wonderful for those on Earth who like to learn about these topics.

One solitary scientist, of some renown, is involved with investigating sunspots on other stars, and has published extensively on it. His fame allows him substantial time on one of the larger radiotelescope arrays on Earth, and he is focusing on a star about 107 light years distant. As a matter of course, he runs exhaustive data examination programs on the data he collects. After some long period of collecting data, he notices that one of his extraction programs says there is a modulated carrier at a particular frequency in X-band, but it is buried deep in noise.

Jaw drops.

Eyes open wide.

Un-understandable sounds emitted.

The scientist immediately knows what this might mean, drops all other work, and looks for a terrestrial source that might be causing this, some sort of error in computation, some artifact of engineering, something, anything, that could create this signal. But there is none and the signal continues on. Soon other radiotelescopes have detected it. The strength of the signal slowly increases.

It is recorded everywhere, and every new source on the planet has announced it. The SETI signal has been found, in an unexpected way. Aliens exist! They are talking to us. We only need to decode the signals.

But after ten months, the signal stops increasing, and starts to decrease. In another sixteen months, it has dropped to undetectable values. The aliens have stopped sending us messages. Why? Was it because we did not respond, as we could not? Did they only want to send us some information and we got it all? No decoding progress at all has been made, even of the signals received at peak power level, and in the combined data from all partipating radiotelescopes. But efforts did not stop in that regard. Did Earth miss its chance at meeting the aliens?

The scientist who discovered the signal was the first to notice that what was happening was not that someone was hailing us from his targeted star, but that we had passed through a communications beam, from that star at 107 light years out to another one 88 light years in exactly the opposite direction. It was a triumph of serendipity. He happened to be looking in the right direction when the motion of the three stars, caught in the galactic gravitational field, had aligned themselves perfectly. A one in a million chance had happened, or maybe a one in a lot less chance, if there was a lot of this communication going on.

The realization that the galaxy was a network was the only hot news topic for the over two years it was detectable. It actually dominated discussions and chatrooms and every type of social media, to the exclusion of everything else. Who are they, and what are they saying? But the conclusion was finally reached that the signals were encrypted, and we could not bust them. It looked like random bits initially, and it looked like random bits finally. Efforts continued, but to no avail. We couldn’t find out what the aliens were saying to other aliens. Speculation was rife, and everyone had an idea on it. But as the intensity of the news of the breakthrough subsided, something happened. We decided to get on the network. It was calculated that a dish a kilometer wide needed to be constructed, and it wouldn’t be useful to build it on Earth, nor would it be possible. Nor was this possible to engineer in space, but now money was no object, and the lackluster interest in space things flipped over to intense interest. Mankind returned to being excited about space.

This third example serves to explore what would happen if there was a chance Earth could communicate with aliens. It could not, in the example, soon visit them or expect a visit from them, but with some monumental efforts, it could join in the communications. It might take decades to do the research and engineering on how to build the communications station, but that’s what mankind might do. Would Earth just collectively shrug its shoulders and say that, while it was nice these other civilizations were communicating with one another, we were too busy and didn’t want to get involved? Not very likely.

The implication of finding a way to communicate with other civilizations would affect us at this point in our development. Perhaps if we had more millennia under our belts and had already developed just about everything in technology, we could decide to ignore other civilizations, but at this point, we are still too much of an adolescent civilization to not want to join in. Message return times might be two hundred years, but we still would want to join in.

What would it mean for mankind to start thinking of a future event two centuries or more in the future? Much as in the second example, our habit of not looking very far forward in time would erode, and be replaced with a longer term perspective. Once we started to think about this long, slow communication, we would start thinking about other aspects of our existence, and how they would be two or more centuries out. The difference between the second and third examples is that the collective loneliness, as introduced in the first example, disappears. We find ourselves not alone in the galaxy, but in the midst of a group of communicating civilizations, or at least two for starters. And we know the direction to push technology in order to join in. So, although the second example provided Earth with a direction, the third one provides a much more concrete requirement. We know what to do, and how to do it, at least in a general sense. As far as implications go, they certainly increase at this step of our thought experiments.