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.

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