Saturday, April 30, 2016

Stages in the Star Travel Era

Star travel is most likely after an alien civilization reaches asymptotic technology (AT). Some premature attempts can be made, but the alien civilization is likely to understand the history of technology development long before any star travel activity can be started, and would recognize that almost all aspects of technology would be useful in developing means for star travel. There is very likely not going to be any driving need for star travel until this short period of technology development is passed, so likely even if some alien civilization thought it might be a good idea to try it early on, by the time the preparations were completed, so would AT.

Asymptotic technology does not mean that all engineering for every conceivable project has been done, just that all scientific knowledge is complete, and the basics of engineering using all of it has been figured out. Engineering is likely to be done by AI in the AT phase of an alien civilization, so it will not take a long time to design a starship. Preparing it will take a long time, even with AI doing the logistics.

Before star ship design is done, a tremendous amount of scientific learning will have been done that will be relevant to the star ship design. Interplanetary exploration and mining will provide much of it. Reliability is one aspect. Building spaceships to explore the home solar system will provide reliability information for the relatively short term of solar system trips, perhaps dozens or even hundreds of year in duration. Orbital stations that endure for long periods will also give information on centuries of reliability problems in space. Propulsors and energy sources are another aspect that will be developed for solar system travel, as will longer range communication systems. The development of AI ship commanders will contribute. Intellos that are self-regenerating and tolerant of space conditions, such as weightlessness and radiation, for space ship operations will be another major contributor.

Extending the reliability information to thousand year flights can either be done by putting off star travel to later in the AT era. With possible levels of recycling of materials of all kinds, and the development of fusion power sources should ensure that the alien civilization will endure far longer than this.

The one thing that is not likely to be done in full scope is the end stage of an interstellar voyage. Other posts have discussed the requirements for this phase. Braking into an appropriate orbit and sending down landers will be a piece of cake at this stage. Assessment of the state of the planet will be the troublesome part.

In seems absolutely inevitable that any alien civilization planning an interstellar voyage would build giant spaceborne telescopes and investigate the destination planet in great detail. As posted elsewhere, a continental map would exist, along with a large amount of information on the planet’s overall chemistry. The biology would not be detectable, only to the stage that there were no large detectable cities so no far-developed alien civilizations there. There is such a short period of civilizational development, a few thousand years or so, when there would be undetectable civilizations there, compared to the billions of years that planets last or that it takes life to get to that stage, that the probability of an alien star ship arriving when the planet when there was an undetected alien civilization is vanishingly small. The alien civilization sending the starship could even extend their observation time prior to launching the ship to cut this probability down further.

Thus, there are four phases in the star travel era. One might be called the destination search phase, where large observatories in the far reaches of the home solar system are used to scan nearby galactic space for candidates. By the way, one of the things that AT will develop in the alien civilization is patience. Taking whatever time necessary to find candidate destinations and scan them for a long time would be the only way the alien civilization would proceed. Is it possible that some peril is looming in a short period that would cause them to have to shift to fast star travel? Probably not, as short term ones they can deal with, and long term ones give them enough time to prepare properly.

A second phase would be the technology and reliability phase. This would overlap the destination search phase somewhat, but that phase is likely to conclude its main operations in a short time compared to the duration of a star trip. This involves the engineering of prototypes of the star ship and using it to travel through the solar system in shakeout mode. Because of the huge expense of the star ship project, there would be extreme measures of failure mode research, to find out what might cause the trip to fail, and then engineer solutions to the failure modes. Failure mode research as we know it now on Earth involves much preliminary work, then component level prototyping and failure mode research, followed by partial scale prototyping and failure mode research, then by full-scale prototyping and failure mode research, with failure mode work involving both long-term operations and also extreme event operations, so that both types of failure can be understood and accommodated. By the end of this era, a prototype star ship will be orbiting somewhere in the solar system. Think of centuries of duration.

During this phase the large observatories are not sitting idle. There would likely be a reassessment of the conditions in interstellar space, so that the density of different sized particles and elemental densities in different quadrants of interstellar space would be more exactly measured. Remember, this is the ‘asymptotic’ part of asymptotic technology.

In the third phase, operational testing would come next, with the AI commander of the star ship taking it from one planet or satellite to another, going through whatever portion of the actual operations at the destination planet that can be done. Again, think of centuries. Also think of several stages of ships being built, with problems found in earlier versions being solved in later versions.

The last phase involves the actual trip. After several centuries to build the ship and test it every possible way, it is launched. Traveling out, say, 250 light years at 0.01 c would take 25 thousand years. This dwarfs the time done in preparation, and so it is clear to see how difficult the reliability phase of the engineering of the ship would be. With the proper population controls, recycling measures, and interplanetary resource exploitation, the alien civilization could certainly survive to hear results coming back from their new colony.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

What can Large Telescopes See?

Asymptotic technology is nice. It means that what works for one alien civilization will work for another alien civilization. Telescopes fall under this rule. Let’s suppose an alien civilization was looking at Earth from their own solar system with a large telescope. They might be trying to decide if they should come here, or perhaps something else. For the purposes of making a few calculations, let’s assume they can build, in space, telescopes of a very large variety, and make them accurate to the usual resolving power of a lens. Space doesn’t suffer from the gravitational distortion of a land-based telescope, and there is little aberration from intervening gases, the atmosphere being the worst culprit.

Building some structure in space is something we have only very basic knowledge of. We can cobble together parts that were built on Earth. That has limitations arising from the need to launch it. Let’s assume aliens are long past that, and can build structures in space. In particular, they can build reflecting telescopes of 10, 100, 1000, or 10000 m in diameter. If the alien solar system were close to ours, say 100 light years, and they used visible light, the respective resolutions would be 60,000 km, 6000 km, 600 km and 60 km. This means that they can resolve continents easily with the biggest one, or even the 1 km telescope. No structure built by man could be resolved.

They would be able to figure out there were both ocean areas and land areas on the planet, and polar icecaps. Perhaps the difference between some types of land area could be resolved, deserts versus forest, for example. Figuring out life was present from vegetation detection would be a piece of cake. The moon would be detected.

The atmosphere itself is only about 5 km in thickness, so it would not be resolvable, but perhaps some interesting tricks could be done to get an idea of what it consisted of. It would be quite possible to track the Earth around its annual orbit, so that not only would they be able to determine something like seasons, from polar cap size, but also they might see the reflected light coming from the atmosphere. For most of the orbit, solar light would be reflecting from the Earth’s surface, obscuring any atmospheric signature. But at the part of the orbit closest to the alien solar system, only a crescent of solar illumination would be visible. With enough resolution to look at the opposite edge, the only photons coming through would be those reflected in the atmosphere. Running their detectors for long enough would give them a spectral content, and, lo and behold, they know what’s in the atmosphere.

There would be plenty more they could determine. The resolution at infrared wouldn’t be as good as at visible, but near and far infrared observations could be used to get temperatures at different points on our globe. Then come the modelers. With an assuredly huge amount of computational power, they could make a map of our world, and deduce some details that might not be directly observable. Could they get the depth of the oceans? Their model knows the impinging solar flux, and it knows the distribution of albedo, both atmospheric and surface. So if they could get accurate enough temperature readings from ocean surface areas in different parts of the globe, a planetary heat transfer model might give them a clue about the heat capacity of the oceans, hence some idea of the depth. Very likely there are many other ways they could determine that.

How about cities? Cities are heat islands, and some are about the size of a pixel with the aliens’ largest telescope. Would they understand they were looking at cities? What else might give that signature? Geological activity could be considered, but alien science understands tectonics and having that distribution of geological hot spots would be impossible. There would also be some clues in that many of the hot spots were located near coastlines.

If they watched the heat spots grow with time, they might get an idea of the state of our civilization. There has been a huge change over a period of a hundred years, and if they were watching that long, they would be able to estimate our civilization’s state. They would have to do alienology and figure it out, but it would be possible, given they were observing us at that very, very brief interval of time when these changes happened.

Let’s turn the tables around. Suppose we here on Earth keep going on with space exploration and space science and interplanetary shipping and use our resources to build a 10 km telescope, maybe out beyond Saturn. We would be able to see the same things as were listed above for the aliens viewing Earth. We would know all this stuff about their civilization, and could use it to figure out what options we had.

Granted, space might be a pretty empty place for life, and a hundred light years might not produce any alien civilizations at all. Going out the next decade, to 1000 light years, cuts our resolution by a factor of ten as well, and so even the ten kilometer dish wouldn’t figure out alien city locations. Maybe there are clever things that clever astronomers could figure out to beat the resolution limit, or maybe Earth’s resources would allow the building of a thirty kilometer dish. More than likely, putting an array of one to ten kilometer dishes around the solar system and doing some really amazing interferometry would beat the resolution limit of a single dish.

This takes us back to the question of what is the better thing to do, build a large (or multiple large) astronomical observatories in space to find out about alien planets, or send out probes? The dish could divide its time between multiple candidate planets, and would have an iteration working for it. Early, quick observations would eliminate most possible candidate planets for alien life, allowing the dish or array to focus observation time on the few best ones. This is very important, as rotating a dish this large would knock out a large chunk of observation time. Probably small dishes, 10 to 100 meter size, could be used to do this preliminary filtering, and then the large ones, 1 to 10 kilometer in size, would not have to spend much time in passing from one point to another.

Does it make any sense at all to do local observations with an interstellar probe? This is not a simple question, but the large dish’s ability to figure out much of what was on the surface of a near exo-planet means the benefit of a close-in observation would have to be examined very cautiously to avoid duplicating what was already known.

And there is another implication. This blog started off asking why aliens haven’t shown up here. Another explanation for this is that they can see whatever they want to with an array of dishes they could easily build at home, and there just isn’t much else worth knowing about Earth that would make a space probe or a space visit here worth the cost.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Right Amount of Atmosphere

The atmosphere has a great many effects on life on a planet, probably more than anyone has enumerated. If we are Earth are going to make a great effort to locate some life on exo-planets outside our solar system, we should carefully think through signatures that we can find from here on Earth or perhaps from some telescope or other instrument located at a convenient point in our solar system.

It happens that atmospheres are easy things to see, compared with oceans and land surfaces, or even details of them. Light passes through an atmosphere, and so if an exo-planet transits its star, it should be possible with some fantastic instrumentation, to figure out some details of the atmosphere. This is not something we can do today, but we might be able to design an instrument that in the near future could do this. Going on further, if we decide to build a large observatory, space-bound, for looking at exo-planets before we send any probe there, we might be able to deduce some details about the atmosphere from within our own solar system. If you follow the development of astronomy, you know that every year it seems some brilliant astronomer has invented an outlandish gadget that measures something nobody else ever did or maybe nobody else ever thought possible. The rate of innovation in astronomy is impressive. Recall exo-planets were totally unknown and unobserved not long ago.

Observing the atmosphere of distant planets will be a glorious success, but it be more of a success if there is a direct correlation that can be found from the atmosphere data that is detected and the probability or certainty that life is there and has managed to climb up to some stage. Recall, as in other discussions, it is home planets for life that are the important issues. A successful alien civilization, mastering star travel, would be able to create an underground habitat on a planet with no atmosphere. This would be undetectable, although I have to say that some brilliant astronomer may someday prove me wrong on this. However, the main point is that the origination of life needs some conditions on the atmosphere, and there are some steps in the evolution of life and the development of an alien civilization that are affected by the atmosphere.

Start with the simplest thing: quantity. How much of the best possible type of atmosphere is needed? What is the least amount that allows life to originate? If there was some agreement on how life originates it would be easy to backtrack to the effect of the atmosphere. Let’s use as an example, the life origination theory promulgated most recently in this blog: organic oceans after the formation of the moon via impact. The atmosphere after the impact is going to be very hot, and water would be vapor. So asking about the quantity of atmosphere includes, in this theory, the amount of surface water there would be. When the atmosphere cools off, and water forms the oceans, the amount of atmosphere directly translates into the amount of oceans covering the surface of the planet. Life in this theory is probabilistic, and having half as much ocean area means that the rate of life origination would be halved.

In the theory, life has to originate before the organic pools of immiscible liquids disappear via one mechanism or another. So it is a race for life to originate while the conditions make it possible and these conditions disappearing. If there were less ocean area, life might lose the race, or in other words, the probability of life making through the very first stage could drop from a near certainty, with lots of oceans, to near zero, with only some small ones.

Does the quantity of atmosphere have any negatives if things go the other way, and there is, in the primordial atmosphere after the impact that forms a moon, lots of water. If water totally covers the planet, or leaves only a few high mountain areas protruding from the oceans, does life do well? Not if intelligent life is sought. It would seem that the origination of intelligent life underwater takes some very special conditions, and so without lots of land surface, land organisms are not going to be coming up with the necessary mutations fast enough to make intelligent life before some peril strikes, like stellar death.

So, the amount of atmosphere left on the planet after a violent impact of just the right kind to form a moon has a middle range in which things are best suited for intelligent life to develop. It never gets started with too little, and meets a roadblock if too much.

Perhaps this range of quantity of atmosphere can be shrunk by other factors. The photosynthesis transition, where biological organisms pick up a more powerful energy source and the evolutionary floodgates open wider, might not happen if there are few photons, or photons from the wrong part of the spectrum, reaching the top few meters of water. This might happen with cloud cover of any sort. The amount of cloud cover from water clouds on a planet where there are large bodies of water is not going to eliminate photons. Before that happens, the water in the atmosphere will rain out and evaporation will not replace it fully. This is a temperature question, and is also affected by surface winds.

If the amount of atmosphere is too small, there will not be a blocking of destructive UV photons traveling down to the surface. This will not eliminate underwater life, but might slow down the development of photosynthesis. It would also eliminate the existence of land organisms, no matter how much land is available for them to occupy. So, this may provide an improved lower limit for the amount of atmosphere.

Timing plays a role as well, as there is a feedback between life developing and the composition of the atmosphere. Oxygen seems to be only producible and maintainable in an atmosphere when large amounts of photosynthesis are going on. In the early time, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might serve as a resource for underwater life. Too little, and the odds turn against life forming and surviving the inevitable changes in the planet. Too much may not do anything strongly negative, except for affecting the temperature of the planet. So, there is an interaction between atmospheric quantity during the pre-oxygen atmosphere and the planet’s temperature. If the star-planet distance is a bit on the long side, and only the large amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere keeps it in the LWZ, the liquid water zone, having life eat up the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide bit by bit might trigger some climate shift to a frozen planet, which would eliminate life.

There seem to be multiple interactions that need to be laid out in detail, probably quantitatively, to get an answer to the quantity of atmosphere range that is important for life origination and survival. Oh well, another entry on the to-do list.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Is Language a Barrier to Civilization’s Development?

The evolutionary transition from non-intelligent creatures to intelligent creatures has to occur with every alien species that forms a civilization. Intelligence is one of the last steps that occur in the evolution of such a species, and there has been some discussion in previous posts about how a secondary use of tree-climbing appendages led to tool-usage, and then to a switch in the way information is transmitted from generation to generation. This is one way intelligence might have originated.

On the other hand, if intelligence has, as an initial starting point, the transmission of tool use learning requires one other thing to be developed almost simultaneously, or earlier. That is language. There has to be language to transmit tool knowledge, and in fact to do quite a bit more.

In creatures without intelligence, there may be quite a set of neural network layers associated with each sensor, which could include vision, chemical detection in various modes, sound, and others specific to an alien planet. A neural network layer maps a number of outputs of lower layers into one or more outputs to higher layers, which can be interpreted as the coding of continuous input into discrete variables. The brain computes better by encoding complex sensory inputs into perhaps many discrete outputs. However, without language there is no means by which this output discretization can be recognized by an organism, much less communicated to another member of the species.

Let’s clarify this with an example. On Earth, some higher level creatures communicate some learning to their offspring by demonstrating how to accomplish some function or perform some activity. Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of Earth’s creatures transferring tool use or perhaps better, engineering knowledge, is the beaver. Beavers demonstrate how to build lodges and dams to their young offspring, during the second year of the offspring’s life, by the parent demonstrating each of the various activities in front of the youngsters, who then attempt to copy it. They cannot correct the youngster’s activities, because there is no means of communication except by example or physical motion.

The actions of an emergent organism, which was finding ways of using naturally available materials to accomplish basic life functions, can also be demonstrated by example, but as the activities grow more complex, this training method becomes less useful. Having language to communicate takes the ability of the organism to transmit all the details of the learning to a higher plane. What is necessary is that the organism be able to make recognizable signals that can be interpreted in terms of physical objects or actions. What is necessary is that the sensory lobe that processes the signals, in the case of man, the audial processing portion of the brain, develops means to make signals and recognize them, similarly to how an organism learns motion and recognition.

A baby learns to move its limbs by watching the responses in its visual field when it gives various muscle commands. This gradually leads to an ability to move a limb where desired. The same learning must happen for the sensory organ and muscle motion that create the signals that are used to communicate.

Two last steps are needed. One is that the sensory lobe working the signal sense must develop a much higher degree of processing. This, in humans, led to the non-symmetrization of the brain in function. It is simply too difficult to run sufficient numbers of long neurons from one side of the brain to another. The obvious way to do this is to put all the signaling neural computation in one place and use short neurons, by a factor of a thousand, to do the computation. The other step is for some long neurons to be used to couple the other sensors higher level neural outputs into the signal lobe. This allows the recognition of entities. For example, it allows plants with certain recognizable attributes to be given a name that is communicated to other organisms. So, an alien can tell another alien learner to use a particular plant for some action, rather than by going to find one and using it in an example.

There has to be a complementary evolutionary growth of the signaling musculature, if muscles are used by aliens, so that signals can grow more complicated and be reproduced. This has to parallel the recognition ability in the sense’s neural network processing center. This would likely or perhaps necessarily be an outgrowth of some other function on the creature. Just as tool use did not spring up as tool use, but as a secondary adjunct of the existence of appendages that could be used for climbing, the production of communication signals would spring up as a secondary adjunct of the existence of some other function in the organism. The obvious example is the development of the vocal track in the respiration system in many Earth organisms.

So, if we are designing an alien organism in our imagination, we need to realize that it must develop communication in order to develop tool use past the very initial stages, and that the adaptation of an already successful function in the organism is the only way that the output side of the communication will occur, and a change in the organization of the brain, likely linked to a change in the density of different types of neurons in several areas, is the only way that the input side of the communication will occur. Of course, we are talking about aliens which have not taken it upon themselves to create a completely different organism from scratch, using asymptotic genetics. In this situation, they could design any type of communication method in the new species that could ontologically develop. Even this is a requirement that might be overcome in advanced species, when the need to grow organisms from single cell starters is bypassed, and some almost ununderstandable to us technology is used to grow new organisms.

So, there are two tasks facing someone interested in understanding alien species before we ever meet one, the first being to understand what limitations there are on creatures who keep their evolved form in the basic framework, and the second is to expand our imaginations to try and understand what might lay beyond biology as we now know it.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Four Castes

In trying to figure out how alien societies could develop, organize, change, or function, it is possible to look at human societies and look for the common elements, and then ask why those common elements emerged, perhaps independently, many times and in many places. There may be something which pertains to societies in general, non-human ones, which will inform us a bit about alien civilizations.

Consider the agricultural grand transition. When humans developed tool use initially, it involved hunting tools, which provided an impetus for evolution to move in that direction, which it did, delivering larger brains and more capable bodies over a period of a few million years. Then something happened, which does not seem to be recorded very exactly in anthropological records. Large herbivores were hunted. Perhaps it was the software side of development that provided this change, such as learning the techniques by which groups of hunters could take down a beast many times their total weight. This change would have provided a new resource, nutritionally and for products made from animal parts, leading to the usual Malthusian response: larger population. The change may have been the development of larger clans with more hunters, or techniques pertinent to each kind of large herbivore, or techniques for finding them, or lying in wait, or some combination of these changes and more. It is like the second hunting transition, or the second part of the hunting grand transition.

This access to a new resource comes with the usual pitfalls: scarcity emerges, either sporadically or all-at-once across the board. Those clans which had developed some animal husbandry would have survived, while those without it, perhaps not. Crops would accompany this transition. But something else accompanies it as well. A transition to occupations. Scarcity does more than cause hunger and suffering, it promotes alternative solutions to it, which may have involved war, raiding and looting, ambush or other activities involving struggles between one clan and another. It this became common, the hunters would become warriors as well. Since inter-clan struggles may have a more devastating effect that hunting, the warrior part of their occupation would be stressed, even though it occupied much less time.

In the simpler hunting days, teams that went out to hunt had to be led, not by the strongest or the fleetest, but by the most astute at finding animals. Without the benefit of logical thinking, which comes far, far in the future, intuition, and specifically, thinking like an animal is what would distinguish the hunting leader. It is not a far step to think of the communication of that knowledge in terms of the essence of the animal, its spirit, and from that point, nature gods. In the later hunting days, when husbandry and crops were being developed as alternative resources, there is more planning to be done, and the same process might ensue. The leader might try to think like the rain, or think like the seasons, and again develop the image of nature gods. What this is leading to is the development of a profession which is distinct from the warrior-hunter, the shaman, or spirit-teller.

Crops also lead to the development of the worker caste, more specifically, the agricultural worker, and as more technology emerges, workers in other fields such as textiles and pottery. In each of these three castes, knowledge is gathered, and transmitted from one generation to another, in the giant switch from instinctual knowledge to learned knowledge.

Population growth would lead to contact between clans, and in those instances where war or other violent interactions did not take place, some trade would arise. Trading might involve long travel, something that no other caste did. It might involve transport, and the development of transport technology, such as beasts of burden or means of more easily carrying weight for long distances. A fourth caste arises.

Nomadism is on the decline, if crops are actually cultivated. Even before it disappears, the question of governance arises. A small clan can simply make decisions in common, but as it grows larger, this becomes unwieldy, and perhaps becomes restricted to only major decisions, such as on whether to abandon camp and move on or not. Smaller decisions might be made by someone in particular, but who? A shaman, a warrior, a worker, or a trader?

In times of peace, it would likely be the shaman, and in times of war or frequent conflict, the warrior. Someone at the top of the hierarchy of shamans would make decisions, unless it was the leader of the warrior caste who had saved the clan from extinction or slavery, and then he would be the decision-maker for his lifetime. This has been what has been observed in human cultures, but there are times when the workers make the decisions. This typically happens when there is scarcity, and the wisdom of the shamans has been proven to be false and misleading, and the community is hungry and lacking in direction. The clan might split, either along caste lines with the rejected shaman group being ostracized. Similar situations might arise in clans which were defeated and their locations looted and destroyed.

There is a hidden meaning in this. Clans, and presumably alien clans at that stage of development, would preserve their organization, governance, way of life and caste structure except in extreme situations. This means that the adoption of new technology might be delayed until some unpleasant situation arises, and they are forced to make some choices. Technology is probably the provenance of the worker classes, who may know of alternatives, but do not do them when the existing situation is satisfactory, and probably even during periods where there is some shortages, but nothing extreme. Changes in technology might be introduced by the trader classes, who observe something different in the locales of the other clans they visit. In these early days, technology change is extremely slow because technology does not develop in the ruling classes, who have no interest in change but in continuing to provide satisfactory execution of the existing functions.

This provides a basis for understanding why there was such a long time for change to happen and to spread over the whole civilization. It is also something which might inspire some thought as to the resistance to change for other, later technology.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Scarcity and the Agricultural Grand Transition

If an alien civilization is going to climb up the rungs of the technology ladder to star travel, it has to have some motivation to make the transitions. The ladder doesn’t have evenly spaced steps, but groups of them, which arise because technology development sometimes spurs other related technology developments. We label these groups of changes as technological grand transitions. A recent post talked about the hunting grand transition. Other very well known ones include the agricultural grand transition and the industrial grand transition, which we humans have completely or partially navigated, and the genetic and neurological grand transitions, which we have not yet met.

One aspect of the grand transitions is cause. Perhaps those of us who are enamored by technology simply assume that people work on it because of its intellectual attractiveness, and so it just happens. Alternatively it could be assumed that things don’t change until they have to. In the midst of a successful living situation, major transitions might not happen at all, even if some alien inventor came up with some possibilities. It isn’t the invention that might be the pacing element, but necessity.

Some discussion about the agricultural grand transition involves this scenario: members of the species are involved with living by hunting, but there is also some gathering of fruits, perhaps even some edible vegetables. Some bright individual notices that the location where they threw the seeds of a meal a year or several years ago is now a small grove of identical fruit. Cultivation is born. Would the hunting clan decide to rapidly or slowly transition to agriculture? Would they alter their habit of moving the location of their camp to follow or find animals to hunt so that they could stay in the one location? Would they figure out how to survive on a year-round basis using grown rather that caught food? No, but they might make a small change to take advantage of the harvest time of some naturally grown foods. Would they abandon hunting, their main source of food? Not so likely.

On Earth, this transition may have been motivated by the extinction of the usual prey of human hunters, and this might be expected to happen in any society where technology developed to allow it. The extermination of hundreds of species of large prey animals on Earth occurred over a rather short time, a few thousand years, which is a coincidence that has puzzled scientists since it was discovered here. Human hunting is believed to be one of the main contributors to this. If humans largely lived on the killing of large mammal species, when they one by one went extinct, the various human species alive at that time would have faced scarcity. Only one survived. This may be the motivation that led to the agricultural grand transition, not efficiency in food production or a delight in adopting new ways of living. Scarcity may have met humans the first time ten thousand years or so ago, and agriculture, the necessary technology for civilization, developed because of it.

Agriculture includes animal husbandry as well as crops. The transition may have been very difficult, and only accepted out of desperation. Failed searches for animals led to hunger and ways of maintaining foodstocks for periods when the animals could not be found. It might be that it was not so much agriculture that drove the agricultural grand transition, but the technology of food preservation. Crops of all kinds in temperate climates are seasonal, and some way of preserving food would have been necessary. Animals provide that storage method, and perhaps that is the first step into agriculture. Tended animals might be gradually supplemented by grown food, and then ways of preserving certain types of that developed to provide a more robust food source year-round. Root crops, grains, cheese, salt preserved meat and many more possibilities could be discovered over the millennia necessary for this grand transition.

It was argued in that earlier post that the technology of hunting and game preparation as food were the initial developments in technology, and without game, intelligence would not develop further, at least by this channel. These types of hunting implements are not so useful with small game as with large game, so it would be reasonable to assume that alien species on distant planets might also find themselves facing a dearth of huntable species and be forced into making the same choices as humans did, that animal capturing and confining was a means of ensuring survival. Agriculture would follow from this, provided the alien world would support it.

This is interesting in its own right, but would other transitions have to be forced by scarcity as well? Of more generally, would these other transitions occur voluntarily, with the civilization simply deciding to adopt new technologies and then follow the cultural changes that they necessitate? Perhaps considering individual technologies rather than groups of them makes things simpler. After the agricultural grand transition, what motivates more technology? Shortly after agriculture, textiles were invented. Was that because the use of animal skins was simply insufficient for clothing, and something had to be done? Pottery was also developed around this time, perhaps for multiple purposes in living in a fixed agricultural site: food preservation, food preparation, water, milk collection, fermenting, removal of salt used in preservation, and more. Without pottery, the number of sites where agriculture could be successful is fairly small. These two areas of technology, pottery and textiles, might be lumped together with the agricultural grand transition, and then the concept of forced technology growth seems to make more sense.

Once textiles and pottery are developed, an unseen but drastic change happens. Specialists evolve. The technology takes experience and learning, and the transmission of knowledge between generations. This means that larger groups are necessary, and small groups would be at a disadvantage. This again is driven by necessity.

It would be interesting to understand if other grand transitions would not happen unless forced by necessity. Scarcity appears to be a possible driver for the agricultural transition, and for some individual technologies as well. The argument is not so clear for the industrial revolution. Perhaps one way to look at the industrial revolution is to look at two things: energy sources and their exploitation, and the emergence of combat between groups, initially clans, but later small cities and then larger units. This entails military technology. Since military technology allows one group more opportunity to control another group, it would seem to be a driver, not like scarcity, but still important enough to drive change.

If there is no similar driver for the genetic grand transition, does that mean it might not happen on alien planets? We have no experience with it here, so only clear thinking might provide some possible answers to this question. Are there drivers, analogous to food scarcity or military control, that would motivate either the entire genetic grand transition, or individual technologies within it? Care for the next generation, via genetic improvement, might suffice for the very early tip of this transition, but it does not seem to prolong itself to later technologies. Perhaps there is a feedback effect, in that the initial gradual genetic improvements create new generations more likely to want to adopt later changes. Perhaps not, and alien worlds all stop dead in their technology tracks before this grand transition is accomplished. This is worth thinking about.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Stickiness in the Transition to Arcologies

One of the most important things about figuring out the propensity of alien civilizations to involve themselves in star voyages is the longevity of their civilization. An alien civilization which does everything an alien civilization should on technology, figuring out virtually everything about everything, in short order, and organizes the knowledge, both the scientific and the practical applications, can do star trips. However, if they are like a short-blooming flower, and collapse for one reason or another after only a short time on the top of the technology pyramid, they are not going to be doing star travel. On the other hand, if they settle down to a way of life which allows them to stay at this level for many, many generations, then they would have the opportunity to come and see us.

Yes, there are perils, of galactic, stellar, planetary, and social types, which can even extinguish an alien civilization, but these appear to be rare enough that many if not most alien civilizations would not suffer from them. Others can be mitigated. But one essential fact faces all alien civilizations: resources are finite. Maybe they originated on a planet where some essential resources were in short supply to begin with. Maybe they live in a solar system where no other planets can support their needs for some essential supplies. On the other hand, maybe they have both. Either way, there is a limit, and the alien civilization will be well aware of it as the scarcity clock begins ticking, or as their knowledge grows strong enough to be able to make predictions in this area.

As has been pointed out in the blog, recycling to a high degree is perhaps the most suitable way for an alien civilization to multiply its expected longevity, resources-wise, by a factor of ten or a hundred or even more. This is such a huge payoff that if would seem to be like a giant signpost hanging in front of the members of the civilization. But scarcity doesn’t occur in a generation, and a single generation might not feel its effects; yet those members would have to make very grave decisions on how their society is organized. Can they toss off considerations of the future and put off severe recycling until the next generation? And so on across multiple generations?

This depends on when scarcity hits. After the genetic grand transition and the neurological grand transition, personal goals would be more easily subsumed into civilization-wide goals. But if scarcity hits before these transitions, when universal intelligence is not available, could the civilization just drive itself over the cliff into the chasm of resource exhaustion? The question of which happens first is dependent on the amount of resources initially present and available to the civilization, the rate of growth of knowledge and the rate of application of the knowledge, specifically intelligence improvements, to the population, as compared to the rate of growth of the consumption rate, which is a combination of living standard growth and population growth. Consumption rate growth is controlled by the knowledge rate growth, so we have two competing trends driven by one technology engine. Which piece of technology gets done first? Hard to say.

If it happens, for some particular alien civilization, that consumption rate growth outpaces the application of intelligence-raising technology, that civilization may have a problem. Are there any factors which would propel such a civilization to adopt high-percentage recycling otherwise, other than the care for future generations?

One factor which has been discussed in a different post is that of the design-to-recycle concept. This would have a self-propelled momentum if it were more efficient to use recycled components than to gather new ones and prepare them for use, plus transport them to the manufacturing or assembly location. This is actually a huge change in design philosophy. Perhaps what it takes is the appearance of some one or few innovators who do it, and demonstrate it is not only feasible but economical. And the feasibility of this becomes more likely in technology sectors which do not have a tremendous rate of change, in other words, ones where innovation has largely run its course.

Another factor which has been discussed is that recycling to a high degree is handled better in an arcology than in other designs for cities. Subtle changes happen during the industrial grand transition. Mass manufacturing in the earliest stages is inefficient, noisy, polluting and generally a bad neighbor. Transportation requirements are large, and storage requirements are large as well. These dissipate as manufacturing becomes more efficient. Manufacturing is yet another branch of technology, and as technology advances, manufacturing becomes less polluting and less disturbing. It has to reach a point where locational convenience overcomes any additional cost of controls on the manufacturing processes. On Earth, many cities isolate manufacturing into certain areas, in a process called zoning. The reasons for this slowly disappear with time. Here on our planet we see residential buildings and office buildings slowly being integrated, which shortens travel time and increases convenience for all involved in the work done in these buildings. The same process would be expected to happen with manufacturing of all kinds. The need for extreme facilities should decrease. Manufacturing can transition to more small scale operations. This is aided by robotics as well. A small suite of robots can be replicated on a huge factory floor, or dispersed on many floors of a tall building.

Another factor that could slow down the transition into an arcology on alien planets is the technology of recycling. Mass collection, shredding and separation are a way of doing it, but this becomes no longer needed as design-to-recycle comes into vogue. Disassembly can be done with a small suite of robots just as assembly is. In fact, co-location of disassembly and assembly is probably more efficient. So giant shredding facilities are not necessary. The introduction of low-cost controls makes the same processes possible for liquid and powder handling facilities. Larger facilities are efficient when there are multiple controls needing the attention of an individual alien technician. When it is all automated, and the automation costs drop down, smaller scale is possible, and then the convenience cost benefits of dispersal can be reaped.

The provision of nutrition is another factor of resistance to the transformation of alien life into being arcology-centered. As long as nutrition is dependent on harvesting photons from their sun, space is needed, but when photons are available from a power source maintained by the civilization itself, the convenience factor is unleashed. The arcology can be quite integrated, not divided into zones for different classes of activities.

A factor already discussed in a different post is the use of hydrogen, spread in tanks, rather than the use of piping and wiring throughout the arcology. This is yet another factor which would push the alien civilization toward high-percentage recycling as can be done in an arcology.

Thus, there does not seem to be any reason to assume that any alien civilization would find insurmountable barriers to high-percentage recycling, and find itself too far down the road to scarcity to switch over later in their history. So, this is not a reason for assuming we are not being visited by aliens. They can and probably would greatly prefer, for economic reasons, to develop this mode of life style, even before the genetic grand transition.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Hunting Grand Transition

Grand transitions, as used in this blog, are major changes in a civilization, brought on by technology. The agricultural, industrial, genetic and neurological grand transitions are examples. Some alien transported from well before a grand transition to a time well after one would not recognize what was going on and would not know how to live in the altered civilization.

Even before the agricultural grand transition, there may have been another one, where the alien population transitioned from living on gathered foods to living on hunted organisms. There are a set of technologies needed to make such a transition, which include what is necessary to travel in such a way to track herds of huntable organisms, to trap and kill them, to butcher them and to cook parts so they would be edible.

Let’s check first the assumption that food sources for the predecessor creatures to aliens were herbivious, and that they switched to being carnivorous. In other words, they switched from being near the bottom of the food chain up to near the top of the food chain. There must be a food chain on any alien planet, as the only ample energy supply is photons from the star. That means a lower level of organisms, which use photosynthesis to transform raw materials into carbohydrates. If nothing ever evolves to consume these organisms, the entire planet remains wholly photosynthetic. But photosynthesis doesn’t provide enough energy for mobility; some way of concentrating it is necessary. That means, if the planet has intelligent life, it had to have herbivores. There is plenty of energy and resources in photosynthetic organisms, and harvesting them vastly increases the rate of energy gathered per kilogram of gathering organism.

Mobility means muscles, which are much more concentrated energy sources than photosynthetic organisms, and so it would be likely, given that evolution tries to fill all niches, that some carnivores would evolve after the population of herbivores was enough to support them. Could herbivores evolve into tool-using creatures? One postulation in this blog was that evolution does not evolve tool-using appendages before there are tools to be used. On the contrary, evolution evolves appendages that can be used for making and using tools if there are other preceding uses for them. Primitive creatures concentrate on a few functions: nutrition, reproduction, nurture, avoiding predators, and seeking shelter are the principal ones, and it is not clear why it would be any different on any alien planet. Dexterous appendages seem useful for nutrition, if there are nutrition sources, perhaps concentrated ones, that either require dexterity to reach and gather them, or to take advantage of them, such as by opening a shell or husk. Dexterous appendages also seem useful for fleeing from predators if there is a canopy of vegetation of some sort that can be used as an escape route. For lack of a better term, think of these as alien trees. Tree parts might have concentrated nutrients, for the purpose of increasing the survivability of seeds. Tree limbs might be the escape route from a predator which was not so dexterous, and had perhaps specialized in prey of a different sort.

This postulated chain of evolutionary steps means that herbivores might develop the ability to use tools, but carnivores would not necessarily. Alien tree parts are not in their diet.

Once the herbivores become dexterous, the obvious next step is for evolution to find a side use for this, which is tools. So then the question is, would a tool-capable herbivore become a carnivore? The kinds of things which could serve as initial tools might be stones, tree or other vegetation parts, bones, and perhaps some other things found in nature. Thrown stones, spears and clubs can certainly be used for hunting, but why would they start and how could the process of preparing caught prey for consumption be started up?

One avenue is play. Young creatures on Earth play with each other, and the play serves to do many things. One is to learn to use their bodies well. New creatures are unstable and capable of very little, and the type of brain we would expect aliens to have requires something like play to self-program. Throwing a rock at a sibling can be translated by this type of brain into throwing a rock against a predator or against a prey. So, tool use would be likely to be discovered over long periods. Similar processes might lead to an understanding of how to break open prey and extract the organs that were desired.

There has been a giant jump here, which just slipped in but is one of the biggest changes of the hunting transition. Genetic hardware gave way to memetic software. The knowledge of how to use commonly found objects in defense and hunting has become transmissible over generations. Knowledge exists now as a separate entity. It can be accumulated and aggregated. This probably requires some evolution in the brain as well. Possibly there was a little of this in earlier organisms, but the hunting transition is where it becomes dominant.

Thus, there are reasonable pathways from herbivore to tool-using carnivore that do not make exorbitant demands on evolutionary steps. It is also somewhat clear that there are things going on during this transition that are critical for later steps in the advancement of an alien civilization. Migration becomes a mode of life here. Some creatures might stay in one location, but large groups of herbivores are forced to move because they exhaust vegetation in one area. Hunters must follow their prey. This of course has implications, in that migration into new environments becomes possible, which means that different ways of behaving are called for. This means bigger brains.

Vegetation is a concentrated energy source because of the carbohydrates it is composed of, and these are not volatile in general. That means that when vegetation dries out, it would be flammable, here and on any alien planet. The opportunity for mastering fire should happen during the hunting grand transition, if the discovery of roasting parts of prey organisms occurs then. This is a predecessor to agriculture becoming very important, as the most efficient sources of carbohydrate vegetation energy require heat to make them edible.

All in all, the hunting grand transition is not necessarily recognized as a major change, but it is, and it is a necessary one for the later transitions. Because the tools are ridiculously simply, use of the word technology might be thought to be exaggerated. But the principle is the same with a bone club and a bronze sword. So, first on the list of grand transitions is the one that centers about the switch of food sources with organized hunting.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Alpha-habitable Planets

Habitable is such a vague word, covering such an important concept in the study of alien civilizations. In astronomy circles it somehow was used to denote what we call here Liquid Water Zone planets, or LWZ planets, which is simply a comment on the temperature somewhere on the planet's surface, specifically that it be between the melting point and the boiling point of water, at the atmospheric pressure on the surface. While an interesting concept and a measurable or estimatable one, just barely, with today's astronomical knowledge and equipment, it doesn't figure very much into trying to figure out where aliens are, including both where they originated and where they moved to. Also included is where they might have seeded life.

Let's try and make a parameter out of this concept, following the recipe for thinking about aliens posted elsewhere. Let's call a planet which can harbor alien life on the surface within a hundred years of their first ship or fleet of ships touching down, an alpha-habitable planet. Obviously, these are the most desirable, at least at first glance. If an alien civilization is of the type that likes to disperse their civilization, then finding one of these planets close by is an gold-plated invitation.

It would be a safe assumption to think that any alien species that can build a space ship breathes oxygen, as methane breathers or about anything else don't produce enough energy to support big creatures. That means an alpha-habitable planet has to have oxygen, and to have oxygen, it has to have something to make it on a continuous basis. Oxygen is chemically reactive enough that it doesn't typically stay around long if it is not being renewed. This means life. So, an alpha-habitable planet can be an origin planet, with its own intelligent alien species there, or a plateau planet, where life didn't get far enough to produce intelligence. The hundred years might be the amount of time needed to subdue or otherwise deal with a native intelligent species, or to remove some toxicity present on the planet, in the atmosphere or perhaps somewhere else. It is also a short time to figure out the planet and build the first habitat there, and then occupy it. Occupying a habitat does not mean living inside a hermetically sealed container, but living in the habitat and interacting with the planet by going outside, not inside a hermetically sealed suit. In short, it means a planet with a tolerable atmosphere.

What's a bit worse than a alpha-habitable planet? Of course, it's a beta-habitable planet, which we will use to denote a planet which can be inhabited in ten thousand years. There aren't too many classes of problems which cannot be solved in a hundred years but can be in ten thousand years. One is temperature adjustment. If the planet is too hot because of greenhouse gases, they can be removed by some process known to aliens, and the planet will gradually cool down. The same holds for a too-cold planet. Doctoring the atmosphere and then waiting for the planet to adjust to a more comfortable temperature is a slow process, and ten thousand years seems to be a wide enough range to make sure it can be done.

This is a multi-step process, as it would be too costly to truck all the chemicals needed to doctor up an atmosphere over tens or hundreds of light years. Instead, technology to generate the chemicals locally would have to be used. Perhaps some resources from another planet in the target solar system would have to be dragged over to the target planet. Perhaps something would need to be done to the lifeforms on the planet to induce them to produce more of whatever was needed, or less perhaps.

Gamma-habitable planets need a million years to convert them to a place where the aliens can set down on the surface and survive and sustain themselves there. These are likely planets with genetics problems, where the lifeforms on the planet do not produce the right atmospheric gases. A million years is a short time for the evolution of the right lifeforms and the gradual replacement of the atmosphere with the exhaust of these new organisms, but it doesn't seem so short if there can be massive seeding of lifeforms, perhaps in many different generations of changing organisms, to do what is necessary to produce a decent atmosphere. This probably means making oxygen, but it might also mean taking out hydrogen sulfide or some other bad actor.

Delta-habitable planets raise the timespan another factor of a hundred, up to a hundred million years. Probably no alien civilization could be involved in this, but it serves as the end of the parametric range. These would be planets where geology hasn't settled down yet, and some civilization, if it had staying power beyond all belief and imagination, would simply wait it out. Young planets go through a stage of geological unsettledness and a hundred million years is probably a good ballpark for how long it would take for the major upheavals to come to an end and a nice steady crust to form and remain constant over long periods.

The astute reader of this blog knows that underground habitats have been considered. A planet with no atmosphere would be just fine for aliens seeking this type of home. Let's call such a planet U-habitable, meaning that mining of resources produces enough net energy to run the habitat there, and also enough resources of all minimally necessary types can be found to support life. Obviously this can be largely mechanical, but not necessarily.

If there are shortages of energy, and something has to be done on the surface to take advantage of the photons, or maybe just to gaze at the galaxy, we call this a D-habitable planet, meaning life under domes is possible, from an energy and resource sustainability point of view.

If alien life on the surface is not sustainable by the end of the geo-engineering period, the planet does not qualify as alpha through delta habitable; similarly if alien life cannot be sustained underground or in domes, or a combination, it is also not U or D-habitable. Clearly it is possible to have some group of aliens touch down, and live on the supplies sent from the home planet. These aliens have not established a habitable planet, simply a colony of the home world. All a colony like this does is drain resources from the home planet, running down the supplies there even faster. This would not satisfy the goals of any alien civilization that was bent on surviving the exhaustion of their home planet or home solar system.

To wax philosophical, life is both entities but also a means of extracting energy and resources from whatever environment exists so that the entities can be preserved and regenerated. So, perhaps the terms X-habitable are really appropriate here. And there is one more coda to put at the end of this story: delta-habitable planets are ones that alien civilizations with the meme for spreading life around would seek out, provided there is a way to properly seed the planet. Recall this category of alien is enamored of life itself, and is not trying to preserve its civilization. Instead, they recognize, perhaps because they understand that the origination of life without help is a very, very rare event, and they want to be the godfathers of life all over the place. Back in the posts on the early evolution of life it was noted that just perhaps, the origination of life takes a very unusual impact of a planetesimal on a proto-Earth. if this or some other very rare process was required, those alien civilizations that liked life would have many planets just waiting to be seeded.

Wouldn't it be absolutely hilarious if we eventually found out that life could only originate in a very unusual situation, which we had a great deal of difficulty figuring out because it didn't happen on our planet. We were seeded, and all those hours that curious people spent trying to figure out the origin of life were all for naught, going in the wrong direction, so to speak. I can't stop chuckling.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Billiard Balls and Transfer Shuttles

Interplanetary orbits are nice in that there aren't any meaningful energy losses. The spaceship just travels around some orbit, an ellipse approximately, until some close encounter with a planet happens, when there might be a bit of an energy change. Some energy changes add energy to the spaceship and others subtract it. That means there is a whole lot of orbits in which the change is zero, and the lack of any sudden effects means that orbits near a zero change orbit have small energy changes. If you were a mathematician, you would express this by saying there is a N-dimensional manifold of zero-energy-change orbits to choose from, but since I am too lazy to figure out N, this comment wouldn't add much.

So, in the previous post on interplanetary mining, it was pointed out that there are low-thrust orbits that go from one planet to another and back again, or more specifically, to the vicinity of one planet from the vicinity of another planet. Works for the Earth-moon system too, but that's another question. The implication of this is that the majority of the distance to be traveled in interplanetary mining doesn't cost any energy. Pretty nice to hear for all those who would be thrilled to be involved in such an adventure, or even to learn about it. Pretty nice to hear for all those who desperately want to know if an alien civilization would find interplanetary mining cost-effective. Since resources dictates the life-span of an alien civilization, this is an important question.

All that energy saving is fine, but there is still the question of how much energy is used in taking the cargo and matching it to this particular orbit that is traveling by the vicinity of your origin-of-materials planet. Could be lots and a spoiler for the idea.

Unless you shoot pool, or by its more elite name, billiards. If you've played a bit, you know how to shoot one ball with the right spin and velocity directly into another, and have the one you hit stop dead after transferring its momentum to the second ball. This works because the balls all have the exact same mass, and they are so hard they lose almost no energy through inelastic processes at the impact. Let your mind race freely and go to a frame of reference moving at some speed, I mean, the whole table is moving. The same thing happens, meaning that the balls exchange their velocities.

Now expand your horizons, and suppose you were watching the spaceship coming toward the vicinity of your planet. It is traveling cargo-container first, and some elastic transfer takes place when they separate. The spaceship slows down and the freed cargo-container speeds up and deviates a little toward the planet. This freed cargo container just happens to be heading smack-dab toward another cargo container, which just happens to be loaded with exactly the same mass, and they both have a magnetic coupling device which allows them to impact without contact. In other words, they exchange velocities, but not exactly. Back in the world of billiard balls, if you ever so slightly miss a dead on impact, you still wind up transferring almost all the velocity to the second ball. If you are actually trying to miss by a teensy bit, you wind up steering the second ball to some interesting place, like a corner pocket. If you are actually trying to miss the second cargo container by a small amount, and you know what you are doing, you send the second cargo container to a rendezvous point where the spaceship has gone, where it winds up close to matching the spaceship's velocity. This makes it easy to grab, with only a little thrust needed. Lots of velocity change between the two cargo containers, but nobody had to pay for the thrust to slow one down and speed up the other one. The first one is left in the old transfer orbit.

This means getting a cargo container onto the spaceship can be done with little thrust, meaning little fuel dragged up to orbit and little propulsive energy consumed. Provided you are willing to move the same mass every time you go from planet A to planet B or in the opposite direction. Could be some trips have some dead mass, and sometimes some cargo has to wait for the next spaceship. But you have gotten energy costs really down now. Not much energy for the whole orbit and not much energy to deliver the cargo to a transfer orbit somewhere around planet A or B.

There is still the energy necessary to get the cargo off the surface of the planet up to the transfer orbit. The same billiard ball trick can save some energy getting the cargo container down from a high transfer orbit to a low planetary orbit, if the same mass can be moved up as is moved down. You have to get the mass up there for the next spaceship anyway. So we are left with getting the mass from the surface up to some orbit, maybe still pretty deep into the exosphere.

So, in figuring out if interplanetary mining and resource extraction would be useful in prolonging the life-span of an alien civilization, some optimization simulations would be in order to figure out just how little thrust would be necessary, and some more details about how to account for propulsive fuel transfer to the spaceship, and some more details; then do some details on transfer orbit transfers as well. The disadvantages are that these orbits are not prompt, nor are they timely. Delays occur, and if you are trying to run a parcel post service from Planet A to Planet B, you are going to have to use a different thrust strategy and use a lot more energy.

Another problem might be the g-loading on the cargo container. This depends on the type of elastic momentum transfer mechanism you can invent. The longer the distance the transfer can be stretched over, the lower the g-loading. However, minerals and elements and such are pretty resistant to g-loading, and the shuttle itself can be built strongly. After all, you will be using it over and over again, so the costs can be amortized over a lot of resources.

Some other details might seem to be necessary, but they are not. How do you get the crew onto the shuttle? Well, what do you need a crew for? If this operation can't be automated, what can be? It is straightforward. Maybe you think an alien crew-member is necessary to cover unforeseen circumstances, but that's what AI is for.

So, an interesting question arises. What materials would be shipped? How long could mining planets extend the life-span of an alien civilization? What is the factor involved? Is it two or ten or a hundred?

If it is a hundred, that means something in terms of the age of the universe. A population running at maximum population, measured by waste heat released into the home planet's environment, might last ten thousand years, if they did everything right with recycling. Drop the population by a thousand, and the lifespan is now poking up toward ten million years. Add a factor of a hundred, and we are at a billion years, which is a very long time, compared to anything, because nothing can be older than the universe, which is a bit over ten billion years. That means it is quite important to try and guess if that number, the ratio of the no-interplanetary shipping to yes-interplanetary shipping, is two or a hundred. It makes all the difference to calculations of populating the galaxy.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Asymptotic Neurology

There was a previous post on how chemistry of the brain would be understood by alien civilizations which had passed or were approaching asymptotic technology. Many new drugs would be available, and none would be misused. But there is something much more profound about asymptotic neurology, or the period in which all that brilliant research was done, the neurological grand transition.

Part of it relates to intelligence. There have been posts on alien intelligence, and how asymptotic technology would provide alien citizens with universal high intelligence. Asymptotic genetics is one part of this, and there are certainly genes in every alien gene pool that increase intelligence or rather make it possible for a particular alien possessing these genes to become intelligent. That caveat means that, for example, some alien with all these wonderful intelligence genes could still turn out to be a clod if his/her/its early life was very restricted and confined, with no opportunities for learning not just facts, but how to think, how to organize knowledge, how to solve problems, and the other parts and parcels of how we should describe intelligence.

This is the training side of the intelligence portfolio, and without it, genes don't perform their duties and the alien doesn't become intelligence. So an equal part of the advancement of alien civilization involves their scientists learning how the brain functions, and how to feed it information that will allow it to function in the best possible way. Neurology is a complement to genetics, and the same question that arose when genetics was going through its grand transition, i.e. would these benefits be denied to part or all of the alien generations following their discovery, also would arise for the neurological side. Would alien adult members of society deprive the younger generations of the best training that is possible, one that was based on a complete and comprehensive understanding of neurology? The answer for genetics was no, and should be the same for neurology. Some discussion arose about the universality of the adoption of the new developments, and by and large, universality would make sense to an alien society.

The genetics grand transition means, not just intelligence was improved by genetic coding changes, but everything else about aliens was as well. Health, appearance, athleticism and so on, all amenable to genetics. Neurology doesn't have such a universal application, but the effects of intelligence pervade all of the alien civilization. It has been used as a panacea for the usual problems that we would expect beset an average alien civilization, and it will cure most of them, provided neurology is extended to the full scope of the brain.

It is very hard to imaging a neural network architecture for any brain, such as an alien brain, that was not partially segregated inside whatever structure holds their brains into portions related to different types of processing. This is obvious because a neural network is built in layers, and individual neurons need to be reasonable close, layer to layer, to communicate the myriad connections, synapses. If one layer in visual processing was located distant from another layer, there would have to be large volumes devoted to simply transmission of data within the brain, which would reduce the volume available for processing, to say nothing of many other disadvantages. So, an alien brain should have different regions that do different types of processing.

There would be a set of layers near every sensory organ's input, and a set of layers near every controllable organ's output. These most exterior layers are involved with converting, on the sensor side, signals into some patterns, and on the control side, action choices into effectual muscle or other actions. Next toward the interior are layers to interpret the patterns, and then somewhere on the inside, a block of decision-making layers.

A good brain has plenty of correlation between these different layers, including between different regions. Asymptotic neurology would have as one major focus the development of processing skills in every part of the brain, and then the utilization of the outputs of this processing in its decision center. There could be some offloading of decisions to smaller decision-making areas centered in different regions of the brain. What this means is that aliens with asymptotic neurology, or the training resulting from it which is like the engineering of scientific advances, would make use of their whole brain. It is easy to imagine individuals who are very good with words, meaning that this particular portion of their brain has been well-trained. After asymptotic neurology, every alien would have this capability, but also equivalent capability in the other regions of their brain. Math for everyone. Art for everyone. Physical skills for everyone. Intuition for everyone. This is what intelligence really means.

Neurology does not stop with information processing, meaning intelligence. The human brain has a great capacity for emotions, and it is hard to see how aliens could evolve from more primitive organisms without something similar. This is the chemical side of the brain's electrical side, a second means of processing data to be sure, but a way to make the importance of processing stand out. Asymptotic neurology would understand emotions, and how emotions would best be organized inside an alien brain to produce the most stable and useful adult. To be more specific, asymptotic neurology would understand the biochemistry of emotions, to be sure, and how to do training so they would be evoked at times and places where they would most benefit the individual and possibly others and possibly the civilization in general.

Emotions are not understood here on Earth, not even to the equivalent of the elements' periodic table. The basic tapestry of the emotions is not yet seen and how they are best divided up is completely unclear. Colors can be expressed in terms of three basic colors, in terms of what a human eye can see, and emotions will someday be expressed in terms of N basic emotions, in terms of what a human brain can feel. Aliens might have three or five or only two types of photosensors in their eyes, and they could be different from human ones, so their description of basic colors would be different, and they could experience a different set of emotions from humans as well, but there is still some fundamental set of what can be experienced by any alien species. This distribution will be understood when the alien civilization passes through the neurology grand transition. Lastly, it is unlikely that any emotion will be excluded from training, any more than any portion of the brain will be excluded. The brain is made to work best with a full spectrum, and asymptotic neurology will provide each young alien citizen with the best operating brain that is possible.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Easy Hard Science Fiction

In a recent post about hard science fiction, there was a lot of pontificating about how hard it is to write hard science fiction. Recall we use the term hard science fiction to mean science fiction written by an author who eschews all unrealistic novelties in portraying the science of the future or the science of an alien planet or civilization. It's hard to do because, while reasonable projections of the future of science can be done, they don't lend themselves to the construction of a plot, characters, events and a resolution that will turn readers on and sell lots of copies of the author's works.

So the author is left with two alternatives, spend lots of time trying to get the science right and then create a story to match it, boring as it may be, or write a much easier-to-write story with excitement, challenges, clashes, characters rising above their obstacles, heroes overcoming villains, and so on that sells very well and makes the author well-off. Hard choice, to be sure.

If there is an author who has somehow gotten totally motivated to write hard science fiction, there is a way out, an exception, a back door. Take a baby step.

It's not hard at all to figure out what science is going to be next year, or five years from now. There are many scientists and science writers who are already writing that. They are doing the science, hands-on, and can see where things are going, or they specialize in talking to those who are, and are good at integrating scientific partial pictures into some big picture. Even popular Internet pages and blogs are full of these short-scale projections. News aggregators don't leave out science tidbits. Major science research organizations all have their own websites crammed full of what is going on now, and many of what is going to be done next year or soon. A flood of information is available for anyone who wants to write hard science fiction set in a time frame very close to the present. The usual problem of partial coverage, doing genetics not robotics, or medicine not materials, can easily crop up due to the background of the author, but this can be managed by someone who is diligent about the craft of writing hard science fiction.

Maybe even ten years out can be done in this projection of the present style. Things would be chancier, but a projection of current trends, done with some care, might get that far. Further than ten years, and the second derivatives get you. The change in the change gets to be too severe. What this means is that projections don't cover breakthroughs, nor do they typically cover the interaction of science change and the rest of the world. Individual actions are not predictable, and while they can occur in a day, accumulating the probability of significant individual events over more than ten years across the entire domain of science gets to be far too high to be trusted. Trends change for many reasons, not just scientific ones, and projections get to be outdated and nonuseful.

If the approach taken is going to be going short-term, then there is plenty of opportunity to make connections with the audience or readership. They are right here, experiencing the present, and pushing that a bit toward the future is easy for them. Remember that audiences like mostly familiar stuff with a few surprises. Writing about the present plus a year or two or three or five means there are countless details that can be thrown into the story for the purpose of familiarity connection, which is of course just pulsing those neural associations we all have that allow us to live in the world.

Self-driving cars are being tested and someone keeping up with projections would know that a future world, five years out, might have plenty of them driving around, integrated with the old style of humans at the wheel. If this particular piece of science appealed to someone, they could write a story about a car that got too intelligent, or about how accidents were being covered up to sell cars, or about individuals using the cars for nefarious purposes, or about cars adopting some familiar human characteristic like having friends, or on and on. These would all be safe hard science fiction. A really good writer would have some other, non-automotive advances in society to titillate the readers with his/her view of the future, and lots of familiar interactions that reader would recognize or even see themselves as having. I don't know of any stories with this theme, but I don't know hardly any contemporary fiction at all, so that's no clue if there are any.

Other science trends that have caught public imagination involve omnipresent surveillance, cures for common or uncommon ailments, space stuff, robots and lots more. All of these are easy to find trends in and to make projections for some not-too-distant future where the trend reaches some culmination.

Writers who take the baby-step strategy of predicting the future can certainly do well for themselves, as well as avoid having a conflict with some known science. If there isn't much interest in a long sales period, having the projections get outdated and shown to be too optimistic or too pessimistic or completely off-the-mark wouldn't affect the primary goal of writing fiction, which is to sell one's own efforts. But there should be no confusion whatsoever between this type of writing and the difficult task of making predictions using all available methods for our own civilization or an alien civilization. Some of the tools that can be used were described in another post and don't need to be repeated here, but they require much more time and effort than translating projections into a plot. They require strong attention be given to consistency. There are many ways a projection beyond a few years can be inconsistent, including the one mentioned above of partial coverage, where science is projected to advance a lot in one area and hardly at all in the other fifty areas which it should have advanced in. Partial coverage is not the only source of inconsistency. Inconsistency can also spring up between assumptions made about the society and assumptions made about the technology. There can even be poorly thought out society projections which don't fit together into a consistent whole.

To summarize, if people want to use hard science fiction to help them imagine the future, they should stick to plots only a few years from the present. Of course, this short a projection term means that the projections are going to be very useful. The fact that there can be hard science fiction does not at all change the claim in yet another post that science fiction is not future projection, at least not any useful future projection.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Nature versus Technological Determinism

This blog is based on several precepts, and technological determinism is one of them. In concise form, technological determinism says that many features of a civilization are determined by the level and details of the technology it has achieved. It was invented by a economist-philosopher, Thorstein Veblen, after he observed how society changed with the changing of technology.

It makes things ever so much simpler. If you want to try and predict something about an alien civilization, instead of having to do projections of a hundred different things, all tied together, you simply project the technology, and then see how the civilization would have to be formed in order to utilize it. There are some difficult hurdles here, but having technological determinism around chops the puzzle up into less difficult pieces, each of which is more amenable to cogent discussion than the whole package together.

One of those hurdles is figuring out the technology. It would be a wonderful thing to use technology to predict what the civilization has to be like, except you have to project the technology to do that. Projecting technology is made a bit easier by the realization that technology is asymptotic. You can only carry it so far, and then you have it all. It isn't a unending series like the digits of pi. It's like the gas gauge on a car. You can only fill it to the top. OK, after you fill it, you can top it off. That's what asymptotic means. You don't quite ever get to the very, very end, but you get so close it doesn't matter any more. You could take an eyedropper and get a few more drops of gasoline into the the tank, but so what. No operations of the car are going to be any different in any significant way.

Asymptotic technology has another rabbit up its sleeve. If the aliens on Planet X work very hard and figure out all of technology, and the aliens on Planet Y do the same, they will have exactly the same technology. Their civilization will be exactly the same, as far as technological determinism can indicate. Yes, the names of their streets will be different, but the important things will not be. So when you are figuring out the future of Planet X and its inhabitants, and Planet Y and its inhabitants, there is a lot you can say about them. You don't have to do a complete separate projection of the future of each of them. They are heading to the same end.

While this all sounds wonderful and impressive and charming and revolutionary and so on, blah-blah-blah, after the initial surprise wears off, it becomes clear that there is something left out. All alien civilizations get to the same technology, but what is it? It's nice it's the same, but if we don't know what it is, there isn't much point. So how is it possible to project technology?

When you are building a bridge over a river, say with a deep chasm, you start on both sides and build toward the middle. It's the same with technology, you can project today's Earth technology, and try and use some logical, physical principles and figure out the results. This sometimes produces an order of magnitude answer. Things are within a range, that might be a factor of ten. Not very accurate, but enough to be useful. What about the other end?

Here's where nature comes in, or rather Nature with a capital N. The basic principle is that if Nature can do something, alien civilizations can figure out how it was done, and duplicate it. Nature works better than projections for fields that are not far progressed on Earth, where we might have some difficulty projecting far enough. Biology is a good example. Anything that Nature can do, aliens can do, in the area of biology.

This means making new species or designing attributes of living organisms and figuring out how to write the genetic code to make them happen. It means doing anything that a biological organism is known to do or have done ever in history. Someone with a lot of free time who tried to make a catalog of all the things organisms can do would find him/herself with a very long list. And then combinations would get even more unimaginable.

It also means that understanding the constraints that living organisms must abide by and recognizing that many of those constraints fall away in a freely designed organism. Evolutionary organisms have to fill a place in some ecology, and that produces multiple restrictions, such as size, ability to gather its own food, mobility requirements, and so on. These don't have to hold for freely designed organisms, so the post on 'biological factories' took genetic adventurism a step further.

The bag of areas we don't really know much concrete about isn't restricted to biology, but includes neurology, medicine, and psychology. Again, the idea is that anything that Nature can do, aliens will learn how to do, in precise detail, including the constraints and how to lift them.

If we try to make the two sides of a river chasm idea work for physics, we see something quite different. Nature isn't doing much that we don't at least have a fair idea about. The constraints in physics, like the conservation of mass-energy, momentum, and angular momentum don't seem to have any violations, and therefore assuming that there are some would be fraught with disappointment. Same with the speed of light: No magic FTL. It might be possible to build a worm-hole, but you need masses of large stars to bend space a little, and it comes out rather spherically symmetric when you do. Incredible amounts of mass would be necessary to have a worm-hole, and then the force gradients would be so humongous that any structural matter would be condensed to neutron matter or quark matter only by coming near it. So, FTL is simply not something that makes sense for asymptotic technology.

Thus, using nature, nature's constraints, and current Earth science projections gives us a pretty good start at figuring out the basic outlines or overview of asymptotic technology.

The next hurdle is figuring out how to translate what can be deduced or surmised about asymptotic technology into the form of alien civilizations. This seems to be a case-by-case thing, meaning that explorations of various social arrangements need to be thought through to see how they interact with technology. This seems to have been productive so far, so let's just continue with it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Can Alien Civilizations Handle Malthusian Idiocracy?

We on Earth handle Malthusian populations all the time. I do it myself. There are lots of ways to do it. For the last week, I have been spending time looking for lubber grasshoppers every evening on my fruit trees. For those of you who don't live in the southeast US, lubber grasshoppers are a variety of grasshopper that likes leaves, especially new leaves. The grasshopper grows to be almost three inches long, and while it is not like a plague of locusts, they don't do young trees any good. So I hunt them. If I didn't brutally kill them one and all, they would face the affluence of my fruit trees and eat and eat and reproduce and reproduce, until the fruit trees were damaged and I was very sad.

So, the massive killing strategy works for Malthusian populations of the insect type.

Another Malthusian population I have is bats. Bats get into people's roofs, and if there is an opening, into attics. Sometimes they even fly inside the house. They are an endangered species, so it is illegal to kill them, but not to deprive them of living quarters. You have to either build a one-way door for them at the opening they use to get into their diurnal sleeping quarters, or work at night when they are all out hunting insects.

Another anti-Malthusian population strategy is depriving them of one of the essentials of life, spacious and predator-free living quarters. This works for flying mammals, of which there is only one type. Bats.

I also spend time picking weeds, when there are only a few sneaking into my lawn, and chemically poison them when there are lots. Weeds cannot compete with good, well-kept lawns, so that is another, difficult-to-achieve way of dealing with Malthusian populations. Crowd their living space with competitive organisms. If it doesn't work, try poison.

So, solution three is competitors and solution four is poison.

Frogs like to use my pool for breeding. I have woken up to ten thousand miniature creatures awaiting me in the pool. Almost too small to see, unless you leave the pool pump off for a few nights. The pool filter does a good job on them, after swimming in chlorine-treated water has done its work as well. You have to clean the filter pretty soon though.

So, solution five is mechanical contraptions and solution six is poisoning the water supply, although the water isn't poisoned for anything which doesn't swim in it with gills or whatever tadpoles have.

Fungi are another problem. They like to congregate on leaves and make large, easy-to-distinguish black spots, under which is a very damaged leaf. Lose too many leaves to 'black spot disease' and you lose the tree. The solution is not necessarily to put fungicide on fruit trees, but some innocuous oil which coats the leaves and makes it difficult or impossible for the fungi to adhere.

Solution seven: put a barrier between the Malthusian population and their food source.

We suffer from no-see-ums, which are tiny insects that can squeeze through screen windows for the purpose of biting you. One solution is to wear a lot of clothes at all times in the house, or at least during their feeding hours. Another solution, which I am trying today, is to build a little trap to attract and capture them. The clothes solution is just the fungi solution one, putting barriers between the Malthusian population and their food source, which is me.

But solution eight is to trap them in a place where they can do no damage, and likely will expire.

So, at least eight solution strategies to deal with potential population explosions of the Malthusian variety. Any organism that evolved is likely to become Malthusian, if there is a surfeit of all the essentials for life, which includes a living space, no predators like me, food with no barriers, no competitors, clean water and so on.

Ouch! Solution eight does not seem to be working.

All these solutions seem to work well for the ordinary Malthusian population, but Malthusian idiocracy is another story. An alien civilization would encounter this during the interval between the industrial grand transition, which makes resources available to the general population at a rate not before experienced, and the genetic grand transition, which marks an end to evolution for the alien species, and an end to Malthusianism.

Perhaps some alien civilizations have left behind coercive techniques at their stage of civilization, and only tolerate voluntary solutions. Voluntary solutions involve a voluntary restriction of population, and the voluntary restriction has to be effective. The problem with an idiocracy is that the members of that subset of population may not be very effective at voluntary restrictions. It would be quite expectable that the negative correlation that exists, which starts off idiocracy, between reproductive rate and intelligence, would become even stronger if one factors in voluntary restrictions and effectiveness.

How this works is quite transparent with a numerical example. Suppose on Planet X, a population of 1 billion is in danger of becoming a Malthusian idiocracy, so the more advanced part of the population tries to use education to halt the process. The half-billion on the lower end of the intelligence scale are both less likely to understand the reason for the requests, and are less likely to be able to implement the requests. Thus that half-billion reproduces at a higher rate than the other half-billion, meaning that intelligence falls even faster, on the average, than prior to the intervention.

Because of these negative correlations, coercion may be the only process that works for some alien civilizations. On other ones, the period between the two grand transitions might be so short, measured in generations of aliens, that the phenomenon never has a chance to make much of an effect.

If coercion is necessary, there are at least eight very severe methods listed above, but also many other less unpleasant and less harsh that those. If the Malthusian population is very large compared to the one that has already shifted into the post-genetic-revolution way of population management, there could be a control issue. This ratio would be changing as time progressed, so those alien civilizations which do not have a high rate of research, and are spending a lot of time between transitions, might run into this problem.

So far, this blog has not touched at all on the rate of progress of technological advancement. Perhaps it should.

Ouch! As soon as solution eight is perfected.