Saturday, June 24, 2017

Is it Worthwhile Going out to Meet Aliens?

Suppose we here on Earth just keep muddling along, learning more and more technology, getting smarter and smarter about the universe, solving our problems one by one, and still waiting for aliens to come and visit us. Scientists and many non-scientists have written about why they don’t come, and even seminars and conventions are held, journals are started, and no one has a definitive answer, although there are several excellent ideas. Then, some one just gets fed up and says, “If they’re not coming to us, we’re going to them!”

After a lot of political skirmishing, budget revising, technology compiling, and generally jumping around, we decide to go visit aliens. Is this a worthwhile expense of our planet’s resources?

It certainly appears so, on first thinking about it, but that may be an illusion. Let’s dig deeper.

If we’re going to do this, we need to have technology well in hand, meaning, it’s probably several centuries later than now that we can finally think we might be able to do it. So, all kinds of things have been learned, all types of inventions have been perfected, all kinds of branches of science, even the now-murky ones like sociology, are understood down to little details. If science doesn’t do this, as if we get stopped at some year, like 2040, for some reason, there is no hope of going to other solar systems. So we have to assume that science has continued to march forward, crushing every kind of question we could think up.

Adding some hypothetical details to this supposition, it’s 400 years in the future, and we have gigantic telescopes in solar orbit, maybe out beyond Neptune, and we’ve detected a planet with advanced alien life on it. They’ve been broadcasting electromagnetic signals for centuries now, and we’ve been detecting them. They are too faint to decode, but they are there. So we decide to go see them, and figure out that, for a alien solar system 100 light years out, with a stupendous effort, we can get up to 5% light speed, meaning that in something greater than 2000 years our ship would arrive, as we need to add a few centuries for acceleration and deceleration. So, in under 3000 years we would have our ambassador on their soil. Possibly we could manage, once there, to set up a large communications antenna, and start beaming messages back to Earth, which would arrive here after a hundred years delay. Earth people alive after this 3000 year delay would be able to know we had contact with an alien species, finally. We could answer them, and after only a more hundred years of waiting, they would hear our Hello!

Back to the pseudopresent of 2517, and the decision to build and send this ship is being debated, as not everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Someone asks, what if the people of 5517 don’t really care that much about ambassadors of Earth sending back communications? Can the people of 2517 actually figure out what the people of 5517 would like or not like? Would there be any people in 5517? What a joke it would be if Earth went to all this effort, but humanity died out before the ambassadors got to Planet X.

So, before sending out any starships, we would want to make sure that we really understood how to survive for thousands of years, and were really stable in our values. This means that if the people of 2517 would like something, they could be sure that the people of 5517 would like it too, and they would have survived until that time, and would survive much longer as well. It obviously wouldn’t be so good if at 5517 there was a last generation of humans, or whatever we evolve or modify ourselves into, and after that generation, there would be nobody home at Earth to get later messages from Planet X.

This sounds like it means that there wouldn’t be any Earth-originated star travel until we had really stabilized out culture and civilization here in our own solar system. That means we shouldn’t send out a starship as soon as we are able to, but instead wait until our own problems at home have been worked out and we know we are going to survive, in some unchanging fashion, for millennia. At this point in our experience, we are still very primitive and can’t see when such a plateau might be reached. If humanity is lucky, perhaps it would be 2517, or perhaps it would be 3017 or even 3517. Technology is racing forward now and it is hard to project that there will be problems left after 2517, but we can stop and realize that the problems we face now, we didn’t know existed until recently, meaning a century or so. So, problems in 2517 might be ones we uncover in 2417, and we aren’t about to guess them now.

We are not unique compared to other potential alien civilizations, and if it doesn’t make sense for us to go traveling between stars until after we have figured out all our local, solar-system-only, problems, it doesn’t make sense for any other alien civilization to do it either. So maybe this is another clue as to why there aren’t any alien visitors.

Now, back to 2517 in this supposed example. Let’s just say we have figured out every last problem that a non-star-traveling civilization would encounter. We have found them all, and solved them all, and can mostly sit back and congratulate ourselves at being so ingenious and industrious, and having avoided all the pitfalls that civilizations might run into. So during the starship debate, someone asks: what’s the point? Why bother doing it? We have all our problems solved here and there is nothing any alien civilization can surprise us with. We can’t learn from them. If it is just curiosity, can’t we just figure out what possibilities their civilization might have, and content ourselves with knowing the possibilities? If there are ten possibilities, and of course Earth science can figure out if it is five or ten or fifteen, Planet X might have one of them, but who cares which one? If Planet X isn’t Type 1, then maybe Planet Y, a bit further away, is. Or Planet Z. Who really cares which one is which type?

So, with nothing to gain, and a huge cost, it seems the decision might be made to not ever go to Planet X. The illusion that we are going to discover things if we go there is clearly false, and all the science fiction about interesting cultures on far-distant planet is just a projection of our current primitive state onto the future, but of course, our current primitive state is just that, and is not the state of the civilization on Earth when star travel becomes possible. Other science fiction dissolves away the times and costs involved by invoking some magic, like warp drives or whatever, and that also changes the situation somewhat. Magic is not going to get us to Planet X, as it is just a reflection of the sorry state of science education on planet Earth. So, once again, we return to the same conclusion. It is hard to justify an advanced alien civilization going to visit another one.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Food and Taste Industries in Alien Civilizations

The higher levels of organisms on the food chain in any alien planet would be expected to have some sort of sensors to help them discriminate useful food from everything else. As organisms evolve there, these sensors would evolve as well. Food discrimination includes recognizing the source, such as a tree with edible parts, the food item itself from shape, texture, hardness and other attributes, and finally chemical sensors, both for soluble and for volatile compounds, which we label as taste and aroma.

Is it possible that any alien species could gain intelligence and then advance technologically without being something of an omnivore, meaning able to digest directly photosynthetic organisms or components of them, as well as higher organisms in the food chain? Likely not. In general, the wider the variety of foods an organism can utilize, the further it can range, the more robust the species will be against famine, and the less likely it would become extinct due to a loss of a food species. After the very first steps of technology, such as fire or cutting implements, food possibilities would enlarge again. To facilitate this expansion, before and after food technology starts, requires sensors able to discriminate against toxic components of the food chain and non-nutritious ones as well. Thus it might be safe to assume that typical intelligent alien species have a variety of food items, plus would be equipped with food senses with a wide range of capability. As technology advances, this would likely not disappear, but would remain a feature of the alien species. So, barring some very unusual planetary ecology, an alien species can be assumed to develop a food industry. This means the steps of organized hunting, then intermittent agriculture, then continuous static agriculture, and then food processing procedures and labor specialties would be almost mandatory elements of any alien civilization.

The industrial grand transformation does not necessarily lead to any change in the omnivorous nature of the aliens. It is more about satisfying these physical needs in a more efficient manner, by affecting agriculture and husbandry, as well as food storage, transportation, and processing. Biological knowledge is gained, but because of the intrinsic difficulty of biology as compared to chemistry, it would not be of the same depth, and would not allow a deep understanding of the biology of food and taste. Food and taste would be explored in an experimental way, and via these means, quite a lot of knowledge gained, but not on the microbiological level. Thus, the industrial period of any alien civilization would have a food and taste industry grounded in experimental facts, with perhaps some deeper knowledge based on the physical structure of food items. By the way, Malthus would still be present in this period, meaning population would grow to match the available food supply. Until the genetic grand transformation gets going, photosynthesis would be the basis for the food supply, constituting the lowest layer of the food hierarchy, and thus land use would change in response to Malthusian pressures. The food industry would be a substantial component of any alien civilization at this stage of their development.

What might be called the taste industry would also be present. The industrial grand transformation is concerned with satisfying desires that existed since the alien species first became intelligent, and these included finding foods that passed the taste sensors’ thresholds. In other words, alien species all evolve to have taste sensors, and the neurology of that set of sensors is that aliens seek foods which have good taste, according to whatever experiences they have had since their birth or whatever reproductive system they evolve with. The point to be made is that taste satisfaction decouples from nutrition satisfaction to some degree. Food additives which change the taste, food processing techniques which change taste and texture, food labor specialties which concentrate on good tasting food all make their appearance and become widespread. This means there is an impetus within any alien society to understand taste and to learn to master it experimentally. We are saying that there will be alien chefs.

The alien civilization would continue its march forward developing technology, and when it passes through the later stages of the industrial grand transformation, where electronics and automation are prevalent, and then the beginning stages of the genetic grand transformation, where microbiology and neurology give up their secrets, food and taste will finally be understood at a fundamental level. There will be an understanding of nutrition, in particular, what are the requirements of the alien body, typically and specifically for any individual, in terms of various food compounds, both chemically and physically. The physical form of ingested items, for example fiber, may be important to alien health and well-being. The genetic understanding of how organisms grow will likewise allow them to be tailored to meet these newly understood nutritional requirements, in an industrially efficient manner. Agriculture will finally phase out, as anything needed can be created more efficiently in a controlled environment. This will increase costs, but all technology increases costs in return for an improved life. It might be questioned whether aliens will accept this phase-out, but technology is inexorable, and the questioning will eventually subside.

The taste industry will similarly undergo transformations, as understanding is further developed as to how the various aspects of taste and desirable food are formed. It is rather obvious that taste begins to be developed in the earliest period of an alien’s life, and continues to develop, especially if taste sensors change with the age of the alien. Just like with the food industry, efficient ways of creating taste substances will be developed, and would become industrial, just as food itself would.

The key transformation that happens is that the neurology of taste would be understood. This means that aliens would all understand that what they like as taste in a food is completely a natural development, including any instinctual, i.e. genetic, preferences, plus those learned during life, largely as a child. The psychological impact of this may not be initially obvious. It means that individual tastes are inconsequential, and simply the result of a random roll of the experience dice. Instead of aliens seeking out foods that most match their taste preferences, these taste preferences will seem unimportant. One way to express that is to say food together with taste will become a simple commodity, easily available, and not worth too much attention. This means the food and taste industry will implode in these later periods. The civilization will simply stop concerning itself with this aspect of life.

It is becoming clear that technology eventually undermines all aspects of evolutionary life, by providing first abundance and then understanding. It hits employment, which will decline and become an avocation rather than a necessity. It hits dining, as optimized food is simply available whenever and wherever. This would seem to create something of a vacuum in alien civilization at these later periods. Knowing what will fill this vacuum may provide a clue as to the willingness of an alien civilization to embark on some sort of space exploration to other solar systems.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Is There a Gulf between Electronics and Genetics?

It is difficult to know which characteristics of an alien civilization to isolate and concentrate on when trying to figure out if they will attain the capability and desire to travel between stars. Sociology has simply not developed sufficiently to indicate what might go wrong, much less to provide some explanation of why or how common it might be. So it is necessary to fall back on some very basic principles.

Here is one scenario. Technology develops and civilization follows right along, with the initial result of technological advancement being that the basic needs of society are better and better met, followed by some more superficial ones. The basic needs of society are simply the basic needs of the population, or at least the portion of the population that has some power or influence over what happens in the civilization. What might happen to a civilization when the basic needs of the population are increasingly met for little effort on their part, owing to increasing use of industrial and later electronic means of boosting productivity? In previous discussions, the closeness in time of the genetics grand transition, when intelligence improves along with almost everything else, to the industrial grand transition provided the rationale that there would be a uplift in society in general, owing to the availability of personal intelligence, creativity, artistry and so on, along with materials and leisure time to take advantage of that.

However, there is a gap in time between these two grand transitions, and is it possible that an alien civilization, or all alien civilizations, could undergo some sort of collapse? The collapse would not be of the productive economy, but of the spirit of the society. To paraphrase it, when work almost disappears, what might replace it in the daily lives of the population? Note that some equivalent of work has demanded the time of the population since before the agricultural grand transition. There is no previous interval of time in which these demands have abated. There certainly must have been for all alien civilizations, at some time and place on their planet, good intervals where the demands for work have been reduced. An example would be when a clan moved into a new area with abundant game and gatherable foods. But population always expands to take advantage of available resources, and eventually these good intervals would be replaced by a long period when population pressure keeps the demand for effort for sustenance high.

After the industrial revolution, population pressure still exists, but it does take some time to exert itself. In addition, however, is the pressure for improved life situations, meaning higher consumption levels of energy and resources. As this becomes as much of a demand as the demand for sustenance, there is again the same situation, where work takes up as much time of the population as possible. The underlying premise is that work would be available. The alternative possibility is that without the genetics grand transition and the tremendous social and psychological changes this would bring about, work to increase living standards might not be available for some slice of the population.

Thus there are two threats to this period, the gulf between the late industrial revolution and the full-blown genetics grand transition. One is the Malthusian idiocracy which was discussed at length in previous posts. The other, introduced here, is the dislocation of society, or rather a different slice of society, in which there is no opportunity for work, simply some sort of sustenance arrangement.

To make this gulf more obvious, consider an alien civilization which has developed robotics and AI, and the cost of it is so low it is used everywhere. What does the population do? This is assumed prior to the great population-wide improvement in intelligence that is one part of the genetics grand transition. Everyone from CEO’s down to the lowest clerk is easily replaced, and they are. Some arrangements have to be devised so that the benefits of all this automated productivity are distributed, and they could be of a wide variety. With no one working, there is not even a shred of justification for inequity in distribution, but inequity in distribution of society’s products has been a driving force for individual motivation since clans broke up with the agricultural transition. Will the typical alien civilization figure out some way to broker an inequity in distribution of production, based on some sort of competitive tourney?

Another alternative, at least in the first portion of this gulf, is that legacy arrangements will be allowed to remain. An economy is based on past events, resulting in some privileges or rights or ownership or some other label, and on present events, where the actions taken by some individual member of the alien civilization does something, which we might call work, and receives rights to production from that. The gulf we are discussing is one in which present actions are of less and less value on the average, and eventually become of negligible worth. So the past is the only thing differentiating alien members of the civilization from one another. This might seem to be tolerable for some time, but it would become less and less so the further the society gets into the gulf.

There are some very important questions to be raised about this gulf between grand transformations. One is to ask if a typical alien civilization will cross the gulf and not allow it to damage the civilization, its infrastructure, its directions, or its progress. There seems to be some possibility of this damage, as there is no precedent for a society’s organization in the gulf, and it must be devised from a blank sheet of paper. The second question flows from the first. What modifications of the civilization are inevitable as it crosses this gulf, and what effect would these modifications have on its interest and willingness to make an interstellar space voyage? It would be most peculiar if the real reason there are no aliens visiting us is that their civilization inevitably will have to modify itself into something unlike anything we have imagined, and that the resulting arrangements, governance at the least but possibly much more, lead to a non-interest in space voyages, or perhaps even to a lack of interest in the prolongation of the culture at all.