The connection between SETI and Nanotechnology

Skip to first unread message

Joseph Bates

Aug 1, 1991, 12:24:04 PM8/1/91

JoSH, you mention that "evolutionary principles" make it extremely
unlikely that civilizations would turn inward and explore art. I am
curious about the arguments you suggest, because I have been thinking
on and off for a few years about this explanation for the absence of
little green folk and it seems fairly plausible to me. (It appeals to
me particularly because of the apparent lack of evidence of large
scale engineering of the universe, which an advanced civilization
might be expected to perform. But I know this is a weak argument.)

Let me set forward a few thoughts for you or others to demolish.
Moravec doesn't believe these either, but I remain unsure of his

1. We have physically gone absolutely nowhere in exploring the
universe, yet we have intellectually gone some (large?) distance
in understanding how things work and what is out there. All this
progress has come from being smart -- developing better theories and
better instruments here near the Sun. One might imagine that future
progress will come from future computers, and that the progress from
intelligent supermachines may be sufficient to complete our knowledge
of physics (assuming such is possible). In any case, faster computing
might be the key measure of progress for an advanced civilization.

2. If the speed of light is indeed a limitation, and if intelligent
machines spend part of their effort developing smarter, faster
machines, then I think an argument can be made that essentially no
benefit is obtained by spreading computations across the tremendous
distances between stars. (Not that this is true, it just might not
be known to be false.) You may always be able to solve the problem
faster where you are, rather than waiting for communications delays.

This will depend on the density of matter (ie, potential computing
hardware) in the universe, and the tradeoffs for the particular
problems of interest between increased communication delays and
additional hardware. In particular, hardware grows only as the
cube of communication time (it seems to be a 3D universe) with a
depressingly low constant. Also, the especially interesting problems,
such as thinking, might not be easily parallelized beyond some point.

3. Thus, given the physics of the universe and the nature of
interesting problems, it could simply be that progress is faster when
a mind turns inward, inventing new algorithms, heuristics, and
representation schemes, to continuously redesign itself while thinking.
That is, this might be the best approach to exploring the universe.

4. If this is so, then one can imagine these super-minds, with
appropriate technology for physical protection, remaining relatively
localized and doing whatever it is that they do. Perhaps they will be
clustered in the dense areas of the universe. It is appealing to
think that sending out probes to other areas may be wise, but by the
argument above these will not help understand the universe (smarts
closely connected to perception is what counts) and such probes could
attract unpleasantness.

Is this not a possible scenario?


[Evolutionary principles do *not* make it unlikely that any given
civilization will turn inward. The evolutionary principle merely
says, that if there are 99 civilizations that turn inward, and 1
that aggressively expands, the galaxy will soon be full of the
aggressive one, and, over time, the inward turners will be greatly
underrepresented compared with their original proportions.
Thus, we may expect to find the galaxy full of aggressive
civilizations, unless there are *absolutely none* of them out there.

Richard Akerman

Aug 1, 1991, 12:26:37 PM8/1/91
The Fermi Paradox is, at least for me, one of the Great Puzzles. Some other
quick suggestions, forgive for repeating any:

* They all polluted themselves to death, or blew themselves up

* The "Big Stomp" hypothesis, see Greg Bear's _The Forge of God_ or David
Brin's _Earth_: somebody got there first and they destroy any potential

* The Singularity, see Vernor Vinge (two books which are collected in the
Science Fiction Book Club's _Across Realtime_): technology advanced
exponentially and they all "went away," to other dimensions, realities,
whatever. A very hopeful scenario since it means they've escaped the death
of the Universe, maybe, and can exist forever.

* The Water Worlds hypothesis, see David Brin's _Earth_: living on the inner
edge of the habitable zone, Earth just happens to be dry enough to have some
rock sticking up through the water. On other worlds, positioned more to the
middle of the "life zone," there isn't enough dry land for beings like us
to evolve, so the Universe is filled with intelligence dolphin style; wise,
perhaps, but not tool-using. Guess we'd better not kill off our cetaceans
... we may need them as translators.

* Perhaps on other worlds, life and competition are "easy,": perhaps there
intelligence isn't adaptive, or adaptive enough to merit selection. Think
about the penalities we (well, birthing mothers) have to pay for our large
brains, and the difficulties caused by our long development time.

Oh, and I don't think I'm the first to say it, but maybe they have been here.
Need to leave a relic that will last a five billion years? How about a moon?
A Moon positioned so that, by extra-ordinary coincidence of geometry, it can
completely, perfectly cover the Sun. A timely thought, what with a certain
eclipse just past.

David Brin also wrote on the Fermi Paradox in a book that I recommend,

_First Contact: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence_, eds. Ben Bova
and Byron Priess, including fact and fiction by Asimov, Clarke, Philip
Morrison, Benford, Brin, Drake ...

Richard J. Akerman | BitNet: Akerman@QUCdnAst * |
Incompetent Physics | INet: Ake...@Bill.Phy.QueensU.Ca * | "I will go
Grad Student | INet: Ake...@RadOpt.Phy.QueensU.Ca | mad!"
Queen's University | INet: Ake...@Iris1.Phy.QueensU.Ca |

Paul Baclaski

Aug 1, 1991, 12:58:30 PM8/1/91

The idea that life started on Earth by seeding seems like the
Homunculus Fallacy for explaining intelligence. Even if life
on Earth did come from an interstellar seed, where did life
come from before that?

Paul E. Baclaski

Aug 1, 1991, 12:42:14 PM8/1/91
------------------------- Original Article -------------------------
>Analog article) is that the probes would not carry any information which
>indicates the point of origin of the probe network. The idea being, of
>course that ET's who sent out the probes would fear being tracked down
>and exterminated by some xenophobic race.

Except *ours* which carried a map, pictures of what sent it, instructions for
building a record player, a record of various sounds from our planet. One
group of sounds was greetings in many earth languages, one of which supposedly
translates into "Have you eaten yet?"

Not that I expect anything would travel light years to eat carbon-based
lifeforms living in a caustic atmosphere, but...

Young Rob Jellinghaus

Aug 1, 1991, 1:17:42 PM8/1/91

In article <> (Bernie Roehl) writes:
>The galaxy is 100,000 light years in diameter, and we're near one edge; thus
>it will take 1,000,000 years for us to colonize the entire galaxy.
>So why hasn't some other intelligent species done this already?
>Possible answers:
>1) Other species *have* spread throughout the galaxy, we just aren't aware of
> them for a variety of reasons.
>2) Relativistic interstellar travel is fundamentally impossible, for reasons
> we have yet to discover.
>3) Starflight *is* possible, and we're destined to be the first species to
> develop it. (Yes, this sounds unlikely -- but *some* species has to be
> first, and whoever it is, is bound to be surprised at being the first).
>4) Starflight is possible, but no species ever survives long enough to develop
> it.

5) Other species have the technology to replicate themselves exponentially
throughout the galaxy, but choose not to do so.

It seems to me that the equation "life == continuous, exponential expansion"
is not necessarily true. With really advanced nanotechnology (like the kind
we'll have in the year 3000, absent Any Big Oops), all our preconceptions
about biological drives, the meaning of life, the need to expand indefinitely
in population, etc., will all need radical reassessment. I would wager that
most advanced nanotechnological life forms do not feel the need to colonize
the galaxy and cover it with their manifestations--in which case alternative
5 is the most likely possibility.

Personally, I prefer 5 to the other 4--I mean, I can imagine few more de-
pressing sights than looking up at the night sky and seeing darkness, be-
cause all the stars in the galaxy have been covered in Dyson spheres by our
descendants... the image that comes to mind is not glorious humanity
spreading civilization to the stars, but a bunch of cockroaches multiplying
to fill all available space, and eventually leaving nothing in the universe

Sorry this should probably go in comp.society.futures or something, but I
felt it needed to be said.

Rob Jellinghaus | "Next time you see a lie being spread or
Autodesk, Inc. | a bad decision being made out of sheer
rob...@Autodesk.COM | ignorance, pause, and think of hypertext."
{decwrl,uunet}!autodesk!robertj | -- K. Eric Drexler, _Engines of Creation_

Ian Taylor

Aug 1, 1991, 1:28:49 PM8/1/91

Assuming we can build a nanotech probe with sensors, communications
etc, do we get any real advantage in terminal velocity?

I have in mind solar sail type propulsion or ...

What are current and possible, mass and size estimates?

Perhaps would like to comment?

+-- I -------- ------------------------- voice +43 1 391621 169 --+
| T a y l o r Alcatel Austria-ELIN Research Centre, Vienna, Austria A-1210 |
+-- n -------- fax +43 1 391452 ---------------- PSI%023226191002::SE_TAYLOR --+

Any resemblance to opinions, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

Ben Thompson

Aug 1, 1991, 1:32:56 PM8/1/91
to (Darren Giles) writes:

> Basically, though, if someone with a technology a million years ahead of
>our own is trying to build a "stealth" probe, there's not much point trying
>to look for it.

Actually, it wouldn't be all that difficult to devise a
'stealth probe' that would pass us unnoticed, using our current
technology. Hell, if you just took an aircraft carrier and painted it
black, you could drop it in from interstellar space and we probably
wouldn't notice it until it crossed in front of the moon! A large
vessel could easily take up residence in, say, the asteroid belt, and
monitor our radio transmissions. This would require that it stay
hidden behind a large asteroid to avoid showing up on our IR
telescopes, and have onboard computers to match those of the NSA, to
sift CB and military messages from reruns of 'Charlie's Angels' (talk
about being embarrassed for my species!). Flybys would be only
slightly more complicated: build a probe package the size of a
watermelon, dress it up like a rock and shoot it towards Earth with
one of the seasonal meteor storms. Recover it later and read its
records. If you want to put a probe on the surface, make it a bit
smaller, with an onboard ordinance, and have it hard-land,
meteorite-style, in some uninhabited area (Asteroid base concludes
that the Sahara, Antarctica, the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and
some of the Pacific islands would be very suitable), then send back
reports by laser squirt to a passing watermelon.
Nanotechnology (or rather, million-year-in-advance
technology), would be important only if you wanted to get REALLY
fancy: surface probes that quietly self-destruct into CO2 and methane,
Watermelons that can decipher military channels and track cellular
'phone conversations, AI that can UNDERSTAND all of this cultural
data, or landing modules that can put on jeans and T-shirts, walk into
the nearest coffee shop and ask how the Mets are doing.

What does this have to do with Nanotechnology and SETI? My point is
that the possibility of Nanotechnology really doesn't change the original
problem: interstellar cultures should be able to spread far and fast, so where
are they? An understanding of Nanotechnology gives us some insight into what
can be done with Von Neumann machines, but there's nothing qualitatively new
there. If the aliens want to be secretive, they can do it whether they use
nanomachines or not, likewise if they want to talk to us.

There is one way that I can see by which Nanotechnology would greatly
change the equation, but it's something of a dead end. Here goes:

1) Nanotechnology is just sitting there waiting for any race. Its
possibility is inherent in the laws of chemistry, and is strongly hinted-at
by molecular life.

2) Eventually, any race of starfarers is almost bound to get
the hang of it, and will probably dabble in it if they're the
inquisitive types we're assuming they are.

3) Once they do master molecules, there inevitably follow some
great cultural upheavals which cannot be forseen by pre-molecular
societies. Our aliens then set aside childish things like
'conventional' growth and conquest, and get on with, well whatever.

The obvious hole in this argument is that it presumes some
unspecified next level of society, or intelligence, or consciousness,
or insert-vague-noun- here, that we cannot, a priori, understand, but
which lies in wait for species that master molecules, and which will
make all this UFO stuff strictly passe. Like I said, a dead-end.

Three Science Fiction novels I would recommend on the subject
are Arthur C. Clarke's _Childhood's End_ and Greg Bear's _Blood Music_
and _Forge of God_.

Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages