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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Ray Kurzweil makes an interesting argument that we are the most
technologically advanced society in our universe. Progress moves
exponentially. Therefore, between a society at our stage of
development, and one advanced enough to contact us, isn't a matter of
millions of years. It's a matter of decades. And contact moves at the
speed of light. (He actually claims that sufficiently advanced
societies -- by which he means the machine/biological hive mind he
expects us to reach in thirty years or so -- will figure out how to
move matter at near-light speeds, too. That seems unlikely now, but
it's the essence of the singularity concept that things that seem
unlikely now will become true in appallingly short amounts of time.)
Therefore if we are not receiving signals from advanced cultures, it
means that (a) we are not within the light-cone of any advanced
cultures, that is, we are so far from any advanced cultures that
light from them has not had time to reach us, (b) there are no such
advanced cultures, we're it, baby or (c) they're not talking to us.

I like this argument; though I credit (c) more than he does. We've
learned a lot about not interfering with primitive cultures. It tends
to destroy them, or at least, tends to destroy what is unique about
them. It's not hard to imagine that any sufficiently advanced culture
-- or the Federation of Planets -- knows about us, is observing us in
a myriad ways undetectable by our equipment, and is waiting for us to
find our own way off planet before they talk to us. They may also be
waiting for us to grow up and stop murdering each other. When Gandhi
was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said, "I think
it would be an excellent idea."

Possibility (d) of course is that sufficiently advanced cultures
develop advanced ways of destroying themselves. A Walkman filled with
plastic explosive blew up an airliner. What if the Columbine boys had
been able to fabricate a black hole? Or airborne Ebola? Will we get
sane before we can kill ourselves off? Or will we get too clever for
our own good before we get sane?

It's hard to imagine that we're the only game in town. But that's
partly because it's so frightening. Wouldn't we all like Ricky to
come home and straighten everything out?


I kind of find the United Federation of Planets argument implausible because, while an advanced society might limit interference in developing worlds, I figure no matter how culturally advanced a large group is there will always be some jokers looking for a lark or some bastards looking to make a quick buck.

I figure there's a variation on (c) where post-singularity culture and life is just so very different from our sort of life that most post-singularity civilizations wouldn't even be aware of us.

Alternately, there's just no way to travel or communicate between the stars that doesn't consume unreasonable quantities of resources, thus even post-singularity civilizations are limited to occupying a single solar system or maybe a couple neighboring solar systems. And, given the vast distances involved, while they're within out light-cones even the most powerful transmissions would be wiped out by background radiation by the time they got to us.

This last scenario seems most likely to me since I'm not too hopeful about convenient interstellar travel and, given some of the recent stuff showing that life-precursors might actually be found on places as nearby as Mars and Titan, the likelihood of there being life on other planets (or even any given planet) seems to be nowhere near as low as we once thought.

By Blogger Steve Peterson, at 2:11 PM  

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