Few people know this, but for a while now I've kept tabs on what happens in outer space, specifically Solar System colonization and asteroid mining. This means I've been connected to the wonderful revolution that is silently unfolding regarding human understanding and access to our small patch of universe.
But this entry is not about space news, but rather my own thoughts on a subject that keeps bugging me: our own place in the world. You might have heard about the Fermi paradox. It is the theory that as big as the universe is as much time that has passed, the possibility that life and intelligence arose somewhere else is very close to 1. Not only that, but it remains close to 1 even if we look at the universe a few billions years back. The Fermi paradox asks then, how come we haven't heard of anybody else? Look at how fast we are evolving technologically; given a billion years surely we would invent at least the grey goo (although admittedly we would have the good taste to have it in more beautiful colors). What is going on?
You might think this is not a real problem, but it truly is. To believe that no one in the whole of the universe did think to create self-reproducing probes is as ridiculous as believing we alone are intelligent enough to do it. Even at non relativistic speeds (stuff drifting aimlessly in the void) such a machine should have spread across the galaxy. Why aren't they here already?
I am writing this piece while we have received confirmation that Voyager, one of the space probes launched in the 70's, run by computers with 4Kb of memory and spending power equivalent to that of a small light bulb to send info back to Earth, has reached interstellar space. It took more than three decades, but it is there. Another few tens of thousands of years and it leaves the Solar System. Triple that time and it reaches our nearest star. Billions of years have passed, though, and a thousand centuries are nothing on that timescale. And we build Voyager in the 70's! Of course, one could get pissed that no 20 Watt light bulb ever survived 30 years here on Earth, but that's another issue entirely. So where are the Voyagers of other species?
There are several schools of thought on the subject. One, which I won't even discuss, is that we are the chosen people and are the only ones intelligent or even alive. Some versions of panspermia that suggest the ingredients of life came from meteors and are extremely rare on planets seem equally implausible to me.
Another one, which I found really interesting, is that as technology advances, we are bound to create more complex virtual worlds, which, as comfort goes, are much easy to live in than "real" worlds. And I double quote the word here because when the simulation is advanced enough, the inhabitants there will also make other simulations of their own. In this view, we are most likely creatures that have evolved on the spare CPU of some machine, which is itself a simulation. It's turtles all the way down, man.
Anyway, I find this theory fascinating because it also fights the law of entropy and the infinity of time. You see, in a simulated world, time would run faster than in real life. There is no need to wait 4 billion years for life to evolve, if a computer can simulate it faster. Do this until you reach the quantum limit underneath which time and space cannot be divided into smaller units anymore (if that even exists in the "realest" world) and you get universes that function with the fastest possible speed. Duplicate one of these virtual machines and two universes live simultaneously at the same time. It's a wonderful concept. Also, the quantum nature of our universe is eerily similar to the bits in a computer. Of course, once we get on that path, anything would be possible. We might be alone in the universe because it was designed as such. Or because the developers of our world are using a very common trick that is to render the graphics of a virtual world only where there are people playing. Another eerie similarity with the quantum world that changes behavior when someone it watching.
There is also the concept of the multiverse. It says that all the possible states that can be taken by the universe are actually taken. We just happen to live in one version. If a particle can go one way or another, it will go both, once in each of two universes. Universal constants have values in the entirety of a range and a universe for each. We haven't met aliens yet and we were not destroyed by the culture shock because we are here not destroyed. It's a sort of a circular definition.
Then there is the quarantine hypothesis. Aliens are not only present, but very much involved into our lives. They are waiting patiently for us to discover space flight or quantum matrix decomposition or whatever, before they make contact. They could even make contact just to tell us to stay away, all the universe if full, we are just late to the party. I guess it's possible, why not?
Another idea, a more morbid one, is that no civilization survives beyond a certain threshold that we have not reached yet. When a global problem arises, there are people who are quick to associate this idea with that problem. Nuclear weapons, global warming, terrorism, sexting, Justin Bieber, twerking, etc. In the universal landscape they are irrelevant, at least until now and in the foreseeable future. Still, there is always the possibility that a game changing technology, what we call disruptive, will emerge naturally and will make any civilization disappear or simply obsolete or completely pointless. Just like the others above, this idea may assume a type of absolute. We could have a tiny chance to escape doom, only its probability is as close to 0 as the probability that there is a whole lot of life in the universe is close to 1. It's a bit terrifying, but because of its inevitability, also pointless to worry about.
This idea of a chance, though, is interesting because it makes one think further ahead. If such a disruptive event or technology (Kurzweil's singularity, maybe) is about to come, what will it be? When did we burst technologically? When we developed mass production of commodities. When did we explode as a populace? When we developed mass production of food. When will we become more than we are? When we develop mass production of people, perhaps. That's one scenario that I was thinking about today and spurred this blog post. After all, it would be horrible to live in a world where every cell phone or computer is designed and/or built individually. Instead we take the models that are best and we duplicate them. We could take the smartest, more productive and more beautiful of us and duplicate them. The quality of the human race (as measured by the current one, unfortunately) would increase exponentially. Or we don't do that and instead create intelligent machines that surpass us completely. Only we design them to take care of us, not evolve themselves. Lacking the pressure to survive, we devolve into unthinking pets that robots feed and clean. That is another of these scenarios. What is both exciting and worrying is that there are a number of these scenarios that seem very logical and plausible. We can already see a multiverse of doom, but we are not doing anything about it.
This brings me back to the colonization of the Solar System. For most of us, that sounds pointless. Why go to Mars when we haven't really finished colonizing the high mountains, the deep seas or even the African desert. All of these are orders of magnitude more friendly to human life than Mars. But the overwhelming advantage, the only reason why we must do it (there are others, but not necessary, only compelling), is to spread humanity in more than one basket. It is the good thing to do exactly because we don't know what is going to happen: just make a backup, for crying out loud, otherwise our simulated worlds of increasing complexity will just cease to exist when a larger meteor hits the planet.
And speaking of meteors, I met people that had no idea that recently a meteor exploded in Chelyabinsk. What does it take for people to take notice of this very plausible threat? A meteor crashing into the new World Trade Center?
This last point of view, of all I have discussed, is the most liberating and the only one worthy of consideration. Not because it is the best idea ever, but because it leaves us with a way out. We can, if we are careful, see the threat before it becomes unavoidable or spread ourselves wide enough so we don't get wiped out instantly. It gives us both hope and vision. All the others are absolutes, ideas that, just as the concept of an almighty god, are pointless to consider just because we can do nothing about them. All of our voyages, the most treasured discoveries and realizations of human kind, they all start with a thought. Let us think ahead.