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Why We Haven’t Met Any Aliens (seedmagazine.com)
252 points by mindmirror on Dec 22, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 220 comments

This essay is analogous to a mathematical proof that begins "Assume A and not A" and concludes: "and therefore P≠NP." It's not that I disagree with Miller's conclusion, it's just his premise is a contradiction, and thus capable of proving anything.

First, the contradiction: Fermi's paradox says that intelligent species are common, and that some fraction of intelligent species will engage in interstellar colonization. By some simple reasoning, this implies that the galaxy filled up with intelligent life a billion years ago. But the skies look empty.

Using Fermi's paradox, we could "prove" that the universe is filled with hostile, silent aliens that exterminate any species that discovers radio (as in Saberhagen's "Berserker" novels), or that interstellar colonization is impossible, or that intelligence is a self-defeating adaptation and we're doomed to wipe ourselves out. This makes for fun science fiction, but you can't use it to prove anything.

The conclusion is a fun bit of Puritan moralizing (entertainment bad, real life good). And because we want to agree with the conclusion, we're tempted to overlook the sloppy reasoning.

(And I'd love to say something about Miller's use of evolutionary psychology to present plausible hypotheses without supporting evidence, but that's a whole other can of worms.)

> we're tempted to overlook the sloppy reasoning.

Not in the slightest. This is a political opinion piece. There is a negative political statement about nuclear weapons. Then about video games. Then about consumerism, etc etc

You can use anything you perceive as self destructive to show how the aliens wiped themselves out and we will too! That much is obvious without any attempt at serious reasoning.

Fast food is destroying our country. Obesity! Aliens got too fat, wiped themselves out, that's why there aren't any around. Replace fast food with any other activity which offends commonly accepted political decency.

"""Replace fast food with any other activity which offends commonly accepted political decency."""

Obesity doesn't only offend "commonly accepted political decency" it also has measurable, negative impact on a person's life span.

And I would venture to say that nuclear weapons and such have too.

You're missing the point. It's just hand-wavy set of statements thinly veiled as an explanation for the lack of aliens, which is really nothing more than another cliche railing against consumerism and how society is just so bad. You could just replace whatever cause celeb that you'd like but that doesn't mean there is any real merit to it. Even if the aliens wiped themselves out with Farmville, Lays, or thermonuclear weapons; it seems unlikely they would go straight to the Zynga deathcamps without any exploration etc in between.

> it also has measurable, negative impact on a person's life span.

Every activity has a "measurable, negative impact on a person's life span" so long as the person doing the measuring is opposed to the activity. What was it that Benjamin Disraeli said? There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I find it curious that in the age of nuclear weapons, video games, consumerism, hamburgers, drugs, alcohol, etc. our average life spans are actually increasing.

"""Every activity has a "measurable, negative impact on a person's life span" so long as the person doing the measuring is opposed to the activity. What was it that Benjamin Disraeli said? There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."""

Obesity has a negative impact on life span because of BIAS??? I thought it was because of scientifically proven processes, well understood by modern medicine. Maybe it's just me.

"""I find it curious that in the age of nuclear weapons, video games, consumerism, hamburgers, drugs, alcohol, etc. our average life spans are actually increasing."""

That's because there's another kind of lie, Disraeli missed, the "correlation/causation" kind of lie. If the average life spans actually increase it's not because of the above, but because of better sanitation, vaccines, and a few other important factors.

The lifespan of people doing drugs/alcohol/hamburgers etc is actually decreased, compared to an imaginary control group.

And I'll go on a limb and say that the lifespan of people in 1945 Hiroshima was also greatly reduced compared to any control group of the time that didn't had a nuclear bomb dropped on them.

I think this can be made into a very empirical line of reasoning.

Measure what people spend their time thinking about. Track this over time.

The author of this feels that people feel less and less about external realities and more and more about virtual ones. I don't think you need to be an old fogey or a puritan to draw some conclusions in this area. Yes, the argument is anecdotal. Stereotyping those who might agree with it doesn't make it any more or less valid or interesting.

Another line of attack is to say this has been going on forever: people observing the way society is changing and saying that it's becoming terribly self-absorbed. That's true, but like the boy who cried wolf, eventually the wolf actually shows up, and it's not a good thing for anybody involved.

The problem I see with this article is that it doesn't acknowledge you only need a handful of people to make the advances necessary to reach out to other civilizations. It does admit there will be variation, but talks about fundamentalists and anti-consumerism folks rather than committed scientists/researchers who will make the contact possible.

In our own history, you could argue that only a small set of outliers (the Einsteins, Darwins, etc.) really contributed to our major strides. If we're beaming signals to outer space today, you can track it back to only a few committed geniuses who made that feat possible.

So, if alien civilizations do exist, I'd say they likewise need only a handful of committed folks; and they will come about through natural variation regardless of what the societal attitudes are.

The big problem with most people's responses to the Fermi paradox is that they invoke some form of universality of behavior for intelligent life. This can't work - if even one species of the expected very large number of species sends out self-replicating probes that do large-scale work, then we should see the evidence of that. It really doesn't matter what expected distribution of behaviors and psychologies is: the expected numbers we're dealing with (time, planets, species) are so very large - and it only takes one subgroup within an advanced species, never mind one species, to kick off a self-replicating wave of expansion.

What would be the point in a self-replicating wave of expansion? I don't see why that would make life more enjoyable. Unless that wave is used as a discovery machine - in that case it's a scientific tool, and as scientists we have rules about interacting with other species, conservation, etc. I'm sure if these aliens exist they have reasons for deliberately not devouring our galaxy, and we'll know those reasons as soon as we are able to launch a self-replicating wave of expansion.

I really did not expect this much resistance on HN to a fairly classical solution to the fermi paradox. Mostly it's spun in a more positive "retreat into virtual reality" type situation but it's the same thing.

We have no idea how humans will react to the ability to sate every desire and wish artifically. It's not just hyper-porn and the xbox 720, this would apply to the desire for exploration, solving hard problems, building well functioning societies, raising successful offspring, etc.

There also has to be something hilariously ironic about all of us on hacker news insisting that people in the future will reject fulfilling technological wastes of time in favour of productive activities that benefit themselves and humanity. At this very moment a large percentage of the brightest minds in the world are working on getting people to click on internet ads and building products that monetize well but are honestly a net loss to humankind.

While a subset of humanity definitely can become addicted to such 'artificial' stimuli -- porn, videogames, webcam, television, books, drugs, etc -- most of us do not.

Most people who play videogames still go to work and make things. Most people who consume porn still seek out physical mates. Most people who have done opium still seek out life and pleasures beyond the artificial orgasmic haze of the high. Most people who smoke pot still go about life like the rest of us. And more to the point: most people who interact with computers do not do so the way that HN readers do.

Have we learned nothing from the rise of "social" software? Most people are not like us. They value technology based on how useful it is in helping them perform tasks in the real world. Most of them don't sit on Facebook all day and artificially interact. They coordinate parties and playdates, buy concert tickets and share the results of their real world interactions. Hell, a big chunk of the latest batch of popular social apps are predicated on using technology to record and socially-score real-world activities (the various photo sharing services, travel services, shop review services, location check-in services, etc).

Any argument predicated on using the behavior of addicts as predictive of the behavior of the wider public is fundamentally flawed. And particularly so, when it comes to assumptions that the wider public will ever use computers in ways that seem inevitable and obvious to geeks.

>>Most people who play videogames still go to work and make things. Most people who consume porn still seek out physical mates. Most people who have done opium still seek out life and pleasures beyond the artificial orgasmic haze of the high. Most people who smoke pot still go about life like the rest of us. And more to the point: most people who interact with computers do not do so the way that HN readers do.

This is a salient point. To piggyback on your mention of marijuana, the article's core argument is not that dissimilar from the near-apocalyptic predictions made in anti-drug campaigns.

I think a fundamental assumption on which this article is based is that we just haven't found that perfect, reality-effacing high yet. It's essentially a prohibitionist message looking to the horizon rather than the present.

"Oh, so all-that-other-stuff hasn't annihilated society... but the next-big-thing totally will!"

I too am surprised. In my mind, it has long been inevitable that - at the very least - the wealthy population of the planet will retreat into a virtual world, ala "The Matrix".

It's not just the benefits of instant, unlimited sensory gratification (which are IMMENSE - real-world physical attraction and location no longer becomes an issue for finding partners, you can enjoy any activity at any time which in the past could cost you enormously in terms of money and/or risk: in a virtual world there's no spread of diseases if you're not in physical contact with people, no risk of death driving @ 140mph, etc. which also means a reduction in health costs, etc.).

It's simply far more efficient in many ways: why physically travel to work when you can have virtual meetings, offices, etc.? You could attend university anywhere in the world regardless of your location. Doctors could operate remotely where it's physically cheaper to live. Sitting at home all day (or in a Matrix farm) also means using less energy so you eat the bare minimum, don't need to own a car, don't need a big house with a garden, etc. On a larger scale, how useful will e.g. war become as the demand for physical resources falls? The efficiencies are mind-blowing; it is globalization of both personal and economic activities and human resource allocation without the physical constraints.

Ironically enough, in the same vein as your comment, I would expect people on HN are more likely to be fans of such an extreme form of telecommuting, telelearning, etc.

Not that I'm not suggesting all of this is good or healthy. Who knows what the psychological or physical effects of such a lifestyle will be.

Speculating further: At that point, why bother exploring the universe? Or more interesting: to what extent would wealth exist? It seems people would only need enough wealth to maintain their physical bodies and access to the planetary supercomputer. Accumulating more wealth could prove very difficult since classical economics falls apart in a virtual world where supply can become potentially unlimited over time. Would it be possible to accumulate sufficient "real" wealth to construct devices capable of finding and communicating with aliens, and/or visiting them? Would industries capable of building such devices even exist after everybody moves into the matrix after a few thousand years? All in all, once civilization reaches a particular level of technological development, it seems like there's a very small window where anybody will see benefit to OR have the resources to communicate with aliens.

I generally agree with the premise that the wealthy (ie most of the developed world) are retreating into stimulation of their pleasure centres, aided and abetted by an industries which are increasingly focused upon satisfying this. And I also agree that it's a real risk to the ultimate future of our species. This is hardly a new idea: Olaf Stapledon wrote in "Starmaker", in 1937, about a VR-obsessed species anaesthetizing itself into extinction.

What I find curious is that many of the <i>very</i> wealthiest are rejecting this trend in very absolute terms. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Robert Bigelow are spending their fortunes on real hardware rather than virtual reality, with the explicitly stated goal of making humanity a multiplanetary species. Other billionaires (Paul Allen, Richard Branson) are making complementary efforts, although without quite the same degree of aspirational rhetoric.

If they collectively succeed in establishing small colonies on Mars, then the initial rigours of colonial life will not allow for the kind of idle narcissism that is currently feasible for the wealthy on Earth. Whatever the fate of Earth, that will at least postpone the onset of a cultural coma for our species.

I tend to think that if this happens, then complete culture death at the hands of artificial pleasure is no longer possible. Once we're out of the deep gravity well of Earth, the marginal cost of establishing additional colonies elsewhere is very much lower; if even a very very small minority of the population keeps the spirit of evolution alive, then that will be sufficient to spread through the universe.

So, I don't really see this as a good solution for the Fermi paradox, since it seems highly improbable that EVERY civilisation would succumb to video games before becoming multi-planetary.

That's a very interesting observation. I almost wonder if their focus on physical reality is a symptom of whatever it is that makes them such good business people...

"At that point, why bother exploring the universe?"

Greg Egan's novel Diaspora has significant number of people choosing to live in fully uploaded virtual environments - the problem being that you do have to start paying attention to the outside universe when it tries to kill you by destroying the hardware running your environment:


Iain M Bank's Feersum Enjin covers some of the same ground:


Iain M Banks also has the similar concept of "subliming" in several novels:


Not to mention the construction of virtual Hells in Surface Detail:


(A truly ghastly concept).

And don't forget about his most recent book, Surface Detail, that is entirely about simulated realities for the dead.

>> At this very moment a large percentage of the brightest minds in the world are working on getting people to click on internet ads and building products that monetize well but are honestly a net loss to humankind.

Strictly speaking, it's a very small percentage of the world's brightest minds. To imply otherwise reflects a stunning amount of hubris.

If we do some very rough back of the envelope calculations :

There are roughly 1.3 million software developers in the U.S, out of a population of ~306m (0.4%).

Extrapolating that against the global population of ~7 billion, we can round up to ~30 million developers worldwide.

If we define "brightest minds" as those holding IQ scores in the 99th percentile (135+), there are 70 million people with genius level intellect.

While I don't have numbers measuring the IQ distribution across developers, I think we can safely assume that no more than 10% (3m) have an IQ in the top 1%.

Therefore, no more than 4.2% of the world's brightest minds are in fact developing software of any kind. The number can be further pared down to reflect the number of "geniuses" working on generating ad-clicks.

I could have sworn I included the financial sector in that list but obviously I did not, must have been a different comment. Not that it makes much of a difference to the point.

For a realistic calculation you would definitely have to take access to education and enough wealth to pursue some field of study into account. That certainly falls under the definition of "brightest minds" by any fair definition since IQ on it's own isn't very meaningful. I would argue that you would also want to take motivation into account as well as the opportunity/temperment to work in an organized fashion with a good team if you wanted good numbers but I never mentioned that.

Still, I don't really take issue with your ballpark numbers. Let's just assume that's close for the sake of argument.

I could have been more clear and less flippant I suppose but I certainly didn't mean "a majority", I think 5% is a large percentage.

So pedantry aside, the idea is to consider the enormous waste of talent going on at places like google, facebook, yahoo and the majority of internet or mobile app startups. Very little of that effort will have any actual long term impact (other than the relatively small team at google working on search).

I agree with your sentiment. However, I do feel the need to awkwardly defend ad-clicks on a purely philosophical level.

While not a particularly impressive raison d'étre, connecting buyers to sellers is a legitimate market function.

This lies on contrast to several revenue generation tools employed by the financial sector. For instance, high frequency trading is practically indefensible and arguably destructive.

This sadly does not change the fact that a legitimate contribution is not necessarily meaningful. I'm curious to see what the legacy of our current tech boom will be.

But by having people click on those ads, the companies that are advertising (which could be and are companies actively engaged in "physical" products) are acquiring paying customers and thus have greater ability to fund their products.

SpaceX, Boeing, GM, and Victoria Secret need revenue sources to create their 'non-virtual-reality' products, and marketing/advertising creates a revenue source. If they had a net loss from advertising they simply wouldn't do it.

That's definitely partly true. You can't argue that market capitalism doesn't move some resources to useful and productive things.

Maybe you are right and this is just a horrible inefficiency that will be corrected as soon as we figure out how to make ad optimization and ultra addictive time wasting games more efficiently.

It doesn't seem likely to me at all though, the only arguments I've seen for it are just ideological commitments to our current economic/political system.

The statement that modern global captialism is the best system for productive human endevour we have come up with and the statement that modern global capitalism and the systems it will spawn are enough to continue the upward trajectory of civilization are not the same thing.

> If they had a net loss from advertising they simply wouldn't do it.

I have little faith in the non-scientific philosophies that this kind of statement is based on given modern neuroscience and human irrationality. There are too many counter examples. We are not self interested rational actors, it's way more complicated than that.

You are right, in theory.

But I get this feeling, more and more, that big, world changing companies, don't need ads revenue. The number of visits on the internet is less relevant for them.

You picked some companies randomly, but out of them SpaceX and Boeing are not selling stuff over the internet.

There is this hunch, that what we do, doesn't matter. It's mostly self congratulatory friend/social app. Yes, you might make some money out of it from VC but it doesn't change the world.

I have some hope that the maker/3d printer/home fabrication sector could combine the profitable small startup business that we all seem to love with some progress that will actually provide substantial benefit to humanity.

I think we need a lot more time to figure out how to organize and motivate and fund large projects as well as evolve culturally before any interesting large scale space exploration will be done. SpaceX type experiments might be the first step, even if it's just a data point about what doesn't work.

> Yes, you might make some money out of it from VC but it doesn't change the world.

Sounds like a plan: make a lot of money and then spend it to turn us into a real spacefaring civilization.

That's, apparently, what Elon Musk is trying to do.

Anyone wants to join in?

The companies that buy Boeings products very much are selling stuff over the Internet.

Yes. We could argue that people would still buy tickets even if they weren't available online, since flying beats car / ship traveling even if you have to walk to a store to buy your ticket.

That's not the point.

Selling and advertising tickets online is at least as good as the offline alternative at the same cost (presumably cheaper). Otherwise, why bother?

Thus, better/cheaper online advertising -> more tickets sold -> higher demand for air planes.

There's a plausible case that advertising is a negative-sum game (in the game theory sense). If no one advertised, they wouldn't be worse off since we would still buy the stuff, but if one player defects and advertises, they gain an advantage so the Nash equilibrium involves wasting lots of money on advertising to no net gain.

The best advertising educates the receiver, rather than just trying to persuade to buy one product over another.

Advertising can thus be a positive-sum interaction.

Unfortunately, it's usually easier to target the other product, rather than promote one's own (see political advertising).

That's only because we live in a world that's built around the principles of commerce and capitalism where activities are lubricated by money. There's no reason to expect that the same system exists in alien worlds.

I'm kind of peeved at how (in talking about how the human economy has become so focused on entertainment as opposed to "real" economic activity) the author cites "IBM, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Matsushita, Samsung, Micron Technology, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba and Fujitsu" as companies that are pushing out "fake", "virtual" goods that do not contribute to human material success, and then lists Victoria's Secret as a company that makes "real things". (Victoria's Secret being, by the way a prime example of a company that bases its success on manipulating evolved behavioral mechanisms. I don't think this is wrong in the way the author does, but this does betray a certain internal inconsistency.)

The antipathy to computing is incomprehensible - I would say that the ability to have fast and high-bandwidth communications, computerized organization (calendaring, e-mail storage, etc.) and the like is more likely to contribute to human growth to the stars than (in the author's example) zippers.

and you forgot to mention most important, computer simulations witch are virtual but contributes to real. if you are going to send colonization probe to few ly distant planet you are have to have some badass simulation first.

There are so, so many things wrong with this line of arguing presented as The Solution that I'll just present my two biggest. First, as a solution to the Fermi paradox this must mean that ALL the millions of species with quintillions of individuals MUST always prefer to retreat into virtual reality AND completely forget about reality.

Most putative solutions to the Fermi paradox have this problem. It isn't enough to create a way to eliminate 99.999% of millions of civilizations, because the result is still that the galaxy would have been colonized before we achieved sentience. Self-loathing arguments are a particularly popular one, but even striking a fashionable "humans suck" pose (and make no mistake that this is a fashionable signal to send) proves nothing else about the other beings that could exist.

Secondly, it must mean that all species that so retreat must so thoroughly retreat that they completely forget about the outside universe and have no desires to increase their computational power for any reason, ever. This is a much higher level of tech than we have now, and none of the quintillions-is-probably-a-conservative-estimate must ever decide that hey, that juicy looking star system over there could be converted to another hunk of VR simulation and if I send over the hardware to do it, I can completely own the resulting VR installation.

(Personally I favor the other end of the argument; life evolves easily, assuming Earth-like conditions, and the Rare Earth hypothesis doesn't require very much hoop-jumping, new physics, or bizarre probability arguments, it just requires serious consideration of the possibility that organic life-as-we-more-or-less know it may really be the only solution, and may really not be able to arise in very many places. If you dig into the prevailing wisdom against that idea, you'll find it's more philosophically sourced than scientifically sourced, there really are a lot of good reasons to think there aren't that many available chemical regimes life could work in, and in general it's probably the most scientifically-sound Fermi paradox answer. It's just not philosophically fashionable.)

> the Rare Earth hypothesis

That's certainly the end of the Great Filter I'd prefer to be the significant one. Let's hope for no microorganisms on Mars, Titan, or Europa!

Let's imagine there are billions of planets out there (a true Sagan-esque billions) which have spawned intelligences that have achieved interstellar travel - ie. they have the ability to actively seek out and communicate with others of similar ability. Perhaps like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, except many, many of these, separated from others by various degrees of intelligence or ability.

Let's imagine there are far more planets like ours that have life - let's throw intelligence out, because that is defined by some relative standard - which has not yet reached that capability. Why would we be interesting in the scope of these far more advanced extraterrestrial societies?

Perhaps they don't reach out because it would be as fruitless as us trying to communicate with ants. Perhaps they don't care to study us because we seem about as interesting as primordial soup (ie. a nuclear holocaust might be a trait of that). Perhaps intelligences like ours are well understood, well classified in the genus of the universe, and we are about as ordinary as a barnacle on the hull of a tug boat.

Perhaps life is common (happened about a billion years ago here), but intelligent life is not (about 100,000 years ago, give or take).

Perhaps without FTL drive, it takes what explorers there might be a long time between (expensive!) visits, so sightings are rare. Without FTL, and without some kind of cold-sleep, a journey to the nearest stars pretty much takes a lifetime. A few would go, but not many.

It's too late (bedtime) for me to slap "Drake's equation" type numbers on this, but hopefully you get the idea. Maybe we've not seen anybody because they only visit any given planet every million years or so, and "they" equals 2 or 3 species local enough to even bother with that paltry schedule.

I'm not saying there is anybody out there, just that lacking pure freaking magic technology, it's a hell of a trip to make if they were. OTOH, if there is an outpost 100 light-years away, expect a visit in another 100 to 1000 years???

Primordial soup is interesting. If we had any of it to study, we'd have hundreds of postdocs studying it right now, as we have lots of labs studying all sorts of things that are not obviously useful.

Any species that didn't have intellectual curiosity about things that aren't obvious useful would probably never make it off its home planet. A lot of the math and science that underlies stuff we use every day didn't seem useful when it was developed - see, for example, the theory of computation, worked out when there were no computers, and without which there probably still wouldn't be any computers.

True, but if these super-advanced aliens are populating many planets, then we'd presumably be able to detect them somehow, irrespective of whether they care about us.

It may be electromagnetic leakage or Dyson spheres or any of a number of other signs of artifice.

Maybe our universe runs in their VM. I don't know how you can assume that we would be able to detect anyone. If they are smarter than us, they'd know how to hide.

If we run in their VM, then the Fermi paradox still applies--since physics is consistent in this VM and seemingly leads frequently to life, why wouldn't we see signs of it elsewhere in the galaxy?

If the "we're like ants/barnacles to them" theory is true, then they wouldn't bother intentionally hiding from us, because we're no threat to them. If they do it unintentionally, that would still be interesting: for example, it would probably mean that civilizations do not in fact aggressively colonize the galaxy.

maybe we <re detecting it now but cant distinguish it from random noise.

Almost everything good and bad that humans have done is due to the drive of a SMALL number of (or single) individuals (American Decl. of Independence, Soviet revolution, Indian freedom struggle, race to colonize the world, WW2, 9/11, Iraq invasion).

That is why it doesn't matter if 99.999% of the world is pre-occupied with one mindvirus or other. It's the 1-in-100k person who really takes humanity to the next level of greatness/depravity.

There will always be ambitious people for whom this world will be too small: they will colonize the next planet.

The whole "great men made history" meme is kind of discredited. It's true to a point, and it's certainly a lot more interesting (therefore easy to remember) if you say that WWII was Hitler vs. Churchill and Stalin, but it's not entirely correct.

In science, it might just be 1% of the top 1% who make the big breakthroughs - how many times did one guy make more than one really huge breakthrough? I can think of one big fuzzy-haired counterexample.

Also you often have the same thing invented multiple times independently, at the same time or in different times.

So if by some accident we missed a genius, she would probably be replaced by a bunch of merely clever people.

I wouldn't use "great", just "weird enough not to be infected by the mind virus du jour".

We depend on weird people.

On the other hand, the past decade has taught us again and again how powerful crowdsourcing can be.

It may be useful for finding ideas to earn money, but I have seen no indications that crowd sourcing is at all useful for solving complex questions, designing complex machinery, or discovering any form of truth.

Missed the whole protein folding thing, did you?

That's the exception that proves the rule.

Also, the crowd sourcing aspect of the whole protein folding thing merely involved doing the grunt work, of which there was so much the scientists that set up the parameters for it couldn't possibly do it all themselves. The true achievement was thinking up the parameters for the thousands of monkeys to twiddle, not the twiddling itself.

This strikes me as a "no true Scotsman" argument.

Never heard of that before. But yeah, after looking it up on Wikipedia, you're right.

So let me correct it - it's not the exception that proves the rule, it's yet another example of crowd sourcing contributing little of true significance.

totally agree but at 1:100,000 there are 70,000 of those people alive today.

And you have >10^6 Wikipedia articles. How many of those are biographies? 1:100000 suggests that any state-league rugby player is a great man.

Everybody talks about bandwidth as if that's some terribly important metric, but the real metric is brainwidth. Vendors are fighting tooth and nail for time on your brain.

And they're doing very well. It's very rare to pick up a device that does just one thing -- the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone. Now everything you touch is competing to take up all your braindwidth. Information is not passive any more; it's sticky. As a consumer you are not a entity who receives services from a webapp. You are a target for absorption by way of total immersion. Potential vendors can either get on board with your addiction or lose out to others who will. This is why we buy Facebook, Google, and game ads. Your brainwidth is already being sucked up. As vendors we have to go where our potential markets already are.

If you want to talk about extrapolating history, our books are full of useful examples. Time and time again people could not make the changes necessary for society to evolve so they packed up their bags and moved. You can't move any more, and lots of immersive content providers want to take your frustration and turn it into your being plugged in all day.

Who wants to go live on the moon? We can do a lot more exciting things in our own custom-designed universe. A couple hundred more years of this and we won't be going anywhere besides LEO or doing much of anything except patting ourselves on the back and telling ourselves how many important things we have right here.

And they're doing very well. It's very rare to pick up a device that does just one thing -- the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone. Now everything you touch is competing to take up all your braindwidth. Information is not passive any more; it's sticky. As a consumer you are not a entity who receives services from a webapp.

This removes human agency, and it's only true if we, as individuals, want it to be true. (I'm 28, wear a watch, and use a paper notebook (http://jseliger.com/2011/05/11/eight-years-of-writing-and-th...) in addition to having an iPhone; but the iPhone only takes up as much mental bandwidth as I let it).

My brain is not a passive entity that is "being sucked up." People either let themselves be sucked up, or they don't.

EDIT: Also, if you want an interesting exploration of some of the trends you're describing, see Neal Stephenson's "Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out,": http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/17/opinion/17stephenson.html?... .

"""This removes human agency, and it's only true if we, as individuals, want it to be true. (I'm 28, wear a watch, and use a paper notebook (http://jseliger.com/2011/05/11/eight-years-of-writing-and-th...) in addition to having an iPhone; but the iPhone only takes up as much mental bandwidth as I let it)."""

Yeah. So on top of owning an iPhone, you are also a hipster with a (trendy but useless, considering the iPhone also tells the time) watch and a notebook (it's even a Moleskine).

Way to prove the parent poster's point.

Seriously? A watch costs as little as $2 and goes on your wrist. You will never need to reach into your pocket or bag for it. It will run for months, or years, on a single battery. You will probably never drop it and break it. Unless it's stupidly expensive, you will probably never be mugged for your watch.

Anyway, Moleskine is nice but Miquel Rius notebooks have nicer grid paper options. :)

"""Seriously? A watch costs as little as $2 and goes on your wrist. You will never need to reach into your pocket or bag for it. It will run for months, or years, on a single battery. You will probably never drop it and break it. Unless it's stupidly expensive, you will probably never be mugged for your watch."""

My point was not that the watch itself was stealing his mental bandwidth, but rather hipster culture.

1) I don't know what you mean by a "hipster," or what a "hipster" is, other than that you're using the term as a slur: http://paulgraham.com/disagree.html . I also don't know what "hipster culture" means or is.

2) The original poster who I'm responding to said, "the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone [. . .]," so I'm not sure how one can be simultaneously "trendy" and part of a declining trend (that is, watch-wearing).

3) If you'd read the link, you'd know that I don't use Moleskine notebooks any more because their quality variability appears to have increased over time.

"""The original poster who I'm responding to said, "the days of the wristwatch and one-function cell-phone are gone [. . .]," so I'm not sure how one can be simultaneously "trendy" and part of a declining trend (that is, watch-wearing)."""

Hipster culture is all about celebrating declining trends as trendy. It's precisely because watch-wearing is a "declining trend" that makes the hipster wear one to stand out. A hardcore hipster would probably sport a pocket watch, but check this out: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/apr/28/casio-f-9...

""" If you'd read the link, you'd know that I don't use Moleskine notebooks any more because their quality variability appears to have increased over time."""

Spoken like a true hipster. As if a non-hipster cares to measure the "quality variability of his notebooks".

Now, you might be totally ignorant of the hipster culture, I'll give you that.

But the prevalence of things like Moleskine notebooks are precisely because of that demographic. Check: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2009/02/24/122-moleskine-not...

The watch isn't necessarily useless, if he's prone to get distracted with email and so on when he uses his iPhone to check the time.

It's a fair guess that humanity will become extinct because of problems in the narcissistic sector. It comes down to Baudrillard's "classical analysis of Disneyland" and the fact that Jon Stewart and Glenn Beck are more emotionally satisfying than actual political commentators. Put the postmodern factors together and it gets hard to believe that humans will find political solutions to the problems of the 21st century.

As for why we haven't met aliens, I think there are two more fundamental causes.

(1) In 2011 we know that many stars have planets. This should be no big surprise based on considerations of angular momentum. The trouble is that Jupiter-sized planets tend to get sucked into the accretion disks of their stars, and in the process they tend to destroy Earth-sized planets that exist in the habitable zone. Planetary systems are common, but habitable terrestrial planets are rare.

(2) Interstellar travel and communication is highly difficult. It's possible that some civilization will manage an interstellar travel event among billions of civilizations and billions of years. However, the percolation threshold for a self-sustaining and growing interstellar civilization will never be reached. (Civilizations won't establish an outpost around a secondary star and create additional colonies)

A few years ago I did an analysis of interstellar war. The obvious mode of attack is to launch a deadly bombardment against a planet before any possible counterattack. One clear conclusion was that if you launched a missile that traveled at 10% of the speed of light, it wouldn't matter much if that missile were tipped with a hydrogen bomb or not -- you just can't get enough energy from either nuclear fusion or fission to propel a starship at a reasonable speed. (If you go slow, a 1000-year generation starship would need tons of antimatter simply to keep warm.) Note that interstellar hydrogen would impact such a starship at high velocities harder than radiation from a nuclear reactor.

The corollary is that neither fusion energy nor fission energy is sufficient for interstellar propulsion

Fun off handed anecdote I heard today: a study found that people who watch Jon Colbert were more up to date on news than those who watched Fox News. No idea were it came from, could be bull shit, but not unbelievable to me.

The physicist David Deutsch makes the point that there is no real way to distinguish a consistent, convincing virtual reality from reality itself.

Therefore, there is no real moral difference between richly populating such virtual worlds (once we can construct them--we can't quite, yet) and populating actual other planets. Nick Bostrom would say that even using the word "actual" is probably wrong, since we're likely living in a simulation already.

There's a simpler (maybe too obvious) answer to the Fermi Paradox: the window of time in which it seems worthwhile to communicate with aliens or to settle the galaxy is exceedingly brief.

I was of the impression that your conclusion was the same as that of the author of the article? (And it's pretty much where I'd place my bets.)

I agree with the article that we're likely to eventually find virtual worlds more interesting and fulfilling than outer space. I do not agree that we should look down on these VRs or be alarmed or disappointed by this possibility.

Interesting point. Based on what the author of this post is saying I wonder if the average human were given the option to enter a virtual reality where they could set the parameters to whatever they want would people know the difference or even care to find out? If you could have any beautiful woman you want, a great body, and great financials who would want to leave that fantasy?

One obstacle might be that by entering the VR, you'd be ceding a lot of control to the people "outside" your reality--they might gain physical advantage over you or hack your VR.

But if that concern could be definitively answered--and I think it could--then quite possibly the VR is a good move. Maybe any preference for our outside, non-simulative reality will in time be seen as narrow-minded chauvinism.

The main obstacle for me seems to be that by entering the VR, you're actually getting your chances to reproduce down to exactly zero. By the way, a good book on this subject is "the machine stops" from the early 1900s...

If that is a priority, you can reproduce manifoldly inside the VR. Why disprefer those children? It's possible to make the simulation run as long in subjective time as the outside universe.

Thanks for the book tip. For curious others: The Machine Stops, a story by E. M. Forster: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

There's gotta be a paradigm shift at some point where we start seeing VR not as an illusion but simply more living space.

Finding earth (or another earth-like planet with people) would be like finding a particular particle of sand on a beach.

The universe is mind numbingly big - try to imagine how big and then quadruple that size and you are still wrong.

Just the observable universe is nearly 50 BILLION lightyears in each direction (there could be more and it's expanding).

(remember the deficit/debt demonstrations of "million" vs "billion")

We are trying to observe the equal of the other side of the world with optical and radio telescopes but essentially the best observations we can make out are just at the range of the doorframe to our home.

What if there is other human-like life but it's a million lightyears away - it's all but useless to us to even find out, they are long gone by the time their light and radiowaves ever get to us (and visa-versa). Now realize the nearest other galaxies are SEVERAL million lightyears away.

Try this on for size http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BjHvwSvpOw

We don't need to find a particular grain of sand, we just need to find a grain of sand that's a particular shape or color. How rare such grains are is the big question. Everything we know tells us that they should be everywhere, but they aren't.

We can see for 93^h^h47 billion light years in all directions. That's a pretty big ball-o-space. Plenty to observe.

And if we find ETI, even at distances that preclude ever interacting with them, it will still be the most amazing thing to ever happen in all of human history.

What if we are not just observing the wrong places but the wrong time.

Our observations are millions of years old.

They are millions of light years away, but there is no absolute time frame in which our observations could be called "old" or "new". You can choose to think of far away things as "the past", if you like. But the point is, that doesn't make it any less cool.

EDIT: Actually, I missed your point, which was that far away things have less history in which intelligence could evolve. This is true, but the amount of history we can observe is still staggeringly large. Far too big to eliminate the paradox.

You only have to miss the right time period by several thousand years to miss signs of (intelligent) life.

Someone remotely viewing earth with just a 10k year delay would not be able to measure signs of human life.

They would see exactly what we see elsewhere - nice possibly life-supporting planets, but no signs of any functionality.

Now realize we aren't just missing 10k years but 1000k years (at best).

Nit: 47 billion light-years in all directions; 93 billion light years is the diameter.

Organic life can be detected in the emission spectrum of even the most distant objects, without establishing any contact. In fact we can theoretically detect life at very early stages. But we haven't detected anything yet, which makes the Fermi paradox even more valid (and chilling).

The observations we are making are millions of years old - what if in 100k years those same analysis we do now suddenly show life.

We are not just looking at the wrong places, we are looking at the wrong times.

Kind of a bummer. I was expecting the article to be about the density of the universe and the speed of light and whatnot. Instead we've got alien porn to blame. Which, if I know anything about aliens, should be reaching us in the next decade or so.


oooo, and I just thought of somethng. Or, they got so advanced that they realized they probably shouldn't alert the rest of the damn galaxy to their presence. Given how the human mind seems to be so accepting of things it doesn't understand.

Or they go so advanced they were able to intercept and snuff out all that alien porn before it got to us.

Maybe even an intergalactic SOPA is in place!

My theory is that we haven't met aliens yet because the aliens have been to earth sereptitiously, have taken some DNA samples, and have decided there's nothing to be gained from making contact with us. They've told everyone else in the universe that the planet is hostile and not particularly technologically developed. They have also noted that it is not a threat just as long as they don't get advanced space travel technology. The best way to keep them from getting advanced space travel technology is to not communicate with them and thus leave them to their own devices. Additionally, based on the alien's models of planetary development, they have come to the conclusion that our civilization will not develop decent space travel before it collapses due to natural resource depletion.

The universe is a big place. There are probably trillions of habitable planets. We're just not that special. Maybe one day, if we somehow become "worth it", they'll stop by.

Parent's link is worth reading for a laugh.

Ha ha only serious? "Mostly harmless" as it says in the guide...

That's true. I mean, what if our 5 senses just can't pick up on other, radically different types of life. And whatever life forms may have visited us may not have the senses to pick up that we're here.

you must read HHGG if you haven't already

Has anyone thought about this...astronauts release their waste into space. There's bacteria that gets frozen almost as soon as it leaves the ship/space station right? Couldn't it stay preserved until it lands on a distant planet that hasn't formed an atmosphere and be the seeds for life on infant planets? I'm no physicist (or scientist, period), but it's just a question that's been bugging me for a while.

Sort of like panspermia? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panspermia

Woah thats really similar. That's the problem with the internet: it makes you feel like nothing you think of is original. Thanks for the link btw.

Unless you're really special nothing you think of is original. I'm not saying you're not special though. :)

Hahaha thanks. I read somewhere that at the same time you think of a grand new idea, 10 people somewhere in the world will also have the same idea. I doubt that's always true, but it's pretty amazing nonetheless.

Heh, that is depressingly likely given the numbers. There must be a german word for the appreciation of a clever/accurate but depressing idea.

Twas ever thus. Look at how many great inventions and discoveries throughout history were arrived at independently and then argued for the bragging rights, before it became such a priority to share your ideas. Calculus and television spring immediately to mind, but there are many others.

Weltschmerz comes close.

That is an excellent word and concept, thank you.

But it lacks the appreciation of how interesting the depressing observation is.

Weltschmerzfreude seems like it's just a contradiction (also I know almost no german at all so it's likely just gibberish) but it doesn't sound bad.

Interesting thought!

Something along similar lines:


Haha reminds me of "every sperm is sacred"

At some point in the article he states:

Evolution simply could never have anticipated...

Evolution, by definition, doesn't anticipate anything. It's disappointing to see a university professor writing on evolution who seemingly doesn't even understand the evolutionary process.

I'm sorry but this is a way of speaking that doesn't necessarily imply he believes in an evolution capable of cognition. It's a short hand for saying "humans evolved in situations so unlike the situation they have today, that the traits they evolved are no longer best-suited for survival in today's world"

That same paragraph stuck out for me as well.

I would give the benefit of the doubt for the sentence the GP quoted, but then the author actually tries to justify the fact that evolution couldn't have computed it even if it wanted to:

"Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction"

Now that's just begging for people to completely misunderstand how evolution works.

I'm even more sorry that this way of speaking is so utterly prevalent in science reporting.

That, plus the tendency of people from other specialties cough astrophysicists especially cough to wax lyrical and ascribe amazing powers to 'evolution' and the casual observer would be entirely forgiven for thinking that anyone talking about "intelligent design" must be talking about evolution and that those are simply two terms for the same thing.

Before you start flaming me, my issue is not with Science! but it is with how Science! is reported on, which involves both watering down the message (turning everything into a Kipling-esque "Just so story"), and gussying up the message to make it seem more important (gotta get that funding somehow).

It betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the traits related to cognition. Our "selfish genes" do not tell us how to think; instead cognition represents a delegation of authority from the genes to the carrier. We are attracted to porn, yes, but we are also aware that we are attracted to porn. Thus as some citizens descended into opium stupor, others observed that descent and made conscious choices to avoid it. As a result, human society did not devolve into one big opium den. Just like it will not devolve into one big World of Warcraft game.

The real reason we have not heard from aliens is that the distances are physically impossible to bridge.

Honestly if the human race discovered a less evolved colony on the moon, I wouldn't want to know what we would end up doing to them. Most likely Nike would figure out a way to put them in cages and force them to make shoes every day. I think the reason why we fear aliens is because its a reflection of what we know we would likely end up doing to a lesser lifeform.

Oddly enough, I think its an optimistic outcome if we play video games and never meet aliens in that if they function like us, it will be either us exploiting them or them exploiting us unless we amazingly are right on par with each other. Sorry to be so pessimistic, its just that we have consistently failed pretty hard as a race in how we treat other creatures and the environment.

I think the most likely answer is either: a) Same reason we don't SMS other species on earth - we're first, and if anyone else catches up it'll be a long time from now

b) We can't begin to conceive of the sort of technological advances achieved by other lifeforms. The fermi paradox rests on probabilities accumulated over billions of years, but ignores how briefly human intelligence has existed - the written word is only a few thousand years old. If your species advances to the point of being able comprehend and control all of reality, is there much point in having endlessly bigger LCDs powered by your awesome discworld, built by your giant starfleet? Is our faith in the inevitability of endless growth and expansion not itself a sort of primitive cargo cult?

If the entire process of going from advanced social being with primitive tools and language to a post-physical singularity takes on average 50,000 years, the drake equation need changing

Good point, something that I have not contemplated before. It makes sense: If we evolve to the point where we can control reality, why would we be concerned with expanding and travelling the universe?

It is almost like saying: "You can do anything and become what you want to become." What do you choose?

The most useful hypothesis: we are the first, and the galaxy is ours for taking. Now let's get back to work.

This is completely legitimate, right? There must be a most advanced civilization. Why can't we be it?

Yes, that's possible. It just goes against the Copernican Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copernican_principle), and that's why many people are not happy with that explanation.

Well... Someone always wins the lottery.

You can also twist it around: if we were the first ones, what would we see?

One can also imagine the window between the dawn of technology and becoming undetectable is short enough the odds of finding a peer are very small.

There's also Anthropic Principle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle) which states pretty much the opposite to what the Copernican says.

So a more advanced civilization would have a better spot in the Universe? I don't get your point.

Half way through the article I was in a bit of agreement with the writer about how our need for immediate gratification is so easily satisfied by the virtual supplements we get everyday and how it weighs us down overall as a society of humans; but all of a sudden he moves to assumes that people who are classified as religious fundamentalists, for some reason, seem to have figured it all out! Clearly the author is contradicting himself here. It is very unlikely (I would say impossible, but there's always an outlier somewhere) that someone who happens to be a religious fundamentalist would also not have delusions of "fitness-faking". What a terrible end to an article that could have been such an awesome topic of discussion.

Not credible, because if even a few people stay away from futuristic, all consuming super-porn, and can convince their kids to do the same, then those people will come to predominate, and the super-porn becomes irrelevant. There are already people who would consciously eschew any form of entertainment that would prevent reproduction - the Amish would ban it within their communities for sure.

On the other hand, if just one person with control of an adequate supply of nuclear weapons (or other super-weapons, possibly including ones that haven't been imagined yet) decides to wipe out humanity, he stands a good chance of succeeding. This seems much more plausible than mass suicide via entertainment.

But is it likely that there would be enough people (with never a dip large enough to spell disaster) who live on the razor thin edge of rejecting the technology that leads to dead ends hundreds of years later but still push forward the technology necessary for advancement? Is there a stable organization that can do this?

I agree that violent distruction is more likely now, but I think that that is probably an easier problem to solve than this one.

Some more options:

-Life is around but it's nowhere near our way of thinking and functioning. Maybe it's a gas cloud which takes a billion years to "think" a single thought. Who's to say that an alien lifeform's "neocortex" and utility function is going to be anything but incomprehensible to us? (Counter-argument: certain patterns repeat independently in nature, for instance I read somewhere that the design pattern for the eye has been created independently by evolution like 40 times).

-Life is around and we've already made contact with it (ie UFOs).

-Life is out there but it's consciously avoiding us (Prime Directive-style).

I think it is because the Drake equation[1] over-estimates the chances of intelligent life forming.

A common average result for the Drake equation is 10,000 habitable planets capable of sending signals in our universe. But if you look at the equation and estimates they are a bit optimistic.

If you take fℓ from the equation, I don't think simply being of the right composition in the habitable zone is enough. The Earth formed life because of the moon, because we had been shiften off our axis which formed seasons, because we were made of enough iron to form a magnetic field, and we just happen to form a moon which protected the Earth from space debris and gave us tides (in short, the moon and magnetic field are essential to life on Earth, as well as the composition of the planet).

That is a lot of 'ifs' to add to the equation, which brings the chances of a planet even in the habitable zone having the same life-bearing characteristics as earth much, much lower. Even with thousands of planets in the habitable zone the chances of finding one that has a magnetic field, the right temperature, a moon, etc. are very very slim and when multiplied back into the Drake equation brings the result back to lower than 1 - meaning we are a complete fluke.

There is also the time portion of the equation. The Earth is 4.6B years old, and we have been capable of sending signals for only 100 years of that time. Even if our civilization survives for another 10,000 years it is still 10,000 years divided into 4.6B years - so even with the complete fluke of an Earth-like planet being created in a habitable zone takes place, we are still 1 in 460,000 chance of being around at the same time. If Drake gives us 10,000 possible habitable planets with life, the 1 in 460,000 factor of time brings it back to a lot less than 1 again.

I believe that Keppler will continue finding planets in the habitable zone, but they will look more like Mars and Venus than anything like Earth.

I find it interesting that the Drake equation, created to show that there must be other intelligent life, can today be used to show that we are very unique when it is adapted with what we know today. [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation#The_equation

The problem with the Drake equation is the huge uncertainty in the factors. I propose instead that we get someone at Microsoft to estimate the number of piano movers in the universe and estimate from there.

Exactly. As I've read elsewhere in some SF book, what separates us from aliens isn't so much space than time.

It's also possible that we were one of the first to develop intelligence, within our light-sphere, that is since the minimum time needed from the big bang to develop intelligence (whatever that is). E.g. let's say you need 12 billion years just to get to the point where you might be able have the environment needed to make planets. Then in our 2-billion year light sphere we may be one of the first to develop intelligence. That is, if it's very rare to develop intelligence.

The answer is much more simple. Let us assume that every 1000 solar systems has one system with intelligent life on it.

#1 given normal known methods of space travel, it would take generations to reach the nearest planet possibly containing life.

#2 given time, there is a VERY small possibility that when we arrive at that planet it has intelligent life. Intelligent life may have died out, or it may be currently evolving. Or by the time we reach it they may have up-and-left.

#3 The chances of crashing into another alien vessel in space is almost 0. Infinitely improbable. Therefore to actually meet another alien vessel, aliens must have traveled to the same planet at the same time as us. Given the vast distances this is highly unlikely.

#4 We don't have "lifesign" scanners like in star trek. Determining that a planet has advanced technology would mean going to the dark side and looking for lights. If the culture is not yet advanced enough, then we won't find enough of it to be visible from space.

#5 while talking about #4, atmospheric conditions may make it very difficult to see anything on the surface.

#6 given all above, what is the probability that a race of aliens got to earth (within the last 300 years)? Otherwise earth would look like a habitable planet, but no sign of advanced intelligent life. I'd say I have a higher chance of winning every lottery in the world on the same day.

A terrible article. So let's say something more interesting. There are several important ideas intertwined together around the Fermi Paradox:

1) Fermi Paradox

Why haven't we seen any evidence in the observable universe of megascale activities and exponential growth comparable to those that we know that our descendants will be capable of, and fairly soon?


2) The Outer Bounds of the Possible

Can we convert our entire future light cone into computronium? There seems to be no physical laws to prevent that outcome, and absent being stopped soon, the tiny fraction of our machine descendants to go all out for self-replication and expansion will set this program in motion.

3) The Great Filter

Assuming we're in base reality and everything out there is running much as our present physics understands it to run, are we past the barrier that stops intelligences from converting the observable universe into computronium? Or not?


4) The Simulation Argument

Or are we simulations, alone in our virtual machine?



All these are linked via this rather depressing line of thought:

"A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true:

- The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;

- The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;

- The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation."


The bottom line is that there appears to be a large gap in our understanding of the evolution of intelligence in the universe. By all counts, our galaxy should have many civilizations across its span, and by all counts if they're anything like us, their most aggressive descendant factions will turn the whole galaxy into computronium in a few tens of millions of years. But we don't see even the first glimmers of any such thing.

I like reading about the rapture of the nerds as much as the next guy but you are calling this article terrible and then stacking a few layers of conjecture on top of each other and treating it as fact.

It is simply way way too early for us to assume that there are hard to reach limits to computation. For all we know there could be problems that need to be solved that are not realistically solved using computation or the problems get exponentially more complex faster than their solutions exponentially increase our computing ability or the necessary complexity of the systems increases too quickly to manage.

(no, waving a "true AI" magic wand doesn't make these disappear, it buries them in another layer of conjecture)

We can't even solve the damned P vs NP problem yet!

> Can we convert our entire future

> light cone into computronium? There

> seems to be no physical laws to prevent

> that outcome

Let me rephrase that in a more scientific way: No one has disproved that this is impossible. It's a bit of cheat to phrase it this way when we don't even know what those physical laws would look like so have no idea of whether or not we know of any laws that would prevent that outcome.

There is only one definitely true thing about these types of predictions, they are interesting, inspiring, necessary and a few generations from now they will be looked at the same way we look at the rocket pack/floating city/flying car predictions of previous generations (which is the same way they looked at the previous futurist predictions and so on)

Your post seems to boil down to "there are reasons why it is impossible to build a Dyson sphere out of computing substrate from the materials that surround the average star" - which is a fairly extraordinary claim at this point. Everything we know about matter and energy says that this is in fact possible, and a weight of rigorous work exists to show that this is the case.

Remember that we're talking about timescales of millions of years here.

I certainly didn't mean to imply there are reasons it's impossible, it's just a meaningless.

My point was that first you would have to define what computronium actually is before you can comment on what physical laws apply. It might also be useful to wait until we understand the physical laws that would apply at that scale, which we don't.

There are no physical laws that make rocket packs or flying cities impossible either, we just discovered that some aspects are either impractical or we just found a better solution to the same problems.

I don't want to sound like I think these kinds of thought experiments are in any way bad, I love them.

The best case scenario is that our thought experiments now are like davinci's helicopters. Ridiculous because of our ignorance of the natural world but still extraordinarily clever and farsighted. A more likely case is that they are downright stupid because of that same ignorance.

The opinion that an idea we've had or could understand is anything like what construction projects with timescales of millions of years will look like is the silliest kind of hubris. Especially when you start arguing over physical laws of imaginary vaguely defined substances.

Put more simply, either we're A) doomed, B) boring!, or C) in the Matrix.

Merry Christmas.

Wow, thanks for links 3 and 4. I bet just about everyone here has had a similar idea to the the "Simulation Argument." I could never find any official name for it though.

How hilarious would that be if reality was in fact a simulation and the ones watching us get the biggest kick out of everyone trying to figure out why we're here. I guess that assumes that the creators of this simulation have a sense of humor.

Check this article out for more on simulation argument:


Regarding #2, there is also the possibility that if a civilization converted its light cone into computronium, we would not notice. Maybe because they used exotic matter as a substrate and that matter did not strongly interact with the rest of the universe. Or maybe they figured out how to "escape" this universe by creating a computer that can perform and infinite amount of computation without affecting its surroundings. This idea is explored in Greg Egan's Permutation City where the main plot involves creating a new pocket universe for simulated beings with access to an infinite amount of computation but can be bootstrapped on a normal computer.

> the main plot involves ... simulated beings ... bootstrapped on a normal computer.

You might want to re-read that short story. It involved real people and was bootstrapped by very rare real people.

Are you calling it a "terrible article" because the author talks about other things than you would have, or because it's not rigorous? The first is not much of a criticism, and the second is rife in your comment.

"megascale activities and exponential growth ... we know that our descendants will be capable of".

Really? You know the future? Citation needed, at the very least.

Care to explain what's terrible about it?

It claims aliens haven't been in touch in the short history we'd recognise them because they're busy eating pizza and playing World of Warcraft.

Do you find it a plausible article?

Since the aliens are only brought in for comedic effect, yes, I find it a plausible article about the effects of entertainment on progress.

Agreed on it being a terrible article. Way too many 'clever' turns of phrase. Why make a statement when you can juxtapose some pop culture references? Seems much more of an act of self indulgence than the condemning of one...

But as for your list I think you left out the Occam's razor option:

5) Rare earth hypothesis


Also space is really BIG, and no one can go faster than light.

BIG space doesn't solve the exponentially-reproducing colonist issue though...

Plus, if an exponentially-reproducing civilization appeared even in a neighboring galaxy a couple million years ago, we'd probably be able to notice something very strange.

If it appeared in this galaxy, we'd probably never have evolved.

they did, they just built it out of dark matter :p

Possible answer: First nearly every civilization that mastered, say, radio, did it millions of years ago. Second, nearly every such civilization long ago found much better means of communications than we know about. Third, they realize that trying to communicate via radio is silly and use much better means we don't know about. Net, they are out there and communicating, but we don't hear them and they don't hear us or bother with us. To hear us, they would have to be within 100 light years, and that's not far enough to cover many candidate planets.

That is my preferred explanation as well. A caveman would not notice a WiFi signal even if it was blasting right through the cave; he would probably be looking for smoke signals or something.

Also, a huge intelligence gap makes communication uninteresting. e.g. we know a little bit about how ants communicate via pheromones, but we're not trying to send "messages" to them; what would it possibly be useful to say?

"Stay the hell out of my kitchen" comes to mind. :)

> First nearly every civilization that mastered, say, radio, did it millions of years ago

So then we'd expect to receive signals from civilizations that are a few million light years away. Yet we don't see those signals.

We're too young a civilization to be spotted by other life forms (as you said, they'd have to be within a 100 light years or so). But when we look at space in any direction it looks dead. Just background radiation.

A point in my guess is that an old civilization won't be trying to use radio to communicate with us and will be using something better than radio we don't know about. Next, for communications over 1000 light years with just radio, there can be some issues of signal to noise ratio!

Sure, we can see a star 1000 light years away, a galaxy 1 billion light years away, and a quasar 10 billion light years away, but a signal from a planet over 1000 light years away? Besides, 1000 light years may not be far enough to cover many planets transmitting. Our galaxy is, what, 100,000 light years across? So, just for our galaxy, might want to think about distances of 50,000 light years or so. The nearest ordinary galaxy is the one in Andromeda, and that's about 1.5 million light years away.

Those are long distances for a radio signal from a planet.

"A point in my guess is that an old civilization won't be trying to use radio to communicate with us and will be using something better than radio we don't know about."

While a popular conjecture in this recurring debate, over the decades we've built up an awful lot of evidence that there really is no better mechanism for distance communication than electromagnetic radiation. We're running out of places for such putatively better mechanisms to hide.

I dislike this line of argument in the modern time, because it conflates two discussions, "what we scientifically know about the universe", and "could conceivable be true even though we have no evidence for our conjectures". While the second may be superficially more fun, it's ultimately a waste of time for any sort of serious discussion because you can hypothesize anything you want. It's content-free, despite the haze of words you can throw up. The first is much more interesting, and while 50 years ago one could still hypothesize better communication mechanisms, I think the argument when used in a serious discussion is out of date. We can name some non-EM communication mechanisms (neutrino beams, for instance), but they all suck horribly by comparison.

That we don't know everything is scientifically rock solid!

Your point is mostly that the stuff we don't know is bad science; I agree.

Still, this thread is to try to answer the question, where is ET?

Historically it would have been better to assume that there was stuff unknown that was better as an explanation than the stuff we did know, going WAY back: The Earth is a ball riding on the back of a turtle? We understood balls and turtles but not gravity of spheres! The earth is a ball held up by Hercules? Similar. To keep the sun moving across the sky we have to pour blood on this special rock? The planets are from wheels rolling in wheels? The stars are light coming through holes in ths sky? The sun is a fire based on coal? The Milky Way is all of the universe? The universe is expanding so there are just three cases, (1) keep expanding but more and more slowly, (2) stop expanding and reach 'steady state', (3) quit expanding and contract into a big crunch. It was ALL wrong! And in all cases the right answer was from things we didn't know yet!

For "We're running out of places for such putatively better mechanisms to hide". Ah, it's always been such! Where was Newton going to look for a solution to the orbit of Mercury? Where was Newton going to look for why he couldn't make gold with chemical reactions? The big bang seems to have things moving faster than the speed of light; where to look? We're not getting the right flow rate of neutrinos from the sun; where to look? Essentially all life on earth is just from DNA; so where to look for the reason there is no other mechanism?

But just now we have at least two biggie places to look: Dark matter and dark energy. About both, we don't have hardly a clue. We are unsure about the Higgs field. We haven't unified gravity. We haven't detected gravitational waves. We're unsure about why galaxies have black holes at their centers. There remain questiona about the 'size' of our universe, especially given the evidence about the flatness of the geometry. We're really mixed up about EPR.

But not all is lost! Some of the new telescopes on the way into orbit are amazing, maybe count the hairs on the back of ETs head! Maybe!

So, why haven't we heard from ET? My guess, stated as just a guess, is that ET communicates by means we don't understand yet. Is this answer solid science? Nope! Might it be correct? Yup! Is there some historical, circumstantial evidence for it? Yup. Are we still in the dark? Yup.

I just want you to be clear on the fact that you are deliberately choosing to leave science behind and have entered the realm of science fiction. It used to be a lot more sensible to speculate that way, but the thing is, if there is some 'mysterious' way to communicate we can say with great confidence that it probably isn't useful from an engineering standpoint.

"Dark matter and dark energy."

We aren't as ignorant about them as you might think. For them to be useful for communication would require them to also not have the properties that they appear to have.

This fashionable claiming of extreme ignorance isn't quite as silly as the fashionable affectation of self-species-loathing in this debate, but it's only slightly more sensible...

... of course, part of it is that few people have learned enough math or the relevant science to actually understand just how thoroughly, for instance, FTL really isn't going to happen, or understand enough information theory to understand why communication channels must actually have certain properties to be useful, regardless of their form.

> I just want you to be clear on the fact that you are deliberately choosing to leave science behind and have entered the realm of science fiction.

Not really: I'm guessing. Or in more erudite terms, I'm conjecturing.

You seem to be saying that science is what is all wrapped up and solid and that anything else is "science fiction". That's a bit rigid! Also that view would keep us from ever discussing the unknown before it becomes known, and science is a long march through millions of small and dozens of huge cases of the unknown becoming known.

Indeed, if read Einstein's special relativity paper, it reads like conjecture or guessing. That is, when he wrote the paper it was not at all clear that the Lorentz transformation had any physical reality. That paper became accepted as the real physics only later.

There's no solid proof that we can't go faster than light (FTL), and I have much more than enough math and plenty of science to have seen the arguments.

Sure, for any particle with ordinary mass as we know it, as it goes faster through space and approaches light speed, its mass increases and at the speed of light would be infinitely large. Right. So, for that case, FTL would be impossible.

But we don't really know the deeper mechanism for this mass increase. Thus we are like someone in the 18th century saying that travel faster than 60 MPH would be impossible because no horse could move its legs fast enough. That is, once we understand the deeper mechanism that establishes the speed of light speed limit, maybe we could find a way around the mechanism and the limit. The mechanism seems likely connected with the Higgs field, and we don't understand that very well yet.

E.g., we know so little about dark matter we can't be very sure it can't go faster than the speed of light.

For dark energy, we are assuming conservation of energy much as we understand it, estimating the energy of dark energy, assuming that E = mc^2 also applies there, assuming that how matter and energy curve space in general relativity continues to apply, and then concluding the huge mass of dark energy. That's a lot of assumptions from extrapolations. We're assuming that what we see for ordinary matter in accelerators applies to dark energy; that's a GUESS.

So, in science we need to be able to talk about possibilities not yet established. Such "talk" is not the best science, but it's also not "science fiction".

I wish this had been a root level comment (so it would be more visible). I think this is by far the most plausible explanation especially if you think about human history and technology differences.

Imagine our current spy agencies with bleeding edge technology spying on the Romans. Its only a two thousand year difference, but there's absolutely no way they could detect our signals and/or equipment (unless we made a serious mistake).

It seems entirely reasonable that another civilization may be tens of thousands of years ahead of us in technological advancement. If you consider the increasing growth rate of technological advancement, its easy to see your explanation.

The issue is not radio waves--it's Dyson spheres (look it up). It does not take very long at all for a space-faring civilization to advance to such a point that it's artifacts would be (spectrographically) visible from our telescopes today.

It doesn't have to be Dyson spheres either. A large object moving near the speed of light through the interstellar medium would give off one of a few very specific and very strong spectral lines. Now there hasn't been a concerted effort to look for interstellar travelers, but nevertheless in all our years of searching such oddities haven't shown up.

> "visible from our telescopes today."

Our nearest other star is 4 light years away. 1000 light years away may still not cover many planets good for ET to colonize. But for us now to see evidence of a colony on a planet 1000 light years away or more would be TOUGH.

Note: The planet hunters mostly don't actually see the planets but just shadows or evidence in star wobbles, etc.

But we are putting up some new telescopes with some astounding resolution, etc.

But if they're so advanced, they probably still have radio receivers somewhere though. They should be able to receive our signals and reply with some sort of super advanced method that appears as radio waves so that we can receive them, but that travel much faster so it doesn't take a thousand years to reach us.

I like the idea that these advanced civilizations are actually all around us and just don't interact with us at all because we are too stupid/too boring/not ready/etc.

Yeah kind of like how bacteria don't know they're under a microscope.

Consider your analogy stolen for future use!

They're all down there thinking "why aren't there any alien bacteria sending us some chemical messages already? It's clearly the best way to communicate"

H. G. Wells' analogy actually.

I love Wells. In what book might I find such analogy?

War of the worlds. Right on the first page.

Then we presume that all these advanced civilizations are somehow living peacefully together AND that they all agree not to mess with earth. That's extraordinarily unlikely. Evolution isn't good at producing life forms that peacefully co-exist.

Maybe their governments cut the funding.

> they probably still have radio receivers somewhere though

Do you still have a working analog TV set? A shortwave radio?

While that's certainly 'possible' it doesn't seem particularly logical.

Why would "nearly every" intelligent civilization have evolved millions of years before ours?

Let's see: We've been okay with radio for less than 200 years so far. The earth was formed ballpark 4.5 billion years ago. The big bang was about 13.7 billion years ago.

Assume that to get a civilization need a planet and, thus, elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. Those heavier elements are created in big stars that supernova, that is, have their cores collapse under gravity and blow off their outer layers where during the explosion all the heavier elements in the periodic table are created by fusing together lighter elements. So to get a planet, have to have a star form, burn out, and supernova. So, assume that are getting candidate planets 3.7 billion years after the big bang. Then have been forming candidate planets for 10 billion years.

Now take the planets that have achieved mastry of radio (i.e., working with photons from 60 Hz up to gamma rays). Take the date when they first made this progress with radio. Take the distribution of those dates over the planets. That distribution is 'concentrated' on the last 10 billion years. Now in that distribution spread out over 10 billion years, what is the probability mass of the last million years? It's TINY. Maybe it's 0.01%. Then 99.99% of the civilizations that mastered radio did it over one million years ago and, thus, are a million years or more ahead of us. Done.


Article assumes that humans aren't reproducing, when in-fact, there are more humans today then yesterday, and will be more in the future than there are today.

To advance as a species, we don't need everyone in the species to advance, just a select few who take everyone with them as they discover new things.

He rather defeats his point at the last by pointing out that subcultures that specifically deny artificial or damaging fitness indicators would then take over. It seems unlikely that some few out of billions wouldn't make a different choice, and pass that choice on to their children.

There is this assumption that the ambition of humanity should be to physically expand far into space. But why exactly? Spanning large distances isn't a very interesting goal per se. We will learn a lot of cosmology and physics in the process, but I would imagine that once you've seen a few thousand stars, nebulae, and black holes up close, you've pretty much seen them all.

The idea of building a giant computer (or turning into one) seems a lot more interesting. If that's what we're doing, then those people making social networks and video games are on the right track. In this case, we probably wouldn't expand physically until we run out of energy for computation, and our own sun has enough of that to last us a long time.

Exactly. Disappointing how a professor of psychology seems so intolerant. Curiosity isn't a universal value; that seems to be the fallacy.

I thought Max Tegmark's commentary on why we haven't discovered extraterrestrial life yet was reasonable: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GctnYAYcMhI

Basically he purposes that there is either a barrier somewhere before our point of biological progress or after; as he explains in the video, the desired reality is that we have already surpassed that barrier. He reasons that space travel is a simple engineering challenge compared to evolving intelligent life on the cosmological scale, so there's less reason to believe the barrier lies after our point of progress.

Detection at a distance is not that easy. The primitive analog radio signals we used until about 1995 are easy to recognize, because they are so simple. The digital, encoded, encrypted signals we use today are much more difficult to distinguish from naturally occurring signals. They tend to be more efficient and to vanish into noise much more quickly. So in our case, the time window during which we were visible in space was about 25 to 30 years. We only recently became capable of detecting the light of entire planets, what makes us think we can detect their radio signals?

Regarding the more general problem: what about economics? Even if it is technologically viable for us to go into space, it is remarkably expensive. We couldn't sustain a Moon program, for all its scientific interest. So we need a pretty big return on investment to do further space exploration.

To me, there are really only two options:

1) Speed of light can't be broken, and colonization only happens by losing any practical contact with your descendants (a ping time of 1s is bad enough, think about 100 years). This reduces its economic appeal to practically zero. No return on investment at all. Not even intellectual satisfaction: you will not even know in your lifetime if your expedition was a success. So why bother?

2) Faster-than-light travel is possible, and relativity tells us it's basically equivalent to time travel. Now, just try to imagine how well our own economy would survive the availability of time travel... This is one thing that Star Trek or Star Wars or Galactica never get right, it's a problem they never consider because it's too hard to think about it. If you can jump or warp or whatever, then to the best of our knowledge, you can travel back and forth in time. How does a civilization survive this? I have no idea. A good example of singularity.

One final thought: the Fermi paradox always start with the premise that we don't see aliens. But most serious work on UFOs claims that a fraction of UFOs can't be explained away. In short, some UFOs appear to be artificial, to exhibit intelligent behavior, and to show technological capabilities well beyond our own. I'm quite surprised to write this comment at a point where there are 86 comments, and I'm the first one writing UFO. Taboo?

Why would intelligent life that can expand and conquer their part of the universe use clunky ancient inefficient technology like radio waves.

We humans have had radio for about 100 years and already we're moving on. Digital satellite radio, wired and fiber internet, cable tv, faxes (just kidding), etc.

Imagine if we could travel from our star to another on a routine basis, would we be using radio for anything?

The Universe could be teaming with life, but with our current planet bound technology and meager 200-300 years of industrial/technological innovation, how would we know?

Articles like this is why psychology is called a SOFT science.

"We have already shifted .., from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. "

While not agreeing to the article broadly, i agree to the statement above. Infact, i believe this is a desirable thing and we should see more of this in future. Past 200 years were about discovering the physics of things. The next 200 years would be about the discovering the working of "mind" which makes physics discoveries possible. Basically about neurological sciences , thought process , perception and more. This trend has barely started and we have a long way to go.

We may have a long way to go, but I don't think mind-science is being preferred just yet. I'd be surprised to find out we've ever had or are considering a $9bn project specifically to find out something narrow about the brain. (If you believe some people it will take about a quadrillion dollars to build a fully general AI but...) I also see no reason why it would take another 200 years from now to understand the brain at least as well as we currently understand fundamental physics. Especially since it's not like we're starting from scratch, and especially because science progress doesn't work so linearly.

I think we haven't met any Aliens because we're selfish, paranoid, violent, irrational, un-evolved monkeys with baseball caps and video games and nobody wants to make friends people who happily destroy their environment [and therefore themselves] because it's easier than cleaning up their mess. Our major societies are full of petty, self-serving, closed-minded assholes and i'm a perfect example of that.

The technology-enslavement theory is bunk because humans pretty much tend to self-correct over time. We start destroying the environment, somebody notices, we start pulling back on our rampant destruction enough to keep things operating. An epidemic of fat kids goes on, people start complaining, and schools begin the process of sort-of making their lunches healthier. If it got so bad that we almost destroy ourselves from too much internet use somebody would start complaining and we'd reign back on that too.

Probably the real reason we haven't met any is that they probably have agreements that they don't come down and show themselves to new planets until the new planet's peoples advance their space technology to an appropriate level; ours is still kind of dark-ages technology. Maybe after the military invests we can have a nice big boom in space travel.

> We start destroying the environment,

> somebody notices, we start pulling back

> on our rampant destruction enough to keep

> things operating

We did? That's great news. It must be recent though, so far i've only heard a lot of talk and a few useless feel good activities for guilty first worlders to distract themselves with like recycling their pop cans.

As far as self correction goes, the only thing any species has proved to be good at long term is going extinct.

Locally, rich countries are actually quite good at cleaning up. As an example, compare England today with England 150 years ago.

Unfortunately that's mostly accomplished through economic means of displacing the mess to poorer places. Our actual levels of consumption and destruction globally has only increased.

As another example: China is now starting to clean up. They won't be able to displace the mess to poorer places, because the country is just so big that there just aren't enough poorer places left to take all the mess. I am confident the Chinese will be able to clean up their country.

I think they will as well. India will shortly have to address this seriously and probably will.

That covers the types of pollution and over-consumption that are a visible and immediate threat, like dumping toxic waste in rivers and highly toxic air pollution.

There has been no serious willingness to address the issues of the increase in per-captia consumption of finite resources.

I was really taking issue with the statement that humans will be the first species that does not reproduce and consume as much as it possibly can before partial or complete extinction. That somehow humans will naturally reign in their natural impulses before it becomes too dangerous. That statement is based on zero evidence. We think we are the exception, humans are good at that, individually and collectively. Here's hoping.

Which resource(s) do you think we might run out of?

At least we don't dump our shit in the streets any more though.


(Check out the cartoon of Faraday!)

Humans do not always self-correct. Ever heard of Easter Island?

This article is not about the fermi paradox, it is just a soap box to warn against the misapplication of technology.

But back to the subject, I'm not sure if we are even smart enough to recognize any intelligence that does not resemble our own.

So far our solution to the fermi paradox may be summarized as: "We must stick them with quills! It's the only way!!"

> Given simple life forms, evolution shows progressive trends toward larger bodies, brains, and social complexity.

Evolution does not progress toward increased complexity. We have increased complexity mainly due to the Drunkard's Walk effect of random mutation in a space with a hard lower limit to complexity.

Yes, its not hard to find cases where evolution let to less complex forms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunicate

If alien species limited themselves to entertainment for such a long time, then where are the broadcasts from other solar systems?

On the other hand, recent studies apparently hint that things like electrical and gravitational constants may not be the same everywhere, so maybe they don't transmit their signals with light.

One more thing is that the argument that the age of the universe combined with its propensity to make life means there must be some intelligent life can also be applied to the probability that some intelligent life will wake up and save themselves from such a bad fate, as the author hints in the last paragraph. It doesn't mean all species get caught in that trap and never escape, it just means it's harder to become a species that saved itself from the perils of materialism, loss of social justice, and falsehood.

One reason I've read about is that when you consider humanity we were only broadcasting radio communication for a sliver of our history before we started using buried cables as a way to facilitate communication. The theory is that other civilizations would figure out the same thing and there is a limited window of time to intercept their radio communication.

Makes sense, actually. Thanks :)

This article struck me as a bit of shoddy reasoning together with odd conjecture strung together for the purpose of moralistic finger-wagging.

On a purely subjective note, I don't see how escaping into virtual reality is a "darker" fate than nuclear self-annihilation.

existence > non-existence

This is very similar to the idea Charles Stross presents in his 2005 novel Accelerando which in turn used the idea of a Matrioshka Brain (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matrioshka_brain).

I thought the argument was brilliant and scary. A lot of you are getting distracted by the headline. This article isn't really about aliens or the search for ET life. It's about social decay - entertaining ourselves to death AND virtual hedonistic narcissism resulting in extinction.

HOWEVER, the author, in his own narcissist fog, forgets to mention that this is a fate that will befall only the wealthiest, the whitest (admit it) and the wittiest (educated). This is not the future of the species, although leaving the planet will not get any easier in time.

So really, why haven't we heard from the aliens? The answers are simple but boring so we search for more interesting ones, interminably.

a) They are too far away

b) Life is extremely rare

Well, in such a large universe everything is too far away.


As more and more people of different races procreate, "white" will eventually be nonexistent.

We haven't been around long enough. Consider that a healthy 100 year lifespan now constitutes about a full 1% of recorded human history. Humanity is about at the stage of a toddler saying "I can do that" with nary a clue as to what that means.

I always felt that the Dafoe vehicle "The Last Temptation of Christ" was scifi-ish in some obscure way. Thank you, the thing to do was to replace "Heaven" with "Outer Space". Everything goes back into its skin.

This stage in behaviour will eventually subside as we discover and experience the negative side-effects of such a facade of quality of life. Lack of activity and obesity, lack of education for allowing socializing and deep bonding, lack of real socializing and bonding / relationships with people; It keeps us in our heads, and not grounded - not connected. As Carlota Per sees it, we are heading towards a shift to wellness, and quality; Eliminating planned obsolescence, etc., and this will include more time for and with eachother.

As the populations keeps growing, we will keep moving away the lifestyle our minds and bodies are evolutionary suited for, causing more depression/discontent. So, we're going to have no choice but create stronger drugs, and ways to drown our discontent. That's why the entertainment industry will always be recession-free. Without iPhone games, movies, video games, etc, we'd all go crazy. We either need pointless distractions, or we need to fight to survive.

"...an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. " They could not be stuck in a self created virtual reality, an exponentially-reproducing society of aliens would be forced to move out from their home planet, and forced to send radio signals or communications. They could not have forgotten. Most likely they are just too far from us.

"Given simple life forms, evolution shows progressive trends toward larger bodies, brains, and social complexity."

He's drawing conclusions with a sample size of 1.

My friends and I sometimes joke around about a similar 'solution' to the Fermi Paradox, where a civilization will advance until they figure out how to simulate sex in the mind of an individual.

Though somewhat, if the conclusions of the article are correct (I don't think they are), then those who will inherit the earth will be the ones least likely to venture out and make contact.

The answer to this question is probably simpler than author's argument. We haven't met any aliens because there aren't any out there.

The article's last point strikes me as a bit odd. The religious fundamentalists will be the ones who make scientific advances that are necessary to travel across the universe and meet alien species? Judging from the fundamentalists' past actions, allow me to stay sceptical about that.

I think it's more likely we are already in a our own virtual reality in the form of a history simulation (see: Holographic Universe Principle). To me this explains why we haven't detected any other life-forms; after-all it's a living history of our species.

What are you talking about?

How about this ... the aliens reached the height of their civilization 3758435 years ago and since then they don't care about people like us. We are too different from them and insignificant to communicate in ways we can recognize.

Maybe I missed the point of the article, but I thought it was a wonderful gedanken on social psychology - technological veracity aside. Valid or not, it illustrates (IMHO) some very interesting elements of our "advanced" civilisations :)

Inter-planetary travel is probably to big a problem to say that if not for our consumerism habits getting in the way we would have colonized some other planet already.

Immensely disappointing how he (professor of psychology) dismisses MDMA as entertainment when it is shown to help treating PTSD.

Seems pretty egotistical to believe our concepts of communication are the only and/or best in existence.

two other possible solution:

- there are many advanced civilizations in our galaxy, and each tries to colonize whole galaxy, but it takes much longer than 100 million years. because of competition and other unknown reasons.

- colonization is not done as we taught, we are not experienced in planetary colonization.

tl;dr: They're too busy playing World of Warcraft to fart around with spaceships.

Old (2006), Luddite-licious, and awfully full of presumed universality.

Of course we've transitioned into a virtual economy (though we haven't): the virtual economy didn't exist, and neither did the ability to provide intangible services to the degree that is possible now.

And of course an MIT engineer goes into video games, how many can NASA possibly employ? How many engineers were designing boring old toasters and dishwashers during the space race? Did we lament that?

> how many can NASA possibly employ?

If we are to develop easy space access, not nearly enough.

I don't think its so much a lack of work with NASA so much as a lack of funding.

What a horrible article. Whoever wrote that was some sort of Amish anti-technology fruitcake. Fuck him.

If we are in the Matrix, then it would not be strange if we could change our physical reality with thought alone. There is no spoon, and all that.

Napoleon Hill talked about this in "Think and grow rich".


Of course, such effects can always be explained by rational means...

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