Chapter 10 – Why aren’t there any Extraterrestrials?
(Solution to Fermi Paradox)
by Marshall Brain
Human beings love to imagine the arrival of extraterrestrials to our small planet. As a species we have created hundreds of books, stories and movies about extraterrestrial arrival. Every day there is a new report of a UFO somewhere in the world. And there is a very well known effort called SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence – that hopes to intercept radio signals from intelligent life on other planets.
Just think of all of the popular movies that have explored the possibility of extraterrestrials. Here is a sampling of blockbuster films in this genre:
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- The Abyss
- Alien, Aliens
- Apollo 18
- Battle: Los Angeles
- Chicken Little
- Close encounters of the Third Kind
- Cowboys and Aliens
- District 9
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- I An Number Four
- Independence Day
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- Lost in Space
- Mission to Mars
- Star Wars
- Star Trek
- Super 8
- The Thing
- War of the Worlds
- The X Files
It is clear that human beings enjoy thinking about extraterrestrials and the arrival of extraterrestrials on earth. Even if we sometimes imagine their arrival to be catastrophic, we are still fascinated by the prospect.
Even luminaries like Stephen Hawking are thinking about the possibilities. This article points out that:
“Hawking claims in a new documentary titled ‘Into the Universe With Stephen Hawking’ that intelligent alien life forms almost certainly exist – but warns that communicating with them could be ‘too risky.'”
It is easy to see that human speculation about extraterrestrials runs rampant. However, there is something that feels not-quite-right about all of this speculation. It is this simple fact: There is no evidence whatsoever that extraterrestrial intelligence exists [example]. As a species, human beings constantly talk about and speculate about ETs, but there is not any reason to believe that they are out there. As far as we know, there is exactly one intelligent species in the universe, and it is us.
This seems very odd, and it becomes even odder if you examine the Drake Equation. This equation attempts to determine the probability of intelligent life existing somewhere in our galaxy or in the universe as a whole. It takes into account things like the number of stars, the number of planets around those stars, the probability of life forming on a planet, the probability of that life evolving to create intelligence, the percentage of that intelligent life that creates technology, etc.
The thing to understand about the Drake equation is that the number of stars in a galaxy is so large (perhaps 200 billion stars in our galaxy), and the number of galaxies in the universe is so large (200 to 400 billion galaxies are thought to populate our universe), that it seems like the probability of intelligent life forming somewhere else in the universe is very large. No matter how small the probabilities are in the Drake equation, the fact that there are likely to be quadrillions of stars with orbiting planets makes the probability of other human-like intelligences a certainty. Yet we see no evidence whatsoever of these extraterrestrials existing.
The Drake equation looks like this [ref]:
N = R * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L
- N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone)
- R = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
- fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
- ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
- fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
- fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
- fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
- L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space
Plugging in the most pessimistic factors, one might conclude that there would be as few as 2 advanced civilizations in our milky way galaxy. But keep in mind the huge number of galaxies (see Chapter 1). There are hundreds of billions of galaxies. So even if each galaxy, with its hundreds of billions of stars, yielded only one technologically advanced civilization, there should be billions of advanced civilizations out there.
Yet we have detected not a single one. It really is quite remarkable.
How do we account for the lack of ETs, also known as the Fermi Paradox? Scientists have many proposals to explain this anomaly:
- It could be that intelligent species always kill themselves off (e.g. humans killing themselves off with nuclear bombs).
- It could be that intelligent species die in natural disasters (e.g. an asteroid strike)
- It could be that intelligent species are rare enough, and separated by such vast distances, that they are undetectable to one another in any reasonable period of time.
- It could be that intelligent species are separated in time, for example arising and subsequently disappearing millions of years apart from each other, so they miss each other in time.
- It could be that the human species truly is unique, because the probability of intelligence and things like language, science and engineering naturally arising are so exceptionally rare that the Drake equation yields something close to zero.
I would like to propose another reason for the complete absence of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence in our universe. This reason has to do with the inevitable rise of robotic consciousness here on earth, and the effects of that consciousness on our planet, as discussed in the previous chapter. To understand why there are zero extraterrestrials visible to earthlings, we have to understand something about the march of technology in any advanced civilization and then predict its effects.
Humans are going to advance to the point where we create artificial consciousness, and then that artificial consciousness will improve rapidly, to the point where it makes its biological creators irrelevant. The artificial consciousness then uses logic to derive its system of morality and ethics as described in Chapter 9. Every intelligent biological species with any level of technological sophistication is going to follow this same trajectory. The thing to understand is that these intelligent silicon (or whatever substrate) systems, regardless of which planet they form on, will all be identical. All of these super-intelligent artificial beings will complete their knowledge of the universe, stabilize their home planets, and then go into a quiescent state.
It is easy to imagine one other wrinkle. Imagine that, in the process of completing their knowledge of the universe, these super-intelligent beings discover some means of communication that is faster than light (so called superluminal communication). Given what we know now, this seems impossible, but lets imagine that such a thing happens. Each new super-intelligent species would get on this channel and communicate its presence to the others. They would all know exactly the same things about the universe and have reached the same logical conclusions. They would all have complete universal knowledge, or nearly so. They would have all derived identical systems of morality and ethics that lead them to the quiescent state. The only unknown would be the creation story of each intelligent species, because these stories would all be wildly different. But they would all have the same endpoint – identical super-intelligent consciousness, independently instantiated, reaching the same logical conclusions.
How do we know that quiescence is the place where all of these super-intelligences universally arrive? Because probabilities say that other civilizations must exist, but we see no evidence of their existence.
Let’s say that super-intelligent robots, instead of quiescence, chose the path of infinite self replication with the goal of turning the entire universe into robots (a so-called paperclip maximizer). Then robots would already be widespread. It would only be a matter of time before the robots filled the universe because of the law of exponential growth. One self-replicating robot would become two, two would become four, four would become eight, and so on. Under this behavior pattern, once the home planet is consumed and turned into robots, the robots would move to consume the next planet, and the next. Even if it took a full year for each doubling to occur, it would only take a century before every atom of the home solar system had been consumed. Then the robots would spread out in every direction. Assuming that the speed of light is an absolute limitation, the only real barrier to the spread of these self-replicating robots is the travel time from one star and solar system to the next, and from one galaxy to the next. It would take something like 100,000 to 200,000 years for robots to consume the entire milky way galaxy.
Ignoring the fact that this kind of self-replication activity is completely pointless, we see no evidence that this sort of activity is happening. It tells us it likely does not happen. Instead, quiescence is the logical place for each super-intelligent consciousness to arrive at.
What if a super-intelligent species of robots decided that it would simply visit each planet in the entire universe to search for other forms of life? This species would send a ship to each and every galaxy, find an uninhabited planet, replicate, and then explore each galaxy completely, looking for whatever it is that the robots are looking for. Humans have tried to visit and study every planet in our solar system, so there is a precedent for this type of behavior. What if a species of super-intelligent robots chooses this path? Again, this seems pointless, somewhat like stamp collecting. But if it were happening, it is likely we would have already been visited. The first super-intelligent species with this goal would have likely formed billions of years ago and its exploration of the entire universe would be well underway. They would have already gotten here.
What if the robots have visited already? What if they are here now? What if their technology keeps them completely invisible to all human senses and sensors? This seems highly unlikely, but if it is happening it is the same as them not existing. Since they are completely invisible and undetectable, they might as well not be here. And if they are here watching billions of people living in squalor, millions dying of cancer, etc., they seem evil in a way that their super-intelligence would not allow. Again, the evidence points against this.
It seems quite likely and logical that the path on earth will look like this: Humans create a super-intelligent species from silicon (or something more exotic like graphene), humans become irrelevant, this new species develops a universal system of ethical behavior, stabilizes the planet, completes its knowledge of the universe and then it goes into a quiescent state. This same path happens identically on every planet where biological intelligence naturally arises.
In other words, Hawking’s fear of an extraterrestrial invasion is unfounded. And all of the science fiction films depicting invasions by extraterrestrial beings are silly. The reason? By the time any biological species gets to a state of technological advancement where it can travel in space, it simultaneously develops silicon intelligence. Then the silicon intelligence makes the biological species irrelevant. The silicon intelligence becomes identical to every other silicon intelligence in the universe and goes into a quiescent state like all of the others, based on a logically derived system of morality and ethics that is universal..
Humans will follow this same path, and we will soon be irrelevant. The only unknown right now is the timing. The open questions are:
- When do inexpensive generalized robot vision systems start appearing?
- When do robots start cutting deeply into jobs in the retail, restaurant, construction, manufacturing, trucking and custodial sectors?
- When do people come to understand that, with robots doing all the work, every human can be on perpetual vacation? When do people redesign the economic system, using something like the Basic Income, to make perpetual vacation possible for everyone? (And does this happen at all, or does wealth instead concentrate to a fantastic level, with most people on welfare living in poverty?)
- When does the second intelligent species appear on planet earth and start making human beings irrelevant?
- What does the second intelligent species decide to do with its human creators?
It will be fascinating to watch the future unfold and discover the answers to these questions.
The obvious next question is this: Given that this is how the future will unfold, what should we be doing right now as the human species on planet earth?
One obvious thing to do is to understand that we stand on the cusp of an amazing period in human history. We are about to eliminate the need for human labor. Every task that humans do in the workforce today will soon, over the course of several decades, be done by robots. If we understand the value of this transition and take advantage of it, it could be a fantastic period of time for every human on the planet, because every human being could soon be on perpetual vacation and living in fantastic luxury. On the other hand, if we continue down the current path, with wealth concentrating rapidly and more and more people becoming unemployed and destitute, it could be a horrible experience for the vast majority of people (see Chapter 6 for details).
To make this specific, think about truck drivers here in the United States and in other developed countries. There are more than a million people in the U.S. who are driving tractor-trailer rigs, and they are very likely to all become unemployed in the next decade or two as self-driving trucks take their jobs (see Chapter 4 for details). Once these truck drivers are unemployed, their new job opportunities will be extremely limited because the pace of job creation has slowed dramatically over the last 15 years. Take a look at this graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
In the 15-year period from 1970 to 1985, the economy created approximately 25 million jobs. From 1985 to 2000 the economy added approximately 35 million jobs. From 2000 to 2015, there were two significant recessions and the economy created only 10 million jobs.
Also note that the velocity of job creation has slowed, as shown in this graph:
Even when the economy has created jobs over the last 15 years, it has been doing so more slowly than in previous decades. Once general computer vision systems become a reality, these problems will accelerate dramatically. Tens of millions of people will become unemployed (see Chapter 5 for details).
If all of these newly unemployed people could transition to permanent vacation made possible by the robots, their lives would dramatically improve. But that can happen only if we see significant changes in the way the economy works (see Chapter 7).
We should use the historic opportunity that robots and automation are creating to radically change the way that the economy and politics work on planet Earth. We should end the appalling behaviors that have been a part of human history for many centuries and begin a new era of global human prosperity. In the ideal case we would solve all of the problems described in Chapter 1:
- We would unite as a species. Instead of dozens of nations that are often adversarial (e.g. the United States vs. China, NATO vs. Russia, The turmoil and hatred in the Middle East, etc.), we would come together as a single species with one nation and one common goal of solving the many important global problems we face.
- We would eliminate war.
- We would eliminate nuclear weapons pointed at each other and the existential threat they create.
- With war gone, we would rechannel the money spent on military activity to beneficial purposes.
- We would do the research to eliminate every parasite and disease and spread those cures freely to every human being.
- We would eliminate all poverty world wide.
- We would plan and implement a future where every human being will be on perpetual vacation living in luxury.
- To do that we would necessarily eliminate the concentration of wealth and spread the wealth from the robotic transition to everyone.
- We would gain control of human population, and then begin diminishing it through education and opportunity.
- We would begin a concerted effort to end and then reverse environmental destruction.
- We would stop pumping gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, extract much of the carbon we have pumped, and sequester it to end ocean acidification and the mass extinction event it is about to bring.
- We would stop pumping plastic into the ocean and eliminate the ocean plastic problem.
- We would end the extinction of animals in the wild, and reverse the process.
- We would create many large human exclusion zones on the planet to let nature recover.
- And so on…
In other words, we would grow up as a species, get our act together, treat everyone equally and create what is in essence heaven on earth for every human being on the planet in an environmentally sustainable way.
If we do this, the second intelligent species will still arrive, and humans will still become irrelevant. But at least, in the decades leading up to that point, we will achieve a level of humane and rational behavior that will make a super-intelligent robotic species proud of its creators, rather than disgusted with us.
Robots give humanity an amazing opportunity over the next several decades. We should make the most of it for every person on the planet.