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SETI: nanotech/AI, organic, or non-existent?

from the we're-so-very-lonely dept.
A long article on SETI looks at "where are the aliens?", including the effect of nanotechnology on this question. The assumption seems to be that, given nanotechnology, the aliens exist but are hiding. Another possibility is that they just aren't there at all: Whatever superior intelligence emerges from human ingenuity will be the first that the Milky Way has seen, asserts physicist Frank J. Tipler of Tulane University. "Weíre it as far as intelligence, but one-cell organisms are probably all over the place in the solar system and possibly the entire spiral arm" of the galaxy in which Earth is situated.

A branch of the comments on this story was deleted due to pilot error. The deletion could also be credibly blamed on poor user interface design, or poor system documentation. I'm looking forward to being able to work on Nanodot and related stuff full-time to make such occurrences less likely. — Dave
The "pilot" was me; sorry. –ChrisPeterson

32 Responses to “SETI: nanotech/AI, organic, or non-existent?”

  1. BryanBruns Says:

    Corrected URL

    Interesting article. There are some extra spaces in the URL above. This should work

    Personally I'm inclined toward the view that if ETIs were out there they would be doing something we could notice.

  2. prion Says:

    Monday Night Football

    The aliens are watching their equivalent of Monday Night Football, screaming at their kids and warming up their equivalent of a couch. Seriously, intelligence more advanced than ours will have trillions^4 more computing power than we do, and won't need to go anywhere – just simulate entire novel realities.

  3. BryanBruns Says:

    Reality TV?

    Or maybe if they do have nanobots watching, then we're like a reality TV show for the occasional femtoflicker of their attention, as we try to hack the real world. Are they laughing, crying or what?

  4. PatrickUnderwood Says:

    Invisible Spysats

    Right now we can launch satellites into perfect geosynchronous orbit (using SeaLaunch at the equator) that can passively monitor our planet in many different wavelengths, optical, radio and otherwise. The vast majority of humans today would be unable to detect such a satellite, since it would be a very dim object and move very little against the stellar background. Say we send this satellite back in time a hundred years. I doubt even the best observational astronomers could detect it, even if they were crackpot enough to entertain its existence. So surveillance by undetected aliens is easy to imagine, given only a minute technological edge on their part. Aliens are among our eyelash mites! Going further out on a limb, Vinge's idea of technological Singularity easily solves the problem of our inability to detect huge powerful interstellar civilizations as well as nearby listeners. Hey if we're only a few decades from a Singularity ourselves, it's possible we're about to shut down our own electromagnetic broadcasts. In which case we would have created an inconsistent shell of radio noise only about a light-century thick, gradually fading away with the inverse-square law. If civilizations "Transcend" before they're hardly off the home planet, no wonder we don't see them! Patrick

  5. ChrisPeterson Says:

    Crying, let's hope

    Let's hope they're crying, or at least not laughing. If they're laughing we may be in for some difficult times. But I don't think they are out there at all.

  6. ChrisPeterson Says:

    link fixed

    Thanks for pointing out the link problem; it should be fixed now.

  7. Mr_Farlops Says:

    I don't believe the universe is empty

    Unlike Tipler or Zuckerman, I don't believe we are the first and only technological species to arise in the universe. It just seems too arrogant.

    On the other hand I can accept the idea of a universe constantly flickering with new technological civilizations that rapidly undergo singularity and thus becoming difficult to detect.

    Their nanobot probes could have been sitting on this planet for millenia or eons now, nestled among our dust bunnies and fossils.

    And why should they talk to us now? They already know us better than we know ourselves. They may have been here before the Cambrian fossils were laid down. Besides, given the way our technology is exponentiating, they don't have to wait much longer before our culture gets smart enough to really appreciate what they have to say.

  8. prion Says:


    Study up some on the speed of light,k?

  9. GregTrocchia Says:

    Re:Invisible Spysats

    Right now we can launch satellites into perfect geosynchronous orbit (using SeaLaunch at the equator) that can passively monitor our planet in many different wavelengths, optical, radio and otherwise. The vast majority of humans today would be unable to detect such a satellite, since it would be a very dim object and move very little against the stellar background. Say we send this satellite back in time a hundred years. I doubt even the best observational astronomers could detect it, even if they were crackpot enough to entertain its existence. So surveillance by undetected aliens is easy to imagine, given only a minute technological edge on their part. Aliens are among our eyelash mites!

    Which has become part of my standard reply to the "saucer nut" types. First I talk about how challenging interstellar travel is and how a civilization would have to be at least decades ahead of us to attempt it (this they have no trouble accepting). Then I point out how easy it is to make their presence known, just scout for the densest population concentration and pick a landing spot as close as possible and you're talking live with Bernie Shaw on CNN. The almost invariable response is "But what if they don't want us to know they are here". My reply, then what you saw at Roswell, or Gulf Breeze, or … isn't them because keeping their presence secret is so simple to do" (especially for such an advanced civilization, no need to even mention MNT specifically in making the argument, though that would be my best guess at how they would remain undetected) Greg

  10. PatrickUnderwood Says:

    Give it a rest?

    Prion, is it your intention to insult everyone on this site who says anything not perfectly in line with your own thinking? I can understand your animosity toward Katamose, but give us a break, okay? A little courtesy goes a long way to establish credibility. As for your objection to the previous post, please elaborate. Patrick

  11. prion Says:

    defensive? are we?

    My post was in no way insulting. And if you want me to teach you physics, you have to pay me Professor wages.

  12. PatrickUnderwood Says:

    Re:defensive? are we?

    Ha ha! You're right, in fact none of your posts have been insulting in the least. My mistake. But why would you ask me if I'm defensive? I just wonder where you learned your manners, that's all. Most of the Ph.Ds I've met have been somewhat more polite. How about publishing your curriculum vitae? I'm a lowly tech writer myself. What's your technical background? What's your real name? _Are_ you a professor? Are you a nurse? (I only ask because of the mannerism you used in the subject line of your response.) How old are you? I'm really interested. When you win your Nobel I want to be able to say I knew you back when you were just shouting down cranks on Are you sure you don't want to share your knowledge of relativistic physics with the rest of us? I admit I can't figure out what your objection is and I'd really like to know. It might be terribly important. If Prion won't answer, would some other poster please do me the honor of explaining his (or her, don't want to be gender-biased) objection? Thanks. –Patrick

  13. Mike Says:

    Frank Drake ?

    In that article, it mentions "the late Frank Drake" – has he passed on? He looked pretty healthy to me when he spoke at the "futures" panel at Stanford on April 1, 2000.

  14. Mr_Farlops Says:


    Sorry, I don't see where my opinions violate the speed of light. If the universe is 15 to 20 billion years old, nanotech probes, traveling at near the speed of light, sent out by civilizations arising near first generation stars in young galaxies may have reached our solar system long before the dinosaurs were wiped out.

    Perhaps I am doing the math wrong. How many factors of ten am I off?

  15. allsop Says:

    Re:Invisible Spysats

    Hey Patrick, Great post and I think it is 100% true except in order to accept that there are bings stealth-fully watching us one must find some reason for why they are hiding from us and refusing to help us. In religious parlance this is known as a "theodicy". It is an attempt to explain why. If there is a powerful good God out there hiding from us, why does he allow evils like death and suffering? Of course in Star Trek, it's the prime directive. But does anyone really know why there must be such an absurd "prime directive" that insists that advanced beings can't help us out? I've never heard of a good reason that makes any rational sense. All these reasons and theodicies for God are simply futile attempts to twist evil into good or to justify evil in the face of any powerful beings that might already exist and be stealfully watching us. When I (or my children?) develop enough to go out and do some serious exploring out there, it is my hope that if we do discover some more primitive beings that are still suffering and dieing I would do all I could to help them out and help them get to the singularity as fast as possible. I just can't understand why there has never been a popular ET story where the ETs come running in with their emergency rescue hospital ships as fast as possible, sirens a blazing, and saving all the people that are about to die in our hospitals and such. What could possibly be the reason for hiding and not doing such???? It seems so absurd to me! If there really are powerful beings or Gods or nanites or whatever out or in their why would they not help us finish our quest to overcome death and suffering? I have never heard any evil twisting into good theodicy that makes any rational sense at all. And the worst part about it is, if there are such already powerful beings, and hence such a real theodicy, then there is no hope and evil is truly absolutely and eternally necessary. For if some God can't or shouldn't help us eliminate death and suffering, what hope do we ever have of overcoming it ourselves, or being able to help other more primitive beings do the same, no matter how much we ourselves may progress. If God can't our shouldn't do it then how can we have hope of ever being able to do any better? If there was even a hint of some kind of rational theodicy for why such beings wouldn't help us I might give up some of my hope that evil, death, and suffering… might really not be eternally necessary. But in the absence of any such reason, why must we so faithlessly give up hope? Can we not hope that once we do achieve immortality and other God like powers, that included in this will be the ability to help any and all, no matter who, where, or what they are, that are still suffering and dieing, to no longer suffer and die??? If ET's are out there, then there must be some thing that says such evil is necessary, and we will then be forced to, for whatever the reason is, to continue the same don't help policy or whatever. Are you listening to me Gods out there, if you are out there!!! My parents and loved ones are suffering and dieing!!!! Screw your prime directive or favorite theodicy or whatever and please come and help us out down here! Brent Allsop

  16. PatrickUnderwood Says:


    I think you are way conservative. But arguments might be made to the effect that early stars didn't have enough metals for life. Hmmm, let's do the math with stars of roughly the same age as the sun, here in the same galaxy. The galaxy is about 100,000 LY across, right? Roughly? Say the nanocivilization arose 50,000 LY distant. Then at only 10% c, it would take them only half a million years to get here. Half a million years is about 0.01% the age of our sun (5 BY), if I am doing my sums correctly. Gee, I can't imagine what Prion's beef is. Did I screw up somewhere? Perhaps he objects to the amount of energy spent reaching even a small fraction of c? That makes sense, given the equation he used. Otherwise I'm not sure what his deal is. What does a professor make? Say he's at a state school, maybe $50,000 a year? If he's working 40 hours a week year round, that's about $24/hr. (Let's forget holidays, taxes, social security etc.) If only Prion would condescend to lecture us, it would probably only take him about ten minutes to clue us in. So, can we scrape up 4 bucks? Prion, what's your smail address? I don't want to send cash, would you accept a personal check? Do you take credit cards? –Patrick

  17. PatrickUnderwood Says:

    Re:Invisible Spysats

    Brent, I can't imagine why a superior civilization would look on passively while we munch each others' bones. One alternative is that they're not here, which is plausible. Another is that they have better ways to occupy their time, which is also plausible. Another is that there is some physical reason not to interfere in our lives, but that our "souls" are taken immediately at death to Six Flags Over the Galaxy for a rockin' good eternal time. Maybe we're actually transcended schoolchildren being taught a history lesson from the first-person perspective, and when we die we'll be back at our desks in the classroom. Hey it could happen! :) Emotionally/aesthetically/ethically, I think you have a real point. I always thought the Prime Directive was pretty dumb, 'specially considering it was only there for Kirk to ignore. –Patrick

  18. MarkGubrud Says:

    Another two cents' worth

    Okay, here we are in our dorm room; it's 2 am and there's one runty, polymerized slice of cold pizza left in the box on the floor, and we're each nursing the remains of our respective beverage cans. Time for the Fermi Paradox.

    I tend to agree with those who say it's unlikely that conditions for life would be extremely rare in the universe (1 instance per galaxy-Gigayear), and that once the correct conditions are established, the emergence of life and of intelligence is highly probable. It is fairly easy these days to construct reasonable scenarios for chemical evolution leading to the origin of life. It is also hard to understand why, if the inevitable destiny of life is to fill the available environmental space, any civilization that emerged and did not destroy itself would not spread throughout the galaxy, exhausting all available resources, in a relatively short time. So then, as Fermi asked, where is everybody?

    The trouble with these observations is that it is impossible to draw any conclusions from them. It seems unlikely that we would just happen to be the first civilization to emerge within our galaxy, and this leads to morose speculation about the possible inevitability of doom. But we have only a single data point to work from! Isn't it just as unlikely for us, I mean us here having this conversation, to be alive at this time of the emergence of advanced technology, when the Fermi paradox shall have first been suggested? What conclusion can you draw from that?

    Consider the situation if each of a million people were randomly assigned a serial number from one to a million. Now, the person who gets the number one would be likely to think that she was selected to receive it for some reason, since it would seem very unlikely to have occurred that way by chance. But this inference would be completely incorrect.

    So I don't think the Fermi paradox gives us any information about the likelihood of our eventual destruction. If this were the only basis we had to estimate the chances of some type of apocalypse, we would still have to put the odds at 50-50.

    I'm not going to even touch the stuff about possible invisible visitors, Ghandian pacifist superintelligences or introverted races of uploads with no incentive to travel. I consider myself a fairly adventurous thinker, but those who get lost in the wilderness of bootless speculation are liable to be diagnosed as schizophrenic.

  19. JohnAMontgomery Says:

    Re:Invisible Spysats

    If we apply this logic to those less "enlightened" animals around us then we should ask ourselves the same question. Of course we keep our pets and those animals we keep in the zoo safe and healthy as long as possible. Trying our best to insure their life has little to no misery. So if godlike beings would come down and improve our lives? How far would they have to mettle with our humanity in order to improve our condition? Or how far would they mettle with us to fulfill whatever inconceivable intentions they might have? Look at our own history and you will see that imperialism hid under mask of helping out those less developed peoples. So it might be a good thing if we are overlooked by whatever advanced civilizations are out there, or if they have something similar to a prime directive. At least until we are advanced enough to meet them on more equal terms.

  20. RichardTerra Says:

    Re:e=mc^2 (Principle of Irrelativity)

    What's the point of throwing out Einstein's equation for matter/energy equivalance? Just because it contains the speed of light (in vacuo) as a constant doesn't make it relevant to this discussion. You aren't making any kind of rational argument here, just the text equivalent of mouthing off. To quote Popper in your signature footer while making the sort of comments you've posted here is high-order hypocrisy.

  21. BryanBruns Says:

    Ethics for Machines

    I agree that the logic of the limits of intervention and imperialism suggests that, if there are ETIs out there, they might be waiting for us to become civilized enough so that we could interact without violating moral or practical restraints they put on themselves. There is a fair amount of science fiction talking about the dilemmas of observers in such situations (not to mention old Silver Surfer comics).

    These same issues come up in terms of thinking about coexisting with augmented humans or advanced AIs in a nanotech future. A prime directive of non-interference, or some "golden rule" type of standard for avoiding uninvited intervention seems like a good candidate for an ethical guideline for coexistence in such situations.

    Talking about these ethical issues gives me an opportunity to ask again whether the poll on JosH's Ethics for Machines paper will be brought to closure at some point? The poll about turning it into a book is currently running 76 yes, 20 no (and 52 syntax errors). More important than the poll numbers in my view is that the issues are central to Foresight's goals. Perhaps JosH could post his reactions online? It could also be the topic for a session at the upcoming Senior Associate Gathering. If JosH is interested, then it could at least be announced as a Foresight project, to see if some funding could be attracted to give him time to write.

  22. prion Says:

    get a grip, numbn*ts

    I wanted to title the damn post merely 'c', but the 'lame' filter will not accept one letter titles. Your post is evidence of high order brain ossification. Get a life.

  23. PatrickUnderwood Says:


    Prion, you have raised the discussion at to a new level of intellectual sophistication. The Foresight crew must be so proud! I predict that Eric Drexler and other leaders of the nanotechnology revolution will adopt your successful tactic of referring to rivals as "numbnuts." Surely this will speed the arrival of molecular manufacturing by several years. –Patrick P.S. We are still waiting for your brilliant deconstruction of Mr_Farlops' post. Perhaps if you go ahead and put it out of its misery, we can move on to more relevant discussion of nanotechnology.

  24. TomMcKendree Says:

    More fascinating information on this topic

    Every since reading The Great Filter by Robin Hanson, that essay has been my touchstone in thinking about this issue. While Mark Gubrud is correct to say that with one data point we cannot conclude very much, I think The Great Filter effectively frames the potential solutions.

    Robin Hanson has another relevant paper, Burning the Cosmic Commons: Evolutionary Strategies for Interstellar Colonization, wherein he argues that the competition between interstellar/intergalactic settlers to be the first to reach their target should exert an evolutionary pressure to trying to settle outward very quickly. Eric Drexler makes the same point in Engines of Creation . Robin Hanson goes on, however, with some mathematical reasoning to conclude that waves of colonization might be so fast that they could have flung by without leaving any sufficiently visible traces. My intuition says that Robin is wrong, that the evolutionary pressures would lead to exploitation visible of resources, rather than going so fast as to leave the obvious resource of so many unshielded stars, but I have not built a mathematical model yet to formalize and test this intuition. Hopefully I can get around to building a model before we test this empirically.

    Finally, I haven't seen anyone refer in this thread to Rare Earth , by Ward & Brownlee. That is an interesting book which argues that planets that can support the development of advanced life should be quite unusual.

  25. PatrickUnderwood Says:

    Re:More fascinating information on this topic

    I've read parts of Rare Earth, but not all. My take is that it lessens the probability of earth-like worlds but doesn't preclude them. We know now that organisms can thrive in extremely harsh conditions, which should broaden the range of biology-bearing planets; but on the other hand we don't know the bounding conditions for initiating life in the first place. Does life start in a great climate and gradually evolve to survive these harsh extremes, or can it get started in the extremes? Life may be profoundly rare, and intelligence correspondingly rarer, but the universe is so large that a statistical improbability on a small scale can still leave us with a statistical certainty over the large scale. (Huh?) At least that's the way I see it. Maybe I should finish the book or take a math class? :) Speaking of competition, a guy named Pelligrino (IIRC) wrote a sci-fi novel (the title of which I can't remember) in which he speculated that interstellar civilizations, out of fear for their own safety, would automatically destroy any lesser civilizations upon detection. Talk about evolutionary pressures! So it who gets there first wins. I hope he's wrong… –Patrick

  26. MarkGubrud Says:

    A technical argument

    If the galaxy were full of Earthlike planets much older than the Earth, then, since I think intelligent life is quite likely to appear on any Earthlike planet in a time comparable to the time it has taken to evolve here, I would have to concede that the apparent absence of extraterrestrial colonists makes it appear unlikely that our species will ever colonize the galaxy.

    However, Earthlike planets are likely to exist only around population II stars, and none of these are very much older than the Sun. Our planet is about 4 billion years old, and life has existed on it for at least 3 billion years. The cambrian explosion and colonization of the land took place only 600 million years ago; before that intelligent life could not have evolved. Given that life on Earth has taken this long to develop intelligence and technology, and given that there is no a priori reason to discount the possibility that we could be an outlier on the distribution of emergence times, it is not so implausible that our planet could be one of the first to bring forth technology, even if the galaxy does contain a large number of Earthlike planets.

    In that case we might still have a less than even chance of making it past the age of warfare and other stupid mistakes, but it wouldn't necessarily be hopeless. If we knew exactly how many Earthlike planets there were, the distribution of their ages, and distribution of emergence times for intelligent life, we could make an inference as to the odds. But that is completely beyond the state of the art.

    Note also that our Earth is already almost halfway to the point at which it will become inhospitable to life. Thus, life really does begin in middle age!

  27. TomMcKendree Says:

    Re: I Wouldn't Kill

    Looking around at, you probably mean Flying to Valhalla (out of print), by Charles R. Pellegrino. I haven't read it, but it looks interesting.

    Continuing on this topic, however, I have difficulty constructing a scenario where life in the universe is non-apparent (as now), and I would set out to destroy an intelligent civilization that we came across elsewhere. If I were deciding, and we were powerful enough to wipe them out, I would decide to save, study, and try to work with them. If we weren't powerful enough to wipe them out, then we don't get to decide. If life appears rare because the history of the universe supports "nucleation nodes" only after a sufficient billion of years, and there are really lots of civilizations beyond our prior light cones, then killing our nearest neighbors is only going to alert and harden the resolve of civilizations further beyond.

    Also, I expect that stellar resource utilization means that we each see the other coming (with less warning time the faster we are moving and the closer together we started).

    One can construct scenarios where some subset of our expanding population sets out to destroy this other civilization, and certainly one where we make contact, and eventually the small civilization gets absorbed into the larger one. Policing the former case is an issue, and in some "cultural" sense there is some extinguishment in the latter case.

    Of course, if one feels free to imagine arbitrary physics, then one can construct a scenario where we necessarily fight to the death with aliens, and then construct an underlying physics that necessitates that conflict. That could make a great novel, but is not a likely future.

  28. TomMcKendree Says:

    Re:A technical argument

    …since I think intelligent life is quite likely to appear on any Earthlike planet in a time comparable to the time it has taken to evolve here….

    In yet another excellent paper from Robin Hanson, Must Early Life Be Easy? The Rhythm of Major Evolutionary Transitions, Robin argues that if the evolution of life is very unlikely, and if one looks at a planet where life has evolved anyway, then the probability of life evolving on that planet with significant "time to spare" can be quite high, and thus one cannot assume that the evolution of life (or technically advanced life) is necessarily easy from the fact that it seemed to be easy in the one historical case one has to examine. I find the idea that we are alone in the universe (if it is finite), or that at least it is some enormous, multi-galactic cluster distance to the next such advanced civilization, a plausible solution. It is, of course, not the only plausible solution.

  29. PatrickUnderwood Says:

    Re: I Wouldn't Kill

    Yes, I think that was the title. As I recall, he applied his idea to small civilizations arising near each other, where only the home planet is populated. He envisioned attacking the "enemy"'s home planet with a relativistic bomb, split in two and timed to shotgun opposite hemispheres of the globe. The pieces, at .92c (Pellegrino's magic number of relativistic not too fast, not too slow) would hit the atmosphere and raise its temperature in obviously a short time to an unbearable level. Because the object is relativistic, by the time the "enemy" detects it, it's too late to react.

    Frankly seems a stretch to me too.


  30. BryanBruns Says:

    The MNT Challenge: A Multiplayer Game

    (The main challenges of MNT, presented in a sequential game format : )

    1. To win the first level of the game, you must successfully create an assembler which can replicate itself. Warning: if you reach the goal, but don't have the rest of your institutions in good shape you may lose immediately, or quickly fail in level two.

    2. To win level two you have to build safeguards to keep MNT safe in normal use and build stable defenses against misuse, meanwhile keeping everything else going. Warning: random values may be inserted for progress in biotech and artificial intelligence, global climate excursions, and political and religous fanaticism.

    3. To win level three you have to learn to coexist with the Powers: augmented and uploaded humans, super-sentient artificial intelligences and other entities that seem a bit stranger. Warning: you have to deal with all the bad old memes and some ruthless new viral ones.

    4. Level four is transcendence. You get root privileges to create your own games. Warning: there may be higher levels, so you may not be as free as you think.

    A multiplayer game coming soon from RealityHack Inc.

    (With credits to a meme in Robin Hanson's Great Filter, Eliezer Yudkowsky's scale of future shock levels, the earlier Vinge thread, and other sources I've forgotten.)

  31. RichardTerra Says:

    Re:More fascinating information (Summary article)

    A useful review article summarizing the arguments put forth by Ward & Brownlee in Rare Earth appeared in the New York Times ("Maybe We AreAlone in the Universe, After All" by W.J. Broad, 8 February 2000).

  32. Enon Says:

    Re: I don't believe the universe is empty

    Excellent, thought-provoking point! You have a real appreciation for the possibilities the universal timescale allows. I can't think of a more efficient way for an advanced species to explore.

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