The 1.5 Gigayear Technology Gap

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April 09, 2008

The 1.5 Gigayear Technology Gap

Wp_t1_800x600_2 Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke

Some of the world's smartest astronomers estimate that some of the more advanced technological civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy may be 1.5 gigayears older that Earth (that's 1.5 billion years older). In  other words, the search for extraterrestrial life is not going to end with us meeting the Hollywood kind of alien. ET or the Asgard (from Stargate) are not going to be who we first meet. Instead, we’ll be greeted by highly evolved robots.

Yes, in other words, Battlestar Galactica has got at least one thing right. The hit Sci Fi channel show’s bad guys are, unlike most other Sci Fi shows, highly evolved robots that have turned on their human creators.

But first, the real story.

"There are two kinds of encounters with aliens you can have," said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the California-based SETI Institute. "Either you pick up a signal, or you pick them up on the corner. But I think it's safe to say that in both instances they will be synthetic. They will be artificial constructions."

Shostak arrived at his conclusion through looking at just how rapidly we as humans are developing our own robots. Robots that can smell, laugh, stay upright when pushed, do your dishes and vacuum your carpet are getting smarter and smarter. "Within another 100 years we will presumably be making thinking machines ourselves," he said.

So when it comes to looking for alien life in the universe, it’s more and more likely that we’ll be encountering it in the robotic form. Most likely we’ll be the less evolved, simply because of how relatively new Earth is on the universal block. We’re the family that bought that empty block of land and built a nice house; it’s nice, sure, but we’re new and won’t be fitting in anytime soon.

The theory thus exists that, whomever we meet, is going to be more advanced than we are. And, in reality, if we meet them in space, it’s going to be true, because we’re nowhere near getting to interstellar travel.

Such a civilization could create swarms of robo-broadcasters to ping the surrounding habitable star systems, or "one giant machine that's sitting somewhere just belching out the local weather report," Shostak said. "The chances that it's going to be a little green guy with big eyeballs is pretty remote.”

Astronomer Jeffrey Bennett, author of the newly published book "Beyond UFOs," agrees with Shostak’s assessment of what is to come. ‘Bennett speculates that there might be 100,000 Earthlike planets in our galaxy where intelligent life could have arisen over the past 5 billion years. If you average that out, that comes to one galactic civilization for every 50,000 years. His conclusion? The typical alien civilization will be at least 50,000 years older than ours.’

"I find myself personally hesitant to imagine anything that far advanced," Bennett told me. "No one imagined the Internet 50 years ago, and we're trying to imagine what things would be like after 50,000 years of technological development? I just don't think we could make really good guesses, other than to say it will be incredible."

All of this is good and well, but in reality, the robots aren’t going to be the young lovelies or friendly “robot next door” that people are hoping. Just like in Battlestar Galactica, and in Stargate with the replicators, the robots are going to be out to kill us!

Consider, we have been and will continue to force robots to do our bidding. One day, that toaster or laundry-doing robot is just going to say “enough,” and … what comes next, nobody knows. But it isn’t going to be nice.

Posted by Josh Hill.

Related Galaxy posts:

Advanced Civilizations in the Universe -A Galaxy Insight
GAIA -Mapping the Family Tree of the Milky Way
The "Hubble Effect" -A Galaxy Insight
Stanley Kubrick & the Mythology of Extraterrestrial Life -A Galaxy Insight

"The Great Silence" -A Galaxy Insight
James Cameron & Arthur C Clarke on 2001 A Space Odyssey
New Technologies & the Search for Extraterrestrial Life -A Galaxy Insight
Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos Revisited -NASA's Phoenix Probe & the Search for
NASA's "New Worlds Observer" Will be Able to Spot Oceans, Continents and Clouds on Small Rocky Planets

MIT Asks: How Would Extraterrestrial Astronomers Study Earth?
"The Great Silence" -A Galaxy Insight
Harvard-Smithsonian Scientists Zero In On Key Sign of Habitable Worlds
Cruising the Goldilocks Zone -The Search for Super Earths
Dead Zones in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

 

Links:

http://SETI.org
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23955772

Comments

Oh...my...Goodness!

I can't believe this!? Why should I take this guy seriously?
what is he basing his theory on?

His theory is as good as any sci-fi movie out there, or as good as anyone else's theory. He calls himself a scientist? I thought scientists believe in empirical facts, and theorize with the intent to prove the theory. By the way, why cant we earthlings be the most advanced civilization? and why do many believe that evolution has stopped with humans? hmm both theories can't be right.
Here is another theory...GOD!
Just as good of a theory as all the others!

Any article about Artificial Intelligence, & especially fictional or hypothetical extra - terrestrial Artificial Intelligence, seems to express a subtle anxiety that that hypothetical Artificial Intelligence might be rebellious & / or indeed outright hostile, just like the Cylons of both Battlestar Galactica series or Stargate SG 1's " Replicators ". If there are intelligent machines out there that have outlived their creators or just decided that they wanted to pursue their own destinies apart from them, who's to say that they wouldn't be open to diplomatic overtures, exchange of knowledge & such ? The worst case scenario here might be that they decide that we're still too primitive to expand into the galaxy yet, but they'll quarantine & watch us until they think we're ready. It's all hypothetical for the time being anyway.

This is of course assuming that any extraterrestrial life we encounter has evolved in the same manner as the life on Earth. For all we know, we could find a civilization composed of robots which build organic, living organisms, and they find it odd that we make the robots. There is so much more to the theories than anyone could possibly comprehend. People will waste their entire lifetimes anticipating contact with other forms of life, and odds are, every single theory so far will be wrong.

if they were so advanced wouldn't they have found us by now?

if they were so advanced wouldn't they have found us by now?

reminds me of this excellent short story... enjoy

http://www.terrybisson.com/meat.html

@TAB: Just because a person does not make contact with extraterrestrial life does not mean that his or her efforts were a waste. If one enjoys the work one is doing and feels that he or she has made a contribution to the scientific community, even if you feel differently, then that person will not perceive his or her life as a waste, and probably does not care if you beg to differ.

If this is, indeed, true (and it seems plausible) I see three options:

1. They're so advanced that interacting with just isn't that interesting to them, or they realize that it's not a good idea just yet
2. The conspiracy theorists are right, they've already come here and they're living amongst us, integrated and undetectable
3. The logical and inevitable conclusion of evolution is self-destruction, that civilizations can't last beyond a certain period of time

@ "Inginious"
Josh Hill's theories should be considered more a hypothesis as it is an extension of the scientific theory of evolution.
"why cant we earthlings be the most advanced "
We could, but it is unlikely as we are much younger and therefore likely less evolved.
"why do many believe that evolution has stopped with humans?"
It may not, however, once you have evolved the intelligence to make intelligent machines their "evolution" will be much faster than organic evolution.
"Here is another theory...GOD!"
That is not a theory as it is not provable, it is faith. Why do highly evolved robots threaten your perception of God?

If this is, indeed, true (and it seems plausible) I see three options:

1. They're so advanced that interacting with just isn't that interesting to them, or they realize that it's not a good idea just yet
2. The conspiracy theorists are right, they've already come here and they're living amongst us, integrated and undetectable
3. The logical and inevitable conclusion of evolution is self-destruction, that civilizations can't last beyond a certain period of time

There's some crazy stuff out there. Even the pictures + data NASA has from Titan (one of Saturn's moons) blow my mind - oceans of methane.. volcanoes that spit out viscous, supercooled water mixed with Ammonia. Who could have even imagined that a planet actually worked like that? Like earth but.. different. Life may be strange and beyond our understanding but, chances are, we are not alone in the Universe.

There's some crazy stuff out there. Even the pictures + data NASA has from Titan (one of Saturn's moons) blow my mind - oceans of methane.. volcanoes that spit out viscous, supercooled water mixed with Ammonia. Who could have even imagined that a planet actually worked like that? Like earth but.. different. Life may be strange and beyond our understanding but, chances are, we are not alone in the Universe.

Is this based on anything besides pure imagination? You take a whole lot for granted in regards to evolution, namely that ours is typical. The origin of life is something so random and unpredictable that it's just as likely that civilization started ten years ago on another planet as 50k years ago.

With as many unknown variables as there presently are, there's the same likelihood we'll be greeted by moss growing on a space rock as a blood-thirsty robot civilization.

Can an ant even comprehend what humans do? How could we comprehend what such an advanced civilization would do and why?

Any civilization so advanced would look at humans the way humans look at ants.

How we treat them and what we think of them may be a good indicator of how we will be treated.

If you kill an ant, is that morally wrong? Is it evil?

Ha, kids keep ant farms....maybe developing advanced robots would keep human farms...for study.

Taking it a step further, ants don't know they're being studied when in an ant farm because they're not able to comprehend the artificial ant farm enclosure.

Maybe we're already being studied and just don't understand or have the technology to understand our enclosure (^-^)

If what this guy is saying is true, then the most probable outcome of the idea is that we ourselves are robots.

Anyone ever heard of "Childhood's End"? I would expect the extraterrestrials to be peaceful, but still remain in charge, if they find us. Basically, either side will be far ahead of the other.
@tay/Nickrollout:
You're completely right. In addition to #1, they could be of a completely different form. Combined with knoxvilledaniel, in a different way. I mean, they could be COMPLETELY different; seeing different wavelengths, maybe not seeing at all, most likely a different form of communication, so different, that we'd have a better chance trying to communicate (intelligently) with a fish. Basically, the finders will be in charge and the found will be studied.

‘Bennett speculates that there might be 100,000 Earthlike planets in our galaxy where intelligent life could have arisen over the past 5 billion years. If you average that out, that comes to one galactic civilization for every 50,000 years. His conclusion? The typical alien civilization will be at least 50,000 years older than ours.’

This is faulty logic. The early universe could not have supported life. It wasn't until after a supernova that elements denser than helium and hydrogen were formed. Add time for evolutionary processes and you get a timescale of possible life far shorter than Bennett is assuming.

HAHA!

I Like Knoxvilledaniels response:

"we could find a civilization composed of robots which build organic, living organisms, and they find it odd that we make the robots."

Just as good of a theory!

One way to look at the big picture is to study the small one first. Look at the highly advanced species here on this planet and how they relate to the lesser advanced. How does that work?

How did the more technology advanced Europeans of the 15th & 16th century interact with the lesser advanced civilizations of that day?

It wasn't pretty.

I rather agree with Spazmonkey :
Maybe other civilizations / societies just aren't interested in interaction as such. What if they want to observe other civilizations such as ours, perhaps, without making direct contact, cultural exchange, trade agreements, etc., with them ? They might indeed think that other civilizations " just aren't ready yet " ( such as ourselves )

To inginious :

I wasn't the one who proposed that a civilization of robots might create organic beings, & they might think it odd that we make the robots - I'm not sure who did, but it seems interesting.

What if some civilizations out there used bio - cybernetic beings / cyborgs - as space explorers, emissaries ? Combining the intuition & " heart " of an organic being with the rationality & some measure of longevity of a machine entity ?
It's all hypothetical anyway. I for one, don't believe in extra - terrestrial observers hiding amongst us unless they came to us themselves with irrefutable PROOF.

I see aliens everyday. they really know how to swim, specially when border petrol comes around.

I see aliens everyday. they really know how to swim, specially when border petrol comes around.

Any speculation about what an advanced (and alien) civilization would be like is useless. Let's assume that this civilization is 50,000 years older then us. Just as their technology would be far more advanced, so would there philosophy and understanding of the universe. It's impossible to say that they would or wouldn't kill us because we have no idea what that kind of intelligence would mean. Even if they were robots, it's a lot to assume that they would automatically revolt against their captors for forcing them to do work. That is assuming a lot; mainly, that robots will think like humans. The point is, we have no idea what it would be like, and looking at our own history to predict the actions of a civilization that is both much older than ours and alien to us is rather pointless.

Civilizations, hypothetically, might tend to develop robots, and robots might very well be the heirs of any biologically evolved civilization that is capable of producing them. However, the idea that robots would usurp their creater's civilization, is rather arbitrary, and anthropomorphic. It is more likely that if better robotics are available, consciousness will probably be transferred gradually, incrementally from biological brains, to computers, and the robots they control. Even now, computer chips exist that are intended to eventually replace defective biological components of the human brain. It is easy to imagine that part by part, humans could become robots, without missing a beat, or noticing a change for the worse. Robots might or might not compete for resources. It is a big universe, and competing for resources, itself consumes resources, perhaps more than simply finding and exploiting sterile solar systems, which are the majority of stars and planets.

I still think that alien " emissaries " or maybe " guardians " would be part machine, part organic. Judging by what I've read in other sources, it's more likely that terrestrial technology will enable the development of cyborgs rather than independent or even semi - autonomous machine beings / robots, & any extra - terrestrial society with sufficient technology might develop similar entities. A cyborg would combine the intuition & curiousity / drive to explore of organic beings with the longevity & durability of machines. The result could be an ideal astronaut !

Hypothetically.

Assuming they exist, who says they'll even care about us as long as we don't get in their way? Or even if we do.

Assuming they exist, who says they'll even care about us as long as we don't get in their way? Or even if we do.

don't you people get it they made us we are robots. We are robots that used technology so far advanced we cant even fathom how we got created. We are the robots and the aliens are our creators.

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