29 January 2007

Fermi's paradox

The flying saucer article linked in the posting below mentions "Fermi's paradox" a reference which may take some explaining for those who are not familiar with it.

"Fermi's paradox" is the question: given that the conventional wisdom (based on formulations such as the Drake equation) is that technological civilizations are probably fairly abundant in the universe, why is it that we have seen no sign whatsoever of their existence? There have been no radio or other signals which suggest intelligent origin, no visits to Earth by alien spaceships or probes, no archeological evidence of such visitations at any previous time in our planet's history. How can this be?

A large part of the answer is probably provided by the Rare Earth hypothesis, which asserts that Earth's astronomical situation is actually extremely unusual -- our whole solar system is a freak case, in fact -- and that environments which could allow the development of multicellular life forms are very rare in the universe. Having read the book for which the hypothesis is named, I find the case for it to be strong.

With or without the Rare Earth hypothesis, however, the solution to Fermi's paradox has always struck me as rather obvious (in fact, I'm sure others have already made this argument). Technological progress works much faster than biological evolution, especially since it tends to accelerate exponentially, a trend visible through the whole span of recorded human history. This acceleration effect becomes far more significant with the prospect of the Technological Singularity, culminating in the full integration of machine data-processing power into human intelligence, so that individual humans become vastly more intelligent than they are today -- a development which Ray Kurzweil projects will likely happen as soon as forty years from now. The rate and character of further progress after the Singularity is, by definition, beyond the ability of present-day humans to imagine.

However many planets there are in the universe which have the innate capacity to evolve an intelligent species at some point, some one planet will be the first to do so. Once this happens and a technological civilization appears, intelligence will diffuse outward from that planet and saturate the rest of the physical universe in far less time than it would take biological evolution to produce any other intelligent species anywhere else. That is, the first technological civilization to appear in the universe will be the only one. We just happened to be first. If we hadn't been the first, we wouldn't exist at all.

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