Great Filter, Low Profile, Cryptocosmology

Steve Witham (
Tue, 15 Oct 1996 01:16:17 -0400

I've been waiting for the Right Moment to pipe up on this thread. That
just proves my low IQ of course. The truth is I'll never be prepared
to make a well-thought-out essay on this topic that gives proper credit
to similar points that have been made all the way back to Robin's original
post and also up to the minute. Life in the asymptotic lane doesn't work
that way. So I apologize in advance for repeating others' thoughts.

All this discussion of *what* the Great Filter might be, when I think
the question *whether* there is good reason to think that there is a great
filter, deserves more attention. In other words, how sure are we that we
are *not* looking at alien civilizations? (Yes, Robin addressed that
from the beginning, but with his emphasis on organized *looking* matter
I think he missed the important point (to follow).)

But then the thread evolved to the point of sentience, and more and more
posts on "low profile" and berserkers started to appear. One funny post
started, "Until now I've been lurking..." (Yes! Good point! Good example!
Think of the universe as a *discussion group*. Think about *kill files*.
But I'm running ahead of myself (& I'll get to that, too).) Let me drag
out the slogan of Cryptocosmology (with apologies to Clarke,
(but after all he invented the communications satellite)):

"Sufficiently advanced communication is indistinguishable from noise."

Again I apologize as I explain the joke fully because it's the basis of
what I want to say: 1) Arthur C. Clarke's Law is that "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." 2) Cryptograpy,
steganography (hiding data within other data) and data compression produce
signals that look as much as possible like random numbers. Cryptography and
steganography because they are trying to reveal as little as possible,
data compression because any non-noiselike character of a signal represents
redundancy, a waste of bandwidth. The joke for crypto and compression
people is that here is a basic truism in both fields that happens to
have a natural phrasing just like Clarke's law. The joke for extropians
is that Clarke is wrong (or was, if he's since wised up): information is
the ultimate technology, and ultimate information looks like...nothing.
Not flashy magic, just nothing. It works hard to look like nothing.

Which is what we see when we look at the skies. Or at the dirt at our feet,
or at the Sun, or each other, for that matter. Nothing...unnatural.
Nothing...unexpected. Nothing...out of the ordinary.

Of course not, you idiots! (Joking, *joking* of course! (I even have to
tell these idiots that I don't think they're idiots!) You are all very
SMART idiots!) My point is something like, "That's what they WANT you to
belive," except for two things: the first is that this needs to be
distinguished from paranoia, and the second is that the beliefs of We
primitive idiots aren't what the hypothesized They are worried about.

Now, to climb to full height at my pulpit, I need to step on the shoulder
of another giant, Gregory Bateson, who quipped deeply:

"A bit is a difference that makes a difference."

We can make a rough (okay very rough) theorem from this:

A bit is a difference that makes a difference.
Only differences make a difference.
Things that don't make a difference don't matter.
--> Bits are all that matters.
(or, Everything that matters, is bits.)

You might think I mean that we can encode all our favorite books, movies
and shapes into a big VR machine, and that would be "all that really
matters." But I'm no "chop off my body and its feelings and material
attachments and let me be pure intellect" extropian. It's more.
I mean everything everybody cares about, everything anyone could care about,
already *is* information. All of the universe as we know it or imagine it,
is information.

A better approximation would be that all the characteristics of
things we know about can be seen as information encoded on a
substrate of particles and waves. The features we know about are only
a barest scratch, the encoding seems extremely inefficient. But this isn't
quite radical enough. The distribution of matter in the universe, the
types of particles we see, their characteristics and relative populations,
and the laws by which they interact, as well as anything we know about
initial conditions and current chaotic broken-symmetric outcomes, in other
words all the characteristics of the supposed "substrate"--these are
all information, too.

And thinking of only the stuff we pay attention to, as the real information,
encoded inefficiently against a background of noise, is wrong, too. Even if
it is noise, it's still information.

The right way of looking at it is this: all there is is information, and
what we know about, even all we've guessed about (for instance, imagining
molecules in blades of alien grass on alien planets scattered all over the
universe), is a tiny droplet in a sea--but a completely flat, grey sea,
because I'm talking about the completely unknown that is the vast majority
of the information that's around us (and this is no vague or unscientific
statement, it's just meant as a plain observation of the ratio of known
to unknown bits).

This is the right place to start to look at the future of technology.
Because the job is to encode the bits that matter to us, more efficiently.
To access our favorite bits more easily. To replicate our bits more
safely. Only as soon as you say "more efficiently," then if I've made my
point so far, you see that this only means, to colonize that sea.

It's the sea of information that any intelligence that evolves to something
like this point will want to colonize. Not good old 3D space. Not
particularly *not* 3-space either, the point is just that it's the universe
as information, not volume or mass per se, that matters.

So anyway, yes, we will try to dump as much of what matters to us as
possible into nanocomputers the size of Jupiter. And I hope that includes
all the plants and animals and microbes of the surface and depths of the
earth, sea and sky, as well as lots of the inanimate features of nature, and
the spilled ice cream cones and landfills, too. But whatever happens, it's
*information* that's moving and, as evolution continues, more and more it's
information that knows itself as, and treats itself as information.

That's enough to return to my point: that we don't know we're not looking
at "alien" civilizations. We don't know that the whole universe isn't
colonized. Life evolves to become efficiently-encoded information,
which looks like sunlight and dirt. I think these are the most natural
developments to expect. The default scenario. I would expect
a colonized universe to look exactly like a barren one. So what was the
Fermi "paradox" again?

Speculation about "What prevented all the other civilizations from
getting farther than this?" base. This is what distinguishes
cryptocosmology from paranoia. I'm not saying I know They're out there
--or here--hiding or trying to fool us. But plainly if they were there we
wouldn't know it. So if someone raises the question of "Why aren't They
there," one must ask, "Says who?" Speculation on a false premise can be
a waste of time. Any speculation about Them *approaches* paranoia, and
that's fun as well as risking nonsense, but let's be as intelligent as we
can about it, if only because being closer to plausibility is *more* fun.

I think a crypto-informed version of this discussion can be worthwhile,
and I wanted to mention a couple of starter ideas:

1) Berserkers, seen as hulking tank-robots shooting their way across
planet surfaces, ain't it. Even Death Stars, near-light-speed meteor
showers, or galactic-scale Electro Magnetic Pulses are too 3-space-centric.
Don't think so much about 3-space territory. Think more of interpenetrating
infections, computer viruses in the kernel level of physics, or as someone
pointed out (referring back to Vinge) "applied theology".

2) When I say "dirt" and "here," I mean it. If they've colonized the
universe, they're here. If you don't see them, that's because--go back
and reread this post you idiot! At most, our civilization, life as we
know it, is the faintest ripple, the merest whisp of a breeze, on what's
going on right in our laps. We are an insignificant perturbation not yet
worthy of scratching, information-theory-wise.

If that's so,
a) we may be some minor program intended by someone, as planet Earth was
a computer to figure out the Question to the Great Answer
(42) in the Hitchhikers guide. Or a "zoo" or "ALife experiment."

b) Or, we may be (the consequences of) a bug,

c) or, a manefestation of compounded errors in a calculation, within
the allowed bounds,

d) or, more likely from a crypto and strategy point of view, something
that no one can afford to stop without giving away too much,

e) or, a natural, if infrequent, occurrance that is best exploited by
letting it be.

3) The best argument against life-as-we-see-it being already colonized,
is that light from stars seems to stream off into space where it mostly
just drifts free and unintercepted. This doesn't seem like efficient
communication or computing to me. Maybe it's a handy form of storage.
Or perhaps it's the basic form of self-propogation. It could be a true
waste that's just cryptostrategically necessary.

4) Civilizations' (to use a too-anthropomorphic term for sufficiently-
evolved intelligence) first danger isn't from alien civilizations, but from
within themselves. We have weapons and crypto now, to guard against each
other. Already one of the great Extropian horror scenarios is the
explosive Grab For Territory, where proprietary grey goos squirt out into
space at near-light-speeds in all directions from Earth, trying to claim
volume and mass. I think we should frame one of those which-comes-first
questions: all technology looks like Dirt, or the Grab For Territory? I
guess Dirt first (has the term Brown Goo been taken?), in which case what
form the Grab might take becomes more interesting. (I promised to get back
to the idea of "running ahead of myself." Huh huh.)

5) If you still think this line of thought is paranoid, I recommend getting
familiar with cryptography. Cryptography is a quite friendly, almost
serene fraternity of smart people who think of incredibly obscure threats
because that's necessary in practice, and who imagine ways to do things
that seem impossible (communicating in secret in the open just being the
basic first step) as a matter of course. What I mean is, crypto is exactly
like paranoia, even more so, yet totally matter-of-fact, practical, open
and sane. It's really just people looking at the kinds of threats and
promises that exist in a world of information.

6) To say I've simplified doesn't start to say it. Maybe the worst is
my ignoring the difference between information storage and processing.
I think the same ideas apply to both, although the field of encrypted
processing is only starting and sometimes doesn't look very promising.

Back to you all,

"See, you think you're on a cruise ship but someone's moving the ocean."
--Patricia S. Sullivan