RE: "Web-mediated SETI": Robert Bradbury Replies

Robert J. Bradbury (
Wed, 3 Nov 1999 13:35:23 -0800 (PST)

On Wed, 3 Nov 1999, Billy Brown wrote:

> OK, Robert, let's try this again, from the top.

Why not. :-)

[snip] (agreeing)

> If such a species exists we would expect their technological civilization
> to be tens or hundreds of millions of years old. That in turn implies
> that they have been here for quite a long time.

I would expect the "variance" in rates of development for civilizations is probably quite large depending on the environment. SI-Civs could easily identify life-compatible planets remotely. However if you want to monitor or communicate in real time, you are going to have to be "on-site".

> You speculate that a non-intervention rule (or a set of observed behaviors
> that give the same effect as such a rule) might arise from some kind of
> universal evolutionary pressure, but give no clue as to where such
> pressure might come from.
Selection pressure as always comes from the environment. Water forces you to become streamlined, air forces you to become light. In the case of SIs in space I think it is the environment of the "laws of physics" and "physical limits of computation" that drive convergent evolution. For SIs the primary constraints are the laws of thermodynamics, the Plank heat radiation function, the speed of light and materials properties (melting temperature, etc.).

For example, the laws of thermodynamics say you are going to get the most work done if you can harvest energy at the highest temperature (limited by materials properties presumably) and radiate at the lowest temperature (dictated by the background radiation). That is going to provide selection pressure for you to get as far away as possible from radiation sources that shower you in heat/light (raising the temperature of surrounding space). However the further away you get from other SIs the greater your communications delays (leading to slower thought) are and higher your communications costs (due to increased power requirements). This provides pressure to stay close. Without estimates as to the value SIs place on "personal thought" vis-a-vis "interpersonal communication" it is almost impossible to determine the configurations SIs find most desirable.

I can, however, see a number of factors that would work in
> the other direction. First there is the obvious fact that expansionist
> races will spread while non-expansionist races will not, so we would
> expect the universe to become dominated by expansionist races.

But you are making an implicit assumption that "expansion" has value! I will call this the "fallacy of universal expansion". Expansion does have [some] value in *our* environment. In the environment of space there may be concrete limits to the value of expansion (due to the communication delays outlined above).

My argument is that races with the technology to be "expansionist" may "universally" see the futility of doing so. You don't want to get "bigger", you want to get "smaller". To make the argument that there will still be a few "expansionist" races, you have to make the argument that they will fail to see something as obvious to the majority of SIs as gravity is to us. It is like arguing that some fish species would architect themselves with square corners or some birds should use lead to encode the information in their DNA. It just isn't done!

> Furthermore, a civilization that converts all available matter into
> useful artifacts gains a strong competitive advantage over one that
> does not, whether their competition is economic or military or both.

You have to make the case that "competition" can exist on interstellar or even worse intergalactic levels. I will call this the "fallacy of small spaces and limited resources". In the year 1300 there was no "competition" between native Americans and Europeans. The technology and access didn't exist to bring them into competition with one another. If the costs of interstellar competition exceed the benefits then such competition will not occur. If you look at the problems we have now of justifying colonies on the Moon or Mars you can see this is true for even us.

> Finally, we have never observed anything like the degree of uniformity
> your hypothesis requires, and we can see that as a general rule increasing
> technology results in more diversity rather than less.

The gravitational microlensing observations are pretty damn uniform. Estimates of 200 billion objects with masses ~0.4 M_sun.

Also you have to look at the trends from hardware into software. Software diversity may increase to levels I cannot imagine (because it isn't limited by physical laws, in fact it can make up new physical laws). Hardware on the other hand *does* have to deal with the physics of the universe. In that reality you may only have a few optimal architectures. Once you have discovered/constructed those you move all of your diversity-creation into the virtual reality (fantasy realm).

> Why, then, should we expect that very advanced
> technology will cause society to suddenly collapse into a
> "one-best-way-to-do-everything" situation?

Because they have had millions or billions of years to discover those "best ways". Think of the refinement of the designs of an automobile. It hasn't *really* changed much in ~100 years. If you have been working on SI architecture refinements for millions of years you probably have them pretty close to perfect. But unless you can *prove* they are the best that is possible, there may be a motiviation for letting another civilization take a crack at the problem. They just might come up with air-cars or dragons as a transportation vehicle. This gives rise to the "set-up-an-experiment" and/or "non-interference" principles.

> With regard to the experiment hypothesis, the big problem is that
> web-mediated SETI makes sense only if we are in some bizarre,
> custom-tailored sort of experiment where SETI itself is central to the
> experimenters' purpose.

Probably true. We would have to be in an experiment studying the evolution of intelligence(s) to the point of recognizing that things are "rigged". If we are in an experiment studying the variation of explanations for the cause of existence, then an invitation is probably worthless.

> One can construct an infinite number of equally plausible scenarios
> where the experimenters will never speak to us, or where
> attempting to speak to them will prompt them to end the experiment,
> or where any other result that you happen to like will happen.

I wouldn't say an "infinite" number, but certainly quite a few. But then if you knew what the result of an experiment (initiating contact via Web-Mediated SETI) would be, there would be no point to doing it would there?

> In the end it is no different than speculating that we are all
> thralls of the Illuminati overlords, or servants of God, or
> participants in any other internally-consistent fantasy world
> you care to construct.

Not really. If one says, "Ok, try it", and it doesn't work out (as seems to be the case) then one is forced to construct a more elaborate hypothesis. Its different from saying "I believe in God" but then explaining why God never talks to us in a manner that can be verified. My perspective would be to lay down hypothesis and attempt to verify or reject them as rapidly as possible. As Eliezer says, the truth doesn't care what you think, so you might as well narrow things down as quickly as possible.

> If you want to move the theory beyond this level you need a clear
> theory that explains why this particular experiment would actually
> be the one that is run.

I thought I had explained this in previous messages but perhaps not. One fundamental reason for "non-interference" is to increase diversity in the hope that a non-contacted "in-the-dark" civilization may uncover something here-to-fore overlooked by the overlords. One reason to setup experiments and interfere on a "restricted" basis is that you have previously run all of the "unrestricted" alternatives and you want to drive the development of the civilization into a phase space that rarely, if ever, develops naturally.

If there are civilizations in the galaxy 7-8 billion years old (perhaps unlikely but *very* difficult to say "impossible"), then they have had time to run *millions* of experiments in the phase space of evolution of technological civilizations. They may be down to the "bottom-of-the-barrel" in terms of ideas of how to vary the conditions to promote increased diversity. - "Proposal: first we will setup a couple of age-old religions

based on reincarnation and balance, then throw in a miracle working savior that promises eternal salvation if you only "believe" and structure that as the uphill battle that science has to struggle against. Probability estimates that these difficulties will result in an enhanced 0.00001 chance for the science developing a new SI architecture." - Galactic Grant Committee: Funding Approved. Next proposal.