09 August 2023

Some further thoughts on the Fermi Paradox

Apropos Prof. David Kipping's take on the so called Fermi Paradox, see this ("Cool Worlds"): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbUgb2OPpdM. (FWIW, I'm not critiquing fantasy or speculation about "how it might've been," which is fun and the basis of most science fiction. I'm just trying to take the serious facts and questions and posit what might actually be the reality of the matter). 

Dr. Kipping asserts that it isn't reasonable to dismiss AGI (Artificial General (read human-level) Intelligence), and that if it exists in the universe at large then the problem of interstellar distances becomes less of a problem.* "Sentience" should be, well, everywhere by now, in a 13+ billion year old universe. I question that. I think it's likely that there is some really fundamental reason that self-aware artificial intelligence is either very unlikely or impossible. We are nowhere near achieving it here, despite all the hype. But I can't pin down all the reasons why that might be so, so let's just take it as a given that he's right, and AGI is potentially relatively common in the universe, with all that implies. 

The problem with Kipping's I'll call it Weak Anthropic Galaxy/nonrare roaming AGI theory is that on the scale of a galaxy like ours, other galaxies aren't all that far away. If the Milky Way is one in a million, in not being colonized by indigenous AGI, then the Andromedan AGIs, who colonized THEIR galaxy say 2 billion years ago, would have already colonized OUR galaxy too, since it's only a few tens of galactic diameters distant... so it doesn't really work. (More typical spiral galaxies like ours are in large clusters and even closer to each other, which just compounds the problem). Somewhat like the panspermia hypothesis which just shifts the origin of life to a larger stage and possibly earlier time but doesn't really explain it, this theory can't work unless there is something fundamentally wrong with the idea that sentience and the capability of galactic scale colonization is common, and we are an "anthropic" exception.

That leaves the origin of complex biospheres, like Earth's, which would, it seems to me, be absolutely necessary for AGI to arise in the first place. It's not going to pop into existence of its own accord; it has to be created by biologically originated beings with natural general intelligence, and these have to have evolved abiotically in planetary environments. No one has come up with plausible alternative scenarios to the best of my knowledge, and, after all, we're trying to explain why they're not here, not how they might somehow exist. The currently fashionable "metabolism first" theory wants to make the abiotic origin of life common, but the truth is that even its proponents admit there are several steps that seem to be "really hard," such that life is possible but not necessarily likely. And some of them, like oxygen generating photosynthesis (necessary for any reasonable degree of biosphere efficiency), and a number of other "great leaps," may actually be quite unlikely to arise in the available time and actually prevailing planetary conditions, generally. Unlikely x unlikely x unlikely x easy x easy still comes out to exceedingly unlikely.  I think it's a safe bet that when all is said and done the Fermi Paradox and the Origin of Life Paradox will be seen as one and the same, and the answer, kind of unfortunately from a certain perspective, is that life, and in particular sentience, is possible, but not at all likely, and in the wider universe intelligences like ourselves, or hypothetical AGI "successors" are very, very rare. At least for now. In the distant future, it's not too hard to imagine that from very widely scattered origins, sentient life may slowly but surely fill the cosmos. Which is an exciting prospect even to the most staid of imaginations. 
*If this isn't obvious, the point is that artificial minds can probably just turn themselves off for the 10,000 or even 100,000 years it might take to travel across the Galaxy from Pt. A to Pt. B, assuming, as Kipping does, and I do as well, that faster than light travel is, even in principle, forever impossible. These long time periods are obviously highly problematic for organic living beings; less so for (hypothetical) artificial minds powered by technology.

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