Saturday, December 19, 2009

Advanced alien life: couch potatoes who can't be bothered

On the train this morning, I just finished reading the book We need to talk about Kelvin by Marcus Chown. It's an excellent book where Chown makes connections between what is readily observable everyday -- the solidness of our bodies and the stuff around us, our reflection on a glass window, the darkness of the night sky, etc. -- to the counter-intuitive realities that quantum physics predict about our universe.

In the last chapter of Kelvin, Chown lays out an extensive discussion around the probability of us coming into contact with extra-terrestrial (ET) intelligent life. He brings together the views of an array of experts on the subject. Biologists, for one, describe the fine points around how infinitessimally improbable the evolution of complex multi-cellular organisms is, much less intelligent life. To highlight that point, they show how single-cell life forms were around on Earth for more than three billion years before multi-cellular life emerged and flourished only in the last 700 million years. Imagine how lucky a little planet like Earth is. It managed to survive long enough, circling the sun more than three billion times without being blown to bits by a stray asteroid, to see our close ancestors (in relative terms given geological timescales) crawling out of the muck!

Physicists and astronomers for their part cite how the vast distances between stellar systems make a civilisation's mustering the motivation to physical travel between them quite unlikely as well. Even amongst ourselves, we can see how the frenzy of manned space exploration of the fifties and sixties that accompanied its novelty at the time (not to mention thea gendas of Cold War global politics) simply died down in the seventies as humanity turned inward and focused on developing technologies and systems that connected us better (personal computing and the Internet) and made us more efficient thinkers.

This brings me to my key takeaway from that chapter. Chown's final point was that perhaps ET is out there. But they have come to find themselves, their own civilisations, and their own creations far more interesting than anything that might lie out there to even bother to go out and explore. He cites the theories of Stephen Wolfram who puts forth the idea that complexity in the universe (which includes us) ultimately can be reduced to mathematical constructs and therefore modelled in computers. It is just a matter of having enough computing power to do this progressively efficiently and in a sophisticated enough level as to capture our sustained interest. At some point, civilisations develop enough computing power and programming savvy to model and simulate just about any form of complexity in their computing infrastructure. And perhaps even ours, the whole history of our planet and the evolution of our species in it perhaps, is already a running simulation in ET's personal computing device somewhere out there.

I believe that even in relatively primitive Planet Earth we are already seeing the beginnings of this trend. Facebook and Twitter among others have become a more interesting place for socialising than the real world for many. The latest computer games have become so realistic and engaging that many of us now spend almost half our week immersed in their artificial worlds.

And that is just 21st Century Planet Earth computing technology at work here. Imagine what the future holds. So far there is still no foreseeable limit to the growth in computing power available to us and the amount of interesting things that can be made available within our living rooms by these technologies.

If we can live out an interesting life in the world of Halo or even Grand Theft Auto, how can the prospect of discovering bacterial alien life on Mars compete? Perhaps ET is somewhere out there. But he may already have become too much of a couch potato to bother with us.

[Photo credit: Josep SardanyƩs Cayuela]

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