This frustrating physical speed limit is often invoked when people ask about one of the most puzzling problems in science, the Fermi Paradox. During what started as a casual conversation in 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi did some back-of-the-envelope calculations about a truly cosmic problem. In short, our sun is just one of many relatively young, main-sequence stars. Assuming that some fair fraction of these potential suns have planets and that some tiny fraction of these have life, it’s likely that some complex life out there has been around for millions, if not billions, of years longer than life on Earth. There should be not just life in abundance, but life that has had much longer to get smart and build stuff.
So … where the hell are they? The universe should be literally crawling with alien civilizations. We should be looking up at a moon speckled with tourist graffiti. Finding ancient space probes on the beach. Why are visits from UFOs restricted to pickups traveling back roads and the occasional cattle surgery? Why are the airwaves of SETI projects so completely lacking in ETI?
A decade after Fermi did his initial math, astronomer Frank Drake took Fermi’s ideas and rolled then into a systematic equation, but no matter what numbers you plug into the Drake Equation, the answer is still a resounding WTF. Be as pessimistic as you want, and there’s still a surprising lack of visible neighbors. Considering the recent discovery of extra-solar planets in abundance, the problem gets even tougher to ignore.
A decade after Drake, astrophysicist (and high-functioning racist) Michael Hart expanded on the idea and teased out more of the math behind Fermi’s original conjectures. His conclusion was that we might be it. No vasty alien tangle of Federations, Empires, Cultures and Intergalactic Highway Departments. Just us. Hart’s answer may be the most frightening of all, but then it’s hard to separate the noodges made in his math from the heavy skew applied by his personal feelings of human (i.e. white western Judeo-Christian male human) superiority.
By most accounting, there’s still a big issue here: Why is it all so quiet out there? Answers to that question have tended to favor the physical/biological (perhaps there really is some kind of one-in-a-trillion set of circumstances that made Earth’s equitable conditions possible) or the cataclysmic (perhaps civilizations that reach the level at which they can develop space travel and long distance communication tend to off themselves in a thermonuclear ET roast).
But I’d like to suggest there’s another option; one that we seem to be experiencing ourselves. Maybe civilizations just … run out of steam. Maybe instead of a never-ending climb, we’re doomed to just follow an arc of our own making, right back into the ground. More on this below the fold.
Before getting back to Fermi and his where-the-heck-are-they problem, let’s dart over to a big picture event that many expect us to be facing in the next few decades: the Singularity.
Like light speed, the Singularity looms as a significant barrier for any civilization. Unlike light speed it’s not neatly defined by a single constant or cleanly integrated into the laws of physics. It’s been defined as the point where human minds become subsumed in a greater intelligence, generally thought of a techno-biologic hybrid, or as the point at which artificial intelligence dispenses with its creators (if not literally then at least to the extent of carrying on their own evolution without further input from clumsy meat-fingers). It’s also been seen as the point at which, through either medical technology or the ability to record a human mind onto a technical medium, death becomes optional. In general, it’s regarded as the sort of Really Big Deal in which technology advances to the point that it profoundly alters our society in ways that we pre-Singularity dunderheads are unlikely to predict.
For this essay, I’m treating the Singularity in more economic terms: an end to scarcity. I don’t mean by that just a society in which every human being can expect a bowl of rice and a sleeping mat, but one in which materials and energy are so freely available that (within reason … or perhaps without) each and every person is more or less free to do as they please and have what they want. A technological level so high that there’s no longer a distinction between the 1 percent and everyone else, because everyone is the 1 percent. And yes, I understand the mathematical absurdity of that statement. That sort of Singularity strikes me as both more appealing and more worthy than ideas based around my ability to perpetuate my own mind in silicon pseudo-Heaven (not to say I’d pass up the chance).
This sort of economic Singularity may sound fantastic; maybe even more fantastic than the sort that brings on whip-smart robots and brains in a box, but the truth is they’re likely one in the same. No one (at least, no one today that I know of) expects economic paradise to arrive strictly on the wings of social change. Yes, a vanishingly small portion of the population currently lives in a state of splendiferous self-indulgence that would make Midas feel a pauper and Caligula restrained, but even were that fabulous wealth smeared round the planet by the great putty knife of perfect, uncorrupted communism, what you’d have is everyone raised to a level of modest comfort. Quite modest. As in, if would be a hell of an upgrade for those currently starving, suffering, and slaving in near-endless toil (e.g. the great bulk of humanity) but would require a significant downgrade for that vanishing species, the middle class. If we’re to reach a real post scarcity society, a more equitable distribution of resources—a more even slicing of the pie—is a given, but it’s not enough. There must be a number of real technological breakthroughs that make for a bigger pie.
Those breakthroughs can be grouped into three familiar areas: energy, materials, and labor.
In the 1950s, at the beginning of the program to move atomic power off the battlefield and into domestic uses, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, famously stated that atomic power would one day be “too cheap to meter.” Strauss went on to posit that this one factor would be enough to end famines, extend human lives, and conquer disease. As it turns out, this conjecture was a touch optimistic, but it’s the kind of power we need to have if we’re going to turn the scarcity corner. Too cheap to meter has to move from a phrase of ridicule, to a statement of fact. Right now the prospects for this are, strangely enough, possibly the best bet in the triumvirate of Singularity requirements. Yes, fossil fuels of all kinds suck and the production, transportation, and burning of these materials is a long way from free even if you ignore the human and environmental cost. Nuclear power has some real potential (and I know from past experience, many adherents who will pop up to sing its praises) with small, standardized units that can generate power with greatly improved safety, but the brush of Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chornobyl carries one helluva lot of tar. Convincing people of nuclear’s improved safety, much less the ability to deal with waste products, might be a tougher problem to crack than nuclear fusion.
Speaking of fusion, get ready to hear the term Iter frequently, as a 34 nation consortium buckles down on “the experiment to save the world.” The Iter facility hopes to become a model for commercial fusion power, and it may actually end fusion’s long reign as the perennial “the technology of the future,” but even if Iter comes up short of finding magic, there are other possibilities. While the cost of fossil fuels have edged ever higher, the cost of solar, wind, tidal and other clean energy sources has been marching ever lower. The relative costs of the clean v. dirty systems have already crossed in some locations. It’s unlikely that the cost of any of these systems will ever reach zero, but with some of them—particularly solar—there are technologies perking along that threaten to make them astoundingly cheap.
On the material front, there’s never really be a problem of scarcity. Yes, of course everything is limited on our limited planet, but in the broadest sense, those limits are very generous. There’s enough iron on the Earth to build a bridge to the moon (not that it would stand up), enough gold to pave American interstates, enough of just about any element you can name to dwarf any potential use you can think of. The problem is, and has always been, one of diffusion. Knowing that there literally thousands of tons of gold dissolved in the ocean is intriguing, but loses a good deal of it’s appeal when you realize that it’s present at a rate of about 1 gram per one hundred million tons. Many of the resources we’d like to have stacked neatly in shiny bars exist in a form too scattered, too inaccessible, too costly to reach. Previous generations (not being idiots) went after the easy stuff first. Getting the next ton, barrel, or cubic foot of Obtanium is always tougher. We’re not out of oil, we are out of oil that can be produced at $12 a barrel. Soon we’ll be out of oil that can be had for $120 a barrel. And while humans have sometimes acted as agents of concentration (the percentage of gold in the average tech scrap pile is higher than that in the richest gold mine) more often we play on the downhill side of thermodynamics, leaving behind resources that are more scattered, and more tightly bound up into forms that are difficult to extract. Solving point #1 (that free, unlimited energy thing) could go a long way to resolving this issue, and technologies like 3D printing and the potential of nanotechnology smear across the material-labor boundary, but there's still a basic problem that most of the things we need are spread out and tied up in inconvenient ways.
And when it comes to labor … well, it’s a shame that many aspects of Mike Daisey’s performance/essay on Apple products in China turned out to be unreliable, but there’s one statement in his work that’s definitely true—we are living the golden age of hand-made items. Jobs in American factories have not been usurped by laser-eyed robots of job termination, but by the small, cheap fingers of young Asian women driven into enormous facilities by economic upheaval, globalization and displacement. In America, there have been extraordinary improvements in productivity, the measure of value provided by each employee, but those changes have come more through limiting pay and increasing work than by any magic of technology. A generation of Six-Sigma and Lean Everything has given us a system that would bring a tear to the eye of any robber baron: clean, efficient sweatshops. Not just that, but a generation of focusing on the benefit to the company first, last, and always has led to a society where workers have decreasing expectations. Sweatshops where many employees don't even realize that conditions are worse than they were generations ago, but where employees are willing to fight to help make conditions even less "generous."
And that (finally) brings me around to how this relates to Dr. Fermi’s problem.
As John Horgan pointed out in his book The End of Science the cost of making fundamental technological discoveries has been a steady march from basement tinkers to the Large Hadron Collider. Where we could once make fundamental leaps for the cost of some polished lenses and a few pounds of chemicals, it now takes massive international efforts to move the goal line an inch. To make the kind of breakthroughs required to reach the Singularity, or clear any of the hurdles standing in its way, an investment greater than anything we’ve seen before will be required.
At the same time, we’ve embedded ourselves more and more deeply in a system that deplores sacrifice. We’ve accepted the idea that selfishness and greed are the only forces that can result in “progress.”
While recent discoveries of bizarre planetary systems around distant stars has driven home the danger of extrapolating too much from a single example, perhaps the answer to “where are they” can be derived simply from the one intelligent civilization we know. Where are they? Nowhere. They didn’t spread to the stars. They didn’t reach a technical nirvana. Instead they just … failed.
They built systems in which technical progress was too closely allied with the profit motive, and as the scale of investment increased and the prospect of gain became both more long term and speculative, they simply stalled out. Like a rocket with insufficient velocity to achieve orbit, they surged up, up, up but eventually could not move any higher, or even maintain the peak of their flight. They fell back. They used up, wore down, wore out. They developed systems that were wonderful at concentrating and hoarding wealth, but not so good at the kind of selfless, big picture, long-term effort required to avoid ultimately turning the planet into a larger version of Easter Island.
One day going to the moon was a dream. Then it was a fact. Then it was history. Then it was a myth.
One thing's sure: If we can’t decouple our future from the system of corporate wealth, if we can’t make efforts like Iter the norm rather than the exception, then the next civilization to raise the “where are they” question, won’t be hearing from us.
Diligent readers with long memories may recall that, starting with an essay written three years ago, I embarked on a series about the end of the world, ranging from past predictions of planetary termination to real threats in the distant, and not so distant, future. My intention at the time was to emulate the course I'd taken with The Evolution of Everything, stacking up enough essays to form the bulk of a book called This Is the Way the World Ends. I had even lucked into a cooperative publisher who, considering the interest in such topics focused at the end of 2012, agreed to pay me cash money for the project. Always a nice bonus.
Unfortunately, before I could complete the project, life got complicated and things much more important than my publishing schedule took center stage. So the essays that would have made up the last third of the book were never written. A version of this essay was originally written as a part of the introduction to that final section. Just consider it the last ... whimper of the project.