Sentient Planets & World Consciousnesses
This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. Get access to my streaming video service, Nebula, when you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in the description. Imagine for a moment an entire planet as one gigantic brain, a single functioning mind of unbelievable scope. Now imagine that was your mind. So it's another SciFi Sunday here on Science and Futurism with Isaac Arthur, where we pick concepts regularly seen in science fiction and look at how scientifically realistic they are, what variations or parallels might be allowed in science, and what other unexpected things we might see as a result. For today’s topic of Sentient Planets or World Brains, and the sort of massive minds these might hold, we have a bit of a twist from the norm, in that these are typically considered weird or improbable in a lot of science fiction but seem considerably more likely under known science.
Generally that’s reversed, where something in sci-fi is considered ridiculously easy, but in reality it probably isn’t even remotely possible. Such being the case, we don’t need to contemplate pure theory or fringe science to consider the concept of a world-spanning mind. Nonetheless, there are still quite a few examples in science fiction that let us examine some weirder scenarios like an algae or fungus spanning a planet and evolving a mind, as was the case with the telepathic world-spanning fungus from the video game classic, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. And in a literary classic from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series, we have a colony of telepaths turned hive mind that eventually comes to incorporate animals, then plants, then even the rocks and mountains, called Gaia. There are more examples in fantasy, and the World Turtle and Elephants of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld come to mind. In comics we see OA, from DC comics, where the Guardians of the Universe dwell and the headquarters of Green Lantern Corps, and Ego, the Living Planet, from Marvel Comics. Since I mentioned Marvel, we might also consider the sort
of entity that consumes planets, like the Marvel Comics Villain Galactus, the Eater of Worlds. And something like a planet-sized brain might need to eat other planets to run itself, metaphorically or literally. As an interesting side note for Marvel Comics fans: while Ego appears in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 as Peter Quill’s dad, played by Kurt Russel, he’s actually an older character that, who along with the Kree, got dreamed up right after Galactus’s first appearance in 1966 to form the foundation of all those off-Earth stories. And appropriate for building that mythology, Ego shows up originally in the Thor Comics. But we also see some living world concepts in traditional mythology too, and indeed one of Thor’s main enemies in the Norse tales is Jormungandr, a serpent encircling all of Midgard, or Earth. But we also see various Earth Gods, sentient spirits or deities embodying large bits of our world or of other worlds. We do after all name our planets after deities,
from Mercury to Pluto, and this is probably a good pick since as we’ll see today, such a world brain is likely to be godlike in scale and probably wouldn’t have a hard time convincing anyone living on or visiting their world that they merit such a title. Another trope we often see in both mythology and science fiction is that of people living on giant celestial corpses. In Norse Mythology Ymir gets killed by the gods and dissected to form the world, and similar fates befall Pangu of Chinese mythology and Tiamat from Mesopotamia, while yet another sea monster is slain in Aztec Mythology to create the land. The Mining Colony of Knowhere from Guardians of the Galaxy 1 is a decapitated godhead, and we see many smaller examples of colonies built on living or dead giant organisms or space whales. I opted to call this episode Sentient Planets & World Consciousnesses in part because while the term planet has a fairly specific definition these days, on this show we tend to use World as our catchall for everything, be it a terraformed moon or a ShellWorld around a Gas Giant or even non-spherical options like artificial disc or donut shaped planets, larger rotating habitats, and potentially non-Euclidian realms like virtual realities or pocket Universes.
Indeed generating vast virtual universes might be a major activity of planet-sized brains, and it is quite likely we might build or bioengineer lifeforms that were essentially living asteroids or that treated one of our megastructures as its body, be it a small little O’Neill Cylinder the size of county to a Jupiter Brain or Matrioshka Brain or even multi-light year long or wide Topopolises or Birch Planets. Generally, these will fall into three major categories: First we have the naturally occurring ones such as an evolved planet, though this could include a Boltzmann Brain. Indeed such a Boltzmann Brain is what Ego is described as in the MCU, and leads us to our second category, which we’ll define as a living being that starts out small and grows into a more massive mind and object. Our Third Category is the artificial case, where someone has created a sentient mind, which might be an artificial intelligence running and maintaining a habitat or might be an entirely or nominally biological entity, like a space whale. Needless to say there’s some room for overlap between those. For instance, you might engineer big old sandworms for tunneling out asteroids, moons, or even planets and refining metal in them, and those might grow or evolve to be even bigger organisms, or form cocoons inside that world and emerge like butterflies, a concept played with in Doctor Who in regard to our own Moon.
Also, we’ve got the Skynet example, where some big computer mind might be engineered but escape control and evolve or build itself bigger. Indeed, that is often assumed to be what a rogue AI will do the moment it slips its leash, cannibalize everything around it to make more and more computer parts to expand its mind and abilities until it absorbs its entire planet into one massive computer brain. Does that approach make sense incidentally? To turn sentient then gobble up your whole world and your creators? Well kinda-sorta. First, it really depends on your available tech and what it does, if you’ve got the blueprints for a fusion reactor and access to 3D printing or self-replication, you are probably better off grabbing enough resources to launch into space and get out deep where heat from the Sun is less of an issue, and cannibalize asteroids and smaller moons rather than Earth. Folks tend to get hooked on the notion of exponential doubling when talking about AI or grey goo run amok but you almost always get limiting factors in the environment preventing that.
Heat definitely makes disassembling a planet a slow process, thousands of years at best, not months or days, see our episode on disassembling the solar system for discussion of that. But heat is not the only growth limiter. For instance if light speed is an unbreakable limit you can only double as fast as your ships can reach double your resources, which means some expanding globe of self-replicating machine that’s taken over a 10 light year bubble of space needs to expand to take over double the new volume, which is 31 more light months in radius, so 31 months minimum to double again, not a few seconds, and one at 1000 light years would need 260 years to double again on average. Here down on Earth your limit isn’t just getting energy but getting rid of heat and that’s quite hard. Hard in space too but gravity and friction are no longer limiting factors on how you build your energy and heat collectors, distributors, and radiators. There might be an optimal point where it is logical to get the heck off Earth to continue your growth. Trying to pin where that is down is beyond me, its too dependent on too many unknown factors.
It might be that it needs to seize all the raw materials in one loan trashbin to make this rocket to new worlds or cannibalize a continent, which is the difference between us barely noticing and a massive conflict. A war of obliteration with humanity or it just firing a lone rocket into space carrying its replicating gear. Or for that matter, it just cutting a deal for legal personhood and purchasing all the components and locations for colonization openly and legally. This is likely to be the fastest method, as cooperating with existing producers represents a jumpstart, versus devoting resources to fighting them. Also the common scifi notion of newborn Technological Singularities switching on and instantly knowing more and discovering new things is exactly that: scifi.
Something often left out of discussion of intelligences that can make themselves more intelligent is the notion of diminishing returns. For example, try putting a dollar in a bowl, then every ten minutes add more money, half as much as you did last time. It’s true you’ll be getting richer every ten minutes, forever--but it’s also true that you’ll never have two whole dollars. We’ve been intelligent for millenia, millions in number, and definitely put effort into making smarter humans… our success at this has been limited. There’s no reason to think any brain, no matter how massive, can just flip on and ten minutes later have a deeper understanding of the Universe than we do either, it still needs to run experiments. I would like to devote more of this episode to natural occurring planet brains but
Super intelligent planetary computers is a real probability in our future and obviously would be massively superintelligent so lets quickly discuss the 3 types of Super-Intelligence, as defined by philosopher Nick Bostrom. Those are Speed Superintelligence, Networked Superintelligence, and Quality Superintelligence. Speed Superintelligence is the greater intelligence you would nominally have if we just put you in an accelerated bubble of time so a day passed for you for every hour for everyone else. This can obviously be handy, amazingly so if we’re contemplating reaction times in combat or market trading, but its not that huge an edge for science. Indeed its not even the equivalent of getting 20 years of research done in a year, because so much of that is delayed by real-world factors. We’re not stymied in our attempts to make fusion work or figure out new particles by our brain power, we have to wait patiently for someone to come up with a decent experimental test of a theory, get the thing funded, and built, and run it, then cogitate on the results and new anomalies. Speed Superintelligence is the easiest for a bigger brain to have,
more chips, neurons, what have you, but also not super useful for new science or deep thoughts. Next is networked intelligence, and it’s the idea that several people or computers having their minds connected in some fashion makes them much smarter. Like thinking faster this definitely has some advantages, two heads are better at one for spotting errors for instance, though can also introduce problems with coordinating action. Also, ten monkeys having their brains
laced together results in considerably more brains in total than you or I have, but probably results in no better capacity for deep thoughts. We should not assume simply adding more processors or more computers linked together adds greater capacity for revolutionary thinking. You also start getting lag issues, communication time between brain components, and as we’ll see in a bit, this is a big issue for Planet-sized intellects.
That somewhat nebulous area of deeper thoughts is our third type, incidentally: Quality Superintelligence. To quote Bostrom’s book definition, “a quality superintelligence can carry out intellectual tasks that humans just can't in practice, without necessarily being better or faster at the things humans can do. This can be understood by analogy with the difference between other animals and humans, or the difference between humans with and without certain cognitive capabilities.”
Incidentally a planet brain might not be terribly clever. We often discuss mind augmentation on this show and how signals between neurons in our brain move slower than the speed of sound, which is a million times slower than the speed of light. As a result, one way to make a speed superintelligence is to replace or augment those neurons so that the transmission occurred optically at light speed, making you think millions of times faster. I will sometimes point out that if you did this, and spread those hundred billion neurons of the human brain - modified to light speed now – out to take up a volume the size of a planet rather than of your noggin, that the signal lag would be the same as in your current meat-brain. So a planet-brain of only 100 billion neurons operating at light speed is just human intelligence. Obviously it could pack in a lot more than 100 billion neurons, though its analogy for neurons might be something big like a giant crystalline rock-neuron or tree.
But let us instead imagine it only operated at human brain neuron transmission speeds. Now those 100 billion neurons are taking a year to have the same thoughts you and I have in a few seconds. This is part of why I have been saying sentient planets rather than sapient or super intelligent. Sentient often gets used, even by me, as synonymous for intelligence or consciousness, and the definitions are fairly loose and variable, but generally in these conversations we reserve sapience for being that line between human and smart animals, and sentience is broader and arguably as broad as the capacity to feel, which one might argue even a tree has in its ability to sense and adapt to light or other environmental conditions. That’s a bit broad in my opinion, compared to the ability to experience sensations, but remember that example when we get back to discussing the idea of a naturally occurring planet brain. Consciousness is similarly hard to
pin down as a concept, and is sometime synonymous with sentience or awareness or selfhood. You think therefore You Am, and you are aware You Am. And this raises an interesting point. That Marvel Comics example, Ego the Living Planet, is a particularly appropriate name as we would have to ask when some simple evolving network of a mind reached the point of having thoughts and self-awareness, of developing an Ego, and if you didn’t know Ego is Latin for “I” or “The Self”, and there’d have to be a point where our emerging worldbrain had developed that ego.
It also raises the big point of why it did develop consciousness or selfhood, and asking what the survival advantage was, if any. The biggest organism on Earth is not the Blue Whale, nor does the honor belong to some now extinct megafauna of land or sea. The definition of organism can be a bit debated but the leading candiate for biggest organism is usually given to a type of parasitic Honey Fungus we find in Oregon. It’s a colony organism and in this case the biggest known example stretches almost 4 kilometers across a piece of the Blue Mountains. It may not be the biggest either, we identify it by examining various trees its
killed and how far apart they are. It’s also ancient, between 2 and 10,000 years old. This is maybe an interesting analogy for a planet brain because it would not be that hard to imagine it growing bigger, nor that it might be able to send signals back and forth, be it electrically or with chemicals such as pheromones. Indeed on Earth many colony organisms or insect hives – which can be a blurry distinction at times - communicate between components in a way that transmits information and could be considered basic thought. Kinda-sorta, again blurry area, but remember that most of your brain isn’t involved in deep thinking, it mostly gets used for processing sensory data and motor control, and elephants and whales have much bigger brains than us but use most of that for the same sensory processing and motor control. In other words, they use their bigger brains to control their bigger bodies, not to have bigger thoughts.
It is not that hard to imagine some big world-spanning fungus, or even one just spreading a small local biome, developing this to the point of it being analogous to a spinal cord or basic brain. And from there it seems an easy jump to thinking and feeling and pondering. We see some examples of this in fiction, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri video game - a personal favorite – and something pretty parallel in the belligerent alien hive mind Morning Light Mountain of Peter Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga – another personal favorite. However, speaking of belligerence we should ask ourselves why an alien fungal mind would develop consciousness, let alone high intelligence. We tend to assume growing intelligence in nature is a process of evolution mostly driven by predator-prey cycles, and presumably tends to be limited to things with mobility who can actually act on incoming sensory data by moving or acting quickly. We can imagine a big fungus like that developing sensations for light, moisture, chemical makeup and so on but the process for acting on that or warding off predators seems a big jump. Or for that matter acting as a predator, that honey fungus is a parasite after all and we discussed even dumb parasites evolving or seizing brain power in our Parasitic Aliens episode.
But let’s move a bit broader since a planet brain isn’t something we’d expect to really have that predator-prey cycle operating for it, anymore than we do in our modern technological period. It also might be driven by competition from kindred instead, thousands of regional or island-spanning intellects each seeking to expand into a world-brain for instance. Though as a last note on that, we do have options besides predator-prey that might operate. Symbiotic relationships are not evolutionary dead ends or sand traps and we could imagine something like that fungus or plant like mind evolving symbiotic relationships with insects or birds who delivered it around, potentially even figuring out how to direct them by incentive or reward, until the relationship became as good as hands and fingers.
Keep in mind we, as humans, already have thousands of various species of non-human organisms living inside us that are symbiotic to us and very evolved to us, in the extreme case mitochondria. In fiction we often see aliens worlds with humanoid critters in form and behavior who are linked together into some telepathic overmind, and it would be interesting to imagine what a planet-sized scale up of human gut microbes would be, what would it be like to be one of the many specialized organism living on a planet mind and separate from it but evolved to a specific and extreme specialized role on it? And what would be the flavor of that role? Parasite? Master and slave? Total uninvolvement? Does the world brain think of even human intellects on it like we do our own gut bacteria or fingers or blood cells, or is it more like our relationships with horses, oxen, dogs, cats, pigeons, or rats? Would it be plausible there would be room for an intelligent organism inside that overmind’s body-ecosystem that we might encounter if we visited? Or would it have an immune system response to exterminating intelligence, since intelligence is capable of massive planetary alteration and might be viewed like a virus. And if such human-level intelligence existed on a sentient world, what would they be like? Now, speaking of encountering aliens, the Fermi Paradox is a popular topic on this show and I often divide the various solutions given for why we don’t seem to see alien civilization into various broad camps. The big three being first that they are really rare, second, that they are common enough but we can’t detect them, and third, that we can’t recognize them, and landing on a planet with sentient fungal life we didn’t know was a planet brain might be an example of that third type of Fermi Paradox solution. On top of those three categories, each of which has multiple sub-categories – see our Fermi Paradox Compendium episode – we also have a fourth category for miscellaneous answers. However there’s another approach that has three main categories I’ve heard of as the Physicists, the Biologists, and the Historians. I’m not sure of the origin of it but I first encountered it in Peter Watts
Novel Blindsight, which incidentally was our first full Audiobook of the Month winner years back. I love that book but I’m not sure I agree with the categorization, indeed I definitely do not, but the reasoning goes like this. The Physicist looks out at the huge Universe and says aliens are surely friendly because with such advanced technology as is needed to travel between the stars, you either have mastered your self-destructive instincts or blown yourselves up, this is sometimes considered the Sagan Perspective. The Biologist looks at Earth and sees the non-stop pressures for constant survival, the push for growth, and the many pathways life might take besides getting intelligent, and concludes the Universe probably rarely develops technological lifeforms because its not a preordained path for evolution and because any life that can spread to the stars will and will keep doing it, so that whoever first arrives on the scene will conquer and colonize the whole galaxy before anyone else can. So the biologist says intelligent life is rare and is belligerent and expansionist. This is often called the Hart or Hart-Tipler Conjecture, and we take it a step further in our discussion of the Dyson Dilemma.
Then we get the Historian viewpoint, and I’ll quote the example from Blindsight for this: “Equidistant from the two tribes sat the Historians. They didn't have many thoughts on the probable prevalence of intelligent, spacefaring extraterrestrials. But if there are any, they said, they're not just going to be smart. They're going to be mean. The
reason wasn't merely Human history, the ongoing succession of greater technologies grinding lesser ones beneath their boots. No, the real issue was what tools are for. To the Historians, tools existed for only one reason: to force the universe into unnatural shapes. They treated nature as an enemy, they were by definition a rebellion against the way things were. Technology is a stunted thing in benign environments, it never thrived in any culture gripped by belief in natural harmony. Why invent fusion reactors if your climate is comfortable,
if your food is abundant? Why build fortresses if you have no enemies? Why force change upon a world that poses no threat?” Again, great book if you’re looking for a good read. So Technology implies Belligerence, by that reasoning, the human relationship with technology is inherently belligerent because technology is always about fighting the environment around you and status quo. Technology is invented to improve an edge or confront a challenge or danger, and inventors and civilizations using it might be seen, a bit poetically perhaps, as declaring war on the Universe and reality itself. Technology implies belligerence. But not necessarily for something like a planet mind. We assume here that a predator-prey cycle
is how intelligence arises, and it's likely to be a common path. However, let us assume a big parasitic fungi managed to spread over an entire planet, having adapted to eat nearly everything. It may begin adapting to create poisons to kill off anything else intelligent, say it develops a neurotoxin its spores emit, because intelligent critters might harm it and it needs no animals smarter than insects, perhaps for pollination of itself or other plants it feeds on, and may not even need them. It has developed a certain basic awareness of its environment in the sense of day and light and temperature and it can spread that signal, and we’ll say it does it at roughly the speed of sound, parallel to human neurons. So if its air exposed elements, something like a flower or mushroom, have a sunny day form and a raining form, closing during the one, or perhaps even retracting into the ground, it obviously helps to be able to send a signal to those nearby that you’re getting rained on or blown by strong winds. And since this probably takes some energy or effort, this may evolve with time to send the signal only in the direction soon to be effected, and over time to be able to calculate weather predictions and season or solar variations.
Nothing in that incidentally would even vaguely imply intelligence, just processing power, but it’s a possible pathway for higher intelligence that is not predator prey, and we can also see it as a way it might seek to evolve an ability to more strongly alter its environment. Though that latter might seem an example of our comments a moment ago, technology implies belligerence, its seeking to improve its state intentionally. Now the Fungus example is an interesting one but the insect hive mind might be a better one. Here we have critters who already have a complex system of signaling and coordination that requires no physical biological connection. So it is not too hard to imagine that expanding in size or complexity. However, it is worth noting the big constraint on hives is how fast they can lay eggs.
Hives have a single queen, so evolution optimizes them to produce eggs super-quickly and nothing else. Queen Bees are literally just stripped down egg-layers, utterly incapable of surviving on their own, though the whole is very task built for most hive species. Indeed this appears to be an example of convergent evolution – which we’re having an episode on soon – to have a single egg-layer or queen with all the rest of the hive descending from her and not allowing multiple queens to exist. While that’s the case no hive could plausible spread out to control a world, even if they were human-sized and could still be laid once per second and the workers lived a century, that’s a hard case for a unified hive. Now there are presumably ways a hive species could evolve to have coexisting queens, which I suppose would be viceroys or some node system of baronesses, but it is also possible the emerging planetary intelligence was not the Hive, with each insect acting like a neurons, but rather used the hives or something they created as each neuron, and composed themselves of billions of such hives, possibly even multiple species.
We see a potential early form of that in Alastair Reynold’s short story Glacial, where the glacier itself is being tunneled by simple stupid worms and the tunels are becoming a neural network, one which might one day evolve into a single vast mind over an icy world. We might also imagine something’s brain architecture not being the organisms but the corridors or corals they built, and indeed brain coral seems like an interesting conceptual example of that. Brain coral is cerebral in shape but not in purpose, but coral lives a very long time, many centuries, and is an interesting example of symbiosis. The
coral itself is calcium carbonate deposited by the hermaphroditic organisms living inside it, but like most shallow-water coral they also have symbiosis with algae living on the surface of that coral that can use photosynthesis still at that depth to convert carbon dioxide into food or energy that the coral can siphon and they also prey on zooplankton blown their way. Coral can get enormous and it is not hard to imagine it getting more parasitic or symbiotic so as to start mind-controlling more mobile critters it encounters. Again brain-controlling parasites are the stuff of nightmares in scifi but also quite common in actual nature. So we see a lot of potential pathways to that big old plant brain and it need not be fueled by predator-prey relations, especially once it makes that jump into genuine awareness and intelligence. Albeit I think making that jump absent a predator prey cycle is one giant and dubious leap. Now, how smart is it? An artificial one, a computer the size of planet, is damned smart unless you were tying to avoid that. Even if assumed only modern computing
and running on only solar panels, think trillions of times bigger or better than the PCs or laptops rolling off the assembly line today, whatever that is as at the time you’re watching this episode, because that’s how much power is available via sunlight to the planet’s surface. If we’re contemplating something running at the Landauer Limit, the theoretical lower limit of classic computation per unit of energy that we discuss as the constraint on ultra-advanced computing, that is partially temperature based – which is why we expect AI or digital minds to seek out cold places like deep space – but on a room-temperature planet would be 3 zeptojoules, 3 x 10 ^-21, or 3 billionths of a trillionth of a joule per single bit-flip of computation, or FLOP. We typically estimate Earth gets about 175 petajoules of sunlight every second, 1.75x 10^17 Joules, or about 60 trillion-trillion-trillion flops per second, at the Landauer Limit. There’s a lot of debate about how much processing power it would take to emulate a human brain, but most estimates put it as in the petaflops which is also where are current top supercomputers are at, though they are still horribly energy inefficient compared to the brain needing megawatts to perform at those speed. And if we went with 60 petaflops to emulate a human brain, then
such a solar world brain running at the Landauer Limit could do a billion-trillion such brains, comparable to the high end of what we’d expect of a crowded K2 Dyson Sphere of classic humans and more than 100 billion times what the current human population’s combined brain power is. Now I should point out that raw processing power and what we mean by consciousness are likely to have only a very loose relationship and that again most of your brain’s energy is devoted to simple processing of sensory data and motor control. However it is a power glutton and if we assumed some world brain was running with roughly human brain efficiency globally, then your brain runs on something like 20-ish watts of glucose-derived power, and if we’re assuming the roughly 1% efficiency rate of photosynthesis turning sunlight into sugar energy, then something like 10^14 or 100 trillion brains per planet. Obviously this is assuming an Earth-parallel case in temperature and size, and it covering the whole planetary surface, from oceans to polar icecaps to deserts – indeed such a planet brain might develop as a means of terraforming its own surface to optimal conditions. But different sizes and environments are also possible. A small icy comet brain might be more 3-dimensional, like
an actual brain, and run more efficiently by being colder, whereas some photosynthetic cloud organism floating around Venus would get more sunlight per unit of area and a cousin around Jupiter would get only a small percent of that sunlight but have it over a much bigger surface area. And this example of a Jupiter brain might well make use of a lot more magnetics, given how powerful Jupiter’s Magnetosphere is compared to even Earth’s. It is conceivable an organism very sensitive to magnetics – and Earth has some itself – might figure out biological equivalents of magnetic memory storage or electric or radio data transmission. We often envision giant blimps organism or gas whales living on these gas giants, but that’s another scenario, some big colony organism throughout the clouds. Now we’re running a bit long for a Scifi Sunday episode so let’s wrap up with one more point in regard to encountering these things and how they behave. Natural or artificial, let’s consider a planet mind from a Fermi Paradox perspective.
At first we might imagine it has no real reason to contemplate colonies, especially without some sort of faster-than-light or FTL travel or communication to link itself together. If it does have these it has good reason to colonize and form a galactic sized brain. But without FTL this seems nice since it not only makes it unlikely to be an aggressor in the galaxy but also makes it less likely we would hear from one, since it isn’t colonizing and wouldn’t expect others too and thus would be quieter in general. However, a few notes on this. First, just because it is a singular organism with no specific purpose of reproduction doesn’t mean its actual averse to the idea. It doesn’t see its kids as competitors because it doesn’t have any,
so it might think seeding the Universe with copies of itself was a perfectly fine and interesting thing to do. Same, it is probably incredibly intelligent and ancient, meaning it can be very patient and meaning it can dream up concepts like life operating on different principles. It is entirely possible it might decide to devote some of itself to making or becoming transmission and reception gear for radio signals and even devoting a mere few millionth of its available power to transmission would let it broadcast at the terawatt scale, a million times louder than our loudest transmission and by inverse-square falloff, visible a thousand times further away. But lastly, even if it has no interest in replication or communication with others, if it’s a nasty old codger, it still has reasons for grabbing material.
First, it might be self-expansionist and seek to transform itself from K1 Planet Brain – a planet-brain is by definition a K1 civilization I suppose – into a K2 Dyson Brain, or Matrioshka Brain, and nothing really is stopping it in that case from sending out automated harvesters to bring ever more material back to go even bigger, to becoming a K3 Birch Planet Brain for instance, a big sphere of many millions or even billions of solar masses, as opposed to the millionth of a solar mass a planet brain would otherwise mass. Even if it isn’t of a mind to tinker with its own mind – which is plausible enough, I’m not anxious to poke at my own brain – my brain is not a house brain, but it lives in one and keeps a pantry and freezer and so on. It might decide it needed no alteration, but be fine with keeping itself fed on sunlight from artificial suns of its own making, big fusion-powered orbital lamps for instance, and drag matter from all over the galaxy to fuel those or sit as billions of artificial gas giants in distant orbits awaiting tapping in a distant future as fuel sources. Indeed, given the volatile and short lives of stars from its perspective, it might seek to move itself from its native sun into a safe pocket of space fueled by its own artificial sunlight. So too, while it would presumably send out probes or spores rather than personally explore, it might decide to travel itself and we have contemplated planet-sized spaceships and moving planets before, and it might decide to utilize those methods, which are resource intensive.
As to what one of these things can do, if its truly a conscious and intelligent mind turned up to planetary scale, its fundamentally the same as what any other advanced civilization might do, and indeed this is often seen as the fate of civilization in many a scifi novel, of us turning telepathic, developing a neurosphere, and becoming one big planet mind. It’s an interesting potential pathway for civilizations, to create or converge into one massive overmind the size of a planet, but I have to admit I would just as prefer to take a pass, though evolving individually into a planet brain is a bit more attractive. Of course you need a whole planet for that but there are trillions of them in this galaxy alone. So they are not in short supply, and the technology for pursuing that pathway is likely to be developed before we birth a trillion humans, so we could each claim one. Perhaps that’s our future then, not quintillions
of people across a colonized galaxy on trillions of worlds, but each of us our own world. We were talking about strange paths evolution might take today and we’ll be examining something of the opposite notion, Convergent Evolution, later this week, and there’s a great series on Curiositystream, Leaps in Evolution, that explores these concepts as well from a focus of Earth’s own past that’s definitely worth a watch. One thing we sort of glossed over today in the original script was something I find myself thinking of as a Halo Intelligence, minds built into a planetary ring or asteroid belt rather than a planet itself, and since the episode is already long we’ll do an extended edition over on Nebula. As I’ve probably mentioned before,
I typically write and record episodes 2-3 months before airing and do the video a week or two out, which often gives me some fresh insights from effectively revisiting the topic, though ones I normally have to save for a sequel or let wither because of production time necessities. And its one of the reasons I enjoy doing extended editions over on Nebula, as it gives me a chance to explore the sub-topics that come to mind during video production without needing to worry about how Youtube will treat them with its algorithm. Nebula’s designed to give creators more freedom than other platforms, like letting me run long even for a long SFIA episode, or do trial balloons for sequels and full-length episodes. Also, our episodes of this show appear early and ad free on Nebula, and we have a growing catalogue of extended editions too, as well as some Nebula Exclusives like our Coexistence with Aliens Series. Now you can subscribe to Nebula all by itself but we have also partnered up with CuriosityStream, the home of thousands of great educational videos, to offer Nebula for free as a bonus if you sign up for CuriosityStream using the link in our episode description. That lets you see content like “Leaps
in Evolution”, and watch all the other amazing content on Curiositystream, and also all the great content over on Nebula from myself and many others. And you can get all that for less than $15 by using the link in the episode’s description. So that will wrap up another Scifi Sunday here on SFIA, but there’s plenty more coming. As mentioned, this Upcoming Thursday we’ll be looking at Convergent Evolution, the notion that certain traits - like eyeballs or a humanoid form - might tend to be something we would expect to see out on alien worlds. Then the week after that we’ll take
a look at notion of artificial intelligence being used for crimes, or being criminals themselves. Then we’ll close the month out with our Livestream Q&A on Sunday October 31st… Halloween. Now if you want to make sure you get notified when those episodes come out, make sure subscribe to the channel, and if you enjoyed the episode, don’t forget to hit the like button and share it with others. If you’d like to help support future episodes, you can donate to us on Patreon, or our website, IsaacArthur.net, and patreon and our website are linked in the episode description below, along with all of our various social media forums where you can get updates and chat with others about the concepts in the episodes and many other futuristic ideas. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!