The Fermi Paradox: Technological Timebombs

The Fermi Paradox: Technological Timebombs

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This episode is brought to you by Brilliant Humanity’s technological progress in the last   few centuries has been staggering, lifting  us up to the heavens above themselves. But   what if our own ingenuity is bringing us ever  close to an inevitable doom of our own making? The Fermi Paradox is perhaps the greatest mystery  to arise from our greater understanding of Life,   the Universe, and Everything, as we developed  telescopes to see distant stars, and microscopes   to see tiny cells. The sheer scope of, not only  life on Earth, but the apparent existence of   uncountable trillions of other worlds that would  likely match our basic starting conditions,   makes us pause to wonder how, in such a vast and  ancient Universe, we could possibly be alone.  The sheer scope of that Universe is mind-crushing  as we contemplate how immense our own planet and   history is, while still being an insignificant  speck in space and time, a tiny pale blue dot.   Our reality is both terrifying and awesome, and  that would surely also describe any civilizations   which arose long before us, and crafted  kingdoms among the stars themselves. What  

technologies and artifices they must possess,  what wonders and horrors could they construct?  And this is our vantage point today, because,  for good or ill, we do not seem to see those   immense empires and their gargantuan capabilities  in our galaxy. Many reasons are suggested for why,   and often, it is the notion that we genuinely are  alone. That, some aspect of our initial creation   is incredibly improbable, or that the paths  to intelligence and technology are far harder   than we assume, and rarely completed. We are  alone and stand at the pinnacle of our world,   and will soon claim a galaxy to forge  to our purposes and aspirations.  And yet, there is that dreadful fear that we are  alone; not because the road to technology is hard,   but rather, because the destination is easy  to reach and claim, but that technology is not   simply a knife on which the reckless may cut  themselves, but a delicious time bomb that we   arm simply by touching, and an addiction  that, once tasted, can not be put down,   even if you see the clock counting down. That, technology is a ticking time bomb,  

waiting to get us, or a drug we will almost  inevitably overdose on. That, the silence we hear   when we aim our ears to the heavens is the silence  of the grave, the chant of unanswered calls,   echoing through the emptiness of a tomb, and  that, we too, will almost certainly join that   chorus. That, a thousand years from now, the only  sign we were ever here in our galaxy, will be our   fading radio signals reaching out to ears that  cannot hear, as they too, are now long dead.  Humanity has doubtlessly passed many hurdles to  get where we are, and we call these ‘filters’   in regard to the Fermi Paradox, things which, on  other worlds, many did not pass. Some may be ones   that many pass, but many do not, and we call those  the Lesser Filters, and they may be independent   of a world or clade of species, like an asteroid  striking a planet, that’s big enough to cause mass   extinction or even sterilization. Others may be  stronger filters, ones which few pass, but which  

we would still expect to see countless survivors  of, given the sheer enormity of planets out there.   Still, others are what we call Great Filters,  those challenges where we would expect passage   no more often than we would someone winning the  lottery. Collectively, we call the filters we   have already passed the “Early Filters”. And, of course, for all that your odds of  

winning a lottery are slim, they are not none, and  someone does win, indeed thousands every year, so,   given that there are more stars in this galaxy  than there are humans on this planet, and more   galaxies than there are humans too, we usually  assume those Great Filters must be steep indeed,   or that the sum total of early filters just  makes your odds of getting to the end of the   early filters so slim, that no one has passed them  before us, who is near enough for us to hear from.  But, we have the late filters too, because, it  is not really about if we could hear a twin of   ourselves on the other side of the galaxy, if  they happened to exist long enough back in time   that their signal could have crossed that gulf of  stars and reached us today. Rather, it is implicit   in the assumption that they be both willing,  and able, to spread themselves to the stars,   not just their radio signals, so that they, or  their divergent descendants, might still be around   today, and near us, where we could hear them. There are two critical late filters under which   almost every scenario falls. First is that it is  possible and practical to engage in interstellar   colonization, and second is that species survive  long enough to get the knowledge and opportunity   to spread out. These two combined, have long  represented one of the largest factions on  

Fermi Paradox solutions, and indeed, essentially  the very first one. That paradox is named for   Enrico Fermi, who helped design the first nuclear  reactor, who was there for the detonation of the   first nuclear bomb, and who helped design the even  more immense hydrogen bomb. All of which happened   before any man-made object, let alone a human,  left this planet. Indeed, even the first radio  

telescopes were not even a generation old yet,  and Frank Drake had yet to propose his equation   predicting the probability of success in the  search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.  As such, it is probably no surprise that Enrico  Fermi and many others of that era simply assumed   that interstellar colonization was  either impossible or impractical,   while alternatively, blowing ourselves up  was not. It really was not until the 1970s,   on the heels of the Apollo missions and many  successful uncrewed missions to other planets,   that anyone outside of science fiction really  seemed to think we could get to the stars one day,   and Star Trek itself didn’t premier till 22 years  after Fermi’s death. Even then, there was a common  

assumption in science and sci-fi circles that  any progress we made to the stars would probably   be interrupted by a Nuclear War, or several.  Usually, it was a question of if we would survive,   and folks often thought that passing this filter  would require a fundamental change in our nature.  After the Cold War ended, nuclear war was viewed  as less likely, and we typically thought of   it in the context of a rogue state getting  their hands on a few warheads, devastating,   but not world-ending, and better modeling of  fallout and nuclear winter scenarios made it   seem unlikely that even a full-scale nuclear  exchange would permanently wreck the planet.   Nonetheless, nuclear energy was often regarded  as that potentially ticking time bomb, that,   if we allowed ourselves to use it, even for  peaceful ends, we would become addicted to it,   and so skillful in its use, that it becomes  prevalent enough that preventing wide-access to   nuclear bombs would become almost impossible  and their use to become almost inevitable.  It may be so too. I may be an optimist but I’m  also a realist, and it is not currently possible  

for someone to create a nuclear bomb entirely  in their basement with enough resources, and   without help from others. But, like every other  physicist, I know how to make a nuclear reactor   or nuclear bomb, even if either would be a clumsy  Model-T equivalent, and I can see where certain   technologies would make it possible for someone  with the right knowledge to get the job done.   3D printers aren’t magic, as we looked at  in our Santa Claus Machine episode. However,   it would not take too many improvements to current  technology such that they should be able to make   a few of the critical devices for nukes in a  proverbial basement. As to Uranium itself, you’ve  

got plenty enough in your own backyard, about  3 parts per million in typical American soil.  Personally, especially given that I am a big  fan of nuclear power and breeder reactors,   I’d just view that as an excuse for civilizations  to remove background radioactive materials from   their environment, where they slowly kill us  anyway, but the key point is, it raises the idea   that many technologies which are beneficial have a  dangerous side that only get easier to access, as   your knowledge and experience with the technology  grows. Simultaneously, the technology is not just   growing more dangerous, but growing harder to get  rid of, as it’s more entrenched in daily life,   and its removal has very definite results, not  just theoretical ones. That’s a frequent issue   in many environmental and ecological efforts.  We fear what will eventually happen if we don’t   stop doing something, and may have to weigh  that against more concrete knowledge of what   will happen if we just stopped doing some practice  tomorrow. This doesn’t assume any maliciousness,   stupidity, or insanity on the part of any of the  actors involved, which can happen too of course,   just people faced with hard choices  and great uncertainties in making them. 

Alternatively, we do have crazy, stupid, and  malicious people. One loony getting their hands   on a nuke is not the end of the world, but we have  a lot of loonies, and the fear of them can be even   more destabilizing than the activity itself. A  lot of our tragedies, while frequently killing or   injuring fewer folks than died of natural causes  elsewhere during the event, obviously have major   cultural, economic, and political consequences,  far out of proportion with their direct damage.  So, nuclear is that main example of  a possible technological time bomb,   but not the first that folks have suggested. The  internal combustion engine and our reliance on   fossil fuels is often viewed as one, and we’ve had  those longer than nukes. Further back, monocrops  

over crop rotation or polyculture, often ruined  large tracts of arable land and local ecologies,   and we often worry we’re severely damaging  our ecology’s robustness, irrespective of   carbon dioxide concerns by land and sea usage  practices that are hurting ecological diversity,   damaging pollinators, depleting nutrients,  or encouraging rapid migration of invasive   species without their normal predators  and parasites that limit their growth.   Those aren’t really world-ending scenarios,  probably anyway, but they are examples of how   technology gives us something we really need or  want and it’s very hard to decouple it. There’s   often a very real fear that the sacrifice  required to do so would be literal human   sacrifice. For that matter, a technological time  bomb for the Fermi Paradox need not end the world,  

just prevent galactic colonization from  occurring even on astronomically long timelines.  Now, for my part, I don’t think we’d often have  a technology we knew was innately and certainly   lethal to our civilization and just turn a  blind eye to it, but you can obviously make   a case about a civilization being in denial, and  it’s certainly a lot easier to see truths if they   are not unpleasant ones that require a cost. So,  none of us really have a hard time believing that,   if a technology existed that, when developed, puts  us on an inevitable path to ruin, we might take   a long time coming to believe those raising the  alarm and possibly might not until it is too late.  That begs the questions of when is too late, and  too late for whom, as technology often permits   some impressive feats of survival and regrowth.  Indeed, as we’ve looked at in other episodes,   certain plausible advanced technologies would seem  to allow disaster recovery that would rival or   exceed Noah’s Ark, see our episode: Evacuating  Earth, for some of the extreme examples.  In any event, you can’t avoid the  catastrophe if you’re in denial about it,   but you also have to have some means  of even knowing about it. You could  

have a hypothetical technology that showed no  evidence of being harmful until it exploded.   We might imagine a wormhole to another dimension  that provided unlimited free energy in the form   of harmless visible photons coming through. They  are incredibly easy to manufacture and can only be   done in relatively low-power-density fashions,  maybe a few watts each, and so we install them   into phones and install whole arrays of them  into houses and cars and such. They’re tricky to  

usefully weaponize beyond just being economic  and logistical miracles. Unbeknownst to us,   it’s a property of these awesome dimensions that  they undergo periodic flashes of higher photon   energy. Instead of harmless visible  light coming out the tiny wormhole,   every couple hundreds years or so, it rapidly  boosts frequency into the high-gamma range.  Suddenly, every vehicle, phone, house, pacemaker,  brain chip, streetlight, and satellite, all become   powerful gamma-ray emitters. Death is near instant  for everyone, even folks not living on Earth,   after all, this power technology sure made  space colonization easier and it’s running   every ship and every power plant on deep  space habitats or interstellar colonies. 

If that sounds like a fun story to read,  Isaac Asimov’s novel: The Gods Themselves,   uses something of a similar concept, no spoilers  beyond that, except that it was the first sci-fi   novel he’d written after a 15 year hiatus on  the genre, and his own favorite of his sci-fi   writings, which were numerous and excellent. Anyway, this is what I usually call a suicide   pact technology, or a honey-pot or honey trap  technology, as a variant of the term used in   espionage and cybersecurity for seducing  someone or generally tempting targets.   Some technology whose dangers cannot be seen in  foresight and which is just too tempting not to   use everywhere. That’s critical, because  if every battery on this planet right now,   exploded like a grenade, we would still have a lot  of survivors, even as widespread as batteries are,   and same, if we were using something like a black  hole power generator and we turned out to be all   wrong about how black holes work, so it either  expired and blew up the whole planet, or ate it.  

The technology itself makes colonization so easy  that there would be bound to be some colonies and   they should get forewarning of cataclysms. Even if they didn’t know what did it,   as one after another cooked off and the absence  of further signals was the only forewarning of   what happened, you’d expect some folks to head  for the high hills, metaphorically speaking,   and someone is bound to come to suspect the  near-infinite power source was a possible cause   and bunker up somewhere without it. Indeed in a  big enough civilization prone to paranoia, a trait   that should not be rare in intelligent species,  you might expect some folks to blame something   logically absurd for the cause, like drinking too  much coffee, or a dubious means to predict it,   like their horoscope, so if it turned out unknown  rare planetary conjunctions caused the event,   some would survive, by hitting on the cause by  luck. But on the other hand, if every battery   on this planet did suddenly start cooking off  like a grenade, even if that was taking place   over months, it might be a real long time before  anyone managed to determine that, especially given   the chaotic impact on civilization implied by  such a random catastrophe happening everywhere.  Now, a Suicide Pact Technology, or SPT, is one  where I tend to assume the civilization does   know about the dangers of the tech or finds out  when it is still entirely possible to break usage   off. I think it’s implied there that they have to  be in denial about it but we could hypothesize a   civilization knowing and believing it had that  impact but thinking they had an escape clause or   would inevitably get one. Or maybe that the result  is a good thing, like an ascendance machine that’s  

going to transport all of their minds to a higher  state of being but would vaporize their planet in   the process. Given that we have had even large  groups of folks do that sort of thing before,   like suicide cults, it isn’t really all that  implausible to think a very believable design   might be more persuasive, or that an alien  species might be more inclined to be persuaded,   though, that doesn’t pass muster under  Exclusivity, which is our Fermi Paradox   argument that asks if a given solution for one  civilization would plausibly apply to virtually   all of them. Some would seem likely to be  more or less credible or gullible than us.  So, that’s a suicide pact technology or SPT,  though these are mostly in house terms that we   often use a bit interchangeably with each other. For today’s purpose and discussion, we will define  

a Honeypot Technology, or HPT, as one where  it is innately tempting to use it and there   are no obvious signs of the technology being  dangerous until its embedded into civilization.   This need not be automatically fatal either,  just any technology that’s got some heavy costs   on the backend for using that you don’t see until  it’s embedded. There’s certainly plenty of these,   though your mileage may vary on what qualifies,  and in the Fermi Paradox context of course we   do mean lethal examples for HPTs. Honey Trap  Technology, or HTTs, we will define those as  

being where someone really does know it’s  dangerous, but hides or lies about that,   and these are also common and also somewhat in the  eye of the beholder, but a lot of addictive drugs   presumably qualify as this. In a Fermi Paradox  context this might be where some ancient alien   race likes to beam out diagrams to wonderful  new technologies that they know are lethal   and they know are too tempting not to build. Though, it could also include something of a   double trap, like a group of immoral leaders  finding a great technological way to do   brainwashing or indoctrination that eventually  leads to a totally obedient and loyal populace   and those leaders then being unable to resist  employing it without realizing that it's going   to backfire on them too, down the road. In a  case like that, it’s a lot more believable they   wouldn’t predict that to backfire, since they’re  presumably not able to expose that technology to   a lot of open critical inspection, review  and discussion. There’s an episode of the   classic Twilight Zone, “the Obsolete Man”, that  particularly comes to mind for how brainwashing   by totalitarian states can get those at the top  eventually too, and a great classic to catch.  Now, the problem with beaming out dangerous  technology is that, while that diagram can move   at light speed, thus outpacing any colony fleets  you might send to claim the galaxy, or galaxies,   it is almost bound to raise some eyebrows,  or whatever aliens use to express skepticism.  

I’m going to guess that skepticism is a common  trait among any intelligent and social species,   and something of a prerequisite for developing  science and advanced technology too, such as   radio receivers. If I were the big evil alien  empire here, I’d probably not say ‘this device for   cheap power’ because it makes folks wonder where  everyone else is who previously benefited from it.  I’d probably say “This is an automated beacon,  broadcasting for eternity using this awesome   power source. We, and presumably everyone since  us, have benefited from this technology’s ability   to open doorways to uninhabited multiverse  versions of our own world. Thus, you can   travel and colonize near-infinite copies of your  home world without needing to risk century long   voyages to barren planets and ages of terraforming  when you can step right into worlds where the only   difference is however many millions of  years ago your first primitive ancestor   made that step up from animal to intelligent  proto-human – or proto-alien – they instead got   killed by their curiosity before spreading  their genes and it hasn’t re-emerged yet.” 

Then you explain how it can also be used  for cheap power – carefully dialing a small   gateway to your planet or sun’s hot core  – and attach a warning that many copies   of your world might have dangerous  circumstances on them and here’s an   algorithm for dialing to planets that are  safe. And somewhere around number 100 is   the one that casually dials to the reality  where that world is a giant black hole.  It raises the big question of why there’s no other  signals – of course they might be broadcasting   plenty of fakes, testimonials from those worlds  they helped out, which are actually other worlds   they later colonized broadcasting fake signals.  The rare handful that figure it out might prefer   to lie low, or even just figure that anyone  stupid enough to fall for it had it coming, less   competition for the galaxy, and that everyone else  out there is either dead, or in on the hustle,   and would target and destroy anyone who tried  to inform on them. Or maybe the big empire just   floods the radio waves with countless lies content  to assume the tiny amount of truth slipping in   from others is just getting buried and ignored  like the 1 millionth entry on your web browser   search results. You actually do see a bright and  vibrant galactic empire out there, it just happens   to be lies and propaganda. Of course, we do not  see that, so, unless it turns out that there’s  

some radio alternative, like a Hyperwave or  Galactic internet that we invariably and easily   stumble on and it turns out to be full of garbage,  we can assume this scenario is not going on.  Maybe instead it’s wormhole gate technology  to other parallel multiverses but it’s called   a one way trip, you either use it to go to  a new world and can’t return, or you use it   to suck power from other realities and can’t go  there. All one way. Except, in a case like that,   you would expect plenty of folks to migrate  through the mysterious gates and plenty more   to use the other method, one way power generation.  I can’t imagine that, if it only allowed one way   travel out of the Universe, it would ever get  universal usage, something we discussed more in   our Aloof Aliens episode. So, you would expect  your tricks to leave lots of people behind. 

Critical notion though, it is hard to picture  recipients not being worried about deception   and looking their gift horses in the mouth.  If you offer a technology that’s supposed   to be wildly beneficial, they presumably  will ask where all the beneficiaries went,   and any scenario justifying that has to be very  convincing and, even so, is still likely to raise   eyebrows… or again, whatever protrusion a given  alien might raise or move, to indicate skepticism.  On the other hand, the simple fact that we warn  people about getting conned and also routinely   sentence people to jail for running con games,  doesn’t seem to have resulted in either ceasing   to happen. People still get conned, or try to  con others, and an ancient and advanced alien   race might be really clever. We don’t usually  think of hyper-intelligent AI or aliens being   as persuasive as, and more charming than a used  spaceship sales-being, but that’s probably in   the wheelhouse of supersmart critters and  I could believe that a clever adult could   come up with a line of claptrap that would fool  99.9% of 4-year-olds, so, we shouldn’t assume  

a hyper-advanced alien civilization doesn’t  know how to swindle primitives like us with   99.9% effectiveness. The remaining clever folks  they sweep up with giant armadas and space guns.  So, a Honey Trap Tech or HTT is one intentionally  used to sabotage others, which may or may not also   get you, and they differ from a Honey Pot Tech, or  HPT, in that there’s an assumption of deliberate   malice or deceit in their use. Both would be  subsets of Technological Timebombs I think,   and I think we’ve illustrated those examples  enough, and you can probably come up with others,   and also come up with reasons why many might not  work. Feel free to post both for discussion in the   comments on this episode or on our various social  media discussion forums, linked in the episodes...   which is also a great opportunity to hit that  like or subscribe button while you’re at it.  One other example to close out on for the day is  that, we can make a pretty good case that there   aren’t various technologies which are potential  suicide pacts, rather, it is technology itself   that is the time bomb. It is tantalizing and  addictive and while earlier on it’s a nice option,  

we are essentially totally reliant on it now,  the same way we are with food or water. Indeed,   we need those technologies to get food or water,  practically speaking. Folks often discuss going   back to a more primitive existence, we even  looked at that in our Techno-Primitivism and   Techno-Barbarian episodes, and I think you can  make a very strong case that, once a civilization   or species starts down that road to using  technology, it will likely grow more and be more   reliant on it, and learn more and more dangerous  ways to use it. That, inevitably, it will cross  

a threshold where dangerous technologies  are so easily available that it’s just   a statistics game until they self-annihilate. In the absence of any evidence of a threat though,   I don’t think we can assume the silence in  the heavens is the silence of the grave. That,   we are just the next world in a long  line of victims of our own cleverness.   To a degree, it becomes a worldview – or galaxy  view, I suppose – either knowledge is a worthy   pursuit in spite of its many dangers along the  road, and will offer paths of salvation from those   doomsdays we create with it, or it’s a road that  almost inevitably leads straight to damnation.   I choose to assume the former. Ultimately, the only way to know  

if Technology is a Time Bomb, is to wait out  the clock to see if it explodes, so neither I   nor anyone else watching this today can give a  definite answer on that. Of course, if you’re   watching this thousands of years from now or an  alien watching this thousands of light years away,   you presumably know the answer. I always assume a  large part of our audience might be historians or   aliens, even if they just get a kick watching  to see how often wrong I am, but then on this   particular topic, if I am wrong, they presumably  aren’t inclined to laugh, or exist to do so.

So we were talking about a lot of dangerous  technologies that might wipe out humanity,   everything from nuclear power to artificial  intelligence to faster than light travel,   and also how often dangerous technologies can  cause some irrational worries for folks too. In a   technological society it's vital for us to be able  to see dangers where they are, not turn a blind   eye to them or exaggerate them into boogeymen,  and the key to that is knowing the science and   good critical, scientific thinking. These are  also knowledge and skills that are increasingly   valuable in nearly every career and everyday life. But Math and science can be daunting topics to   many but they don’t need to be, and our friends  over at Brilliant have courses from beginner   level to advanced, to suit where you are,  including wonderful interactive courses on   both scientific thinking and Everyday Math, to  help with those key foundational knowledges that   you can build on. The best learning is hands-on  and interactive learning, and Brilliant is an  

amazing tool for learning STEM interactively. Brilliant makes it easier for anyone to learn,   be it the basics or advanced materials, and  is the perfect partner for a lifetime learner.  With Brilliant, you can learn at your own pace,  learn on the go, and learn something new. To get   started for free, visit  or click on the link in the description,   and the first 200 people will get 20% off  Brilliant's annual premium subscription.  

So we were talking about possible doomsday  technologies and one example of that would   be a technology that literally wipes your  civilization out backwards in time, and we   will be exploring that and other dangerous and  weaponized uses of Time Travel next week, and how   those function inside of various temporal models  like alternate timelines. Before that though,   this weekend is our monthly Scifi Sunday episode,  Dumbest Alien Invasions, where we’ll examine the   weirdest attempts and motives in fiction to invade  Earth. Then in two weeks we’ll ask what humanity’s   first space settlement will be like, and where  it will be: in orbit, on the Moon or Mars or   somewhere else. Then we’ll close the month  out with our Livestream Q&A on Sunday August  

28th at 4pm Eastern time, where we take your  questions from the chat and answer them live.  If you want alerts when those and other episodes  come out, don’t forget to subscribe to the channel   and hit the notifications bell. And if you  enjoyed today’s episode, and would like   help support future episodes, please visit our  website, Isaac, for ways to donate,   or become a show patron over at Patreon. Those  and other options, like our awesome social media   forums for discussing futuristic concepts,  can be found in the links in the description. 

Until next time, thanks for  watching, and have a great week!

2022-08-12 18:06

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