The Fermi Paradox: Technological Timebombs
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
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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 Arthur.net, 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!