The Fermi Paradox: Digital Empires & Miniaturization
This Episode is brought to you by Hello Fresh! We always assume alien civilizations simply grow with time, sprawling out across the galaxy, or else shrink and wither away. But what if they shrink in size, not in stature? So today we are returning to the topic of the Fermi Paradox, the problem of rectifying the apparent absence of alien civilizations with a Universe so ancient and enormous it seems like it should be teeming with a trillion interstellar empires. And one of the key concepts to the Paradox is the idea that colonizing other worlds and star systems should be possible and practical and something that appeals to many species who have the same basic imperatives that we have and that life on Earth generally has – to expand and explore and grow.
So the paradox always comes down to trying to account for why this has not happened for others, which might involve explaining why life is rare, or acknowledging that it might be out there but we’ve somehow missed detecting it. Generally the reasons why are that we would expect intelligent life to be rare or short in duration, which fall under the Great Filters, or else that they are not rare but are hard to detect, which falls to SETI, the astronomical Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, and finally why it might hide from us or ignore us. And regardless of their subcategories, most of our answers in this case end up being somewhere in those three main ones, or a fusion of two. One of the common Fermi Paradox solutions folks ask me to discuss springs from Moore’s Law of Transistors, or the general tendency of computers to get smaller and smaller and yet more powerful.
The general idea is that civilizations then would follow a similar pathway, getting more miniaturized, opting to grow yet doing so by needing less and less resources for each person. This solution has a number of problems we’ll get into, but from years of thinking and feedback on it, I suspect it might be a bit more plausible than I sometimes give it credit for. But of course, all of the Fermi Paradox solutions have some issues, ranging from relatively minor to multiple and gaping, to the point that I suspect some critical part of our modern perspective on the Universe must actually be wrong or somehow skewed. One of those notions is that life arises from common ancestry and, through a long series of mutations while under environmental pressure, diverges into different forms which share some common characteristics that emerge from repeated natural selection coin flipping. Principally, any trait that makes them more capable of survival or of protecting their own species or ecosystem, is going to persist in future generations more often than other traits.
This is more or less what we’d call evolution, and its main focus, an emergent property of biology in its most general sense, so it’s something we expect to be somewhat universal. Because of this we assume a species has some drive toward betterment, and that even an intelligent one with science, technology, and abstract thoughts, still has this as their default end goal, even if they are aware of it consciously and able to resist it or dismiss it. That’s an important caveat, since by default we might expect any technological species to seek and colonize other worlds once they can do so practically. But we are also aware of the various pros and cons of that general strategy, and we also would be expected to seek the capability to alter our own minds and instincts.
Which is to say, a technological species has to worry about addictions and pathological or maniacal behavior, and would seek the science and technology to manage those too, and such technologies probably let you switch off or dampen a specific motivation like the drive to explore or split the tribe to expand, for good or ill. So the default is a civilization seeking to colonize the stars but we can’t ignore that they, or some non-natural successor they made like artificial intelligence, might lack that motive. And the follow up on that is that while they probably would not be looking to remove all pioneer spirit or ambition, they might opt to dampen or redirect specific forms of it toward others, indeed we often do this already and it’s hardly new. And for today’s topic that redirection is the notion that we compact ourselves rather than expand ourselves, doing more with less, and thus still growing our numbers but through miniaturizing the individual.
So if you need half the resources to support someone as you did a generation ago, then you could double your numbers, and use those new folks to help find a way to halve things again, letting you double again, and so on, ad infinitum. And that’s the first flaw on this; that it does require the miniaturization be ad infinitum, because the moment that you grow faster than you can miniaturize, you need more resources, and not all those resources are infinitely reusable, getting expended. What’s more, finding ways to grow more food on less land presumably has its limits. Now this is where the computer angle comes in because the assumption is that we can upload our minds to computers or create progeny and civilization built on computers, possibly living in virtual worlds.
And these virtual worlds offer far more variety than we expect the actual Universe to have. So the basic reasoning is that a humanity – or post-human successor or aliens – opt to create vastly more efficient and compact, but also more interesting, virtual worlds to live in. And there is a certain tendency to assume Moore’s Law about computer improvements would continue indefinitely. Even about 5-10 years ago, many of those futurist minded folks I tended to discuss these concepts with were often very resistant to any implication that there was a limit to how long we could keep doubling processor speed every couple years or a hard limit on how compact computers could get. This has waned a bit, we’re hitting the hazy limit of what a silicon semiconductor transistor can be compacted into, just a few atoms in size, as we brush close to the edge of Quantum Uncertainties.
At the same time desktop computers aren’t really improving as fast as they used to and folks don’t seem quite as emphatic about Moore’s Law being eternal. So in the last few years I have noticed I actually get far fewer arguments for eternal miniaturization as a Fermi Paradox solution. But some modify this by fairly pointing out that the level of miniaturization you could do is probably finite, but the amount of available Universe to colonize presumably is finite too.
So too, while miniaturization options may be infinite, as may the Universe, your ability to get to new bits of it is a factor to consider. The Universe may be infinite, but if you can only get to 10% more new systems in a given generation, that’s all you can grow. And the same limitation applies to miniaturization; if you only get 1% more miniaturized in a period, but grew 2%, that’s not sustainable. And indeed, likely neither rate is sustainable since resources do get used up. Even the stars die. Entropy slowly eats away at your gain, so that even though you could support X number of people now, tomorrow, the numbers you could support would be reduced just a little bit, and a bit more the day after, unless you either got more efficient or got more resources.
You have to keep getting new resources, and growing that way, or miniaturizing, not just to permit new growth of your people, but just to keep from declining. So the other objection, and the one I usually raise, is the Either-Or issue. Which is to say that there’s nothing stopping you from doing both strategies, go colonize new worlds while finding out better ways to use what you already have. Given that some options will appeal to some people – or aliens or AI – more than to others, you presumably will have volunteers seeking to devote their efforts to both paths and all the subcategories of each and hybrids of both. Assuming you have not classified such people as insane and sought to treat them, which is very possible, and a point we’ll come back to later.
Now a civilization might not care about growing, and indeed might object to it. To a high-tech civilization, every new mouth to feed might be an eternal one too, as methods of life-extension might make the idea of growing old and dying a thing of the past, especially for digital civilization living in virtual worlds on computers. To an individual lost in virtual empires of their own making, potentially existing in those for untold centuries, most of what drives us to unity as a culture and species goes away, such as desiring offspring in spite of them competing with us for limited resources and influence.
One might ask if there is any inherent value to increasing your numbers, and post-biological organisms with no overriding hormones or any fear of death by old age might think the answer is “No”. And this is where we get two problems with our normal perspective on this. The first is that a virtual civilization living in a billion private paradises probably isn’t very good at running a civilization anymore, and we have examined that concern before and may give the topic of virtual reality or neurohacking possibly wrecking civilization, their own episodes, but for today we’ll raise our usual main rebuttal on that. Any civilization capable of building hyper-realistic virtual realities populated with virtual characters who do even an okay-ish job at mimicking human behavior, and thus is attractive to most humans as an alternative to living in the real world, can also build ultra-good robots capable of colonizing space or harvesting space resources. We’ll return to that point later too but the other problem is that purely digital or mind-augmented humans who are featured in most virtual or digital civilization scenarios are not necessarily experiencing time at the same rate we do.
Indeed as we’ve discussed in our post-human and cyborg episodes, they are likely to experience variable time. Think of them as having processors and fuel as their brains and how fast they run them is how fast time passes for them, in terms of thinking, as compared to in the outside Universe, and of course if your whole existence is digital in a digital world, that essentially means time passes at whatever rate you choose at the time. This will be bound by many factors, and one is that it is generally cheaper to run slower, using less energy to calculate the same things – or have the same thoughts – at a slower rate.
This is the notion behind the Black Hole Farmers we discuss in our Civilizations at the End of Time Series. But speed, while less efficient, has many advantages, especially if competing for finite resources, or if your resources spoil, or your machinery decays with time, or you have a certain baseline where slower isn’t much better. And for digital critters mimicking human intellect on a computer, odds are good this would be a lot faster than we experience. So the notion is that if you think 100 times faster than a normal human, you experience about 2 years worth of thought in a week, and a week of normal thought in a couple hours. But this also means you experience a 40 year journey to another solar system at a fraction of light speed as 4000 years.
Now the upside of being such a being is that you can slow your time down too, so as to exist for centuries while only experiencing a few years – and in point of fact we usually assume slowing or speeding of subjective awareness for transhumans and digital consciousnesses – what we call frame-jacking – could be occurring millions of times faster or slower than normal times, not hundreds. So this would seem to advantage such civilizations at finding colonists and running interstellar civilizations. Those travelers can experience the journey at whatever rate they want, presumably even totally frozen.
Indeed they can experience it at normal time or sped up time if they like, given that they might already live on a computer in a simulated reality, some or all of the time. They make this voyage partially for curiosity, but also because a virgin solar system offers them virtually unlimited resources to continue their own existence. And indeed that is the case and what’s also the case is that they might be able to make such journeys at light speed by being sent as a radio or laser signal of data, and so too, a small number of colonists can be copied millions of times to produce colonies if needed. Indeed given that such civilizations might number in the quadrillions back here on or near Earth, and that copied minds diverge from the originals and each other, you should have little problem finding billions of volunteers and even a few thousand volunteers should give you a multiplicity of qualified candidates for every necessary slot, especially given that they might be superhumanly intelligent and nigh immortal, which makes them likely to be skilled at many things. Consider, if a copied mind diverges, then a pool of a thousand randomly selected colonists from a pool of ten thousand, even cutting that down to be random only from specific candidates, like one biologist selected from five available, offers more potential combinations and permutations of colonists than stars in this galaxy. And divergence of personalities from different combinations of friends and coworkers, and different planets with different challenges, would ensure those folks had very little in common with their clones a thousand light years away and thousands of years diverged.
I should probably note though that we’re assuming their civilization does have outlier folks who want to colonize. They might not. One case makes a pretty good argument that our civilization’s pioneers and inventors and researchers are all outliers, maybe even crazy, and I’ve heard the analogy that a lot of our civilization’s achievement is achieved by encouraging and yoking our obsessive workaholics. This episode isn’t on the Pareto Principle or its psychological variant for human productivity, Price’s Law, but if it were true that a lot of a civilization’s forward momentum creatively and scientifically was being driven by a relative minority of folks who are rather atypical in motivation and drive, to the point of being obsessive or maniacal about some pursuit like exploring or scientific research or writing or art and so on, a sufficiently advanced civilization probably has the ability to ‘fix’ that behavior and might feel morally obliged to. They may not want to make gains by what they saw as the neglectful abuse of some members for a reason akin to why we dislike dangerous testing on humans even when doing so might save many more lives. Bit of a tangent and not one unique to miniaturizing civilizations, but such miniaturization is inherently based on altering human minds by at least shifting them to some other substrate besides a meat-brain, like semiconductors, so given their embracing that option, mind alteration of an extensive thing is likely to be something they are very good at and more open to doing.
We have to acknowledge then that such a civilization has the ability to colonize the galaxy or harvest it with ease. Now one concern with a society of individuals or small groups in a vast Dyson Swarm of computer realities around our Sun, is that they really have no personal motivation to go to those new systems. Whatever science fiction shows us, worlds out in the galaxy will have a certain boring sameness, if they’re all uninhabited dead rocks when we get there, compared to endless virtual worlds of our creation. Curiosity isn’t a bad reason to send probes, but mostly you send out harvesters to bring back more resources for building and fueling more virtual worlds or for fueling them longer or faster.
Speed can still matter though and partially because competition might be in play. I don’t think the future of post-humans in virtual worlds is necessarily a trillion people ruling over their own personal world of simulated citizens as petty god-kings, but in such a scenario if you did have folks harvesting resources from many stars away and bringing them back, you might find it easier to pirate them instead of sending your own harvesters. On the other side of things, folks might decide the best way to run their personal universe was to pack themselves, their computers, and some resources up and fly off to the frontier to claim a whole star for themselves.
Key notion is that in both cases, nobody is really interested in their neighbors as cohesive civilizations, just threats, rivals, and targets for predation. And in one where folks are motivated because of a fondness for that civilization, you’re asking them to head out to space where they will miss out on participating in that civilization, and be delayed on a lot of their civilization’s experiences and events, including their friends and family. The reality is that their ability to slow time to skip a boring journey or losing life is no real advantage, they’re functionally immortal if they’re digital and their personal utopia is mobile too, it’s just their interactions with others they are losing by traveling, but to them it matters.
And to them, the lag is probably more brutal. The civilization they love is a thousand light years away, every message a thousand years old, but everybody at home is experiencing time a thousand times faster and so they’re a million years behind. This is a miniaturized civilization too, smaller is faster. By default an organism that is otherwise identical but a tenth the size reacts and moves and experiences things ten times faster.
In a realm of tiny fairies and Lilliputians, a centimeter tall for every meter a human is, with tiny nerve connections a hundred times closer, with arms that only need to cover a fraction of the distance to move and can receive and send nerve signals in a hundredth the time, reality just moves faster. Though of course this assumes they can compact as much brain into a small space, but that’s the advantage of brains made of semiconductors not meat brains of neurons, or maybe something else even better at compaction than semiconductors. So how miniaturized and faster is a digital empire? Consider, our default Dyson Swarm or Kardashev-2 civilization for those who’ve opted for miniaturization and digitization is what we call a Matryoshka Brain, essentially where a whole star is devoted to computation.
Such a device is essentially one where all the light of the Sun is turned into thought as efficiently as possible, and the upper limit for that is what we call Landauer’s Limit, and it is actually about lower limits, which is to say, lower operating temperatures are better, a tenth the temperature, ten times the efficiency of converting energy into thought. This is where the Matryoshka part comes in, referencing the many dolls nested inside bigger dolls of the Matryoshka Doll. Here we have inner layers that are very hot and energetic, shells of energy collectors close to the sun, surrounding it and computing and radiating off waste heat at lower frequencies and temperatures to be reabsorbed by the next layer around, which repeats the process, probably at half the temperature or less, but resulting in some number of layers or shells around the Sun between maybe 1000 Kelvin, in closer than Mercury is, to perhaps 10 Kelvin, well out past Pluto. These need not be discrete layers either, rather it’s probably swarms of objects ever further from the star at a density that results in the equivalent of layers. Closer to the star, you think faster but inefficiently, and your neighbors are close and fast to talk to, further out they are slower but more efficient, with your neighbors further away and with you needing to run slow to let your switches cool between flipping.
It takes a lot longer to cool from 110 Kelvin to 100 Kelvin than from 1010 Kelvin to 1000 Kelvin. All right, let’s run the numbers for two of those layers real quick, one at Earth Temperature, 293 Kelvin, and one at a bit under Pluto’s, 29.3 Kelvin. We usually assume a human mind emulated on a computer could run at about ten microwatts of power at that level of efficiency at Earth Room temp, and that other one, at a tenth the temperature, would do it ten times more efficiently, a single microwatt, obviously those are very loose figures. The Sun gives off 4x10^26 Watts, so the Earth Temperature Layer is capable of simulating 4x10^31 people – 40 million-trillion-trillion people.
The outer colder layer is capable of doing 400-million-trillion-trillion folks. Now they might be running a hundred times faster than us and be 100 times less numerous, but let’s keep to human normal intelligence and speed for the moment. What’s this look like? Well, if we think of these as actual shells divided into solar panels and processing chunks, then if divided into pieces creating digital people with the human-norms for thinking speed and intellect, then that inner sphere, about an AU in radius, is divided so that each individual square meter of that shell is home to 100 million digital people, each fingernail-sized area of a square centimeter, home to 10,000 people. Incidentally that outer shell at a tenth the temperature is a hundred times further from the Sun and 100 squared or 10,000 times bigger, though ten times more efficient, on the same amount of power even if it’s red-shifted much cooler.
Hence ten times as many people on 10,000 times more surface, a thousand times less dense, but that’s still 10 people per fingernail-sized spot. Now that means communication times at light speed with your nearest ten billion neighbors are basically nothing, much like it is here and now for the 8 billion of us here, not even a tenth of a second of round-trip communication anywhere on Earth. For these folks in the low density outer shell, 10 billion are in a spot only about 30 meters across, and light doesn’t need a tenth of a second to cover that distance, it needs a ten millionth of a second. Let's instead say everyone is operating a thousand times faster though, here on this slow outer shell. Now the population density drops a thousand-fold to 100 per square meter, and your nearest ten billion neighbors takes up an area of a square kilometer. Signals back and forth take microseconds but to you they feel like milliseconds.
This is still fine, you can communicate with an entire world of people at speeds faster than you can really talk, even subjectively frame-jacked up. Let’s scale again, a million times faster thinking. A population density of 10 meters per person now, a small room-sized area – though only out here, far past Pluto, in that inner shell near Earth the real estate at a million fold thinking is still putting folks into spaces measured in centimeters, 100 per square meter, what we looked at in our last example, only they speak to each other in microseconds but since they experience time a million times faster, this is about human speed now.
We’ve reached equilibrium of modern Earth communication times among modern Earth population, with a layer in which you have 40-trillion-trillion people living a million times faster than we do… which also means the folks living on the other side of that shell, over a thousand light seconds away, but experiencing time a million times faster, hear messages from you at what feel likes a billion light seconds –or about 30 years – which is to say, they have the same kind of communication lag time, subjectively, that we would have with neighboring stars. But back here past Pluto though, that means your ten billion nearest neighbors now occupy a space of 100 billion square meters, that’s the area of a square over 300 kilometers per side, where light takes a about a millisecond to carry messages around, but to you a millisecond is a thousand subjective seconds, and you’ve got lag times of minutes in conversations like if you were on the phone with folks on Mars or Venus. Alternatively, folks on the other side of this outer shell are having conversations with their distant neighbors taking thousands of subjective years, since it’s 100 times wider than the inner shell we just discussed. They are still squeezing 400 trillion-trillion people into this layer, an entire galactic supercluster worth of traditionally colonized planets, so the idea that conversations with others in the far edge of their sphere might take thousands of years instead of hundreds of millions for a supercluster is still better.
Now odds are good many of these folks would feel no need for live conversation with billions of near neighbors either, let alone those insanely huge numbers we discussed, but if they do, slowing down to have real time chat with those further away might feel like taking a long trip away from friends and family, and regardless, we would assume folks would gravitate to the place that allowed them the best optimization of cost of energy per thought, speed of thought, and social inter-connectivity, depending on their preferences. This was also the extreme upper case of efficiency under known physics, it’s probably lower. Also, thinking more and thinking faster aren’t necessarily the same thing, ten times more brain power but running at normal experiential rates might be the norm too. The takeaway though is that outer layers have very different economics and civilizations than inner layers. Sort of like urban versus rural, the compact areas, or hotter areas, are more expensive to live in, but more desirable real estate in many ways.
Critical notion though is that we were seeing an optimization probably hitting somewhere on the fast side of a thousand times normal thinking speed, so for these miniaturized civilizations, interstellar space and its lag times for travel and communication become that much worse. We said they can cram an entire galactic supercluster’s population into one solar system fueled by a single tiny star, but to them the interstellar distances between stars, in terms of subjective time experienced, feel like intergalactic distances. Giant tiny empires in a Dyson Swarm, worlds worth of people in spaces the size of buildings, not planets, and possibly each of those people enjoying simulated worlds all of their own.
And if they are experiencing life a million times faster than we do, that colony ship to Alpha Centauri that’s going to take a few decades to arrive, and a century or more before any resources might come home, is an investment taking 100 million personal years to pay off. Nonetheless I think they still would colonize or resource harvest, but they might be much more restrained in how far they’d go. Yet they should still wish to expand. So I still don’t feel this option of miniaturization works solidly as a Fermi Paradox solution, this realm of tiny little giants living at superspeeds, but it is a much stronger argument on contemplation than it seems on initial inspection. And it’s certainly a fascinating contemplation, and perhaps worth remembering that if those folks living a million times faster were watching this video now, for them it would have seemed to take several decades to play, an entire natural human lifetime.
So as we’re moving into the holiday season it tends to be a great time for both doing some cooking and spending time with friends and family and and my wife Sarah and I tend to do a lot of cooking together and have friends over a lot, and one of the things I love about Hello Fresh is that it’s always been recipes neither of us has made before so it switches things up a bit. That’s especially nice right right after Thanksgiving if you’ve been working through lots of leftovers. And with all the running around in life, especially at holiday season, it really is nice just to get the entire recipe delivered to you with everything you need fresh off the farm, pre-measured and the instructions easily laid out to make the meal.
The recipe cards are perfect for it and I was joking with a couple other creators who also do Hello Fresh about the growing folder of those recipe cards we all seem to be collecting, and they offer 50 menu and market items to choose from every week, include tons of seasonal options, and I lost count of how many recipes they had on their website, including plenty of gourmet, vegetarian, and calorie-smart options. That includes Quick & Easy options for 20 minute-meals and easy cleanup, and they put a real focus on minimizing waste and using recycled shipping materials as part of their goal for maximizing sustainability. So you can get the food to your door while minimizing waste. And they can also ship to your friend’s door too, and your friends will enjoy receiving the Hello Fresh box a lot more than the usual gift basket of cheese and sausage, and the recipes are also great for entertaining and having guests over for dinner. With the giant selection, easy instructions, and straight to your door fresh ingredients, it’s no wonder Hello Fresh has more five star reviews than any other meal kit, and you can try them out today, just go to HelloFresh dot com and use code “ISAACARTHUR14” to get 14 free meals AND 3 free gifts! plus free shipping! Eat fresh, eat healthy, eat variety, and eat sustainably, and again you can try it out for free today, just go to HelloFresh dot com and use code “ISAACARTHUR14”. So we’re into December now and next week we will look at Upcoming Advances in Material Science on December 9th.
Then we’ll have our Scifi Sunday episode on December 12th to look at folks staking and jumping claims on asteroid mines and similar. Then we’ll move on to a discussion of Vertical Farming, the technology that may let us nourish many billions of people while keeping our planet pristine. Then we’ll take a look at Escaping the Galaxy the week after that, if we need to get away from someone who has blown up our planet, before closing out the month and the year with a look at the Challenges we will be facing in the next 100 years. 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!