The Galactic Laboratory
This episode is sponsored by ExpressVPN. They say space is the final frontier, but what if it is just the beginning of our explorations and experimentations, and what if some experiments require entire galaxies to conduct them? We often speculate about alien life and alien civilizations on this show, and we take only three things for granted about their behavior. First that they evolved some place where nature was as cutthroat as our own world, and thus they are not wimps but rather the product of eons of survival and adaptation. That they rose to the top of their world to dominate it as we have, and that if they made it out into space they first did so by climbing to the top a pile of skulls billions of years deep.
Second, we assume they must have a strong survival urge to have done this, and thus care about their own survival more than that of other civilizations. This might vary from a deep willingness to sacrifice for their tribe or hive to utter personal selfishness, no friend or family ties, and it might vary from a species that would risk its own neck to help other species to one that would go a million light years out of their way just to incinerate another species’ home world, but they will care more about their survival than ours, for instance. And third, they will assume anyone they encounter out in the galaxy will be the same, tough and survival oriented. Now there is one exception to the above assumptions and that comes from the influence of technology. Technology might allow a species to have been created in a lab that had no survival imperative or had it lower on its priority list, akin to Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics, that place self-survival for robots at third place behind human survival and obeying humans. Technology also lets you craft environments that are such paradises that no great skill at survival is needed, indeed one might run psychological and biological experiments to see how life changed if survival pressures were removed for hundreds of generations, to answer the concern that too easy a life might make people weak in form and mind and character.
However, we’re not interested today in how technology permits those exceptions to our three assumptions about alien civilizations, but rather how it forms a fourth assumption. Namely that the simple existence of technology implies a strong trait of curiosity and one refined enough to perform science. This is what we will be discussing today, how a civilization will be approaching the galaxy if science has become core to its civilization.
One which seeks to explore the galaxy for curiosity more than colonization or resources. In the previous two episodes of this series, Galactic Domination, we looked at those seeking to control the galaxy, in Empire Eternal, and to harvest it, in Strip Mining the Galaxy, and so today we look at the extreme form of scientific explorations in regard to the galaxy, turning it into your laboratory. Now I mentioned how technology can permit some exceptions, like making a pacifist race to serve your own, via technology, but I feel obliged to mention how technology can create its own exception too. One of the next scripts on my plate to write is on Human-Machine Teaming, and it is not a script but rather a presentation to MIT Lincoln Labs, that I probably will adapt into an episode too, but I had gotten to chat with one of the experts, Robert Seater, on the topic and something he pointed out was that in many ways the best technology or best use of artificial intelligence was in making it invisible. Not hidden in the sense of being covert, but simply so well integrated and silent in function that it's just a background invisible thing. The best toaster is not one capable of holding complex conversations with you, but rather one that knows what you want and hopefully before you even ask.
It knows who hit the button on it, and knows how they like their toast, or better yet, knows who likes toast when and produces it ready to go when you enter the kitchen, or even delivers it to your table. This is a recurring concept in more and more devices as we move into smart homes, things which learn to anticipate our personal wants, but in the sense of invisibility has long been true of a lot of software too, the best features of most programs are those you forget even exist, you take them for granted. Indeed, while the squeaky wheel gets the oil, the ideal machine is the one you forgot even exists. With that in mind, we have to seriously contemplate that technological civilizations might not be super curious or even terribly intelligent after a time, because their technology requires so very little learning or maintenance.
We should not assume this necessarily leads to them becoming dumber, but it does challenge whether or not our classic science fiction assumption of species growing smarter, bigger of brain, and more intellectual as the eons roll by is really very valid. Intelligence is valuable for survival, but once survival is assured, how does greater intelligence benefit one? Not that we should be assuming a singular course of action, you might have folks in the same culture who were content to let the machines glide along invisibly and being indifferent to how they operate while others opted to shoot or snort every mind-enhancing cocktail their science could come up with while jamming computers into their skulls. However, in such a society we might have folks who worried about either extreme case, a total indifference to technology and a total obsession with mind-enhancement and technological advancement. Note that I’m not saying an indifference to technology would imply an indifference to intelligence and education incidentally, just to technology. Invisible technology might be integrated into your civilization to the point that it was like our own natural defenses, like our immune system or digestion, just omnipresent background clutter of life, rather than this year’s new cool gadget. Such a civilization might be curious what would happen and opt to run an experiment to see how worlds colonized with invisible protective tech fared over the generations.
If little robots and machines were always in the background protecting you from harm, catching you when you fell, invisibly padding a sharp corner when you banged into it, repairing any wound, copying your mind for restoration and repair against any brain damage, bringing sustenance to you and so on, what would that population be like in a few hundred generations? Assuming it even had generations, given that they might be functionally immortal, aging and injuries repaired, and birth control rates carefully but covertly handled by the invisible machines. Indeed you might take this to such an extreme that folks did not get hungry or could eat all they want without getting fat, and it seems an alien species might want to have thousands of planets devoted just to minor iterations in this experiment to see which led down what path, for good or ill. There may be iterations of convenience or ignorance or both which had desired positive effects. And before criticizing such a civilization too much, keep in mind that we do not spend much time or energy contemplating our heart beating or lungs breathing or immune system defending, they are machines that operate in the background. We probably should not assume a civilization which had technologically prevented toe stubbing was an inherently hedonistic one, whether by rounding all sharp corners or having padding in shoes, or smart shoes, or interrupts in the nervous systems that simply shut off the pain. Nor should we assume that one which had conscious control of heart rate and breathing was somehow better, especially as we might encounter alien civilizations which had naturally evolved to consciously control their heart rate but not consciously control their excretion processes, for instance.
Nonetheless it would seem like something we would want to know the answer to and we balk at the notion of running thousand-world experiments on such matters mostly on the ethics of experimenting on people rather than the notion of systematically checking out the options. We get the cheat of knowing that if we colonize enough worlds we will probably get volunteers who set up a world with a given set of parameters out of choice rather than deception or force. We should not assume another civilization would have any issue with covert or coercive experimentation of course, especially given that we often have not. We can probably skip mentioning all the times we have done one or the other in the name of science, I don’t think anyone listening is likely to be surprised that we have nor does one need to be too cynical to think we will again, or that some other species might not care at all.
On the flip side, you can run an experiment on a thousand worlds without coercion, simply by asking for volunteers, and in many cases without them needing to be in the dark about the experiment either. We probably would not have too hard a time finding volunteers for colonizing a few hundred planets where they were told going in that we were going to alter human aggression levels up or down for each world by 1-10% and see what happened after a few centuries. Indeed the big problem there would be self-selection bias, as folks who thought aggression and ambition were vital to human success would flock to one world while those who thought it was the root of problems would flock to another and they would be carrying their personal philosophies and ideologies with them. Which would make getting results of the physical effect of biologically lower or higher aggression rather hard to sort out. Doable though, especially with a big enough sample and a big enough brain, and you’ve got a whole galaxy to make samples in. That’s something to keep in mind, experiments like these with proper control groups could be tabulated and sorted by a ten year old, or a very simple AI of the kind we already have, it is just number crunching around a fairly simple problem.
A civilization might get a lot of science done just by having their invisible AI in the background be authorized to check how minor alteration in various human instincts and imperatives affected us. Quick side note on that though, speaking of human imperatives and machine imperatives. I mentioned Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics earlier, prevent harm to humans, do what humans tell you, and prevent harm to yourself in that order, and also the implied equivalent for humans and aliens in terms of natural selection not producing wimps or folks who don’t care about surviving. We should probably emphasize though that when we say humans have a will to survive or will to protect their species, that is only true in a meta sense. Evolution is really about the notion of self-sustaining concepts or algorithms, you don’t have some internal prime directive not to die, you’ve got a host of reflexes and safeguards which fire off to prevent something often damaging or lethal each of which popped up separately and randomly at some point in our ancestors existence.
You no more want to survive, biologically, than your house wants to stay warm or cold, it is insulated, not programmed to be insulated. Of course modern thermostats are a lot smarter about temperature and neither insulation nor thermostats are evolved traits, they are textbook examples of intelligent design, but that also may be an issue out in the stars and where a big laboratory comes up. We might need to test new traits and how they help or hinder in unexpected ways when added to complex systems – this is the field of cybernetics incidentally – the term originally meaning how to analyze and predict changes to complex systems with feedbacks, and the notion of modern cyborg or cybernetic organisms just arose from that, but obviously cyborgs as a future for humanity is something that’s very likely to arise too. Running tests on how cybernetic or genetic augmentation altered a person’s psychology or a civilization’s overall behavior is another one you might need a big lab for.
We also need to be considering what their core motivation for running experiments is, because it probably is not their immediate survival or convenience, not when we’re talking about a civilization, individual, or group whose main motive for going out in the galaxy is science. The real galaxy is not like Star Trek, where you are going to find some weird new physical phenomena every other episode. The galaxy might turn out to be very interesting in biological and botanical offerings if life is common, even non-intelligent life. Indeed it might be quite interesting geologically too, but there's not going to be much to interest physicists in terms of the fundamental laws of the Universe.
When we start talking about galactic scale experiments a physicist might want to conduct, then it isn’t exploring every new system, it is making some supercollider that is a ring around the entire galaxy or some telescopic grid that lets us create an array that wide. Experiments might include things like trying to make a Kerr Ring out of a Klemperer Rosette of Neutron Stars. Think of several neutron stars carefully pushed into a circle together, orbiting as a group to avoid merging, such a collection of dense mass objects might form a black hole which had no singularity in its center, or big ball of burning matter there either, and thus might be a traversable object coming out in a hypothetical white hole. Something like this is buildable, with sufficient brute force application of energy and matter, but the galaxy does offer that to us. For a civilization focused on science, then each star can power massive computers for modeling experiments or simulating scenarios or tabulating experimental data.
Every chunk of matter has its use in building or powering experiments or fueling the creation of more scientists. Now a default civilization like our own is content to just make scientists as one of many encouraged and valuable professions among a host of life choices. But one focused on just churning out scientific minds might be engaging in not just wholesale genetic and cybernetic augmentation, but flat out cloning or mind uploading and duplication of brains. Very approximately, a Matrioshka Brain, a multi-layered stellar engine that uses all the power of a star to run computation, would permit either one massive singular brain of that scale or the emulation of 10^34 human brains, or 10 billion, trillion, trillion Einsteins, and that’s just one single star like our own. Some stars offer a million times more power to calculate with.
You’re presumably trying to create minds more powerful and clever than Einstein – and presumably want some diversity of expertise and method, but imagine what a million Einstein’s might accomplish if each lived a million years, then consider that such a Matrioshka Brain, just one of them, would be able to replicate those million Einstein’s for a million years each in just a quintillionth of a second. In terms of raw processing anyway, given that a photon of light would not have even covered a millionth of a meter in that time there’s probably a limit as to how compressed you can make a thought occur, regardless of how many brains you can simultaneously emulate. If you want to run trillions upon trillions of people at a time, and probably at a subjective time rate far faster than normal human timelines, Matrioshka Brains are a great way to go about it. And as an alternative to colonizing a million planets just to test how slightly varying levels of aggression or ambition or depression or hardship effected civilizations, being able to run those as emulated people on a Matrioshka Brain might appeal to such scientists. This is especially true when we consider that a million worlds, with 10 billion people each, would only represent one-billionth of one billionth of the processing power of a single Matrioshka Brain, powered by a single star, out of the hundreds of billions of them in our Galaxy.
The reality is that one of those Matrioshka Brains is probably capable of simulating an entire populated Universe of classic planets to a level of resolution and authenticity we would have problems detecting if we tried to, and far beyond what we found comfortable for living in. Now we don’t really expect civilizations to be constrained to those classic planet colonization models anyway, in favor of Dyson Swarms and parallel options which let you comfortably pack billions of times more people into a solar system than a planet would permit. However, it would seem like a civilization very focused on scientific research and trying to maximize available calculation power might not be one terribly focused on running culture simulations on a trillion worlds anyway, but it probably depends on what they are researching and we tend to take for granted that they’re pondering deep physics problems when my own gut guess as a physicist is that the underlying rules of the Universe probably are not infinitely recursive and complex, and indeed probably are going to turn out to be pretty simple compared to all the other emergent areas of science, life, and thought.
They are likely to be spending lots of effort on Existential Issues, though that’s just my own guess, and that might well require vast human experiments. Or they might be trying to crack entropy or light speed limitations or time travel. On that topic though, one issue with human research is the time factor of getting results, especially multi-generational ones, and absent time travel you rather have to be patient to get results. In science fiction we’ll sometimes see civilizations created inside accelerated pockets of spacetime where things run much faster. We even see cases where humans live shortened lives for experimental purposes, like on the planet Argos in the Stargate SG-1 episode “Brief Candle” where everyone only lives 100 days. That particular episode has the experiment as product of a rather amoral and vicious creature playing God, literally impersonating one in this case, and thus is assumed to be evil but given that the folks in it seem to grow to full human knowledge and maturity in well under 100 days, for reasons unknown, that would seem to have some positive effects for some applications.
Regardless, one thing you can do with a whole galactic lab is play with time. Possibly by unknown methods to speed it up, if such things exist folks with a galactic scale of research will doubtless figure them out, but at a minimum we can slow time around very massive objects like Black Holes and thus a civilization could speed everyone else up, from their perspective, by running their experiment galaxy wide while hiding themselves in that slow time field to await results. Though it would seem easier just to employ some sort of periodic freezing or stasis to jump forward in time that way, waking for a day every century or so. This is another case where simulation is handy though, because if you can emulate a human mind with a certain amount of processing power, or an entire civilization with a certain amount of processing power, in a simulated reality, then you can run that thing a thousand times faster with a thousand times more processing power. Note that we’re assuming proper emulation, essentially full and total simulation of a human neuron, not some minimalist or partial approach, which might work too in many cases. We’re assuming here there’s no aspect of humanity that can’t be emulated on a computer which is a big assumption to be fair.
This doesn’t have to do with whether or not a civilization can emulate people correctly, but whether or not it's possible at all, and that’s something we can’t say yet but presumably it can be done if there’s no supernatural aspect of humans like a soul or so on, and we don’t know from a scientific perspective if there is or isn’t. That’s the sort of big question a super-advanced civilization might expend galaxies worth of resources trying to answer, or similarly, if there’s any Universe beyond our Observable one, be it Multiverses or higher layers of reality or whatever. And it raises one final point for consideration for today, which is the motivation for the research. Fundamentally we are asking what a civilization would be like if it were principally interested in the galaxy for scientific ends, and much like with our discussion of hypothetical alien civilizations, where we ask what a species might be like that was trying to hide or was conquest oriented or was making crop circles, we can do that in regard to scientific focus. A civilization wanting to seek out every anomaly, Star Trek style, probably won’t be doing that in our Galaxy because there won’t be many anomalies, they’d likely be focused on trying to find ways to get to other realities with different physics instead. One interested in simply modeling human behavior might be interested in cannibalizing the galaxy to build lots of petri dish habitats to experiment on unknowing and unwilling people, or they might opt to build countless virtual worlds instead, but they probably aren’t classically colonizing planets.
Folks trying to build Kerr Ring style wormholes probably are shepherding or making neutron stars. Ones focused on beating entropy probably would show a footprint that was about minimizing it presently too, which would see them snuffing out stars before they could form and burn their precious hydrogen. But when it comes to the big existential questions, those presumably limit what they can do experimentally too. Consider, a civilization which thinks it entirely ethical to use trillions upon trillions of people like disposable test tubes to conduct sociological research doesn’t really seem like one trying to find out how to make folks happy and fulfilled. A civilization which does not believe life has any underlying purpose isn’t out there building a giant computer to ask what the purpose of life, the Universe, and everything really is because they don’t think it has one. If you believe it has one, then there’s good odds you also believe there’s some non-subjective concepts for right and wrong and good and evil that you shouldn’t be breaking for research purposes either.
Taken as a whole, while we often imagine ourselves, or some ancient and wise alien species, engaged in million year long experiments across a whole galaxy, I can’t say I find this a very probable scenario for a civilization's main focus for why they wanted to engage in galactic domination. Not because you might not go to extreme lengths to carry out experiments or prevent others interfering with them, but because I can’t think of many experiments you would run that might call for that. So in today’s episode we contemplated galactic civilizations using entire worlds for social experiments and collecting data but that is not a worry of the distant future. Right now everything you do on the internet is getting mined for data, for direct use or for sale to others. And while there are tons of conveniences, there are lots of drawbacks too.
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So this wraps us up for today and for July, but we’ll jump right into August next week with a look at Embracing Nuclear Power, and the week after that we’ll look at what the next space station after the ISS will be, before we have our mid-month Scifi Sunday episode: Alien Artifacts & Xenoarcheology, on August 15th. Then in three weeks we’ll look at Fusion Propulsion designs and concepts for Spaceships before closing the Month out by heading all the way out to the Edge of the Universe, on Thursday, August 26th, then we’ll have our Monthly Livestream Q&A on Sunday, August 29th at 4 pm Eastern Time. If you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and if you’d like to help support future episodes, you can donate to us on Patreon, or our website, IsaacArthur.net, which are linked in the episode description below, along
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