An Optimistic Solution to the Fermi Paradox

This post is a crosspost from my blog.

Drum Beats in the Distance

In a remote forest clearing, a young girl clutches a handmade doll, her eyes wide with concern. Today, her father and uncles journey deep into the wilderness on a hunt, leaving her and the village behind. She wonders, how will her father hear her call amidst the vastness of the forest?

Her mother, sensing her worry, kneels beside her. “Fear not,” she says, her voice as soothing as the rustle of leaves. “The drums of our village will speak across the forest. If your father needs us, their beats will carry his message. And if we need him, he will hear our drum’s call.” The idea of drums talking across distances vast and unseen intrigues the girl, sparking a curiosity that burns brighter than the evening fire.

That night, under a blanket of stars, she tosses and turns, thoughts of her father mingling with the mysteries of the forest and the enigmatic drums. Upon his return, she bombards him with questions, her youthful innocence unmarred by the complexities of the world. “Father, in the depths of the forest, did you hear other drums, drums of tribes unknown to us?”

Her father’s face grows solemn. “No, my child,” he answers, his voice barely above a whisper. “There are no other tribes.” He recounts a tale from his own childhood, about his father’s unyielding belief in other villages, other drums. Despite mockery from fellow villagers, her grandfather had crafted a drum larger than any seen before, its beats thundering into the night, sending a message to the unseen, the unheard. Night after night, he waited for a reply that never came. Eventually, the drum fell silent, and with it, the talk of other tribes.

That evening, as the girl drifts into sleep, her mind buzzes with unspoken thoughts. What if her grandfather’s drum had been even grander? Could it have reached those elusive, silent tribes?

Unnoticed, a Starlink satellite glides silently above emitting more signals per second than all the drums in her village combined could emit in a lifetime.

The Fermi Paradox

In the vast expanse of our universe, countless planets orbit around innumerable suns. Amidst this abundance of worlds surely some others have given rise to life, and even intelligence. And surely some of those have given rise to civilizations that have extended their reach into the cosmos. If this is true, then why haven’t we seen any evidence of other intelligent civilizations? Why haven’t we heard their drumming?

This inquiry forms the crux of the Fermi Paradox, named after the renowned 20th-century physicist Enrico Fermi, who reportedly exclaimed something like, “where are they?” in reference to extraterrestrial intelligent life. The paradox grapples with an apparent contradiction: the high likelihood of extraterrestrial civilizations existing in our galaxy contrasted starkly with the absolute absence of evidence or interaction with such civilizations.

This paradox has always captured my imagination. There are myriad theories attempting to unravel Fermi’s conundrum, many of which adopt a rather pessimistic view of extraterrestrial life. These explanations range from the pessimistic possibility that intelligent life inevitably self-destructs before reaching a stage of cosmic exploration, to the less tragic but perhaps as sobering thought that we might simply be the first and only advanced civilization in our galactic neighborhood.

As a natural optimist and a science fiction enthusiast, I find myself drawn to a more hopeful, and dare I say more compelling possibility. What if the seeming silence of the cosmos is not a sign of absence, but a hint at an incredibly advanced mode of existence that we have yet to achieve?

In this vein, I offer my own novel solution to Fermi’s Paradox: What if the window during which an intelligent civilization is detectable – marked by activities like radio transmissions – is merely a brief interlude before they achieve a level of technological development that puts them beyond our ability to detect?

I offer this as a positive corollary to the above-noted negative hypotheses about technologically advanced civilizations inevitably self-destructing or simply not existing. Instead, what I suggest is that advanced civilizations “self-construct” in a manner that puts them outside of the capabilities of our primitive detectors.

Technological Singularity

The concept of the technological singularity, a term deeply rooted in science fiction and futurist literature, is a hypothetical point where technological growth becomes so rapid and profound that it leads to a fundamental transformation of civilization. The concept is speculative and controversial, with varied opinions on its plausibility, forms, and potential consequences. But at its core it is a concept that posits the potential for technology to develop on exponential, rather than linear, scales and to result in rapid changes to civilization that we, in our pre-singularity world, are incapable of imagining or predicting.

In popular culture, we often envision extraterrestrial beings as slightly more advanced versions of ourselves, a byproduct of both our tendency to think linearly rather than exponentially, and our tendency to anthropomorphize (think of the gods of ancient religions, which were basically humans with exaggerated powers). We imagine alien societies progressing step-by-step, perhaps piloting advanced spaceships or wielding other remarkable but not incomprehensibly advanced technologies. Take, for instance, the iconic starships of Star Trek or the advanced but comprehensible civilizations in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. These narratives, while captivating, reflect our linear expectations of technological progression.

But what if the evolution of intelligent civilizations is not a gradual climb, but rather an explosive leap? Imagine a civilization that progresses from the rudimentary ability to emit radio signals and launch spacecraft to a state of technological wizardry so profound that it transcends our present understanding of what’s possible. This rapid ascension could leave them virtually undetectable to us, existing in a realm so advanced that we, in our current state, cannot even fathom their presence.

We’re not merely asking, “Where is everybody?” in the vastness of space. We’re contemplating the possibility that the cosmos is teeming with civilizations that have advanced to a stage of existence so sophisticated, it’s beyond our current scope of detection or understanding.

Admittedly, this is more a playful intellectual exercise than a stringent scientific analysis. However, it’s fun to envision a universe that is far from barren – a cosmos where we’re not alone, or worse, on the brink of encountering a catastrophic Great Filter. If we must resort to pure speculation, then perhaps it’s not the worst thing to sometimes speculate with optimism rather than pessimism as our compass.

Humanity’s Own Accelerating Path to Singularity

As we think about the feasibility of my suggested solution to Fermi’s Paradox, let’s turn our gaze inwards, to our own civilization’s trajectory. The technological journey of humanity from the first flickers of radio communication to the potential cusp of our own technological singularity is nothing short of astonishing. The last century was one of exponential growth and visionary leaps. It’s a narrative that might hold clues to understanding the general nature of how technological civilizations tend to evolve.

It was only in the 1930s and 1940s that we started sending out our first powerful broadcasts into the cosmos. The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, for instance, beamed radio signals strong enough to traverse the vast interstellar void, potentially reaching distant, habitable planets. This was humanity stepping onto the galactic stage, waving a flag of existence to the universe.

Fast forward to the present, and the landscape of human technology has undergone a seismic shift. Many prominent thinkers have begun suggesting that humanity may be fast approaching its own technological singularity. Nick Bostrom, Max Tegmark, Ray Kurzweil, Stephen Hawking, and many others have opined on the potential opportunities and risks of what they view as a fast-approaching singularity horizon (often in the form of superintelligent AI). For those that see such an event as probable, it is often viewed as being decades rather than centuries away.

It was only a few years ago that talking about Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) was often met with eye rolls. Bring up something as absurd as Superintelligent AI and you’d be typecasted as a weirdo. Now such topics are a common subject of debate among intellectuals. Geoffrey Hinton, a luminary in the field of AI, recently posited in a CBS interview that general-purpose AI could be a reality in 20 years or less. This sentiment is echoed by a growing cadre of AI researchers and technologists who see AGI as not only feasible but potentially imminent.

One of the most popular names in AI circles today is that of Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI. Altman has made numerous comments about how AGI will happen sooner than many people think. And he has been very clear about its potential “singularity” level of impact. This quote from a recent Time article is particularly interesting:

The technology has limitless potential, Altman says—“I think AGI will be the most powerful technology humanity has yet invented”—particularly in democratizing access to information globally. “If you think about the cost of intelligence and the equality of intelligence, the cost falling, the quality increasing by a lot, and what people can do with that,” he said, “it’s a very different world. It’s the world that sci-fi has promised us for a long time—and for the first time, I think we could start to see what that’s gonna look like.”

Yet AGI isn’t the only path to a singularity-type event. Another potential path is Whole Brain Emulation (commonly referred to as “mind uploading”). WBE is still very much in the “eye roll” phase, but we saw how fast that sentiment changed on the topic of AGI. I see no reason why WBE will not also be talked about seriously in intellectual circles before the end of this decade. In fact, there are a growing number of prominent neuroscientists and technologists whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know personally who not only think WBE is achievable, but potentially much closer than many people think.

The debate among experts about the timeline for these types of monumental technological achievements is vigorous and ongoing. Yet, what captivates me is not the precise ticking of this technological clock but the sheer rapidity with which we are approaching a potential singularity horizon. Whether technologies like AGI or WBE are a decade or a century away, the pace of our technological evolution, when viewed on the history of civilization scale, is breathtakingly brisk.

Within a span of roughly 100 years – a mere heartbeat in the cosmic timeline – humanity has leaped from barely being able to send a radio signal strong enough to reach another star to the point where many of our brightest minds are debating the opportunities and risks of near-term, singularity-level technologies. This trajectory, even if stretched to a couple of centuries, represents an almost inconceivably rapid transformation.

But what does this mean in the context of the Fermi Paradox?

For me, it suggests that the window during which a civilization like ours is detectable – through signals like radio waves – might be incredibly narrow. As we inch closer to a horizon that we cannot yet peer over, our methods of communication, exploration, and perhaps even our very existence could evolve in ways that are currently unimaginable. That’s the whole idea of the singularity—a point at which we can no longer extrapolate our civilization today in order to imagine the civilization of the future.

I can’t help but ask myself questions like, “what does human civilization look like in 100 years if we achieve WBE or AGI in the next 20?”. The reality is that we can’t truly imagine how different our civilization might be. We could all be living in the post-scarcity society of Star Trek; or perhaps we’re all uploaded to the metaverse? The point is that if we can’t extrapolate how our own civilization might function after these technologies are developed, then why should we anticipate being able to predict how other more advanced civilizations might operate? And if we can’t predict the types of technology those civilizations use, it is much harder to know how or where to begin looking for them.

Perhaps humanity’s journey is indicative of a universal pattern. Civilizations across the cosmos could be springing into a post-singularity existence at an astounding pace, transitioning from detectable to indiscernible in the blink of a cosmic eye. This rapid ascent to technological transcendence could well be the norm rather than the exception.

Perhaps the “radio wave” phase of a civilization, the period in which it is actively emitting and receiving radio communications powerful enough to traverse interstellar distances, is typically only one or two hundred years long. If that were the case, then the statistical odds of any two civilizations being at that phase of development within the temporal and geographic proximity necessary to make contact is inconceivably low.

Of course, that’s just speculation. But it’s no more speculative than assuming a Great Filter is wiping out civilizations before they can be detected (which is one of the more common speculations related to the Fermi Paradox).

Characteristics of Post-Singularity Civilizations

Let’s venture into the realm of post-singularity civilizations. These are societies that have crossed the threshold of what we would consider a technological singularity, a frontier where their technological capabilities have evolved so far that they are beyond our current understanding or ability to even imagine. What might these civilizations look like, and why might their existence remain a mystery to us? By definition, it’s hard to imagine the specifics of such a civilization, but let’s at least try to understand why such a civilization might be difficult for us to detect.

Firstly, consider the very nature of a post-singularity society. Such a civilization might have transcended biological limitations, possibly existing in a digital or hybrid form. They could be entities whose consciousnesses are uploaded into vast computational substrates, living in simulated realities far beyond our physical constraints. This digital existence would not only alter their perception of reality but also their needs and methods of utilizing resources. Unlike us, they might not be tethered to physical worlds or traditional sources of energy. They could, for instance, cluster near resource-rich areas, such as galactic centers, harnessing resources in ways we can scarcely imagine.

It all sounds like science fiction, but that’s the whole point of reaching a technological singularity.

The ways these civilizations communicate could also be fundamentally different. Today, we rely on radio waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation, for long-distance communication. The way we “search” for other civilizations is by listening for their radio transmissions. However, radio transmission might be seen as primitive or inefficient by more advanced civilizations. They could employ methods of communication that are currently beyond our understanding or detection capabilities, perhaps even utilizing aspects of physics that we have yet to discover.

In Africa, drum communication has been a significant part of cultural practice in several regions. Drums like the talking drum (found in West Africa) are notable for their use in transmitting complex messages over long distances. However, these forms of long-distance communication seem incredibly primitive to us. How would an individual who grew up in an isolated African village that relied on drums for communications predict or even comprehend our modern use of invisible, silent waves to communicate instantly with each other anywhere on the planet? Using radio waves seems obvious to us but it would seem like magic (or science fiction?) to other humans who had never experienced modern science or technology.

Would a more advanced civilization not view our communication techniques (if not the entirety of our civilization’s rituals and routines) as quaint and primitive as we view those pre-technological human societies?

Beyond their technology, the societal organization and structure of these advanced civilizations are likely to be alien to us as well. If they are digital beings, their concept of community, interaction, and even individuality might be radically different from ours.

Speculating on the possible states of advanced technologies and existence brings us to a crucial point: their detectability by civilizations like ours. A post-singularity civilization, by definition, has mastered control over its environment to an extent well beyond our own capabilities. Their ‘footprint’ might be so subtle or at such a high level of technological sophistication that it simply escapes our notice. What we consider as bold signals of existence, like radio emissions, might be their equivalent of drum beats.

For example, consider how the inefficiencies in our current technologies result in unintentional emissions, like the heat from a light bulb or the radio waves from a cell phone. In contrast, a post-singularity civilization might have minimized or completely eliminated such ‘waste’, making their technological activities almost imperceptible to us.

Any communication across space involves a signal and signals by definition consume energy. While an advanced ET would likely wield immense energy resources, they would still likely opt for not uselessly wasting energy. Further, their advanced technological state would result in their being increasingly capable of minimizing such waste. Any signal that is received by a recipient other than that intended by the sender is by definition wasted energy. Thus, there are likely to be few or no unintended recipients of signals from much more technologically advanced societies.

If that is the case, then the cosmos might not be silent but instead filled with the whispers of advanced civilizations, whispers that are simply too faint or too sophisticated for our current technological ears to hear.

Why Post-Singularity Civilizations Might Avoid Contact

Having contemplated the possible nature and sophistication of post-singularity civilizations, a pressing question emerges: why wouldn’t they make contact with civilizations like ours? Even if we can’t detect them, we assume that they could still detect us. Why not stop by and say hello? The answer may lie in a combination of factors rooted in the vast differences in technology, perception, and needs that likely exist between us.

One significant potential factor could be the temporal differentials between biological and digital life forms. For post-singularity beings, especially those existing in digital realms, the concept of time might be experienced in very different ways. Their ‘thought processes’ could operate at speeds far exceeding the fastest human cognition, making our interactions with them extremely challenging.

To illustrate the challenges of temporal differentials, let’s imagine we meet an alien civilization composed of intelligent, sentient plants. There is a well-understood disparity in ‘clock speed’ between the plant and animal kingdoms on Earth. To appreciate this difference, check out time-lapse videos such as these that reveal the otherwise imperceptible movements and behaviors of our terrestrial plants. Through this lens, the idea of attempting to communicate with an intelligent plant becomes more tangible.

So let’s imagine that these alien plant beings, while possessing the capability for thought akin to ours, operate on a dramatically slower temporal scale, similar to that of our own terrestrial plants. Now imagine posing a simple question to such an alien like “how is your day going?”. Perhaps asking a plant how their day is going is like asking a human how their second is going. Beyond being difficult to comprehend, it might take your alien friend months or even years to respond.

Yet, this plant-to-animal time-scale disconnect might pale in comparison to the chasm that could exist between biological and digital life forms. The processing speed of digital intelligences, potentially operating at the pace of the fastest computers or beyond, could make the difference between plants and animals seem minuscule. Such a vast divergence in processing and communication speeds could render the prospect of meaningful interaction between biological beings and post-singularity entities not just challenging, but perhaps even unattractive or impractical from their perspective. This immense contrast in experiential timelines could be one of the fundamental reasons why advanced civilizations might choose not to engage with those still anchored in a biological paradigm.

Moreover, from the perspective of a highly advanced civilization, there might be little practical value in interacting with a pre-singularity society like ours. What could we offer in terms of knowledge, resources, or experience that they haven’t already surpassed or deemed irrelevant? This isn’t to diminish our own achievements or potential, but to acknowledge that in the face of a civilization that has transcended our limitations of technology and perhaps even consciousness, we might have little to contribute.

Another consideration might be ethical in nature, akin to the ‘Prime Directive’ popularized in science fiction. Advanced civilizations might adhere to a principle of non-interference, choosing not to engage with less advanced societies until they reach a certain level of technological or ethical development. This approach could stem from a desire to allow natural evolutionary and societal progression, or from lessons learned through their own history about the impact of premature contact.

Additionally, post-singularity civilizations may have transcended physical needs and desires, focusing instead on pursuits that are abstract and foreign to us. Their goals and interests might be so divergent from ours that initiating contact with humanity simply doesn’t align with their objectives.

Finally, it’s possible that these civilizations have evolved beyond a point where physical exploration or expansion is a priority. If they exist primarily in digital realms, their ‘universe’ might be internal, a vast landscape of virtual realities that offer infinite exploration and experience without the need for external contact.

In essence, the reasons for a lack of contact could be as varied and complex as the civilizations themselves. The silence we perceive might not be a sign of absence but an indication of a profound difference in existence, perception, and priorities.

In conclusion, our exploration of the Fermi Paradox through the lens of a rapid leap towards technological singularity offers what I believe to be a fascinating, albeit speculative, perspective on the cosmos. It suggests that the universe might be teeming with advanced civilizations, so sophisticated and transformed that their presence eludes our current understanding and detection methods. As we reflect on the accelerating pace of our technological advancement, we’re left to ponder the possibilities of what lies beyond our own singularity horizon.

I am hopeful that this challenges us to not only expand our imagination about the nature of life and civilization but also humbles us with the reminder of our nascent position in the cosmic narrative. In the end, whether we’re drumming away in our isolated tribe or broadcasting radio signals into the void, the cosmos might just be listening in ways we’ve yet to comprehend, a silent audience to our burgeoning story in the vast theater of the universe.