Ctrl-ALT R 3: RISE OF THE ROBOTS AND THE JESSIE SIM UNIVERSE: An essay by Extropia DaSilva

A FICTIONAL ANSWER TO THE FERMI PARADOX.

In the 1970s, the Polish Author, Stanislaw Lem, wrote ‘A Perfect Vacuum’ a collection of fictional reviews of made-up works by non-existant authors. The last piece in this collection is ‘The New Cosmogony’, supposedly a transcript of Professor Alfred Testa delivering his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The reason why he was awarded a Nobel? He solved the Fermi Paradox.

Now, the paradox is not fictional. It is a real puzzle that was formulated by Enrico Fermi. One day, over lunch, he and some colleagues were discussing what seemed to be the destiny of the human species, which was to one day leave this Earth and spread out across the Universe. Astronomy has long worked under the ‘Copernican Principle’, in which it is believed we hold no special place in the cosmos. That being the case, Fermi reasoned that there should be other planets in which life evolves a technologically-capable species who also develop the capability to venture out into the cosmos. Furthermore, it is a known fact that the Universe is home to stars like the Sun but which are many millions of years older than it is right now. That meant there should be alien civilizations that are millions of years older than ours and so ahead, technologically speaking- by an equivilent amount. If it was likely that humans would become an intergalactic species in the future, it must then be the case that some alien civilizations had taken that great leap already.

The Fermi Paradox, then, consists of the following contradiction. If we assume great leaps in the sophistication of our space age technology (perhaps ultimately utilizing warp drives and other such theoretical physics) we should expect to spread out among the stars. This seems even more reasonable when you remember that modern astrophysics tells us Earth will not be habitable forever. Also, given the fact that the Universe could be home to alien civilizations that are anything up to  tens of millions of years older than ours, we should expect this scenario to have been played out already. But, what we observe is a Universe that is, apparently, not home to Star-Trekkin’ alien tourists or colonists. The finite lifespan of stars as worked out by astrophysics; the technical capability to journey into space coupled with theoretical capabilities for reaching distant stars (and maybe even galaxies), the drive for the preservation of the species and the Copernican Principle all add up to a Universe in which life is seen spreading out from across the cosmos.  But no sattelite, or telescope, or instrument of any kind ever gathered compelling empirical evidence of anything other than a Universe that is devoid of any such endeavour. How do we explain this discrepancy between theory and fact?

‘Jessie’ would seem to offer two possible explanations- one quite obvious and direct, the other more subtle and rather metaphorical. First, the obvious explanation. The whole sim is testament to our species’ violent tendencies. It is, sadly, not too difficult to imagine us turning our skills at developing potent technologies to destructive ends, perhaps culminating in the development of doomsday weapons. Perhaps some irreconcilable difference (theological, political, moral, whatever) then develops and escalates to the point where a global war involving the use of such terrible destructive power is unleashed. Furthermore, perhaps it is just a sad quirk of fate that all technologically-capable species develop the capacity for such great power before developing the collective maturity to handle it properly. The inevitable extinction of such a species would then seem like a given.

The other explanation has to do with the fact that the Lindens ® eventually deemed it necessary to segregate the WW2O players within a sim of their own, isolated from the rest of SL by an enormous wall. Stanislaw Lem’s fictional professor tackled the Fermi Paradox by asking the following question: Suppose civilizations millions of years more advanced than ours deemed it necessary to keep their territory separate from encroaching neighbours. What might constitute good defences against intergalactic civilizations? He quickly dismisses the idea that intergalactic civilizations might defend their territory according to the sci-fi convention of patrolling space with warships equipped with proton torpedoes or Death Stars bristling with planet-obliterating lazers. The Fermi paradox, after all, rests on the fact that we are not surrounded- granted, at stellar distances- by any such technology.  But the professor argues, ‘we do not see them, because they are everywhere. That is, not they, but the fruit of their labour’. It is fruitless to look for spacecraft and what-have-you, because ‘a billion year old civilization employs none. Its tools are what we call the laws of nature’. Physics itself is the “machine” of such civilizations.

In Lem’s story, the professor comes to realise that we are too limiting in our appreciation of what’s possible. ‘(Man) tells himself that maybe someday he will come near to matching nature in its excellence of action. But to go further is impossible’. So, humanity endeavours to learn how atoms may be arranged according to physical law, and has as its aspiration the products of Darwinian evolution. ‘The natural represents the limit of the series of works that “artificially” repeat or modify it’.

However, the professor argues that technological ability actually extends much further than simply discovering physical laws and working within their constraints. Beyond that, there is ‘the level where such laws are laid down…In the Universe, it is no longer possible to distinguish what is “natural” (original) from what is “artificial” (transformed)’. Suitably advanced civilizations can play around with the very laws of physics themselves.  When we study those laws, ‘we discern…the basic canons of the strategy employed by the Players’.

Why is the Universe expanding? Because the Players that came before us evolved in a cosmos in which ‘the physics established by one (civilization) would always happen upon, during expansion, the physics of another’. Each such civilization evolves in a region of space with its own physical laws. As their knowledge grows in power they learn how to manipulate reality on ever-more fundamental levels, plunging into the inner space of existence. Meanwhile, their technology becomes ‘an ever-widening radius’ that, in the fullness of time, encounters the technological expansion of alien civilizations. ‘These physics could not traverse one another without collision, because they were not identical; and they were not identical because they did not represent the same initial conditions for each such civilization considered separately’.

So, a civilization ultimately triggers an expanding bubble of ‘artificial’ physics that eventually slams into other such bubbles. In doing so, ‘prodigious amounts of energy were released by annihilations and transformations of various kinds’ (in the story, the faint heat that permeates the universe- the cosmic microwave background- is  said to be an echo of such catastrophic encounters). In order to save the Universe from utter ruin, the weakly godlike civilizations tweak the laws of physics to ensure space itself can expand faster than the civilizations that evolve within it. ‘It is only in such a Universe, despite the fact that new civilizations are continually emerging, that the distance separating them remains permanently vast’.

Each Player also seeks to prevent ‘the rise of a local coalition of new players’. Such things as the formation of antagonistic groups, conspiracy to conquer and the establishment of centres of local power all require effective communication. Superior communication is so advantageous that one can imagine an endless stockpiling of energy, if physics permitted an increase in the speed of action in direct proportion to the energy invested. A Player that had at its disposal ten times the energy of its rivals could inform itself ten times as rapidly. And a Player with twenty times the energy would would have double the advantage again. ‘In such a Universe’, wrote Lem’s fictional narrator, ‘the possibility exists to monopolize control over its physics and all other players of the Game. Such a Universe might be said to encourage rivalry, energy competition, the acquisition of power’.

Once again, the players turn to their ability to lay down physical laws. The speed of light is set up to represent a fundamental limit on how fast communications can be. Beyond a certain point, it simply does not pay to stockpile any more energy, because it will not enable you to break the barrier imposed by light speed. Such a barrier, coupled with the vast distances between Players (which remains vast, thanks to the expansion of space itself) ‘constitutes an absorption screen against all who attain that level of the Game where they become full-fledged participants in it’. In other words, rather than rely on comparatively ineffectual methods such as imposing legal restrictions, issuing threats, or punishment, or coercian, Players minimize the risk of coalitions of antagonistic groups who may threaten the stability of the Game (ie, trigger an intergalactic appocalypse), by adjusting the laws of physics such that there is no opportunity for coalitions of Players to form in the first place. ‘Each Player, then, operates on the strategic principle of minimax: it changes existing conditions in such a way as to maximize the common gain and minimize harm. For this reason, the present Universe is homogenous and isotropic (it is governed by the same laws throughout, and in it no direction is favoured over another)’.

Griefers. One thing you learn in SL is that they are attracted to opinionated loudmouths (I have no particular resident in mind, of course). Not drawing too much attention to yourself is just about the best way to avoid their unwelcome attention. If some Players are griefers, able to ruin your day with apocalyptic acts of wanton destruction, perhaps the silence of the heavens makes strategic sense. ‘The Players do not speak to one another; they themselves have prevented it; it was one of the canons of the stabalization of the Game…We cannot listen in on the conversation of the Players because they are silent, silent in keeping with their strategy’.

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