Hello! Is there anybody OUT THERE?
Just beep if you can hear me. Yes I am paraphrasing Pink Floyd to begin this article. It seemed appropriate to include the question that the Fermi Paradox poses. Is there other intelligent life in the universe and if so, where are they? The number of possible explanations are equalled by the number of stars seen on a average night.
The Fermi Paradox is misnamed, because Fermi was not the first person to consider this issue; nor did he formally analyze the question and explore answers. Others have done that since, but the paradox is far from resolved. There are plenty of intriguing theories, though. And some of them hinge on computation.
That is where we join Anders Sandberg and Stuart Armstrong of the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, working with Milan Ćirković of the University of Novi Sad in Serbia and Montenegro. The team recently offered a new way to link the Fermi Paradox—the odd fact that we’ve never heard from an alien civilization—with matters of computation.
Whether it was The X-Files on the Fox Network, or before that, Lost In Space, the desire to know about other life forms is probably as old as mankind itself. However the multiple versions of alien life that are considered reasonable by the scientific community really span the human imagination.
One of the popular theories is that life in the universe is a computer simulation that is controlled by alien students from an alien college far far away. With a flick of the switch they could allow us to see them, communicate, and interact. The simulation idea has its supporters. If the cosmic tweens who are running this simulation wanted us to encounter intelligent life elsewhere, they’d arrange that. If they wanted human beings to be the only highly intelligent species there is, they’d leave us to strut and fret all alone in their simulated universe. Or maybe they had to buy the paid version of the game to get civilizations evolving on multiple planets and they are running the free, one-intelligent-race version.
You might be surprised to learn that anyone takes this “simulation hypothesis” seriously, but some do. University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom published a consideration of this hypothesis in 2003. Scientists debating the possibility have even proposed ways to test it.
In 1999, Anders described another possible solution to the Fermi Paradox involving computers. He noted that technologically advanced civilizations may not go gallivanting around the galaxy and instead might prefer to spend their time building giant computing machines of planetary scale, something others had earlier dubbed “Jupiter brains.” Legendary sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, took this idea a little further with what he called “Matrioshka brains”—essentially giant supercomputers that surround stars in a series of shells and use the energy of the central star to perform calculations, perhaps for the purpose of keeping the digitally preserved souls of their builders up and running in some post-singularity paradise.
So is part of the delay in alien discovery, the limited use of computers due to a barrier called the Landauer Limit?
Sandberg and Armstrong, advocates of quantum computing and reversible computing, will point out that it’s possible to breach that barrier.
So have they found the path to alien worlds? Read on.