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Tapeworm Logic

What use is a human being — to a tapeworm?

A mature tapeworm has a very simple lifestyle. It lives in the gut of a host animal, anchoring itself to the wall of the intestine with its scolex (or head), from which trails a long string of segments (proglottids) that contain reproductive structures. The tapeworm absorbs nutrients through its skin and gradually extrudes more proglottids, from the head down; as they reach the end of the tape they mature into a sac of fertilized eggs and break off.

The adult tapeworm has no knowledge of what happens to its egg sacs after they detach; nor does it know where it came from. It simply finds itself attached to a warm, pulsing wall, surrounded by a rich nutrient flow. Its experience of the human being is limited to this: that the human surrounds it and provides it with a constant stream of nutrients and energy. A hypothetical intelligent tapeworm might well consider itself blessed to have such a warm and comforting environment, that gives it all the food it needs and takes away anything that it excretes. And if it were of a philosophical bent, it might speculate: what is the extent of my environment? Is it infinite, or are there physical limits to it? And, eventually, are there other tapeworms out there? And finally, the brilliant polymath-level Enrico Fermi of tapeworms might ask, if there are other tapeworms, why aren't they here?

Our tapeworm-philosopher gets its teeth into the subject. Given that the human is so clearly designed to be hospitable to tapeworm-kind, then it follows that if there are more humans, other humans out there beyond the anus, then they, too, must be hospitable to tapeworm-kind. Tapeworm-kind has become aware of itself existing in the human; it is logical to assume that if other humans exist then there must be other tapeworms, and if travel between humans is possible—and we infer that it might be, from the disappearance of our egg sacs through the anus of the human—then sooner or later humans interacting in the broader universe might exchange eggs from these hypothetical alien tapeworms, in which case, visitors! Because the human was already here before we became self-aware, it clearly existed for a long time before us. So if there are many humans, there has been a lot of time for the alien tapeworm-visitors to reach us. So where are they?

Welcome to the Fermi paradox, mired in shit. Shall we itemize the errors that the tapeworm is making in its analysis?

The first and most grievous offense our tapeworm logician has committed is that of anthropocentrism (or rather, of cestodacentrism); it thinks everything revolves around tapeworms. In reality, the human is unaware of the existence of the tapeworm. This would be a good thing, from the worm's point of view, if it had any grasp of the broader context of its existence: it ought by rights to be doing the wormy equivalent of hiding under the bed covers, gibbering in fear.

It has inferred the existence of other humans, but it doesn't know about cooking, or the other arcane processes by which food makes its way into the gut for the tapeworm to absorb. Or about the sanitary facilities that kill tapeworm eggs before they get to another, intermediate host. There are vast, ancient, alien intellects in the macrocosm beyond the well-known human, and they are unsympathetic to tapeworms. Intrepid tapeworm cosmonauts seeking to make their way beyond the anus and across the universe to colonize other humans are in for a rough ride indeed, for they are intimately evolved to thrive in one particular environment, and that environment (the mammalian gut) is sparsely distributed throughout the universe. Much of the cosmos is inherently hostile to tapeworms. This is why tapeworms have not, in fact, colonized the universe and converted all available biomass into a constantly spawning Gordian knot of Platyhelminthic life, contra the prognostications of some teleologically-inclined tapeworm-philosophers of yore.

The human does not owe the tapeworm a living, or even a comfortable home. The tapeworm's existence is contingent on it not damaging its human, resulting in an undesirable human/tapeworm interaction with fatal consequences for the tapeworm. Some of the tapeworm's descendants might be able to find another new human to claim as their home, but the same constraints will apply. Only if the tapeworm transcends its tapewormanity and grows legs, lungs, and other organs that essentially turn it into something other than a tapeworm will it be able to make itself at home outside the human.

(Note: I picked tapeworms, rather than the bacterial gut fauna, because nobody much cares what happens to an E. coli. Tapeworms, on the other hand, are multicellular eukaryotic organisms with differentiates tissues, have nervous systems and genitalia, and are probably much closer to us—practically kissing-cousins to our form of vertebrate life—than anything we might discover on other planets. Perhaps the biggest weakness in this metaphor is its reliance on humans. While we may attribute intentionality to many natural phenomena—the supernatural stance—those of us tapeworms who are hard-headed materialists must surely concede that the human Earth is not a sentient being, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction aside. On the other hand, if you want to traffic with the ghost-infested depths of the simulation hypothesis, then anything is possible. Even tapeworm-cosmonauts flying out of my arse ...)



The tapeworm sees eggs leaving and also does not know how it came into being. Humans have a vague idea of the latter and there does not seem to be an equivalent on our level for the former. Still the analogy does have some legs. Well actually it doesn't but you know what I meant...


There is the problem that for tapewormkind to change, the tapeworms themselves need to change in order to live in the rest of their shitty universe.

On the other hand, for humankind to change doesn't require any changes to individual humans. All they may need is a rough jacket, pants and boots to live in the rest of the cold and forbidding universe.

Sure, that means that humankind has changed - from naked apes to clothed apes - but not humans themselves.


if there are other tapeworms, why aren't they here?

From the point of view of any tapeworm that's emitting fertilised eggs, the answer is that they are here.

On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if population studies show most tapeworms to be solitary, and therefore barren. That they are hermaphrodite indicates that there's a pretty large chance that if they do encounter a fellow, they only encounter one or two, so in evolutionary terms the extra investment in having both male and female organs is paid for by greatly increasing their chances of having offspring.


Yeah, well, come the Ringularity, it'll be obvious that one anus was too small to hold all of tapewormkind.


A. Postcestode


Get back to me on that when you've walked to Alpha Centauri B.b in jacket and pants.


You don't fool me that easily, young man - it's anuses all the way down!


Replace jacket with spacecraft and pants with spacesuit. There have been distinctly human beings on the moon after all.

I didn't mean to say "and thus we'll settle the universe" in any case. Merely that at least as a biological species we're equipped with certain faculties that give us certain degrees of freedom with respect to our environment that no other species has.

We don't need to regrow fur or fangs, instead we simply make pelts if we want to go to somewhere too cold for our naked bodies and we make knifes to cut meat we can't chew. Which is about an order of magnitude of orders of magnitudes faster than the conventional evolutionary route.


Props for getting me to read "even tapeworm cosmonauts flying out of my arse" over my breakfast. Now I have to go and clean oatmeal off of my tablet.


We're probably in a race between advanced modification and spreading out as something human-like.


There's another weakness in the metaphor that nonetheless supports your broader point:

Tapeworms have evolved to, as efficiently as possible, given the hostility of the universe, colonise other humans. Hence all the eggs headed arsewards.

Humans, meanwhile, have not evolved any such mechanisms for dispersal, since flying to other planets is not an essential part of our life cycle.


Arguably we have evolved to efficiently spread through other biomes on our own planet in this particular epoch. (Other epochs not so much.)


Agreed, though if we take "another human = another planet", then "another biome = another part of the home intestinal tract".

Actually - thinking further on this, if we give our tapeworms the power of introspection, they might rationally conclude from a detailed examination of their anatomy and activities, that colonizing other humans is almost their entire reason for being. Almost everything they do is in service of scattering eggs into the Cosmos. in the hope that even one will find a new home, wherein rise/repeat can happen.

The tapeworm, therefore, could be seen as a biological Von Neumann machine.

If we were to do the same - it's clear that given that our current form is so well adapted the moist, warm environment that surrounds and nourishes us and so probably will not do for the task of traversing the great beyond, that instead of starships, we should be thinking what the human equivalent of a tapeworm egg is (if such a thing is even possible or feasible).

That said - if we exclude FTL travel or communication - our capacity for trial, error and innovation is going to be pretty limited. At that stage we would be back in the realm of natural selection, but on an interstellar scale - scattering eggs to the Cosmos in the hope that one will find a place to hatch and continue the cycle.


Tapeworms would have evolutionary incentives to emit certain hormones, entheogens, or other mind altering substances that would cause a person to throw their shit around. Basically turning the parasite's host into an efficient tapeworm distribution hub.

A tapeworm with a penchant for bioengineering its host to expel its increasingly intelligent progeny into select sites more amenable to survival will have effectively turned its host into a "smart-ass".


Interesting metaphor: tapeworms have fragile bodies but surprisingly resilient eggs (and cysts, in species transmitted in infected meat). And, as their eggs are disposable - unlike our own larvae - tapeworms will have a very different attitude to 'arsestronaut' survival and safety engineering.

Also: one tapeworm, one host. Visitors that survive the journey will be greeted with lethal hostility. Which leads us to ask how a tapeworm would regard a cooperative species, and I would speculate that the answer is that this bizarre and irrational behaviour would be seen as perversion, madness, and incomprehensible evil.

...Perhaps we, too, would be baffled and viscerally repelled by minds housed in radically different bodies with utterly dissimilar lifecycles to our own, and label tbem as 'evil'.


Congratulations: you've just stubbed your toe on the question of the limits of empathy!

If empathy evolved as a mechanism to facilitate kin-survival (note that I'm tip-toeing around the term "group selection" here, for fear of awakening the sleeping Dawkins) then what purpose does it serve outwith one's immediate kin, or, more broadly, the human species, or, more broadly still, other life forms that coevolved in our same biosphere (tapeworms, for example)? Is it applicable to evolved entities from alien and incompatible biospheres? Or AIs?

(Note: the person asking the question is a voluntary toilet-slave to an arthritic 18 year old cat. Which behaviour may suggest the answer I've sort of accepted, without rigorous reasoning.)


The "Prime" aliens in Peter F Hamilton's "Commonwealth" books spring to mind as an example of what happens when two mutually incomprehensible alien mindsets meet.


You beat me to it! I was going to post same thing.

For those who do not know:

Primes are hive mentalities, with two castes -- Motiles and Immotiles. Motiles are much like worker ants or termites, Immotiles are little more than a brain and reproductive organ. An Immotile sends instructions to its Motiles and receives sensory input via direct neural connection, which requires physical contact; later in their technological development both are done remotely. Here is the nasty part -- an Immotile can add brains at will. To make a new Immotile brain, four Motiles join together and merge. Their limbs, muscles, digestive organs, etc. are absorbed and converted into brain tissue. It can be a "birth" of a new Prime "individual", but an existing Immotile can convert four Motiles into a new brain for itself and add it to the network at any time. Thus a Prime can have hundreds or thousands of Immotile brains linked together as a single consciousnes and work on hundreds of problems and projects simultaneously, with millions of Motiles serving as its "hands". The more intractable a problem, the more brains are allocated to it. Primes are ultimate individualists -- any cooperation between two or more is strictly a matter of calculation, and ends the moment it ceases to be advantageous. In the end, only one Prime can remain -- a single consciousness permeating an entire solar system; and ultimately, with FTL communications, the entire galaxy. All lesser species, whether mushrooms or humans, are just resources.


It's interesting that the tapeworm doesn't actually know about any limits to its universe. It never perceives the mouth or the anus of its host, it simply doesn't have the sensory apparatus to do so.

It makes me wonder what might be outside our own tiny 13 to 14 billion light year light cone, which is the current limit of our perception?

The idea of a cosmic anus is a frightening prospect, but if we were ever to exit from it, we might well find ourselves just as ill adapted for survival as the tapeworm and all our tools and knowledge would be little more than a joke in this utterly alien and unknowable environment. :)


Nearly all of the intelligent (or most intelligent) species on Earth evolved as social species. This is encouraging in terms of empathy's existence - but I hasten to add that we observe extreme violence, in all cooperative species, against out-of group individuals and territorial invaders.

A self-aware intellect may or may not choose to extend its empathy outside its familiar community.

I might also worry about an AI programmed by a libertarian.


Yes, well. At risk of sounding snarky, biology (and especially ecosystems) is not one of Pete's world-building strong points.


I think in Charlies metaphor the anus isn't the limits of the observable universe but low earth obit. Except that tapeworms send out little pods beyond the mammalian anus far more frequently than we breach the LOE space anus.


Yeah that's the way I read it too. But really, the gut isn't just their world, its the tape worm's entire observable universe.


Something just occurred to me. Peter Hamilton did probably best job ever portraying a completely non-human intelligence, but he still fell into "good/evil" trap. The Silfen are just as alien, but are not naturally in conflict with humans the way Primes are (and there are hints that Silfen do not actually have much empathy for humans when humans get on their wrong side, it just does not happen often). But Primes are no danger to Silfen. So why should Silfen refer to Primes as "evil" -- and take it for granted that some previous civilization also saw Primes that way?


I will wash my hands I will wash my hands oh dear gawd I will wash my hands.

What happens when the universe washes its hands? Or, to be more precise, discovers signals trying to pierce the intestinal wall in search or others? If it reacts like I have to this post, it decides it's time for a regimen of Albendazole.

It's silly of me to anthropomorphize the universe, of course, but I have a case of the Gibbering Fear now and need the small comforts available in such wrong- headedness...


ADMINISTRATIVE NOTICE: This is a Fermi Paradox thread (by the back door), not a discuss-our-favourite-SF-authors-biology-fail thread. Just sayin', for now ...


I assumed that you were getting at the fact that the earth is alive and will start taking the planeraty equivalent of praziquantal if we don't keep our heads down.


Gah! Planetary not planeraty!


"On the other hand, if you want to traffic with the ghost-infested depths of the simulation hypothesis, "

I realize, Charlie, that you are not endorsing this hypothesis. But that said, Alan Moore has a fun quip about that hypothesis:

"This is stuff that rationalists find credible. I would say in that light, my worship of a second century snake god seems entirely reasonable."


Charlie, did you time the release of your blog post to coincide with lunch time (GMT) on purpose?

Aside from meal time shock value, interesting article.

Gut parasites are quite fascinating: there is some research that other parasites, Acanthocephala are able to influence the behaviour of intermediate hosts to increase the likelihood that those hosts are ingested by the next host up the food chain.


I don't know if it is, though. A worm would probably be able to feel the vibrations of an outside world: a jogging host hitting the pavement, a loud concert, a kick in the gut. To the extent a human can perceive the stars (milky specks of light) I think a worm can perceive the extra-anal world.


The Cestodaic Principle = "That the human is so clearly designed to be hospitable to tapeworm-kind, then it follows that if there are more humans, other humans out there beyond the anus, then they, too, must be hospitable to tapeworm-kind."

But what the Flatworm doesn't get is that their existence is completely coincidental to the existence of the Human, and not intrinsic to it.

Had to get that out of my head.
Now to try thinking about the Fermi Paradox,


Wouldn't that be a stupendous feat of worm engineering, gathering the statistical data needed to verify they are utterly coincidental!


You might be right, after all, Charlie did postulate a *very* intelligent tapeworm. On the other hand, we humans think of ourselves as pretty intelligent too and for most of our history we have thought of gravity as a force existing solely in our universe. Just a part of our environment. Only recently have we theorized that gravity might actually be a consequence of our three dimensional space being bent into a fourth dimension that we can't directly perceive.

If the theory is true, then exactly where is this space being bent into? Where does all the mass of a black hole go to when it disappears behind its event horizon?

Perhaps most garden variety tapeworms just perceive the occasional vibrations as a normal part of their environment, weird and inexplicable to be sure, but quite common and nothing really unusual.

But then Charlie's "Enrico Fermi of tapeworms" comes up with a wild theory that these vibrations can be explained as originating outside the observable universe. Of course everybody just thinks he's full of shit.


The discussion was along the lines of sensory perception. Humans have always looked to the stars. Intestinal worms would at least notice, I suspect, when their host falls off a horse. Especial intelligence not required! Regular vibrations might be normal for a worm, but irregular vibrations could give them clues to reality beyond the anus.


So far undiscussed is the other "solution" to the Fermi paradox: that the lifespan of the tapeworm is much shorter than the lifespan of its host, and the tapeworm in the analogy seems to be unaware of this. It assumes a) any visitor who came earlier would still be around, and b) that it will exist into the indefinite future to observe visitors. But if tapeworm-lifespans are short enough and inter-human travel unlikely enough, neither needs to be true.


Also, you could rejigger the analogy to use beef tapeworms, thus avoiding the "humans are sentient" problem. Life on other cows!


Ok, lets talk sensory perception. Would a human who falls off their horse sense, or even suspect that they are actually traveling in a straight line through curved 4 dimensional space? Of course not, even though they will soon feel the painful effects of doing so, because they cant perceive - or in most people's case - even conceive of anything but the 3 dimensions of space and 1 of time that they live in.

Even if the falling person was Albert Einstein (who invented the General theory of relativity) the last thing he would be thinking of is his trajectory through curved space. His every instinct would be telling him that what is about to happen to him is just a part of his normal environment.


as the observable universe is part of our normal environment? that is we can see it even if we can't perfectly fathom it.


But we can't see it. We can't see the way that large masses make spacetime curve. We can only see the *effect* of that curvature with our limited senses.

We see objects traveling in ellipses around stars and planets, but they are *really* traveling in straight lines through 4 dimensional space. We cant see that.

That's why I think that a tapeworm might interpret those vibrations as *anything* except a cause outside their own universe. Because *we* interpret gravity as merely a force where in actual fact it's a consequence of spacial geometry that we cant perceive.


I note in your highly amusing intro, you didn’t mention that other thoroughly pestilential and fraudulent so-called philosopher whose writings still infest & infect the minds of both SF reader & writers & also religious "thought".

@ 1,2,5
“Jacket & pants” definitely an understatement, but the idea is that we may not need to modify ourselves in order to reach other star-systems. And the original poster is probably correct in that assumption, leaving aside the huge other works necessary to realise such a project.
See also Tim @9 … “advanced modification” – how advanced, & in what directions?
WE are already doing this, and we are making considerable progress, especially as medical-replacement “parts” seem to be getting better & more practical at an accelerating rate.
So there is /is there a red queen's race going on here?

P @ 10
Careful there. James Tiptree Jnr posited that exact hypothesis – it didn’t end well.
We are just the sperm – spurted out across interstellar space to fertilise another planet – as soon as the first crew land, the rest of us die, wasted.

Hairyears @ 13
Not so – more than one tapeworm per host only too possible, as our late-lamented cat Stripeymonster found out when he eat a London Pigeon. Very fortunately, he vomited the lot onto the kitchen floor & a large dose of kit-y-litter killed the ‘helminths.
[ Note: Feral pigeons carry a huge number of parasites & diseases … ]

Charlie @ 14
Agreed – what’s the point of heaven if there are no kittens to cuddle?

dpb @ 24/5
NO – see Charlie’s ruling “Professor Challenger” out ab intio - the reference is to a Conan Doyle story: “When the World Screamed”.

Recommended if not essential reading:
Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer


One of the more interesting elements of this idea is the potential "social science fiction" plot: tapeworms slowly realizing that their environment is not just alive, but sentient and interacting with an incredibly complicated external ecosystem. Science on Earth has been a process of abandoning intelligent agency as an explanation for natural phenomenon; science in Asslandia would be a gradual broadening of appreciation for the complexity of the environment. (This assumes a tapeworm community with little tapeworm explorers and tapeworm natural philosophers in little 18th century aristocrat wigs, which isn't accurate but is so adorable/terrifying I'm sticking with it.)

Rather than gradually abandoning intelligent agency as a causal explanation, I could imagine our little tapeworm scientists moving from a natural explanation of the world, to an "ecosystem"-based model, to the final, paradigm-shattering revelation that they are inside an intelligent creature that is one among many intelligent creatures.

I bet Harlan Ellison already wrote this story.


Any changes the worm might make to itself in order to survive the inter-Human gap would likely be fatal for the Human.


I'll point out the small problem with using this as an explication of the Fermi paradox:

Some tapeworms are parthenogenetic (as above, producing eggs), but many more are hermaphroditic, meaning they need another tapeworm present for them to reproduce.

That tapeworm it breeds with came in from the outside. Since it came in as an egg, it may not know where it came from, but any philosophical tapeworm would note the arrival of non-kin and infer an outside world from their periodic presence.

There's a rather silly book out there titled Hypersea, that contemplates life as one linked "hypersea" of bodies of water with various contaminants (our bodies, the bodies of trees, etc.). It's silly in that it ignores the science of biogeochemistry (which deals with this on a more rigorous basis), and excludes bacteria (which run the planet), but it is likely that tapeworms would come up with a gut-centric version of hypersea as their universe.


The tapeworm sees eggs leaving and also does not know how it came into being. Humans have a vague idea of the latter and there does not seem to be an equivalent on our level for the former.

That's true if you compare individual humans to individual tapeworms. However, the human species as a whole has no direct knowledge of how it came into being (we've collectively entertained a number of fanciful ideas on the subject, most mutually contradictory).

So if you analogize tapeworms in isolated guts to whole intelligent species on isolated planets, the analogy works rather better...


Next step is to develop the tapeworm Drake Equation.

Number of tapeworms that tapeworm might be able to communicate with = lifetime of tapeworm x rate of generation of humans x proportion of humans which can host tapeworks x fraction of humans with anus x etc etc...


Life's shit and then you die.
A universal truth, it seems.


Since tapeworm reinfection is common I suspect the analogy breaks down at this point.


Charlie, did you have to use so old and contrived metaphor to start a discussion of Fermi Paradox\"Paradox"? Is this some kinda sophisticated SciFi toilet humor?

And anyway, what do you expect to come out of this discussion? Fermi Paradox was discussed to death already in every possible forum, including this one.


Actually, the real myth here isn't about tapeworms, it's about humans.

Tapeworms (going through all their life cycles) regard their hosts' collective guts as effectively a system of connected ponds within which they graze. This is true for all parasites. If anything their world is the opposite of a Fermi Paradox. They aren't alone.

The myth here is the myth of human separateness. We see ourselves as distinct, never mind that we share everything from beneficial microbes to parasites to DNA with everyone around us.

This is, unfortunately, where the tapeworm Fermi analogy falls apart. So far as we can determine, planets are much more separate from each other than humans are.


There's an error in the analogy. The fact that the tapework is relatively unintelligent, as humankind may be relatively unintelligent to great cosmic powers, is used to imply that humans are no more able to individually adapt than a tapeworm.

It's a threshold thing, and humans can adapt.
One of my favorite things to say is,
"I may not be as smart as you are, but I'm as smart as I am." Just because you're not on top of the hill doesn't mean you have to slide down any farther. Just because cosmos is largely beyond our comprehension doesn't mean we don't know what we do.

As humans we are higher up an exponential curve. The tapework will only get smarter by evolution. It is way down there in horizontal territory. Whereas humans are farther up, and forward motion gets us a lot more, as well as bootstrapping us, increasing the efficiency of our gain.

"While we may attribute intentionality to many natural phenomena—the supernatural stance—"

Or teleology. An intelligent universe need not be supernatural except in the sense that it is a consequence of the same sort of underlying or context reality that also produced physical laws and such. For something to be metaphysical need not mean that it is spooky and anything goes. The metaphysical is just the conjectural fundament. Good metaphysics implies known physics, or is consistent with it, but may imply more.

"those of us tapeworms who are hard-headed materialists must surely concede that the human Earth is not a sentient being"

Why? It's perfectly reasonable for the universe to be entirely made of arrangements of matter and energy and yet also to be some sort of vast, naturally occuring, quantum computer. When the future affects the past, that's teleological. If things were arranged teleologically, it's reasonable to approximate that as intentionality.

Regarding the Anthropic principle, nothing spooky about it, it's a subset of evolution. There are no fish in deserts, no tapeworms on the moon, and no civilizations on planets without large moons and tectonic plates.

Which leads into the Fermi Paradox. Don't know if this has been covered, but I think we are simply the most advanced species in this galaxy because the conditions of our planet were so exquisitely perfect for the evolution of life and intelligent life. Others may have some parts of it, but never quite so much, so they are millions or billions of years behind us. And intergalactic travel is just too much time and trouble, so we are all to ourselves. Lets make a Galactic Empire (or Republic, whatever).

Also, the tapeworm would evolve transhuman (hah, pun) legs and such only by leaving the human initially as a tapeworm. The first million tapeworms may die, but one may prove able to swim in the sewer.
If the tapeworm could adapt faster than evolution, it wouldn't take a million deaths to get one sewer swimming tapeworm. But at first it would be a tapeworm, in the sewer, trying to figure out what to do.

Regarding taking care of our human, good idea, though perhaps our human has a use for us as a beauty aid.


Not sure I have a good grip on the analogy here. We're not imagining other worlds amenable to our form of life or other worlds with forms of life akin to us. All the Fermi paradox requires is one technologically capable species which is exploratory/expansionist and a few million years. Minimal assumptions.
Sure I've misunderstood. Good discussion though.


That was fucking brilliant, in the proper sense of the word. Concise, insightful, enough idea to really make me think in a different way, but not long enough to do my thinking for me. Clearly applicable to a broader situation but flawed enough (as all good analogies are) that those flaws themselves provoke more thought. Obvious enough for me to realise what it was about, but also oblique enough to make me feel good about myself for realising. In the words of Anthony Head in the short-lived BBC series "The Invisibles", "sometimes you really are quite good".

Also, it put me in mind of Stephenson on a good day.


Evolution is a very clumsy process, and selects from those things that happen to appear. If most of the people you meet are your close kin, then altruism towards people is selected for. If some of them are enemies, then it's selected against. Both processes happen at the same time, and often will act on different parts of the genome.

Empathy is a different process. Empathy is not only useful in altruistic behavior, it's also useful in dealing with enemies and prey. So empathy is selected for in a less constrained manner.

If you hear a simple story about why something evolved, it's amost certainly wrong. Group selection wasn't selected for, what was selected for was kin selection. But because of the sloppy nature of the process a lot of things favoring group selection ended up in the mix.


Then don't participate, if it offends you so. It's a very easy thing to do. Much easier than trying to pick a fight.


What you need to realize is that those "primes" are metaphors for corporations. Look at the characteristic you listed. Consider the attitude of many corporations towards their (non-managerial?) employees.

So we've already encountered them. They're just as dangerous as you indicate, but when they're not being dangerous, they are being so useful that nothing effective is done to limit or control them.


Granted, this is a thread about the Fermi Paradox and not our favorite SF writers.

However, it turns out that the late Stanislaw Lem was a genius who was only secondarily a science fiction writer. In the late 1950s-early 60s Lem already had independently come up with concepts like the Singularity, virtual reality, machine swarm intelligence, and -- at the same time as Richard Feynmann -- the possibility of nanotechnology.

Most of us don't know this because Lem's non-fiction has never been translated beyond Polish and German. I'm not a Pole, incidentally, and have myself only slowly discovered the truth about Lem over the past decade myself.

In regards to the SETE/CETI question, Lem began with the observation that the earliest stable stars arose more than eleven billion years ago.

Hence, if life evolves into intelligence and creates enduring civilizations at all, it could have done so at any time since that early era of the universe.

What if when humanity’s astronomers observed only a silent universe, Lem proposed, that void reflected merely humanity's own abject failure to conceive what forms cosmic civilizations might take and what aims they might possess after enduring and prospering for billions of years?

(What if humanity's SETI/CETI notions reflected merely tapeworm logic?)

The Lem novel "His Master's Voice" and certain of his "non-fiction fiction" pieces like "The New Cosmogony" and "Golem XIV" propose some fictional variations on transcending tapeworm logic.

I'm not going to attempt to summarize any Lem's ideas or his logic, but they leave the notions of everyone here -- including, pardon me, our host's -- in the dust. If anybody's truly interested in pursuing these questions, they should go look at Lem.


The problem is that it's a poor metaphor to deal with the Fermi paradox. Tapeworms are sessile. Tapeworms can only manipulate their enviroment via chemical cues. And their host is alive. (Unless you opt to take the simulation argument seriously, I don't think you can make an analogous claim about the universe.)

As both sessile and bereft of both sensory organs (except chemo-sensory) and manipulators (except chemical excretion) it wouldn't matter how intelligent a tapeworm was. Or whether or not it was gibbering in fear. (So it might as well not be.)

OTOH, it certainly did get people's attention.

Anything mobile would make a better analogy, so gut bacteria would have been a better choice. (But that certainly would have complicated answering the Fermi paradox.)

That said, I think you may have already given the correct answer (in Accelerando). Network latency gets too high when you get too far away, and you can't carry enough computation to make up for it. We're already noticing a weak form of this as children would often rather play video games than leave the house. Cross this with something like Dream Park & virtual reality, and nobody is likely to want to leave...or at least not enough people to garner much support.

OTOH, since we're talking about an entire galaxy with lots of planets (more planets than stars?), this isn't a totally satisfying answer. My real answer is that folk from advanced civilizations don't want to live on a planet...those that can choose. (Humans have an exceptionally wide environmental range among earth species, though not uniquely wide.) And perhaps there's no reasonable way to screen against radiation without using LOTS of mass. That would cut down the proportion of species by a huge factor. And then again, most planets circle class M stars (fewer per star, but there are a LOT more class M red dwarfs than class G yellow dwarfs), and life from there wouldn't like our sun very well.

Whatever. My bet is that they are out there, probably many of them mobile and living in large communities. But that they don't come close to suns very often, and when they do, ours is too active to be desirable. Either that, or controlled fusion is just impractical, no matter *how* advanced your civilization. (You need controlled fusion even at low sub-c speeds, because most of the items you encounter to scavenge from will be mainly light atoms. Frozen methane, etc. Like a normal first pass comet. And you need low sub-c speeds, because you don't want to spend resources slowing down to allow you to capture a comet that you encounter.)


is this the 'wormi paradox'
had to do it


49: "This is, unfortunately, where the tapeworm Fermi analogy falls apart. So far as we can determine, planets are much more separate from each other than humans are. "

But wait a minute. Suppose you have two of those adult hermaphoroditic tapeworms you were talking about in an earlier post (43). Let's call them Crito and Callias.

They came to adulthood inside Charlie Stross. How are they to know what lies beyond his tubes?

How can they know that planets are so much more separate? How can they know about planets?

It seems to me that Crito and Callias can proceed only by inference, and logical dialogue, using the basis of the sounds that come through to them by the phenomenon of bone conduction and fluid conduction.

Supposing they are longer-lived than the typical tapeworm, could they have deciphered the language used by Charlie Stross? Could they infer the existence of other mobile digestive tracts from this?

Crito: Do not be silly Callias, it has not been rightly established that Charlie Stross is mobile, at all.

Callias: Yet, as we move inside him, he might also be able to move within a greater, gigantic digestive tract.

Crito: Of course not, the vibrations that we feel are not due to his displacement through space, but to his rotation upon himself. A being of his importance does not need to move anywhere. Things move to him.

And so on...


The tapeworm - however wise - won't find the Fermi paradox interesting because it won't have enough scientific beliefs. I suspect a hyper-intelligent but pre-scientific, pre-technological human would find it as boring and for the same reason.

Even if it suspects there are other intestine-like locations, the tapeworm surely realizes it doesn't have a clue how many. It doesn't even have a
hints as the the order of magnitude of the order of magnitude of how many! So even if it understands evolution and the likelihood of something else arising like it in appropriate circumstances, it just has no multiplier nor any reason - whether misguided or not - for stipulating one.

Second, even if it studies its environment and know it well, and speculates there other environments others like it, it knows absolutely nothing about inter-intestine space. Not even theories, let alone a real science with a body of supporting evidence and observations. So it cannot begin to usefully speculate how hard it is to cross and what barriers there are. Hence, even if it has some feeling for the likely technological progression of itself or beings like it, it cannot even begin to calibrate that against challenges it it wholly ignorant about (and knows itself to be so).

Now we on the other hand have observation and science based theories about all these things. Certainly may be totally deluding ourselves, but we have a rich set of speculations based on what we think is a valid "knowledge" discovery path. And today we have enough tentative pieces - from evolution, astronomy, physics, plus some basic logic - to jointly paint a (fuzzy) picture. But the picture it paints is sharp enough for us to see that it sits unhappily with the Fermi paradox reasoning. This is now _interesting_ : something we think we are discovering is wrong, or there is a missing piece _in an unexpected place_. It's fun and perhaps important to think where we are going wrong. It may even tell us something important at the meta-level about how we do science.

The tapeworm, even one far wiser than us, never had enough pieces to build a Fermi-paradox-contradicting picture in the first place. And knows it. "So the space between intestines is dominated by gods? Sure, good to know, that's a bit surprising but it's not as if I had any grounded speculation suggesting anything else"


So, you don't believe in the fruitfulness of Socratic dialogue?


Mr. Stross,

While it is a big and scary universe out there, I think there is a more plausible explanation: resource depletion.

Now, the first inclination is to be critical of that suggestion. Even if it looks as though humanity will burn through all the fossil fuels without inventing fission, the smart person looks at the total amount of fuels and says "A smarter race would have been more careful with them and they would have had more than enough fossil fuels to invent ever more exotic energy sources."

But the way in which a race gets smarter, is by making the mistakes first. They end up with the wisdom, but none of the raw materials.

Humanity and intelligences even vaguely human-like solve these problems in the same way... through population. If there are 1000 humans, we're all scratching around in the dirt trying to grow food, little extra to do much else. But at 10,000, we can have a few specialists. And since their work is intellectual, once it has been done it's very easy to propagate it. You can double whatever it is they've invented/discovered, without doubling the number of people doing it.

Each population bump allows more excess effort that can be channeled into that. Each population bump just means you get more of those 1-in-a-million geniuses. And once you have several, they network together, they're smarter than if they're the solitary philosopher.

So while maybe a 1 billion population could survive almost indefinitely, it may never have the mojo to invent the really cool stuff.

What if we need a 30 billion population to crack fusion? Well, then we're screwed. We can't sustain that long enough, even if we get fusion at the end of it. Didn't you once guess we had enough of a civilization to have 100,000 specialties? What if we need 400,000?

Population, I think, limits what technology you can have. And we can't feed enough people to invent the Star Trek future. Eventually, we won't be able to feed enough people to sustain what we've got.

If intelligence works like this at all most places, then they're all dialed back to bleak little agrarian civilizations that can't even point radio telescopes in our direction.


Even if it looks as though humanity will burn through all the fossil fuels without inventing fission...

I think you mean fusion there. But energy bottlenecks really aren't the place to look for a doomsday scenario; back on the 2512 thread that was floated repeatedly and it just can't be made to work. Some things will get more expensive than they are today, yes, but a sudden drop back into the Dung Ages doesn't seem to be in the cards.

Having said that, economic resource extraction from landfills would be a great way to get rich if you could figure out a way to do it.


I think you can go one better with the 'Vermi Paradox'.


Still not getting it. We live on the skin of our world. We can see another world in the night sky. We know that our world is a sphere. We can see that other world is also a sphere. We can reason that the other wanderers in contrast to the fixed stars are also likely spheres and likewise worlds. We can start to speculate - somewhat fancifully perhaps - on the possibility of life and other beings and voyaging the airy gulfs. Just on naked eye observation and doing the math.


John Oyler @ 62
Much too pessimistic
We know fusion occurs … there ARE times when dedicated legwork will get you there – provided a steady supply of “money” [resources] is provided to keep the work going.

As for the Fermi paradox generally, we can now put some more realistic numbers into some of the previously-unknowns, which then changes the proportionality of the problems that (we?) face.
Stars with planets appear to be the majority – let’s be conservative ( & I will try to err that way all the way through this …) & call it “half” have planets.
We know that of the 8 planets we can directly observe, ONE has life. Mars might have had life once, there might be life under the ice on Jupiter/Saturn’s moons, or Tiatan, but …..
So, let us say that 1/10th is the ratio for life. But we also seem to know that the size/orbit distribution of planets elsewhere is not, apparently the same as here. Though that might easily be an artefact of our observational limitations.
Let us, therefore reduce that by another factor of 10, to 1/100 planets might have life.
However, the real problem comes at the next step.
Suppose 0.5% (1/200) of stars have planets with life – big deal.
Because, on our own example, Earth has been here for 4.5*10^9 years, life is thought to have been around for at least 3*10^9 of those – lets call that another halving, for safety.
Probability goes down to approx 0.2%....
Intelligent life?
H. sapiens sapientes Africanus 200*10^3 years … Oops. [NOTE*]
Technological civilisation … 200 years – even more Oops!
Which gives you a divisor of: 0.6*10^(-7) Um
Multiply that by the 2*10^(-3) we already have, & call the 0.6, 0.5 for convenience …..
& we get: 10*10^(-10) or 1 per “Billion” – as a maximum, using conservative estimates.
Yes, I know, there are approx (Wikipedia) 100 – 400 “billion” stars in this galaxy, but consider the distances involved. Not just to the nearest starts, but to the 1 per 10^9 - & probably distributed around the rim of the galaxy, anyway.
Let’s just be optimistic for once & assume 400 Gigastars, which means 400 technological civilisations … at an average separation per star of ….. far too much!
Plus, of course, the well-rehearsed difficulties of travelling across such distances in such inhospitable conditions. Which are (contra Charlie) do-able, but at the cost of a huge effort, unless you go for “Accelerando” starwisp uploads, assuming such uploads are possible, which is another, errr, umm, can of verms.
Thus my conclusion is that it is almost certain that there ARE other sentient beings out there, but that our chances of running into them, even by ship-in-a-bottle methods (SETI @ Arecibo) are very small indeed.
In fact, the low probability makes the current SETI search even more necessary, since the chances of actually encountering such beings, even by “direct” long-distance communications, taking many years between messages is vanishingly small.
And all of that is without the possibility that advanced Technic civs may have gone the route to Matrioshka brains or Dyson spheres, so that we won’t be able to “see” them anyway.

s-s @ 63
Having said that, economic resource extraction from landfills would be a great way to get rich if you could figure out a way to do it.
Already been done, several times – see re-extraction @ Broken Hill & other places

“Man who thinks he thinks, & comes from Africa” ]


Shorter RDSouth @50: "We humans have technology and stuff, so we are much better able to cope with the unknowns of the universe than a mere tapeworm!"

True as far as it goes, but the hyperintelligent tapeworm equivalent is that worms are far more capable than bacteria. Doesn't mean they are anywhere near comprehending the true nature of the universe.

Now, what if the worms start modifying their host/universe so that it can better survive and take them to new places?

"My ancestors came here on the sandwich!"


ianrb @ 67
Sorry, but parasite really DO modify their hosts behaviour.
I DID recommend, some posts back, reading Carl Zimmer's "Parasite Rex" ... not pretty.


@Greg 68: I was making a television reference, which it seems you did not get. The IMDB link above may give you a clue.


Barely toddling though. Some civilisation out there could be operating long term massively upgraded Kepleresque planet searching programs.
What are the chances the earth could be picked out as possibly life bearing? And worth a signal? Or a probe?


I'd agree; any failure to detect "intelligent signals" on our part repesents an actual failure to detect that subset of possible signals that we can detect, and identify what we think is an "intelligent signal" in that spectral range. Since we're only looking in the electro-magnetic spectrum, if the last EM signal that $civilisation around a star R lightyears distant sent was sent R+300 years ago, we've missed it by a co-incidence of time and nothign else.

Also, whilst we're only really beginning to begin to search properly, it's starting to look like some of the values in the Drake equation may be much higher than previous estimates suggested.


The problem is that it's a poor metaphor to deal with the Fermi paradox.

It's not a metaphor for the Fermi paradox. It's a metaphor for how human beings approach the Fermi paradox.

(Our understanding of the FP is distorted by our humanity. We approach it with certain axiomatic expectations. These expectations appear to be timeless universals to us, but are intimately based on our experience and our biology.)


Fermi: The universe is really huge. Why aren't we seeing any aliens?

Stross: We imagine aliens as humans, while in reality they might be so different that we can't recognize them.

Fermi: The universe is really REALLY huge. Why aren't we seeing any aliens that are similar enough to us to be recognizable?


That's an interesting perspective.


Yep. Principle of Mediocrity. It's only a small step from being the only intelligent lifeform to being a unique form of life - the others being unrecognisable - even to each other? Either way we're a special snowflake.
Assume not, we have the paradox.


See #71 - There is a short space of time in which we might have detected them even if we recognised the signal.

Also, if you haven't already, read Elizabeth Moon's "Remnant Population".


ianrb @ 69
I assumed from the link (which I DID follow!) that it was a reference to a flim - same difference.
However, my point about parasites modification of their hosts' behaviour still stands.

Charlie @ 72
Granted, but look at the numbers I just came up with ....
So that there is almost certainly someone "out there", but, simultaneously, given other problems, that we are extrememly unlikely to ever make a detection, let alone a "contact",
Note that I based my numbers seocifically on known information & was deliberately slightly pessimistic at every step, lowering the values to the nearest convenient number in each case, & adding an extra "caution factor" of minus-ten in the case of planets capable of supporting life at all ....

Similarly Vanzetti @ 73
Please LOOK at the numbers I propounded, & how unlikely that makes "seeing" any aliens at all?
And that is without the extra factor that we might not recognises it a "Not as we know it, Jim".....

To recap, as above my conclusion is that "they" are out there, somewhere, quite possibly more frequently than at a 1:10^9 chance, but equally likely (if not even more so) that we will never make any form of contact, & that is without even Charlie/XKCD's other restraining criteria.


You appear to be attempting to reinvent the Drake Equation. Are you actually trying to rephrase it, or have you managed to miss it all these decades?

(If the latter, then you may be missing some of the context of the conversation.)


Actually, I think there are some methods for a tapeworm at least estimating how big the "local gut universe is."

There are three critical facts:

1. The tapeworms shed eggs that leave their local gut.
2. The tapeworms develop from eggs that enter their local gut.
3. They can (at least for the purposes of this model), tell each other apart, presumably by chemoreception (aka taste). Presumably they can tell how related they are too, again by taste.

There's a standard method in biology called Mark-Recapture. You catch a bunch of animals, tag them, wait a period of time, catch the same number of animals, and see how many of the animals in the second batch wear your tags. Assuming you didn't do something stupid (like kill the animals by tagging them), and assuming you recapture some of your tagged animals, you can estimate the number of animals in the local population.

Philosophical tapeworms can do the same thing, simply by knowing the taste of the eggs as they leave, and sampling the eggs as they come in. If there's no difference, then there is a world beyond the gut, but it is (so far as the tapeworms can tell) a closed loop. If they never see any of their eggs again, then there are infinite other guts out there. They live in an unbounded Meta-Gut, even if they can't themselves visit it. If they see some portion of their own eggs pass back in, then they can deduce roughly how big the local Meta-Gut system is, even if they can't visit the other guts in the system.


Whoa! That's so smart.
What about the aliens though?
Am I still not getting it?


Obviously it means that if you fire people out into space and nobody comes back then it means that the universe contains an infinite number of habitable planets! '-)


Yes, if people keep plummetting down from the sky. If they don't, well, not much you can tell.

In the case of tapeworms, it's the nature of things that the local population has to be maintained by new eggs arriving - fertilised eggs always end up leaving for other places.


YES, I am & I am quite aware of the flake equation, thank you!
I was trying to put some realistic numbers into it ....


I think that the Fermi Paradox is nature's way of telling us that some of the numbers that we consider "resonable" in the Drake Equation, might be a tad high.


I didn't get the Fermi Paradox from the OP. I got a feeling of "Oh God, what's Bob Howard turning into? And what will he think of us when he becomes it?"


I suggest that the timespan between attaining radio technology and becoming a Matrioska Brain is less than 1000 years. Beyond that, why would a brain that outclasses us to the same degree we outclass tapeworms want to communicate? Alternatively, my usual comment - that we are not living in the real universe but a simulation.


In terms of Drake/Fermi one can (like #66) try to put some numbers in. Two key parameters: the average time T between technological civilizations arising in our galaxy, and L the lifetime of civilizations. One then gets a 2 dimensional parameter space, and can ask about the 'galactic political ecology' which arises.

For example if T=10 and L=1000 then there about 100 civilizations out there now, but too far away and too short lived for us ever to meet them.

For the diagram I got see:

A few other comments. First, a thank you to Charlie for mentioning Keith Wiley's paper on this blog a while ago, which set me thinking (again) about this subject.

Next, after writing this I became interested in the history of the subject. I'd say that it's more or less the opposite of what is commonly believed - i.e. that we've only recently begun to face up to the possibility we may not be alone. In fact, for the last 300 years or so, astronomers have been consistently over optimistic about life out there, and have only reluctantly given up on e.g. the moon, the Sun(!) etc., as evidence accumulated that these places were completely inhospitable to life.

As late as 1966 Sagan had big hopes for Mars. Here is a quote from Shklovskii and Sagan (1966), on what a Mars explorer might find:
"An occasional scraggly plant would not be unexpected. But there are other possibilities --fossils, footprints, minarets... We will only know when we drop our instruments on the surface of Mars."

Just imagine the excitement now if Curiousity did come across what was at the low end of Sagan's hopes in 1966, that is a scraggly plant.


If a substantial portion of tech civilizations make it to the Matrioska Brain stage then their lifetime becomes effectively unlimited. Which suggests vast numbers of them in the galaxy. It also suggest an information processing capacity so vast it dwarfs our entire biosphere.


ndgmtlcd replied to this comment from alexh
> So, you don't believe in the fruitfulness of Socratic dialogue?

Maybe you can explain your question in a bit more detail? Responses this short are usually some form of snark, but I shouldn't prejudge this since I honestly don't understand this question in this context.

I disagree, perhaps profoundly, with our host as to whether this is a productive or interesting analogy for how humans do view - or should view - the Fermi paradox. I tried to explain why I thought the analogy was fatally wrong for this purpose. I probably didn't explain well, or clearly, or perhaps not convincingly, or perhaps not interestingly. All fine. But where does "Socratic dialogue" come into it?


The idea is that the tapeworms would be intelligent enough to use Socratic dialogue to infer the nature of the mobile gastric tubes that might surround their own gastric tube environment.

I was thinking that they might perceive sounds, but heteromeles above (80) brought up chemoreception (taste) as one of their main senses (if not their only one) and he has them doing some interesting empirical science. I can't stop thinking about their books, written in smells and about their stinking scholarly journals.


I thinks Matrioska Brains are improbable. Civilization that can build such structures will likely also be able to build a universal fusion reactor, one that can burn everything into Iron. They won't actually need stars as a source of energy anymore.


Mark @ 85
Agreed - why do you think my version of the flake equation produced a number with a MAXIMUM number of technic civilisations ot there of 400, or 1 in 10^9 ??

dirk @ 87
PLEASE drop the "simulation" so-called argument, it's religious claptrap under another name. And I think Charlie ruled it ultra vires for this discussion, anyway.

mbarlow46 @ 88
But I did factor in the "time" (i.e. overlapping periods of technic civ.) into my version, or did you miss that?
TL:DR less than 200 years of technic civ in a world-history of 4.5 billion, lengthens the odds - a lot!

To recap: "Life" will be/is common - probably half the star-systems with planets (will) have life, somewhere.
At least 90% of that life will be "prokaryotic" - or its' equivalent.
Of the remaining 10%, at least 99% & more likely 99.99+% will be "eukaryotic" but unintelligent.


We are as tapeworms, we can know nothing, let's just give up. No, lets be silly presumptious tapeworms...

Though it seems like cheating, perhaps we should arrive at a Drake-like equation backwards. First start with the idea that we are the most advanced civilization in our galaxy, and the idea that our galaxy is average, then work backwards to give an idea of how common life is.

I'm thinking this way. If a planet is optimal for life, it takes firm hold in the last 400 million of 4 billion years of existence, 1/10th.
Then, if a planet is optimal for intelligent life, it starts talking and using fire (late Homo Erectus) in roughly the last 1/1000 of its time with life, or 1/10000 of its existence. Some real civilization has existed for about 1/100 of that time generating culture, or one one millionth of its existence.

So, among worlds as optimal as ours, the is a one in a million chance of a civilization. I think it may be important to adjust all the ratios down for average worlds from there. Planets that can generate life should be more like 1 in 1000 (that one I just totally pulled out from somewhere*). So, at 1 Trillion planets in the galaxy, that's 1 Billion planets with conditions to generate (not just sustain) life. But of those, only 1/10 would actually have life yet, so that's 100 million with life. Planets that have conditions leading to cultural intelligence would would also be more rare, even among those. Lets say 1/10 the rate of optimals, or on in 10000. There would then be 10000 planets with cultural life. Once again, our world optimized the development of civilization, so the rate at which average worlds generate life might be 1 in 1000 of the cultural worlds. So 10 civilizations in our galaxy, distributed along a continuum from the Bronze Age up to us. That sounds reasonable to me.
But since we have only one data point it's complete and total conjecture.

*Ballpark of 10 planets in our solar system, only one in a hundred planetary systems similar to ours. What they're seeing is the hot Jupiters and stuff, but where they are you won't get anything Earthlike, visible or not. I'm speculating that there are probably a lot of bodies out there like Mars+ and Europa+ and even Venus lite. A very thin sprinking of few Earth-.


Just imagine the excitement now if Curiousity did come across what was at the low end of Sagan's hopes in 1966, that is a scraggly plant.

Well, yeah: a "scraggly plant" would constitute a colony of differentiated commensal eukaryotic cells, a hugely advanced organism that didn't emerge on Earth until our biosphere was between 2.5 and 3 billion years old! And Mars gets about half as much solar radiation at ground level as we do, so has less energy to power a non-geochemical biosphere, and moreover a lot of that energy is in the form of short-wavelength UV (i.e. rather destructive), so presumably a Martian biosphere would be energy-starved, sluggish, and precariously clinging on in a dangerous high-radiation environment.

This, BTW, is why I'm not optimistic about life on Titan or in the under-ice oceans of Europa; these are low-energy environments, cryogenically cold, and I suspect there's a fundamental connection between the overall amount of energy available to a biosphere and its size and ability to evolve (and an inverse relationship between the energy imbalances within a biosphere -- see, for example, the wildfires raging in Australia this month, and contemplate their repeated long-term effect on the Australian ecology).

I think Earth may be something of a sweet spot: close enough to the sun to get lots of energy but not so close we're baked, heavy enough to retain its hydrogen (and thereby water) but not so heavy it retains so much that we're a water giant planet (like Neptune or Uranus), therefore with good energy availability, a protective blanket of atmosphere against too much hard radiation, enough water to redistribute energy between the equator and poles without massive atmospheric storms, and a whole bunch of other things that physicists and astronomers blink and say "what?!?" when asked if they'd considered these factors.

For example, I suspect the evolution of multicellular life on Earth had to wait until tidal forces caused our moon to spiral far enough out (from the relatively low orbit it formed in) that the resulting tides didn't smash any nascent multicellular colonies to bits against the rocks, or otherwise disrupt them. And then there's the question of oceanic churning (again, due to tides) and the time it took for the great oxygen catastrophe to take place and oxygenate the deep oceanic waters after oxidizing the surface waters and rocks. Complex stuff that's non-obvious if you run with the just-so stories we tell ourselves about evolution, most of which start in the eyeblink of the pre-Cambrian revolution ... which in fact represents only the final 20% of the story.


I think you mean a universal fusion reactor that can fuse any lighter element into iron. (Heavier elements can be fused, but the reaction is inevitably endothermic; see also, curve of binding energy.)

That's a very good point. But consider: stars are convenient repositories of lots of fusible light elements. And while our star is relatively short-lived, anything that's less than about 50% of its mass is good for an order of magnitude longer ... or longer than that. And if you can build an MB, you can probably figure out how to use the nearest star's power emissions to lift mass out of the star and then turn it into something suitable for construction of more computronium, even as you reduce its mass and thereby increase its longevity (albeit by turning down the brightness).

The real question is how to deal with the ashes, i.e. get energy out of your star once it burns down into a black dwarf. I figure the best way is with black holes; you have a couple of hundred billion years to figure out how to make some planetary-mass black holes, and use their accretion disks as energy sources as you annihilate the remains of the sun.

But that's taking us way beyond the cognitive abilities of our tapeworms, so I'm going to stop right there.

I'd agree; any failure to detect "intelligent signals" on our part repesents an actual failure to detect that subset of possible signals that we can detect, and identify what we think is an "intelligent signal" in that spectral range.

Further, as far as I know, pretty much none of our SETI programs would have detected any of our emissions at interstellar distances, whether deliberate CETI or otherwise. I think the closest we ever came was that if the Arecibo message had been directed at us from a nearby star (rather than into the middle of nowhere, as ours was), we might have detected it as the Wow! signal.

Even if there was a sister civilisation literally at the next star over, using the same logic and methods for SETI and CETI and general EM spectrum use, we wouldn't know. We wouldn't detect their transmissions and emissions and they wouldn't detect ours.

Unless there's a CETI/SETI pair I've missed?

In any case, part of the reason why the universe is silent might be because I can say "the Arecibo message" and have that refer to just one transmission, in one direction, lasting less than three minutes.


I think matrioska brains are a little unimaginative. is there no way to get an infinite amount of computation done in a finite amount of time? Is there any chance a single wave function can act on itself, and do so in a manner complex enough to express tools to control the wave function's future development? It might be possible to have it re-express itself at half the size, and then keep on doing that faster and faster.


The potential computing power of a Quantum computer dwarfs that of a matrioska brain. And it doesn't take the entire output of a star to run it. Just a rather large multiverse.


It hasn't occurred to you that if quantum computing is feasible then you can use quantum processors in an MB?


"PLEASE drop the "simulation" so-called argument, it's religious claptrap under another name. And I think Charlie ruled it ultra vires for this discussion, anyway."

You, so have not only ruled out an explanation for the Fermi Paradox but are now ruling out all discussion of it here? Do you agree Charles?


The most efficient normal matter to energy conversion process is matter into a BH under specific condition. I imagine that BHs are prime locations for civilisations, especially if they are located in a wide spaced binary system. Mini Dyson shell, not much comms lag.


Google "hypercomputation"


It did actually, but that's just scary :o


sorry, thats replying to #100


I'm looking for something that makes matrioska brains an inelegant solution - something that provides infinite computation in finite time (with a finite sized "answer", I suppose,preferably on a single electron), or something that's exponentially fast in time - years of similation run doubles every k seconds. Something that makes surrounding stars with computing equipment yesterday's news. Yes, you can do it, but it's perfectionism, rather than impressive.


A quantum computer with a mere 300 Qubits could store more values simultaneously than there are particles in the universe. And the resulting structure would probably be microscopic if not nanoscale.

Charlie's suggestion of a MB using Qubits would be as close to infinite computing power as you would ever want to go.


And any such civilization would be running reversible computation much of the time


The best use of a QC is to simulate quantum systems. Otherwise only a limited number of algorithms are of any use.


While that's currently true, Quantum Computing is still a technology in its extreme infancy, and that's probably being too kind since its feasibility for doing anything useful is still far from certain.

It doesn't seem excessive to suggest that a civilization capable of creating a MB would likely have found ways to make a QC do more useful forms of computing. It certainly wouldn't violate any known laws of physics.


Weren't matrioshka brains in Accelerando kind of a dead end? Sure the infrastructure endures, but the internal social constructs degrade... I can't remember the exact reasoning, but I recall it being presented as inevitable.


I can't remember the exact reasoning

Possible spoiler: they died of capitalism. (See also the Capitalism 2.0 stuff later in Accelerando.)

I was, at the time, still fumbling my way towards a full realization of just how broken-by-design the Extropian prosperity gospel remix of Federovian cosmism is. But I kinda-sorta got that far: corporations are AIs, and they're much better suited to the upload lifestyle than we are.


Have you read Robin Hanson's stuff on upload economics?


dirk @ 101
Please review past comments - I said that I think Charlie had ruled "simulation" arguments out - I may be wrong, but please do check.
Where had I ruled out the Fermi Paradox, please?
I merely put some numbers into (my version of) the flake equation.
This is the 4th/5th/nth time you have attributed words & thoughts & intentions to me that I have NOT expressed, & it is becoming tiresome.

& @ 108
"reversible computation"
By this do you mean tying to reverse-engineer solutions?
Got the thermodynamics problem there, or to put it another way (taken from Taleb) can you compute the shape of the ice-block that is now a puddle of water?
I think you need to be more specific.

Mark @ 107 & others on Q-computing
Re. QM computers, very "simple" ones now exist ... how far along the line to a working 300 Q-bit one, are we then?
I get the impression that if/when these toys take off, they are going to make present advances in serial computing power look trivial. And are they a possible route to a working AI?


Yes. I think it's a bit crazy. The axioms he starts from are, shall we say, pervasively undermined by ideological assumptions he fails to recognize and account for.


I think its worse than that. If we optimize for money, productivity, the economy etc then Humans will not last long at all. Humans, in such an economy, would be a drag on productivity to be optimized out of the system.


For example, I suspect the evolution of multicellular life on Earth had to wait until tidal forces caused our moon to spiral far enough out (from the relatively low orbit it formed in) that the resulting tides didn't smash any nascent multicellular colonies to bits against the rocks, or otherwise disrupt them. And then there's the question of oceanic churning (again, due to tides) and the time it took for the great oxygen catastrophe to take place and oxygenate the deep oceanic waters after oxidizing the surface waters and rocks. Complex stuff that's non-obvious if you run with the just-so stories we tell ourselves about evolution, most of which start in the eyeblink of the pre-Cambrian revolution ... which in fact represents only the final 20% of the story.

Back about 15 years ago, in a microbial physiology unit, the professor made a decent case that multicellular life really isn't possible without having oxygen as an electron receptor. He gave us a page-long list of other electron donor and receptor combinations that bacteria exploit (iron, gold, hydrogen, nitrates etc.), but oxygen as the acceptor and organic materials as the donor provide by far the greatest electron potential. I believe that multicellular anaerobic organisms exist, but they are tiny and simple compared to aerobic complexity.

Thus, real complexity on Earth required oxygen. What happened on Earth was that, shortly after cyanobacteria permanently oxygenated the atmosphere (short, in deep time terms, is longer than the history of vertebrate life on land), we started getting into this neat geologic period known as the Cryogenian (850-650 myr ago) better known as the "Snowball Earth." Actually, there were multiple global glaciations during this period, but changing the atmospheric composition made things a lot colder because oxygen replaced all the greenhouse gases that came before.

I don't think there are many (if any) fossils of what life was doing in and around all that ice, but once the world rewarmed permanently, the Ediacaran multicellular fossils showed up almost immediately. There was probably multicellular life in the ice, but the glaciers scoured the fossils away. Molecular evidence suggests that most of the great phyla evolved during the Snowball Earth period, but we have a snowball's chance of finding those fossils.

Incidentally, the "Great Oxygenation Event" is my candidate for the Most Badly Misnamed period in geology. Why? Roughly 1.6 BILLION years passed from when free oxygen first appeared on Earth to when the atmosphere finally started showing oxygen levels crudely approximating today's levels. That's only an event when a PR-seeking scientist gets hold of it. Don't believe the hype--oxygenation took a very long time. The Gradual Oxygenation Eon is more accurate.

However, multicellular life apparently evolved somewhere around a snowball, so I wouldn't discount life under ice on other planets. AFAIK our distant ancestors evolved under those conditions. Oxygen is a bigger limiter for our kind of life, though, and the reason is redox chemistry. Other chemistries will only work if that life is somehow much more efficient at reacting and creating far-from equilibrium, complex systems. I don't know enough chemistry to say this is impossible a priori, although I suspect it might be.


I thinks Matrioska Brains are improbable. Civilization that can build such structures will likely also be able to build a universal fusion reactor... They won't actually need stars as a source of energy anymore.

We're wandering from the topic, but I must point out that getting power isn't the only problem; systems also need to shed that energy. Never mind where the electricity comes from, how quickly and efficiently can you dump the waste heat? There are big advantages to collecting as big a pile of computronium as is practical, particularly when you start looking at network latency times across a whole star system. But you run into scaling problems: as size increases, volume (and hence potential mass of electronics) goes up by the cube of the size, while surface area (and thus places to mount radiators) goes up only by the square. Theoretical Matrioska Brain design poses interesting questions, but this isn't the thread for it.


Reversible computation:

"Probably the largest motivation for the study of technologies aimed at actually implementing reversible computing is that they offer what is predicted to be the only potential way to improve the energy efficiency of computers beyond the fundamental von Neumann-Landauer limit[2] of kT ln(2) energy dissipated per irreversible bit operation."


Y'all welcome to come with some picks and shovels up here:

Who knows, if you dig in the right places you might find fossils hidden away in nooks, folds or crannies that weren't totally scoured by the glaciers.

But be warned: Up here you won't be far from Wendigo territories.


Thanks for the offer, but I think we're really looking for sedimentary rocks that are 900-1000 million years old, preferably without too much metamorphism or folding. I think that's in the same category as finding a live wendigo, but if anyone knows where some are, I've got a paleontologist that might be interested.


If you want remnants of the Tonian period you might find something East of the Nuvvuagittuq belt, way over in the Otish Mountains.

But the place is unexplored. In a sense it is even less explored than the Antarctic. When I look at it it reminds me of a wooded version of the mountains of madness.

Better get there fast though because there are diamond mining and uranium mining projects for the region and they might disturb things.


dirk @ 119
Wiki article very interesting.
Lot of handwavium in there, methinks.
And it is sailing VERY close to the wind wrt defying thermodynamics.
Special cases & exceptions seem to be the rule, with some careful" cheating" as well.
I don't doubt some processes can be formulated & enacted, but, returning to my analogy, I dont think you will be able to make it a general-purpose method that is universally applicable - you still won't be able to reconstuct the ice-block from a puddle, any more than you can determine the initial state of a simple "Blinker" in the game of "Life".
Some propositions are, & will always remain undecidable.


Reversible logic gates *are* universal.
They are also a topic of non-theoretical research in the semiconductor industry for ultra low power computing.

I think Earth may be something of a sweet spot: close enough to the sun to get lots of energy but not so close we're baked, heavy enough to retain its hydrogen (and thereby water) but not so heavy it retains so much that we're a water giant planet (like Neptune or Uranus), therefore with good energy availability, a protective blanket of atmosphere against too much hard radiation, enough water to redistribute energy between the equator and poles without massive atmospheric storms, and a whole bunch of other things that physicists and astronomers blink and say "what?!?" when asked if they'd considered these factors.

Ah. From your analogy I had thought you getting at the 'difficult to find out part' of the Fermi paradox as opposed to the 'how much is really out there' part. The prevalence of tapeworms being what it is.

If that's true, then you appear to be making an indirect case interstellar missions as opposed to passive observation. How easy would it be to deduce the existence of something like Wang's carpets on a super-Earth just through an analysis of reflection spectra?


It strikes me that Charlie's analogy breaks down precisely because his tapeworms don't have any sort of long-range sensory apparatus and we do: the EM spectrum. Give us a century or so and we'll be cataloging Earth-like worlds the next spiral arm over.

Something more in line with the original proverb is if, say, Son of LIGO and LISA and successive generations of detectors never detect what they were designed and anticipated to detect.


Published in:
Proceeding CF '05 Proceedings of the 2nd conference on Computing frontiers Pages 421-426

"We describe a simple 8-bit adiabatic microprocessor implemented with nMOS reversible energy recovery logic (nRERL)"


"It strikes me that Charlie's analogy breaks down precisely because his tapeworms don't have any sort of long-range sensory apparatus and we do: the EM spectrum."

Cut to a tapeworm conversation where an intrepid tape worm called Tapeworm-Charlie has thrown out the funny idea of intelligent Ecoli to highlight the tapeworm's own Fermi Paradox problems.

"It strikes me that Tapeworm-Charlie's analogy breaks down precisely because his Ecoli don't have any sort of long-range sensory apparatus and we do: Our sense of smell. Give us a century or so and we'll be cataloging Bowel-like environments in the small intestine!"

"Long-range" is relative.


Sorry, wrong. Reread the analogy to see what the human gut represents. Can you say 'life-bearing planets'? Looking up above, I see you did get that. Please don't disagree just to be disagreeable, eh?

Oh, btw, your 300 bit thing is wrong, wrong, Wrong, WRONG as well. Obnoxiously, teeth-grindinly wrong. If you're really interested in this stuff (as opposed to reading pop-sci expositions), you could do worse than looking over Scott Aaronson's lecture notes over on his blog Shtetl-Optimized


I'm not trying to be disagreeable, just trying to point out that Charlie's analogy becomes even more interesting (and accurate IMO) if you replace "life bearing planets" with "visible universe". You were of course correct with your comment as the analogy was originally intended and I apologize if my post made it seem otherwise.

If you Google "300 Qubits" you'll find an awful lot of links, many of which come from quite reputable sources, which disagree with you. I find it difficult to believe that they are all wrong, wrong, WRONG.


dirk @ 124
I SAID ... I read the Wiki article - I saw the bit about Toffoli gates.
Can a Toffoli gate compute the original state of a Conway-game-of-life "blinker"? No.
Can it compute the original shape of the ice-block? No.

I don't doubt they will be very useful & powerful tools, & use less power, all very desireable characteristics ... but they will still not "solve" some inherently irreversible problems.
I strongly suspect we are talking past each other, & addressing different problems.

SoV & Mark @ 129/130
I just did what Mark suggested.
QM computing is here, already.
Only "just" commercial, but given the potntial, I would say that absolutely certainly by 2020, if not a lot sooner, we'll be seeing some, err, "very interesting" results, never mind the machines that the calulations are done on.


It's pretty frightening isn't it? I almost hope that scaling it up and broadening the range of algorithms it can process *doesn't* prove to be feasible.

An AI running on a large (or even a small) QC would make all us mere mortals irrelevant pretty quickly.


>>>I think you mean a universal fusion reactor that can fuse any lighter element into iron. (Heavier elements can be fused, but the reaction is inevitably endothermic; see also, curve of binding energy.)

Heavier elements can be exothermically divided (fissed?) into iron. So lets just call it the Universal Iron Furnace. You put matter in, iron and energy come out.


Sorry, can't resist this. If the Hyper-Tapes can communicate using olfactory means, why shouldn't they mark their eggs with an olfactory message. Then they could look for olfactory messages coming in on eggs from an alien source. Something mathematical perhaps? Hey presto, interstellar comms!

Well, interbiosphere comms.

And if they can do chemical analysis of some sort, can't they make deductions about the hostile universe outside the biosphere by analysing material passing through the gut?

And using egg exchange pass on to and receive findings from alien Hyper-Tapes?

You know, I'm beginning to like these plucky guys.


Sorry, taste not smell

If you Google "300 Qubits" you'll find an awful lot of links, many of which come from quite reputable sources, which disagree with you. I find it difficult to believe that they are all wrong, wrong, WRONG.

I believe that your interpretation of those articles may be a little off. You said:

A quantum computer with a mere 300 Qubits could store more values simultaneously than there are particles in the universe

That sounds like you think that you can use it to store large amounts of data in 300qubits. If that is what you're thinking you're mistaken (and apologies if I'm misreading you).

I think you might be misremembering a quote from a Scientific American article ( which says:

just 300 qubits can run more calculations in an instant than there are atoms in the universe

which is closer to accurate - but still not entirely correct (it's not running all of those calculations - it's using a nice quirk of physics to pick the "right" answer out of the superposition of all answers in those N qubits).

Charlie's suggestion of a MB using Qubits would be as close to infinite computing power as you would ever want to go.

I'm not sure what exactly you mean here since - while quantum computing enables certain kinds of calculation to be done in polynomial time (integer factorization being the classic example) this doesn't apply to *all* kinds of computation.

NP complete stuff only gets a quadratic improvement with Grover's algorithm. Nothing to be sniffed at but it's not game changing to the same extent that solving integer factorization in polynomial time is. If I wanted to protect my symmetric AES cypher from quantum decryption I'd just have to double the key length to get the same level of protection I have from normal computers.

There are other crypto systems (McEliece for example - that are quite robust in the face of quantum computers).

Quantum computers to some stuff extraordinarily well - but they're not magic fairy dust that gives us infinite computing power ;-)


Greg, you seem to miss the whole point of reversible computing. It has nothing to do with "computing ice blocks from puddles of water" and everything to do with computing using arbitrarily small quantities of energy by not discarding intermediate operations in the computer but effectively "running them backwards". As my second post illustrates, test hardware is already being built so its not just a theoretical concept. Otherwise we are stuck with the Landauer Limit.


Google has already run a neural net designed for pattern recognition on a DWave quantum annealing computer.


"I believe that your interpretation of those articles may be a little off. You said:

"A quantum computer with a mere 300 Qubits could store more values simultaneously than there are particles in the universe""

How about this quote.......

"For n quantum bits there are 2n possible states, and a quantum computer of only 300 qubits could hold 2^300 values simultaneously, more than the number of atoms in the universe."

Its from a press release put out by Nobel Laureates David Wineland and Serge Haroche, after they won the 2012 Nobel prize for physics. Remarkably similar no?

The web site is here....

And the original article can be found here....

So while I admit that I might be a little off in my interpretation, someone might want to tell these guys too.


@ 132 & 136
Q-bit computing.
Is/will it be "parallel" or "hyperlinked" or is/will it be "serial"?
I get the impression that, because it is looking at superposition of many-states it will (tend to be) parallel/hyperlinked.
In which case a hard AI take-off is a distinct possiblility ....
Now what/which will we get, a Frederic Brown, "Answer", a friendly Ship-Mind, or something-in-between?
Place your bets here, collect before 2020?

Oops - AH @ 136 ...
You've done what I usually do, & got a typo - easy with that spelling.
I THINK your link should have been to HERE instead?

dirk @ 137
Thanks - we were & are discussing DIFFERENT THINGS, as I thought, & in fact your so-called "reversible computing" is nothing of the sort - it's a blatant misnomer, but not by you.
As I said, it's going to be a very useful tool, unless overtaken by QM computing, of course, but it is not reverse-engineer-computing of previous states, which is what I THOUGHT was being discussed.
OK, we can agree to our separate & distinct usages, but I think better definitions or distinctions are going to be needed in furure!



Sorry I'm still getting used to how posts on this blog work, and I messed this up a bit. So #139 is my response to the first part of your post.

For my response to the second part, I will direct you to #110 which was my answer to a similar point and I think it applies to your argument too.


300 qubits can exist in 2^300 states, but cannot be used to store 2^300 bits of information because when its state is read it collapses to a single value.


dirk @ 142
Surely that is:.. "collapses" to a single SET of values ??
Quite possibly as many as 2^300/2 ??
More info needed.


A 300 qubit machine will produce a number, when read, of 300 normal bits. Reading disrupts the 300 qubit superposition and it suddenly jumps to its classical value.


I don't think that anyone is suggesting that all 2^300 states can be read simultaneously. Just that they exist simultaneously while the machine is in a coherent state.

But nothing would stop you from reading them one state at a time and recording the result, except possibly dying of old age (depending on how fast coherence can again be established after decoherence). Its probably something that will be difficult at first and then slowly improve with technology until it becomes very fast indeed.

No matter how long it takes, in theory, you could eventually record all 2^300 possible different states, which means that in a sense the 300 Qubit machine *did* have all the information stored. It just couldn't all be accessed simultaneously.


Oh absolutely. If we're assuming tapeworms can be arbitrarily intelligent, they can do anything they have the resources and creativity for. I'd suggest that elephant tapeworms or cattle tapeworms might develop better tapeworm-tech, simply because they have bigger guts and more resources to work with. Humans have apparently diverted resources from having a big gut to making big brains, so as a tapeworm meta-gut, we're pretty suboptimal.

Really, the whole point was that tapeworms didn't have to philosophize about the outside, they actually have the basic means to study it using the resources available to them. We'll ignore small questions about how tapeworms do mathematics (I'm assuming they can turn themselves into some sort of self-reading Turing tape...), because the point was they live in an open system, and they naturally take advantage of it.

Now if you want to speculate about tapeworm religion, that's a realm for the philosophers.


Charlie, I think you are now obliged to write a book about sapient tapeworms exploring the universe...


"But nothing would stop you from reading them one state at a time and recording the result..."

Quantum mechanics stops you. You only get one shot at reading it, at which point all of the other 2^300-1 states disappear (possibly into parallel universes).


dirk @ 148
Sure about that?
According to the website, that might not be the case. This suggests otherwise but it is open to more than one interpretation, IMHO, so we will have to wait & see what results we get.
Seriously, if we are only getting ONE result out of the trouble & expense of a multi-Qbit computer at each so-called "collapse", then what's the point?
There must be other advantages, or the (at least potential) ability to "read" more than one state out, per operation.


The single 300 bit number that comes out is "the answer".


Oops & again, quoting from the U of Sydney's website ....
While 300 qubits may not sound like much compared to the billions of transistors in desktop computers, in quantum systems the amount of information that can be processed scales exponentially with the number of qubits. The amount of information that can be processed in the team's new experimental crystal approaches the level of 10^100.
Or 2^300, as the case may be.


They look to me to be unfallen, that is, not expelled from Eden/Age of Saturn/Golden Age so they should have no Problem of Evil and an entirely benign God/Pantheon. However, maybe some form of Dualism, Paradise within, Hell without? Mithraic concept of the Test /Trial as applied to egg survival?
As to maths, off the top of my head I can visualise a Turing Machine table as a taste matrix. Have to do further thinking about that though.
Have cold, this is cheering me up.


You haven't read "Scratch Monkey", have you?


>>>You haven't read "Scratch Monkey", have you?

Yes I did. Though I did it AFTER I read Accelerando, which made the experience weird.

But there was only one worm there and it really had no chance to explore the universe before you blew it... unless you are stretching the tapeworm metaphor beyond my comprehension.



I must voice my strong objection to your statement that "nobody much cares what happens to an E. coli." This is a vicious nuclist smear of our hardworking and long-suffering bacterial and archaeal cousins.

You continue with your nuclist propaganda by touting features of metazoan life as though they were somehow superior :

Tapeworms, on the other hand, are multicellular eukaryotic organisms with differentiates tissues, have nervous systems and genitalia, and are probably much closer to us—practically kissing-cousins to our form of vertebrate life—than anything we might discover on other planets.

Bacteria and archaea have a bewildering variety of metabolic, reproductive, behavioral and structural features that far exceed metazoan life in terms of variety and perhaps complexity, if not size.

Furthermore, the same argument -- that in evolutionary terms, we are "kissing cousins" to tapeworms compared to any alien life -- applies equally to bacteria and archaea. Alien life would have infinite phylogenetic distance from any extant or extinct terrestrial organism, owing to independent biogenesis.


P.S. -- This is all highly amusing.


As with computing so with nano-fabricating
A very interesting development.

May not be on-topic, strictly speaking, but I thought this shoould not be allowaed to pass unnoticed.


Together with a lack of the problem of evil and the enclosing nature of their biosphere I don't see them as attracted to religious scepticism. And I would see them as attracted to philosophical monism. But just possibly an Epicurean monism.
Probably the rum isn't helping. I'll stop now.


I've got an easier answer, one Fermi didn't think of.

Sometime after the Bang, space grew extremely rapidly. So fast that a heinous radiation tsunami moving at warp 1 was left far behind.

Star systems began forming. Life began to evolve. Life achieved intelligence and space travel and colonized space.

About 3.8 billion years ago, WHAM!! And everything had to start over again. So it goes.


Well, in the broadest sense, religious is whatever one does religiously. Let's see: tapeworms produce eggs, breed hermaphroditically, and eat. And, in this model, they philosophize.

Yep, Epicureans, definitely. I'm not sure whether they'd be monists, though. Possibly they'd be the opposite of panentheists, given how they lived (instead of the divine interpenetrating their reality, they interpenetrate the divine).


Now if you want to speculate about tapeworm religion, that's a realm for the philosophers.

So quickly you're answered in the latest Oglaf comic! (Note: this is Oglaf. It's not safe for work. Not safe for good taste. Not safe for much else. In fact, if you've been offended by anything, ever, don't click that link.)


I've seen much better punch lines in Oglaf!

I think that if tapeworms came into contact with the exointestinal world they would either worship Hermaphroditus (offspring of Aphrodite and Hermes) or send up their prayers to YHVH, given his dual-gendered nature:

Lots of fun things in the old Torah.


I think we're working on pretty much the same argument; we've not detected what we either weren't looking for, weren't looking in exactly the right direction for, was too weak a signal for our detectors, didn't appear to be "intelligent" (maybe the Centaurii are sending us back dub and sub episodes of Bartenders? It could happen! and certainly fails my definition of "intelligent life" ;-) )...


Question for the informed here:
How much & how soon is Q-bit computing going to affect not just the ordinary user, but the entire apparat we've come to expect, with computing machinery percolating & penetrating every aspect of everyday life?
Given the relatively high profile it enjoys, & the amount of money that appears to be being thrown at this (set of) problem(s) one would expect palpable results very soon, especially given that low-number Q-bit machines [such as D-wave] are already in the market.
Will it reault is a true revolution, overturning Moore's Law in a single push, of computing powers & capabilities?
And will it, Charlie's scepticism notwithsatnding, make some form of AI-takeoff likely, "hard" or otherwise?
If if so - when?


Oops, forgot.
Is there a readily available hardcopy edition of "Scratch Monkey" available anywhere?
I just prefer, you know - BOOKS.


The book is still available as a second printing, from NESFA.




Which reminds me. If someone wants one of Charles' Net freebies in hard copy how legit is it (in his eyes) to just get Lulu to print it one off as a book?


I would say that a practical QC will have almost no direct impact on ordinary people. It's not going to make MS Word run faster nor speed up graphics. However, if you are into simulating quantum system eg protein folding, drug interactions etc it will make a huge difference.

OTOH, I suspect that we might find that the "graininess" of the universe might impose a limit on the number of qubits we can harness together.


>>>Sometime after the Bang, space grew extremely rapidly. So fast that a heinous radiation tsunami moving at warp 1 was left far behind.

Big Bang doesn't work the way you imagine it works. There is no explosion from a center.


Or breaking previously unbreakable codes. Conventional computer security would be obsolete.


Dont know if you've run into Rose's Law. You can find a breif explanation here.....

Similar to Moore's law but for QC's. Apparently if the trend continues, we'll have computers "faster than the universe" (whatever that means) by 2015.

Both interesting and quite scary. If anyone ever figures out a way to write algorithms to allow QC's to do more than just simulate quantum systems then their potential would be almost impossible to predict.


Some codes can be scaled so that even a QC could not break them.


If it's something that is, like, actually published in dead tree form, I'd really, really prefer you to buy a copy. Just saying? Not to mention that using Lulu will cost a lot more than buying an actual offset-printed copy, because Lulu's print-on-demand tech is inherently more expensive (and they need to make a profit on top).

If it's something that is unavailable in dead tree form, I'd like to know about it so I can fix that deficiency.

NB: I have no problem with libraries or second-hand bookstores; as far as I'm concerned, the first sale doctrine is sound.


Thanks for the reply. However, I think you are wrong about prices. A 400 page 7x9" book costs less than £7. Anyway, I don't think you will have to worry about people actually doing that since there is a *lot* of work involved in a getting a finished product. For the price differential (if there is one) its just not worth the effort.


I never got the "paradox" part of Fermi's paradox. It basically says that if we make a bunch of assumptions about life - assumptions we are basing on little evidence - and then make other assumptions about what an advanced species would act like - which we base on no evidence, only conjecture - then we should see things that we don't. The outcome is contingent on not just some of the assumptions being true, but all of them.

I'm going to create something called "Chatham's paradox." My friend didn't have a cookie handed to him in the past few minutes. Isn't that bizarre? I mean, if we assume that he's in an area populated by people, and assume that he isn't asleep, in the shower, or otherwise shut off from such people, and assume the area he is in is currently populated by people (IE, if he's in a park, it's not 3 am), and assume that one of them stops to talk with him, and assume that when people stop to talk to others they hand out cookies, then he should have been handed a cookie in the past few minutes. In fact, his pockets should be filled with cookies from all the people that have been handing them to him - yet his pockets are strangely devoid of cookies. We need someone to solve this paradox.


What it is saying is that there is nobody like us around, anywhere.


"Some codes can be scaled so that even a QC could not break them."

Interesting. Care to provide a link or two that supports your claim? I would like to read about it further.


I think you are wrong about prices. A 400 page 7x9" book costs less than £7.

Yes. And for a traditional publisher, using traditional production technology, the same book block costs about 80p.

(The reason it costs more: 10% is manufacturing costs, the distribution chain takes about 50-70% of the cover price, and the author and publisher each take 10% as net profit. Book retailing is horrifyingly inefficient. That's why Jeff Bezos made it his first target when he decided to found an internet corporation to disrupt the retail sector.)


"Hang Dinh at the University of Connecticut and a few colleagues figured out that CalTech mathematician Robert McEliece's code is structured in such a way that a quantum computer couldn't just pull it apart, at least not by any known process. Rooted in a mathematical puzzle called the hidden subgroup problem, standard quantum fourier analysis simply can't crack the code."


True, but for an "end user" the comparison is what Lulu charges versus what your local bookshop charges (or even Amazon).

Irrespective, Lulu is a really nice way of preparing almost any material that occupies more than 100 pages. It is also cheaper than photocopying or printing at home.


The link appears to be dead, but I found the article in a google cache. Interesting stuff indeed, thanks for that.


Accelerando was a trip, no doubt about it. I enjoyed seeing what happened to our left-behind humans outside the brain but of course I had to drive myself silly imagining what was going on inside. By definition, things we are no longer equipped to understand would be incomprehensible. Probably the closest approximation to our bog standard human sensorium would be alternating blasts of light and noise along with tremendous chunks of emptiness which represents information that we can't even begin to interpret. There's between 9 and 21 human senses according to the boffins and just trying to remap sensory input into something we can feel analogous to such senses would be something the AI's would laugh at.

Regardless of whether or not the singularity would be a dead-end for a civilization, it most damn well is for comprehensible storytelling. Even in Rapture of the Nerds, our protagonist didn't stray beyond the comprehensible side of the virtual world.


So the galactic scale MB that is coming to eat the Milky Way has its heat dump thruster pointed away from us?



That, from the limited amount we have detected, there doesn't seem to be anyone who was enough like us at a period during a tiny sliver of time that's proportional to their distance from us. If there were others like us now, we'd have no way of knowing, and if there were others like us at some point in the past that didn't coincide with this tiny window of opportunity it's very possible we wouldn't know. This doesn't strike me as strange, or something that needs to be answered.


By "us" I mean us with our Transhumanist ambitions and an intention to engage in cosmic engineering, sending out self replicating Von Neuman probes etc. As far as we can see, after 13 billion years its still a wilderness out there.


And you're falling into the "anyone else out there will think like us" trap again.


Frank O @ 165
$54 (inc shipping), for a book costing $27!

Must be a better way, & one that gives Charlie a decent tab ....

dirk @ 175
NO that is NOT what he is saying.
He might be saying the same as me ... that there is almost certainly, "someone" out there, but we cannot (or are extremely unlikely) ever meet them .....
Someone might hand him a cookie, but don't hold your breath.
Remember my version of the flake equation came up with 1:10^9 probability of a tech civilisation - pretty thin on the ground, & in a large volume, huh?

Reverting to Q-bit computing, the various other pieces I found referring to "Rose's Law", having googled it, show that it is going to be incredibly powerful & that, although at present it is "application-specific", various people (including some @ D-wave) are simplifying the inputs in such a manner that the q-bit machines can be set up/programmed in a more normal manner. Exactly what happened with other g-p computers in fact.
There was also this facinating piece by Matt Ridley which pointed up both the back-projection of Moore's Law (fascinating) and the possible forward-projection of Rose's, which MIGHT put a step-function into the graph.

So, how long to an AI take-off, if any, or are the variables here as wobbly & uncertain as they are in the flake equation?
Or should we be studying the lines used by Handel, quoting I.Cor XV,15 ??
Scary stuff!


Do you not think that human ambitions have changed at all over the past 100,000 years? Do you think that they will not change over the next 100,000? I'd argue that many of our greatest advances have been social, and I don't see any reason to assume that we have reached the end of those advancements any more than I believe we have reached the end of our technological advancements.


"And you're falling into the "anyone else out there will think like us" trap again."

Not falling into it. If the rest of the universe is populated by intelligent non-tech stay at home alien dolphins that will be mildly interesting as well as massively disappointing. The bottom line of the Fermi Paradox is that there is nobody like us, or what we will likely become, anywhere ever.


"Do you not think that human ambitions have changed at all over the past 100,000 years? Do you think that they will not change over the next 100,000?"

Not really. There will always be some faction that is of the "onward, outward" mentality.


And the "It must be possible because we can't see how it isn't possible in some way or another even although we can't do it yet" trap.


NESFA Press is a specialist publisher, not distributed through Amazon.

(Greg: ping me through email round about the first week in February and I'll see if I can sort something out that doesn't involve $30 shipping fees.)

Interesting. Care to provide a link or two that supports your claim? I would like to read about it further.

In addition to the stuff that Dirk mentioned:

Quantum computers don't hole all non-quantum cryptosystems. The only ones that I am aware of that they really cause major problems with are those that rely completely on integer factorisation.

QCs are great - as others have said some really evil little problems like simulating protean folding become almost trivial if/when we can get them working at a useful scale. But they are not magic fairy dust that makes all "hard" problems on non-quantum computers trivial ;-) This bit of the wikipedia article gives a good summary of where the potential for QCs lies


"Onward and upward" wouldn't types wouldn't necessarily be obvious to us. "Onward, upward, and devour," perhaps. I suppose we wouldn't move forward from that, but then again, I suppose that we might not move much further forward from our current technological state, which would be another explanation.

Come to think of it, any culture that moved ahead technologically but not culturally runs a large risk of suicide as it plays with ever deadlier toys.

Likewise, the assumption that von Neumann probes would be used always seemed odd to me. Like people in the 50's assuming that we'd all have rocket packs by now. We're assuming some life form out there that is willing to wait the hundreds of thousands/millions of years it would take to see such a project to completion, yet is antsy enough that they're willing to seed the galaxy with self-replicating mechanical devices (and this is assuming there's much of an advantage to such probes).


I would say we evolved an intelligence that allows us to survive and even thrive in any environment, no matter what our body's physical limits are.

In this sense evolution is most definitely teleological - favoring ever higher levels of intelligence. Unlike the polar bear's white fur, inteligence is a characteristic that is indepedent of current or future environment.

The late Stephen J. Gould once wrote “Replay the tape of evolution a million times from the beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again."

A true statement, but besides the point.

Replay the tape of evolution a million times and it is inevitable that with each and every replaying some sort of intelligent species (cetacean, insect hive mind, bipedal dinosaur, racoon, octopus, etc.) will evolve, because intelligence is such a useful characteristic no matter what the environment.

Intelligence is going to appear in one form or another.


Or to paraphrase Frank Herbert, any organism receives its fiercest competition for survival from members of its own species. This is especially true of species (like us) who have no natural predators to worry about - we provide our own competition.

Or as the Romans used to say "Homo homini lupus est."


Oh shit, I agree with Dirk. But he is right about the Fermi Paradox. There aren't any cookie exchangers out there, none at all. You can come up with explanations for that or excuses for that but the fact is they just aren't there.
The galaxy is about 100th light years across and largely a thin disc. Getting a message right across the galaxy from one side to another could take less time that our species' life span even as it stands. If there is another cookie exchanger now then there have been others in the past. With possible lifespans of millions of years.
We have to be unique.


Adiran, you and Dirk seem pretty confident that despite that fact that QC is such an embryonic field, they will never be able to process any type of information other than certain limited quantum simulations as per the situation today at the very dawn of their existence (protein folding, code breaking ....etc). You give the impression that its some kind of hard physical limit.

Are you saying that a General Quantum computer, which can process any sort of information is physically impossible and could never exist? Would doing so break any known laws of physics or is it just a matter of inventing the correct algorithms to do it?

If it wouldn't break any laws of physics, then I would put it to you that it's simply a matter of time until the types of computing they can do gradually expands as QC programming theory advances. I mean look at all we've learned to do with programming of conventional computers since they were invented. And many would say that even conventional computing is still very much a developing field, let alone QC.

If doing so *would* violate a law/s of physics, perhaps you could provide a link to support that.


You want a link to prove that magic doesn't violate the laws of physics?



Yeah, I just love me the thought of a quantum word processor.


While I do ramble incoherently, I don't think any quantum process will collapse my literary wave function and make my prose coherent.

While quantum computers can solve certain problems better than classical computers can, it does not follow that they can therefore solve all problems better than a classical computer can. If quantum computers follow the process of firing up with the problem, then collapsing with the answer, they appear to be very unsuited to something like word processing, because there is no "problem" to solve here, aside from managing long strings of data and making sure they are marked appropriately so that they can be read by us.


I'm not sure why this implies we have to be unique. Let's say that our current technological level last for another thousand years, and that there have been a thousand civilizations like us. Even if everyone spends all their time at this level beaming signals out all over space, there's still enough time to swim in that we could never hit each other.

The Arecibo message is going to take 25,000 years to arrive at it's destination, and by the time it gets there, the M13 star cluster will be gone. The Wow! signal was picked up when Big Ear was spending just 72 seconds monitoring each point.

And of course, we could be all alone. We really have no idea. But I'm not sure why we call incredible ignorance a paradox.


If QC obey the laws of QM as we know them now then a QC can only speed up certain tasks. In others it will be no faster than a normal machine.
*However*, QM may well not be complete. I suspect that if there is a problem with our understanding it will show up when we get to a certain number of entangled qubits and try and operate on them. I recently posted a related question in sci.physics.research
The good news might be that it could break down in a manner that allows communication between alternate worlds.


Then we could have aimed better. Where's your warrant for saying our present level of technology will only last a thousand years? Civilisations as political orders and cultural formations come and go. Technical regressions tend to be local and temporary. In our species lifetime so far I think it implausible that any global technical regression has ever taken place. In 50000 years I expect the human species to be still around and still to possess a technical capability of some kind. I' m not going to assume a technical regression at that point. (Even though technical regressions - which would have to be global- may have intervened.)


Like us or recognizably intelligent which is "like us to the point of conforming to our expectations." A planet brain like Solaris is not exactly going to appear like a technology-using civilization cuz it ain't. From the sounds of it, a civilization would need to be into planetary engineering for us to take notice. Really, stellar engineering. The stuff that we could telescopically detect in Missile Gap.


I doubt that there could be any regression to a tech level further back than around 1920. For that to happen it would mean almost every basic technical book being destroyed along with everyone who had a scitech education.


There's this obsession with being plunged permanently back into hunter/gathering or medieval serfdom within 50 years or so.
I think technical civilisation roughly equates to species lifespan. Either you go extinct or reobtain your previous tech level pretty rapidly.
Species lifespans, hundreds of thousands to millions of years.
Lifespan of a intelligent, tool-using species capable of manipulating its environment on a large scale?


I chose a thousand years because it seemed like an exaggerated period of time. Based on the comments here, it seems that most people think that our technology level will be substantially more advanced even 300 or 400 years into the future, so we should be at a different level at least ~900 years from now.

I suppose it's possible that we enter into some sort of cycle of disaster, regression, progression, disaster, etc., that keeps civilizations stuck at our current level indefinitely, but I haven't seen any evidence of it.


I think that in 1000 years we will be well into the Jupiter Brain era. Even in 100 years I expect baseline genetic Humans to be a fading minority.


Yes, but apparently we'll spend all our time gossiping about the Jupiter Brain Kardashian.


You are all committing the base geek fallacy, assuming the future will look life science fiction. Ask authors from the fifties how that panned out.

Seriously, Jupiter Brain concept is a linear extrapolation. It's like saying 100 years ago that we'll eventually have subluminal ocean liners. We don't, we moved to new concepts of transportation instead.

In 1000 years humanity might move pass the whole concept of INFORMATION. Does that sound crazy? Well, the future is crazy.


Not all of our time. We'll also trade humorous holograms of cats, with witty captions on them. It may be necessary to disassemble Ganymede for the mass to hold our archive of simulated realities full of virtual cats.


Ask Jules Verne. Really, I hold no brief for strong AI, practical fusion power, Dyson spheres, Matrioska Brains or mind-uploading. Or genetic engineering or quantum computing.
But the general view seems to be holding off scavenging refugees with your shotgun.
Fermi wasn't a science fiction writer.


>>>Ask Jules Verne

Ask him what? Saturn 5 wasn't a gun. 8-)


>>>. It may be necessary to disassemble Ganymede for the mass to hold our archive of simulated realities full of virtual cats.

Pfff. The computational output of the entire universe won't be enough to hold the full awesomeness of cats.

Adiran, you and Dirk seem pretty confident that despite that fact that QC is such an embryonic field, they will never be able to process any type of information other than certain limited quantum simulations as per the situation today at the very dawn of their existence (protein folding, code breaking ....etc). You give the impression that its some kind of hard physical limit.

I don't think they're limited to just doing things like simulations. You can - in theory - use a QC to play Solitaire or Minesweeper on if you wanted to. They can do everything a traditional non-quantum computer can do.

What I am saying is that it's already well understood what kinds of things QCs can, in theory, do better than non-quantum computers.

Some kinds of things - like integer factorisation and quantum simulation - they can do vastly more efficiently than standard computer systems. Potentially moving from decades or centuries to fractions of a second. This will have a huge impact on the world in the places where those calculations are significant - which are many.

Other things they can do in about half the time. Other things take about the same. In those places QCs will have little or no impact. If QCs become common folk using AES-128 for encryption keep calm, switch to AES-256, and carry on.

While the practical technology to build QCs has only been achieved fairly recently they've been talked about for nearly thirty years. The idea of quantum bits dates back to 1969. We have a very good idea of what they are theoretically capable of. See that wikipedia link I gave earlier for a basic summary and links to references.

If anything like "infinite computing power" in respect to QCs is true in general, rather than the specific cases where QCs perform well, it means that our understanding of quantum physics is very, very broken. I find this unlikely considering the little wiggle room we currently have for changes in our physical models.


But we know there are at least two serious problems with QM.
One is the very well-known mismatch with General Ralativity ....
The other is the not-so-obvious (or maybe carefully ignored) problem of underlying order or possibly hidden variables, or possibly inter-dimensional kittens playing with the results ...
{ Ohh! Photon! dab/pat/pounce! }

The double slit.
Fire photons at it, singly, space out over time, at least a second between each photon.
The result gradualy builds up to an interference pattern, once more than (very approx) 2000 photons have been fired.
Something is missing in our equations & predictions, that's for sure.

Also, I'm with R Feynman (again) - he was right so often & made so many correct predictions & suggestions in this field ....
"There is no collapse of the wave function" he said.
In fact he derided it (& by extension the now discredited, though lots of people still cling to it) "Copenhagen Interpretation" as so much mystical claptrap.
Now what?


once more than (very approx) 2000 photons have been fired.

2000? I'm under the impression that it happens from the first photon: it's just you can't see the pattern with that first photon, it's a single point on the graph. The photons don't interfere with each other, they interfere with themselves.

As for 'mystical claptrap', what are you on about? You're not confusing the 'observer' with consciousness, are you, because consciousness is not required.


Not my quote - R Feynamn's quote.
No, I THINK he was referring to "collapse of the wave-function" as mystical claptrap.
Because you are agreing with him, that consciousness was & is NOT required.


Totally and utterly agree. You don't even have to ask science fiction writers and readers of the 1950s, many academics would have proposed colonisation of the moon, mars, rockets sizzling around etc. Narratives can break and one begins verging on looking like a prophetic religious nut if one doesn't acknowledge that whole heartedly.


By Cthulhu, can't you google? Try "single photon interference".


Actually, I think the writers of the 50s get a bad rap as rockets and rayguns guys. There was interesting and imaginative work done, inventive, playful, political, satirical. JG Ballard and Phillip K Dick started publishing in the 50s.
Then you have Arthur C Clarke who provided a standard solution - on fucking topic you notice - to the Fermi Paradox in 2001.
And we still have rockets and rayguns guys.


>>>There was interesting and imaginative work done, inventive, playful, political, satirical.

I don't deny that science fiction can be interesting and imaginative. I'm a fan of science fiction, otherwise why would I comment on this blog? I'm just saying that using sci-fi as a vision of the future is wrong and leading to questions like "where is my flying car?" and "where are all the aliens?".

You can't help but notice that science fiction is full of flying cars and aliens (and sometimes aliens in flying cars). 8-)


The Sentinel published 1951.


Where is the "collapse of the wave-function"?
It isn't.
Feynman (spelt correctly this time!) maintained IIRC that photons are particles .....
The idea that they are interfering with themselves (oooh-er-missus!) is not proven - it's an assumption, made for convenience as a get-out.
Long time since I looked at my copy of the Red Books (yes, I have a set) ....


The idea that they're interfering with themselves is because there's nothing else for them to be interfering with. You can run the experiment with individual particles (whether as light as photon, or as heavy as C60), and even if you ensure that you've detected the previous particle before emitting the next, you get the interference pattern.

So, unless you want to posit weird time-travel interference between particles that (for the photons at least) do not have overlapping lifetimes, you need to treat each particle individually.

So, you've got the particle, and you've got the apparatus. Which interact with each other. Somehow the particle isn't as localised as its apparent size would indicate. In transit, it's not a particle, or at least it doesn't behave the way our simplistic mental models of billiard balls would imply.

The classic model of interference seems to be that particles at a dark point on the receiver are arriving together, but out of phase, and they 'cancel' out. Quite how that works - how their energy magically disappears contrary to the conservation laws - isn't explained (though over the entire screen it does balance).

As I see it, the probabilistic model means that particles don't interfere with each other at all. Instead, in transit each particle exists within a probability field. Each point in that field has a possibility that the particle is there. With nothing interfering, then it's most likely that its in the centre of that field, so if shine a light at the screen, you get a spot of light. But send it through a double slit, and the field gets distorted (just as a wave in water going through slits). Suddenly, there's a higher possibility its here rather than there. And when you measure where it was (i.e. when an observer is introduced), you discover that it's here more often than there. No need to cancel or reinforce energy at all.

As a model, Quantum Tunnelling pops straight out - there's always a slight possibility a particle is really far from where you expect it, even if in principle there's no way from here to there.

Yes, you've got this field which is itself probably impossible to detect. I can appreciate if that seems problematic to you (though to me it's no worse than Feynman's infinite-number-of-paths model).

As I understand it, Feynman was very much into the "shut up and calculate" school, which has its virtues. Plug numbers in one end, get numbers out the other, don't worry your pretty little head about meaning, about what's actually happening. If you want to use QM, then it's the way to go. On the other hand, scientists have spent centuries trying to get their heads round what actually happens in the world. They build models. A good model provides predictions that turn out to be true, it tells you new things you didn't know before.

As far as QM is concerned, and particularly where it runs up against GR, the model (model? models!) is definitely incomplete. Not wrong per se, just as Newton's Laws weren't wrong per se, but incomplete, a working approximation that will (one hopes) be improved upon.

I don't see any 'mystical claptrap' in this. Perhaps you might tell me where in the Red Books the esteemed Mr Feynman does so denote the Copenhagen Interpretation (it's about time I went through them properly).


He didn't.
It was in a speech or presentation, somehwere ....
It MAY be in one of the shorter books, but probably not "10 easy pieces" ......
What IIRC he was aiming at was the semi-mystical suposition that a human observer was required, a la Berkely, which he rightly derided.


Does filming the experiment in a room empty of humans count as "a humen oberver being present"?


You're confusing sci-tech reporters with science fiction writers.


Oh that.

No, I don't think the CI requires a conscious 'observer' either. I think any such impression is down to bad reporting down the years, and Feynman, as one of the clearest explainers of physics I know of, would have been rightly disgusted at them.


Remember Copernicus? We were once at the centre of the universe and the crown of creation. Then Copernicus displaced us from the centre and it's been downhill all the way since.

If we're the only intelligent species in the galaxy - or, as makes no diff, the only one that looks about and takes a fucking interest - then we might as well still be in a Ptolemaic universe and God's Special Snowflake.

As I said, Fermi was not a science fiction writer. There's a real question about the origins of life, how common it is likely to be, what the odds are.

Science fiction writers and fans are likely to ignore the paradox as they do the speed of light limit. Or find ways around it. It's too depressing.


Apologies for use of F-word.


Well, it's difficult to discuss this subject without Fermi coming up.


It hasn't even annoyed my corporate nannyware!


paws @ 226
I think the answer to that is "Yes" - daft isn't it?

Go-Captain @ 229
Not so.
Remember my "answer" to my version of the flake equation?
400 other tech civs out there - just that we will never meet them - we might just get lucky enough to read some of theor dignals.
Definitely NOT a geocentric universe, though.


Possibly off-topic, but...
Rudy Rucker has a nice post about Charlie's "Rule 34" on his blog:
Charles Stross’s RULE 34 — And the Nature of Mind

Though, it has me wondering if there's an AI parallel to the Fermi Paradox*, along the lines of "Would we recognize it, if we saw it?" Or are our assumptions about what intelligence is (Human, Artificial, or Alien) too ingrained to see it in other forms (which I think was Charlie's point)?

I'm sure it's not an original thought, so apologies for any obviousness.

*if there is what's it called? And don't say the Turing Test.


Yes, I do. Be a teeny bit happier if you'd done an average distance calculation though. About 5000 light years?
By the by, do happen to know how far away this new 'twin earth' the Kepler space telescope may have discovered is? Can't see it mentioned in the release or elsewhere.


It's okay. Discussion over at The Register reckons it's about 1000 ly. Worth firing up the big laser?


Though, it has me wondering if there's an AI parallel to the Fermi Paradox*, along the lines of "Would we recognize it, if we saw it?" Or are our assumptions about what intelligence is (Human, Artificial, or Alien) too ingrained to see it in other forms (which I think was Charlie's point)?

Yes, I've had that thought myself. Any long discussion of AI will inevitably attract people who carefully explain away any evidence of intelligence in existing AI systems, and who are either waiting for Godot (err, "artificial GENERAL intelligence") or who categorically deny that any sort of artificial machine could be intelligent. And this is with machines specifically designed by human intelligence to intelligently partner with other human intelligences! Imagine the even greater difficulty of acknowledging an alien intelligence that wasn't expressly designed for human convenience.

People will generally believe that aliens are intelligent, even if they exhibit relatively simple behaviors, if they look like mammals. Less so if they look like slime mold. If the aliens are metallic polyhedra, no matter how great their intellectual prowess, some people will keep treating them with the consideration due a toaster and mistake their biological pets for the smarter creator species.


A question: Are our brains quantum computers?

Or more usefully, are we sure they aren't?


Go-Captain @ 235
only two planets fit the same profile as Kepler-22b—Gliese 581d and HD 85512. Now here's the bad news: Gliese 581d is 20 light years away, meaning it would take something like 3,000 lifetimes to travel there. Kepler-22b, on the other hand, is 600 light years away. from "Big Think"
Or This BBC piece gives more info ....

And I already have a partner to keep the Dragons at bay! ( His name is Ratatosk )

If (when) AI comes here, it will fly, but it'll look like an airliner, not a bird, or it will swim bi it'll look like a submarine, not a fish ...
Crystalline intelligences could be tricky ....


Wasn't there an entire book suggesting that was the case? Only didn't it get panned by neurologists and people who actually knew how brains worked and anyway no evidence in its favour has come up since it was published?

What do you think quantum computing in the warm-ish wetness of our brains would be like?


As far as I know, there is no reason to believe that any sort of quantum process is involved with our brains; it is simply a magic term to use because some people believe that consciousness must involve magic.

That said, I seem to recall that photosynthesis has been discovered to use quantum effects, which was a bit of a surprise.


Thanks. My regards to the bold Ratatosk. :)


Good point. The thing is, the more we delve into these things, the more we see how nebulous terms like "think" and "intelligence" are. You'll see the same thing thing when people try to define what "intelligence" and "self awareness" is in animals. So far, it seems that our best test involves whether or not animals (including people) can use a mirror. Not the best basis for self-understanding.

I think this highlights why the Turin test is such a poor idea. What does it measure, "intelligence" which we can't define? And how does it measure it? Spam and adbots are already decent at mimicking humans. They'll get better, but I bet even when they get good enough to fool people for a longer period of time (they already can over a short period), no one is going to think that it suggests in any way human-like thinking.


Chatham @ 243
Been said before but try the usual XKCD Like this for a start.

Genarally, I thought H Beam Piper had the definitive test for intelligence: "Talk-&-build-a-fire" Ahem.

P.S. Go-Captain
Not so much "bold" as Unspeakably Cute I mean, Look HERE to see what I mean!


NESFA books are available via Amazon (at least in the US). However, they are full retail price.

Wasn't there an entire book suggesting that was the case?

You're probably thinking of "The Emperor's New Mind" by Roger Penrose (yes - the physicist... once more proving that people often perform poorly outside their area of expertise ;-)

Only didn't it get panned by neurologists and people who actually knew how brains worked and anyway no evidence in its favour has come up since it was published?

Pretty much. See

What do you think quantum computing in the warm-ish wetness of our brains would be like?

It wasn't implying that brain operated as a QC though - but that quantum effects were necessary for consciousness.

As I recall the argument was basically: (1) Computers can't be conscious, (2) So it must be something else, (3) Look there could be some weird quantum shit happening here, (4) that must be it.

Since (1) depended on a dodgy reading of Godel's theorem in the context of consciousness it didn't really convince.

The idea was, if I recall correctly, that the microtubules within the neural structure of the brain were of appropriate dimensions so that, theoretically, electrons could become quantum entangled and then... magic happened or something. I'm too lazy to go google ;-)


Please, please stop the madness. Nobody even knows what consciousness is.


Ask the nearest Cat?
New Guinea Crow?


E. coli?

In order to say what conciousness is, we first have to decide whether or not it's an intrinsic property of being "life", of being an animal, of being capable of sensation, of being capable of independant thoughts...


"... the more we delve into these things, the more we see how nebulous terms like "think" and "intelligence" are. "

Intelligence is not a nebulous concept for me. I define it as the ability to solve problems. Strong AI is the ability to not only solve any problem that any Human can, given the same resources, but problems that no Human could ever solve. We will certainly know it when we see it.


H'm. There's a fellow with an air about him. Nice cat, Greg.


"Nobody even knows what consciousness is."
Wrong - it is that which experiences qualia.


From Wikipedia "Qualia (pron.: /ˈkwɑːliə/ or /ˈkweɪliə/; singular form: quale (Latin pronunciation: [ˈkwaːle]) is a term used in philosophy to refer to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience."

So that's another circular argument from the resident evangelist.


Exactly. You solve one, you solve the other.


The issue is that you've just defined each of them in terms of the other, which gives you 1 equation with 2 unknowns. I had hoped that you knew enough mathematics to realise that those are insoluable.


I suppose. The abacus was an early intelligent machine.

From what I've read, there are many people that disagree with your definition for Hard AI. But since there's really no agreed upon definition for it, that's to be expected.


I'd also point out that the problem with consciousness is demonstrating that something outside yourself is also conscious. For those locked in by brain damage or botched anesthesia during operations, demonstrating that they are conscious to the outside world has been a critical problem.

Are you conscious when you are asleep? Is this a fundamental state or something that fluctuates?

Because of the difficulty in characterizing and identifying consciousness, we're really at the very primitive "I know it when I see it" stage. So far as I know, we can't even disprove the notion that everything possesses some form of consciousness.


I would have thought fMRI could tell us something about that.


The mirror test is a bit error prone, for example some species of monkeys will avoid eye contact, so they didn't notice the dab of paint the test usually uses to confirm the animal recognizes itself. Once they changed the spot, bingo! It looks like they are conscious after all.

Anyway, I only brought the quantum brains mess up because the mechanism for say, throwing a stone accurately, involves recruiting large numbers of neurons to get the "correct" result, which sounds vaguely analogous to how a qc is described to work (Although of course a neuron firing is a macroscopic effect). And of course the photosynthesis thing I'd read about too. It's likely we'll find quantum effects in lots of unexpected places, especially in biological systems...

Peter Watts likes to make the point that consciousness and qualia might be an entirely accidental side effect of our brain's evolution and not really related to intelligence at all, in fact be a handicap for it...



Neurons work on ions crossing membranes. Very prone to quantum effects, but like every such thing they average out most of the time. Unless they don't want to.

Here's my take on consciousness. Why is there something special about awareness that requires explanation? Why do we assume that numbness is the natural order and exceptions need to be justified? Being affected is sensing. A rock senses being kicked, but just that and all it means is just that it rolls a bit. The last in a series of dominoes is aware of the first being knocked down. Being affected simply is simple sensing. Being affected complexly is complex sensing. Everything is aware, but mostly in a very focused way that doesn't mean much. In the human brain you have spreading activation, where causes and effects build up and reach a threshold, adding a new subliminal flavor to the soup until the next thought occurs. That's dense sensing, tightly wound back on itself and branched complexly, but no different really than a rock being kicked. When we are not being aware of much, we are not being aware of much. When we are, we are. Om.


Of course human consciousness requires quantum effects. So does brewing alcohol. Organic chemistry: that's quantum effects, right there, and all of biology is riding on top of it.

I gather that most of the proponents of quantum consciousness mean something less well defined, e.g. ineffable magic. See also: popular misuse of chaos theory, relativity. But I did like that Greg Egan book where people had modules implanted in their head to enable quantum mechanically based true free will (plain biological humans merely have the illusion of free will).


I can't speak to all quantum consciousness mavens. The version I'm fond of is that consciousness simply means that anything that possesses consciousness can play the observer role in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, thereby collapsing wave functions.

This is a fairly universal version of consciousness, and it fits fairly well with what mystics report subjectively as the true state of reality. Of course, testing this is currently impossible, but I'm hopeful that some clever type out there will at least figure out how to disprove it.

The thing that seems to piss off everyone about this interpretation is that it takes the one thing we say we're proud of, and says it is universal. It appears that most people, whatever their professed religious belief (or lack thereof), want to think they are different and special than the rest of reality.

Whether quantum consciousness is anything other than a goofy theory, it is useful as a reminder that no scientific law says we are different and special. It is a supposition on our part, nothing more.


"But I did like that Greg Egan book where people had modules implanted in their head to enable quantum mechanically based true free will... "

It still would not work. Free will is supposed to be more than just flipping a coin to make a decision.


It still would not work. Free will is supposed to be more than just flipping a coin to make a decision.

Oh, I agree that it doesn't make any difference. I think free will is either trivially demonstrated or incoherent, depending on how much work you expect it to do. I liked Egan's "qusp" device because it's a complicated non-solution to a non-problem, like science-fictional chindōgu. It's something Douglas Adams would have written about if he were more interested in mathematics and quantum effects. I think that Egan probably intended it with less humor than I read it, but I liked it in my own way nonetheless.

Here's the relevant bit from Schild's Ladder:

Cass dated the advent of civilisation to the invention of the quantum singleton processor. The Qusp. She accepted the fact that she couldn't entirely avoid splitting into multiple versions; interacting with any ordinary object around her gave rise to an entangled system — Cass plus cloud, Cass plus flower — and she could never hope to prevent the parts that lay outside her from entering superpositions of different classical outcomes, generating versions of her who witnessed different external events.

Unlike her hapless ancestors, though, she did not contribute to the process herself. While the Qusp inside her skull performed its computations, it was isolated from the wider world — a condition lasting just microseconds at a time, but rigidly enforced for the duration — only breaking quarantine when its state vector described one outcome, with certainty. With each operating cycle, the Qusp rotated a vector describing a single alternative into another with the same property, and though the path between the two necessarily included superpositions of many alternatives, only the final, definite state determined her actions.

Being a singleton meant that her decisions counted. She was not forced to give birth to a multitude of selves, each responding in a different way, every time she found her conscience or her judgement balanced on a knife-edge. She was not at all what Homo sapiens had actually been, but she was close to what they'd believed themselves to be, for most of their history: a creature of choice, capable of doing one thing and not another.


The MWI is a possible "answer" to the problem of free will in that we end up doing everything. OTOH, that only pushes the problem up a notch. If free will exists it must be able to alter the statistics of the apparent collapse. Which is the realm of parapsychology and Psi.


"Which is the realm of parapsychology and Psi"
For free will to be in the individual person, yes.
If free will exists, but is up a notch, ie if it is in something larger than individuals, it is in the realm of metaphysics, of reasoning exercises regarding the unobservable contextual environment that the observable universe is in.

Here's how that might work. The growth of the intelligent multiverse is a statistics altering process that amounts to free will on It's part, and if we "have" free will it is through participation in the free will of the multiverse (which would itself be sort of algorithmic, I suppose, so even that is suspect). If you looked at just the set of outcomes of a person, the ratios would be inexplicable (and must thus be externally determined) because WE don't do everything, only the multiverse itself does everything, and even then only for an instant because new things then become possible, which must then be done, and so forth, and thus the growth.

In addition, this borrowed kind of "free (not externally determined) will" is useless for purposes of assigning us moral responsibility, especially if we somehow avoid tapping into it. In any case, assignment of responsiblity is simply a practical matter, an injustice done for the public good, or whatever other consequence is determined to be paramount. What you "deserve" could be said to be just "the best way to treat you," not "what you have independently earned."


Isn't 'free will' just another incoherent idea used by the one percent to rationalise why they have so much and everyone else doesn't? Then they can blame poverty on 'bad choices' ;-)


@ 268
Utter rubbish
Given that the "free will" argument goes back AT LEAST to the Medieval philosophers, if not to the classical Greeks.


In Pohl's "The World at the End of Time" stellar-scale intelligences do in fact treat planetary-animal-evolved races as tapeworms and eliminate them accordingly and immediately when they grow big enough to be noticed.


Those societies that didn't have elites who liked to justify themselves ? Those elites that all the philosophers were part of?

""I used to think that I was stupid, and then I met philosophers."

-- (Terry Pratchett, Small Gods)"


And Clarence Darrow


I happen to agree. Even in a Christian context, it's pretty obvious from the Garden of Eden myth that God values free will more highly than he does humans disobeying him. After all, nothing stopped Good from making Adam and Eve without the will (or desire) to disobey God about eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. So far as I can tell, free will is the ability to choose to follow God, rather than (just) the ability to choose good over evil or even to think.

Generalizing beyond the Christian context, I'd suggest that free will is about having religious behavior, more than anything else. I strongly doubt it's even limited to humans. Certainly, some (probably many) animals engage in both moral behavior and superstitious behavior.


Well, in the Christian context "free will" runs up against "the divine plan." But "free will" is one of those concepts we come up with in our head that ends up being meaningless when we give it even a little thought. Not to say that it does or does not exist, but that the term doesn't mean much more than vague concepts some humans have.


Hi Charlie,

I thought that this piece was a rather nice metaphor on the limitations of psychological insight. I tend to subscribe to a Fortean view of the universe, as see us as property; defined in this case as belonging to a set, rather than being owned per se.

Thank you.




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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on January 10, 2013 10:55 AM.

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