Extraterrestrials, Technology, and the Future

by J. C. Sprott

Lake SuperiorThe southern shore of Lake Superior has always been a special place for me. Of the dozen times I've been here, each trip has been different, depending on the companionship, the weather, and what's on my mind. The waves of crystal clear water lapping onto the sandy beaches, the rugged hiking trails through dense forests and along the colorful sandstone bluffs that give Pictured Rocks its name, the otherworldly expanses of sand dunes, and the ease of finding total solitude provide a welcome respite from the hurried and regimented life of the city and offer a good place to think. Although it's an experience best shared with someone special, on those few occasions such as this when I have come alone, it is a time to contemplate the big issues of life.

As I look down at the sand that stretches for miles along this deserted beach, I'm captivated by the thought that there are more stars in the visible Universe (~1023) than grains of sand on all the beaches and deserts of the Earth. As I write this (June 2009), over 300 exoplanets have been discovered in our galaxy alone, and so it is inconceivable to me that the only life in the Universe would be here on Earth. Of course it does not make sense to calculate probabilities based on a single observation. After all, the probability that I would be sitting here writing this is essentially zero, and yet here I am. That's why the discovery of any form of life elsewhere in the Solar System, perhaps on Mars or on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, would be of monumental importance. Assuming it developed independently and was not of a common origin as life on Earth, that would mean that life almost surely exists in countless places throughout the Universe.

In nearly every case, such life must be either vastly more primitive than humans or vastly more advanced. In the few billion years that life has existed on the Earth, virtually all of our technology and most of what we consider as intelligence has developed over only the last few thousand years. Hence extraterrestrial life that has developed more slowly than us by even one part in a million would be no more advanced than cave men, whereas life that developed one part in million more rapidly would be as technologically advanced as we are likely to be in a few thousand years. We would expect some of these civilizations to be many millions of years more advanced than us. Since we have no reason to believe that we are anything but typical, one must conclude that there are countless civilizations more advanced than us. If that is so, then why is there no evidence for it?

One possibility is that whenever a civilization develops the means to annihilate itself as we now have with our nuclear and biological weapons, not much time lapses before someone uses it. We are now living in a time of global terrorism and suicide bombers. There is little question that living among us are numerous individuals who would bring an end to life on Earth if they had access to the means to accomplish it. I'm not confident that we will escape that fate, but it seems likely that at least some of the advanced civilizations in the Universe have been able to avoid self-destruction.

Another possibility is that when a civilization becomes sufficiently advanced, it develops the means for observing us in a stealthy fashion, perhaps from hyperspace or some such. Maybe we are a science fair project for an advanced extraterrestrial child or an exhibit in the zoo of a highly advanced society. But I think it is more likely that we would just not be very interesting to a truly advanced civilization. They would regard us as we regard a colony of ants in the forest. They have seen countless such things before and just don't find us sufficiently different or interesting to warrant their attention. Or perhaps they are protecting us from abuse and contamination by others much as we try to protect the natural habitat of plants and animals on the Earth. Of course, some people believe in flying saucers and alien abductions, but I'm strongly inclined to attribute such observations to optical illusions and hallucinations or simple fabrications.

A third possibility, which seems more likely and is not so often discussed, is that the theoretical limits to technology are much more constrained than is commonly assumed. There has been an exponential growth in technology since the dawn of man, and the rate of growth is now comparable to a human lifespan. We live at a time unique in human existence, when the world is a very different place toward the end of our life than it was toward the beginning. There is a tendency to assume this rapid advance will continue into the indefinite future.

However, one thing we know about exponential growth is that it cannot continue forever. Most things that grow exponentially for a long time eventually slow their growth as the essential resource is gradually depleted, and they follow some sort of sigmoid curve. The resource that enables technological growth is scientific knowledge, and we may eventually exhaust that knowledge as we gain a complete understanding of nature. In such a case, technology would also follow a sigmoid curve, and its growth would eventually diminish. An interesting question is then to ask where we are on that curve. Perhaps we have already reached the inflection point, the point at which the rate of growth begins to decrease, and thus the point at which roughly half of everything that will be invented has already been invented. What is the evidence for this?

Consider just two areas of technology -- transportation and communications. Automobiles and airplanes were invented about a hundred years ago, and during the first half of the twentieth century they radically changed the ease of travel and communicating, but our cars and planes are no faster and not significantly more comfortable than they were fifty years ago. Even space travel, which advanced so rapidly during the 1960's, has changed little since then. The telephone, radio, and television were developed in the first half of the twentieth century and have seen only modest improvement since then, cell phones and high-definition digital TV notwithstanding. Our nuclear weapons have changed little for half a century, and nuclear power -- so promising at mid-century -- seems to have taken a step backwards. Most of our electricity is still generated by burning coal, a technology that dates back a hundred years, and our cars and planes use the same fuels as when they were invented, although we are on the verge of more widespread use of electricity and alternate fuels in our cars.

To be sure, some new technologies have emerged in the last fifty years such as personal computers, the Internet, the global positioning system, new drugs, and advanced medical treatments, but it is is not obvious that those developments exceed those during the same period previous to that. Thus is seems plausible that the rate of technological advance has already begun to slow.

The understanding of electromagnetism in the mid 1800's led over the subsequent hundred years to most of the mundane technologies that we now take for granted. The understanding of the atom in the early 1900's has over the past hundred years given us our advanced technologies dominated by semiconductor electronics and lasers. The understanding of nuclear reactions in the mid 1900's led to nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and some applications in medicine and elsewhere. With the addition of controlled nuclear fusion, which may become a reality by mid century, the applications of nuclear physics may well be largely exhausted. We are now seeking to understand quarks and their interactions, the forces within the nucleus. Perhaps there will be some technological applications for that knowledge that emerge over the next hundred years, but the trend seems to be for the technologies spawned by the knowledge we gain to diminish rather than increase.

Charles H. Duell, U.S. Commissioner of Patents is widely reported to have said in 1899 that "everything that can be invented has been invented," although there is no evidence that he actually said or even thought that, but that didn't prevent him from being widely ridiculed. My claim is more modest and in some ways the exact opposite. I think we may now be at a time of near maximum technological advance, but the rate of advance will gradually diminish until we eventually have roughly twice as much technology as we have now, and then we will have developed most everything permitted by the immutable laws of nature. This may preclude our ever being able to travel to the stars, wormholes not withstanding, or even to communicate with the many distant advanced civilizations that have also achieved this limiting state of development. Our recent rapid progress, aided by the vivid imagination of science fiction writers, has led us to suppose that most anything is possible. But it may not be so, and the laws of physics cannot be bent, much less broken.

However, doubling the amount of technology we currently have will still produce many marvelous and interesting developments. We can look forward to at least a few hundred more years of rapid development during which time the world will continue to change significantly over a human lifespan, and perhaps one of those changes will be to increase human longevity at a rate sufficient to guarantee that our descendants will find their long lives as interesting and varied as we do now with our sub-century lifespans.

J. C. Sprott
June 2009