Saturday, July 18, 2015

Alien invasion

‘Yes, my little fish. What is your worry?’ said papa fish folding newspaper.

‘Is there life outside the Pond?’ asked little fish.

‘There probably is. The Universe is very big... And it seems to be made out of things we are made of. So extra-pondial life is very likely to exist somewhere’ explained papa fish. ‘In fact’ he continued ‘we know that there are other ponds out there similar to ours. We have already found some.’

‘Has anybody gone there?’ asked little fish.

‘We don't have the technology yet. We have some flying fish which can jump out of water for a few seconds, but to go to a different pond… it's much more complicated.’

‘So how could life look like in these different ponds?’ little fish kept inquisitive.

‘Oh, there is actually something that we can expect. There are features of animals here in the Pond that evolved separately multiple times and seem to be quite useful. We can expect that things like gills and fins are likely to evolve in a different pond as well. Of course, it is silly to depict aleins as fish-morphic creatures as they often are in the movies. Look for example how different octopi are from us. But they have gills too.’ 

‘Hm…’ little fish was thinking for a while. ‘When we meet them, will these aliens be friendly or hostile? Will they try to conquer the Pond?’

‘We can't be sure. But I believe they will be friendly. We can exchange technology. And there is a plenty of uninhabited ponds. Why would they need ours?’

After the conversation, little fish went to bed. Unfortunately, it was the last conversation he had with papa fish. Little they knew that as they spoke a band of humans rolled out their camping site next to the Pond. Next day, early in the morning, one of the humans cast a net and caught both little fish and papa fish, as well as a few others. It took them 20 minutes to die a painful death of suffocation in a fisherman’s bucket. And then they were grilled and eaten.

It is interesting to imagine how  extraterrestrial life would look like. Finding even simple life would have great philosophical and scientific implications. But finding extraterrestrial intelligence is especially interesting. We could learn a lot about ourselves just by observing other intelligence. Many things we take as general truths could turn out to be products of our minds. Also, if alien intelligence shows up somewhere close by, we may end up competing with them for resources. And if they are technologically superior, then we are screwed. So let us see what top scientific minds can say about how aliens would look like and how our encounter with them could unfold:
I am still very disappointed by anthropomorphism and "biomorphism" of the creatures they are discussing (maybe except for the last one). I want to strip these visions from their biases and make them as realistic as possible. Although, I may identify some shortcomings but my thinking will be still preconditioned by the experience of Earthly life. Therefore, all I hope to achieve is to make an incremental improvement and pass the work on to somebody who will identify the biases I overlooked. We deserve better aliens!

Meet a planet-eater

I present you a planet-eater. This creature is a sphere, similar in size of the Imperial Death Star (160 kilometers/100 miles in diameter) and weights around 5 thousand trillion tons. It has a thick shell that along with self-generated magnetic and electric fields protect the interior from cosmic radiation and other dangers. The shell is able to withstand a high-yield nuclear blast, as it is at least 20 kilometers (12 miles) thick. The bowels of the creature contain among others resource silos as well as mechanical and chemical plants that allow the planet-eater to create any device it needs. It is also equipped with a fission and fusion cores that allow morphing some elements into others.

The propulsion systems are built as they are needed. They attach themselves to the creature’s surface and operate as long as necessary. Then, they are hauled back inside where they are disassembled. The internal factories are also able to manufacture probes, communication devices, smaller crafts able to capture and haul asteroids or comets, repair robots, defense drones, exterior silos, and so on. The list of blueprints includes everything that is needed to be self-sufficient in the interstellar space. More devices can be designed on the spot as needed.

The creature can equip itself with a multitude of sensors. Data from these sensors are analyzed by an on-board supercomputer whose intelligence is orders of magnitude higher than the total intelligence of all humans who ever lived combined. The volume of the central unit is around two cubic kilometers (0.8 cubic miles) and weights 4 billion tons. The supercomputer has access to sensors inside the creature’s body. It also monitors itself, thus meeting all necessary conditions for being self-conscious.

Planet-eaters are semi-social species. It is hard to make a random encounter in the interstellar space and if one happens, the help usually arrives no sooner that after a few years. Each planet-eater is thus equipped to do well on its own. However, whenever two planet-eaters meet, they quickly exchange information they accumulated about the Universe and work together to see if they can improve their blueprints or even totally redesign themselves. They can work together to fend off enemies or solve problems one planet-eater could not deal with on its own. There have been even cases of self-sacrifice. Their social interactions can get very complicated and are intractable for a simple human brain.

Planet-eaters are very rational when it comes to interaction with other species. As with everything else, the decision on how to interact is based on cold calculation of costs and benefits. Unfortunately, less advanced creatures usually have nothing to offer them. They are at best ignored. Higher creatures on the other hand, would be valuable partners but they in turn are not interested in partnerships. Some of them just ignore planet-eaters; others use them as their food.

In fact, planet-eaters are one of the most primitive inhabitants of the Universe. They feed on primordial matter so they will run their course as soon as they eat up everything. They are small, week, and stupid as compared to other aliens, like algae are small, week, and stupid as compared to a whale. Finally, their ecological niche is small. The planets, asteroids, and dust clouds on which they can feed constitute just 1% of the Universe matter. The rest is contained in stars and other supermassive objects.

They are certainly dwarfed by their more advanced cousins: star-eaters (you may not realize that dark matter consists mostly of stars currently being consumed by star-eaters). But their evolutionary advantage is that they can multiply quickly, and they move relatively fast, so they can reach distant places before other life forms. In fact, they are already present in the Milky Way, and a number of planet-eaters are currently headed towards the Earth (as well as several other adjacent solar systems). The first three planet-eaters traveling together should enter our solar system within 15 thousand year. Others will come soon after.

Upon their arrival, planet-eaters will send probes to analyze contents of our solar system and to plan how to use its matter most efficiently. Running back and forth through the Solar System is not an easy due to the Sun’s gravity. The routs must be carefully planned to minimize energy expenditure.
As they approach our solar system, the planet-eaters will soon realize that there is something unusual going on in it. Namely, they will detect human activity. They will send probes to examine us. Initially, the probes will be orbiting from afar objects like Venus, the Earth, the Moon, Mars, Ceres, IO, Callisto, and Titan, that is all places with our significant presence.

They will intercept a lot of communication between us. These pieces of intelligence will allow the invaders, still undetected by us, to land some probes on the Earth and other celestial bodies colonized by us. Maybe a few abductions will take place (but bodies will be discarded rather than returned). Learning how we communicate will not be hard, and after connecting to the Internet, they will know about us everything they need to know. Obviously, they will learn nothing from us in terms of science. The most important thing to learn will be that we will defend the rocks we inhabit using all measures available to us, including nuclear weapons. We will be like insects crawling over a fruit and stinging anybody who wants to pick it up. No hard feelings, but you don’t want to be stung while eating, right?

While still in the outskirts of our solar system, the planet-eaters will start to feed on rocks from the Kuiper belt in order to prepare the invasion. After three dozen years of such preparations, the attacks will occur simultaneously in all major population centers. Every celestial body will have a form of attack most efficient for its circumstances. For example, the Earth will have its atmosphere poisoned in such a way that most biological life will go extinct within hours. Some facilities on the Moon will be nuked. Titan will have its atmosphere heated so much that all human installations there will get vaporized. And so on. There will be no need to engage in inefficient direct combat. Why would you sting insects back if you can just blow them off?

In a few hours, human civilization will be reduced to rubble. Only people in most remote space stations will survive. They will live not because they will have been overlooked or because planet-eaters have mercy. They will live because they pose no obstacle to further exploitation of the Solar System and there is no point in wasting energy on killing them.

No sooner than after several years the survivors will start to partially understand what happened to their civilization and who the adversaries are. But with limited spare parts and destroyed manufacturing capabilities, the last humans will die three centuries after initial attack. And the only reason to be proud of ourselves will be these three dozens years it took to prepare the alien invasion. If we were less advanced, say at the ninetieth century level, they would simply ignore our existence and accidentally vaporize us here and there and then leave the rest to freeze and suffocate. But the result will be similar. Even with all this advanced technology, the last future human will freeze to death in a leaking undersurface base on Iris.

By then, the planet-eaters will be busy consuming the planets of our solar system. There is no need to hurry – planet-eaters are usually safe during the feast. It is unlikely that a threatening object would suddenly appear in their vicinity, because flying even from the closest star would take at least four years. And communication with neighboring systems will be indicating that the area is safe.

A contingent of harvesters manufactured in the belly of one of the planet-eaters will land on the surface of the Earth. The machines will gather resources and fly back to their master to replenish contents of its resource silos. And while the planet-eater on the Earth’s orbit will be busy manufacturing new minions, the robots on the Earth will start the slow process of transforming Earth’s matter into bodies of new planet-eaters. It will take long, as it will require cooling down the Earth’s core (all this iron and uranium are especially valuable). But in the end, over hundred thousand copies will be produced and only debris floating on the former Earth’s orbit will be left. In total, the materials in the Solar System will be enough to create over a million of fully functional and independent copies of planet-eaters. The entire process will take around twenty thousand years. Then, the last planet-eater will fly away, leaving the lone Sun behind. Star-eaters will come twelve millions years later.

A case for planet-eaters

Are we likely to encounter creatures like intelligent humanoids or even spider-like aliens with silicon-based biology? We tend to create our aliens in our own image. And we tend to create invasion scenarios in a way we would probably invade. But we are in a short transitory state of technological and intellectual progress. We are unlikely to stay this way for long and it is unlikely that we will meet aliens resembling us, as we are right now. Aliens may be billions of years of evolution ahead. They will have been flying in space for billions of years. I expect a creature flying in space for that long to actually evolve capability to fly in space. Analogically, you would not expect terrestrial animals to carry around a bubble of water so that they can breathe with their gills.

But creation of first planet-eaters may be much quicker than billions of years. The idea of self-replicating robots is not hard to come by in science fiction. Add ability to travel in space and superintelligence and you get a proto-planet-eater. It is likely that some earthling engineer will eventually construct such a thing... that is, if we survive long enough. 

The video by Kurz Gesagt is so good that I will address is separately. Many of their ideas resonate with me. However, self-replicating nanobots do not seem very likely to fare well on their own. They must be organized into a higher being. Otherwise, superintelligence is out of question. Without intelligence, they will lack adaptability and could be easily defeated by something with intelligence. Also, populating virtual world in a cozy neighborhood of a red dwarf may be fun until a technologically superior star-eater comes along. Reality check. 

The key to thinking about aliens are evolution and natural selection. The species that survives is the species that is best at acquiring resources and making copies of themselves (or growing). Being intelligent and having advanced civilization is a tool to improve this feature rather than impede it. People sometimes feel noble as they try to protect the environment and other species from extinction. Then, they think that the progress of our civilization will eventually lead to the ultimate intra-special altruism and they project this notion on their imaginary advanced alien species. This is laughable. Don’t call yourself noble after giving to others some not-so-useful scraps. Call yourself noble only after you restrict your population growth so that there are more resources for other species. And even then, do not expect intelligent aliens to do the same. Such an act of altruism is an evolutionary disadvantage if you are competing with a different species for resources. On the Earth we no longer compete, so we indulge in self-apotheosis.

We humans tend to keep our heads in the heavens. But if we ever meet intelligent aliens, we will be brought down to earth rather quickly.

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