homeabout kottke.orgarchives + tags

kottke.org posts about Enrico Fermi

Meet the nano sapiens

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Nano Sapiens

In a 1959 talk at Caltech titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman outlined a new field of study in physics: nanotechnology. He argued there was much to be explored in the realm of the very small — information storage, more powerful microscopes, biological research, computing — and that that exploration would be enormously useful.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

In a reaction to Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, David Galbraith suggests there might be plenty of room at the bottom for human civilization as well. Don’t colonize Mars, miniaturize humanity. Create nano sapiens.

If we think of this as a design problem, there is a much better solution. Instead of expanding our environment to another planet at massive cost, why wouldn’t we miniaturise ourselves so we can expand without increasing our habitat or energy requirements, but still maintain our ability to create culture and knowledge, via information exchange.

The history of information technology and the preservation of Moore’s law has been driven by exactly this phenomenon of miniaturization. So why shouldn’t the same apply to the post technological evolution of humankind as it approaches the hypothetical ‘singularity’ and the potential ability for us to be physically embodied in silicon rather than carbon form.

When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.1

Galbraith also speculates about nano aliens as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox:

Interestingly, the same rules of energy use and distance between planets and stars would apply to any extraterrestrial aliens, so one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that we all get smaller and less visible as we get more technologically advanced. Rather than favoring interstellar colonization with its mind boggling distances which are impossible to communicate across within the lifetimes of individuals (and therefore impossible to hold together in any meaningful way as a civilization) perhaps advanced civilizations stick to their home planets but just get more efficient to be sustainable.

Humans are explorers. Curiosity about new worlds and ideas is one of humanity’s defining traits. One of the most striking things about the Eames’ Powers of Ten video is how similar outer space and inner space look — vast distances punctuated occasionally by matter. What if, instead of using more and more energy exploring planets, stars, and galaxies across larger and larger distances (the first half of the Eames’ video), we went the other way and focused on using less energy to explore cells, molecules, and atoms across smaller and smaller distances. It wouldn’t be so much giving up human space exploration as it would be exchanging it for a very similar and more accessible exploration of the molecular and atomic realm. There is, after all, plenty of room down there.

Update: I knew the responses to this would be good. Galbraith’s idea has a name: the transcension hypothesis, formulated by the aptly named John Smart. Jason Silva explains in this video:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.

Before we get there, however, there are a few challenges we need to overcome, as Joe Hanson explains in The Small Problem With Shrinking Ourselves:

As it often seems in such matters, science follows science fiction here. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (Amazon), the Chinese miniaturize themselves in response to the Earth’s decreasing resources.

In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.

Blood Music by Greg Bear (Amazon) has a nano-civilization theme:

Through infection, conversion and assimilation of humans and other organisms the cells eventually aggregate most of the biosphere of North America into a region seven thousand kilometres wide. This civilization, which incorporates both the evolved noocytes and recently assimilated conventional humans, is eventually forced to abandon the normal plane of existence in favor of one in which thought does not require a physical substrate.

James Blish’s short story Surface Tension tells the tale of microscopic human colonists. (via @harryh, @mariosaldana, @EndlessForms, @vanjacosic, @chumunculus)

Update: For some years, director Alexander Payne has been working on a film called Downsizing:

“Downsizing,” after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth’s natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. “Smalls” get small, then become members of small cities (the main characters moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney’s Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.

Word is that Matt Damon will play the lead role. Mr. Payne, consider a title change to “Nano Sapiens”? (via @stephenosberg)

Photo by Poy.

  1. This is not a straightforward matter however. The 6-inch human wouldn’t eat 1728 times less food…that would mean you could live on a Big Mac for a year. Small animals often eat a significant percentage of their body weights each day, which normal-sized humans never approach. For example, according to this chart a grey squirrel weighs about 21 oz and eats about 1.6 oz of food, the equivalent of a 180-pound human eating about 14 pounds of food a day.

We Work Remotely

What if all the alien civilizations are dead?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 14, 2016

This essay by astrophysicist Adam Frank in the New York Times is upbeat, confident: “Yes, There Have Been Aliens.” Basically, he argues that we’ve now observed enough Earth-like planets outside our solar system that unless the odds of life (and intelligent life, and intelligent life capable of radio communications, etc.) coming into being are much, much smaller than most scientists have believed, then alien civilizations that are at least something like our own have appeared before elsewhere in the galaxy.

But! Frank and his colleague Woodruff Sullivan get to this conclusion in a way that’s pretty distressing. They relax any assumptions about how long such a civilization might last.

See, if you’re trying to figure out the odds of contact between humans and aliens, you need to have some idea about how long alien civilizations stick around. If, in general, civilizations last a long time and keep moving up the Kardashev Scale, they’re more likely to bump into each other. If, on the other hand, they usually wipe out their own species with nuclear weapons, global climate change, gamma rays, or (insert calamity here) shortly after getting a little light industry going, then they’ll keep missing each other.

In his treatment of the Fermi Paradox, Tim Urban calls this “The Great Filter.” We don’t know if the Great Filter is ahead of us or behind us. If it’s behind us, then complex/intelligent life is super rare — much smaller than even Frank and Sullivan’s consensus low estimates. If it’s ahead of us, then we, or any other species lucky enough to make it this far, will most likely die off or (best case scenario) get stuck more or less where we are now.

In short, humanity may not be first, but it might very will be next.

The day we make first contact with another world (and they’re jerks)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 08, 2016

First contact with an alien civilization will be a momentous event in the history of Earth. Unless the other civilization is kind of a dick. Tim Urban didn’t quite cover this scenario in his post about the Fermi Paradox.

Edward Snowden’s Fermi Paradox solution

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2015

Edward Snowden has come up with a solution to the Fermi Paradox that I hadn’t heard of before. Maybe we haven’t discovered intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, says Snowden, because their communications encryption is indistinguishable from cosmic background radiation.

“If you look at encrypted communication, if they are properly encrypted, there is no real way to tell that they are encrypted,” Snowden said. “You can’t distinguish a properly encrypted communication from random behaviour.”

Therefore, Snowden continued, as human and alien societies get more sophisticated and move from “open communications” to encrypted communication, the signals being broadcast will quickly stop looking like recognisable signals.

“So if you have an an alien civilization trying to listen for other civilizations,” he said, “or our civilization trying to listen for aliens, there’s only one small period in the development of their society when all their communication will be sent via the most primitive and most unprotected means.”

After that, Snowden said, alien messages would be so encrypted that it would render them unrecognisable, “indistinguishable to us from cosmic microwave background radiation”. In that case, humanity would not even realise it had received such communications.

Snowden shared his hypothesis with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Tyson’s podcast, StarTalk.

What else is out there?

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2014

Great post on the Fermi Paradox, aka if there are so many potential intelligent civilizations out there in the universe (possibly 10 quadrillion of them), why haven’t we heard from anyone?

Possibility 5) There’s only one instance of higher-intelligent life — a “superpredator” civilization (like humans are here on Earth) — who is far more advanced than everyone else and keeps it that way by exterminating any intelligent civilization once they get past a certain level. This would suck. The way it might work is that it’s an inefficient use of resources to exterminate all emerging intelligences, maybe because most die out on their own. But past a certain point, the super beings make their move — because to them, an emerging intelligent species becomes like a virus as it starts to grow and spread. This theory suggests that whoever was the first in the galaxy to reach intelligence won, and now no one else has a chance. This would explain the lack of activity out there because it would keep the number of super-intelligent civilizations to just one.

Update: If you prefer to watch engaging videos instead of reading text, here’s six minutes on the Fermi Paradox: