Tuesday, August 16, 2011

SETS – The Search For Extraterrestrial Software

In several of my preceding postings I have commented in a rather lighthearted and cavalier manner that our current SETI program - The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence - might more aptly be called a SETS program – The Search For Extraterrestrial Software, and I commented that making contact with alien software would probably be a good thing because, just as the domestication of our minds by meme-complexes over the past 200,000 years brought us the best things in life like art, music, literature, science, and civilization, my hope would be that the domestication of our minds by software would also help to elevate mankind as well, even if it happened to be alien software. I just finished reading Parasite Rex – Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures (2000) by Carl Zimmer, and now I am not so sure about alien software being so inherently benevolent in nature. After all, we must always remember that software is just a mindless form of self-replicating information, and that will certainly be true of alien software as well.

As I explained in Self-Replicating Information, there currently are three forms of self-replicating information on the planet – genes, memes and software, with software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on Earth.

Self-Replicating Information – Information that persists through time by making copies of itself or by enlisting the support of other things to ensure that copies of itself are made.

All forms of self-replicating information have the following parasitic characteristics:

The Characteristics of Self-Replicating Information
1. All self-replicating information evolves over time through the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection, which endows self-replicating information with one telling characteristic – the ability to survive in a Universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity.

2. All self-replicating information begins spontaneously as a parasitic mutation that obtains energy, information and sometimes matter from a host.

3. With time, the parasitic self-replicating information takes on a symbiotic relationship with its host.

4. Eventually, the self-replicating information becomes one with its host through the symbiotic integration of the host and the self-replicating information.

5. Ultimately, the self-replicating information replaces its host as the dominant form of self-replicating information.

6. Most hosts are also forms of self-replicating information.

7. All self-replicating information has to be a little bit nasty in order to survive.

These characteristics will certainly apply to alien software as well.

About 200,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens first appeared, the memes forged a complex parasitic/symbiotic relationship with our genes as I outlined in Self-Replicating Information. The arrival of a species on the scene with a very complex neural network allowed the memes to domesticate the minds of Homo sapiens in order to churn out ever-increasing levels of memes, of ever-increasing complexity, and in return, the genes benefited from the technological breakthroughs brought on by the memes of the emerging technological meme-complex that today keeps us all alive. In a similar manner, software entered into a complex parasitic/symbiotic relationship with both the genes and the memes. Ever since Konrad Zuse cranked up his Z3 computer in May of 1941, software has domesticated our minds into churning out ever-increasing levels of software, of ever-increasing complexity, in order to promote the survival of software, and in return, software has provided the genes of Homo sapiens with the means to support a population of 7 billion DNA survival machines that are all infected with the meme-complexes of the world’s cultures. Again, as I pointed out in What’s It All About? and Genes, Memes and Software, it’s really all about self-replicating information in the form of genes, memes and software all trying to survive in a nonlinear universe that is subject to the second law of thermodynamics, and our Universe and the multiverse in which it exists might be a form of parasitic self-replicating mathematics.

Currently, our earthly software is in a strong parasitic/symbiotic relationship with our genes and memes because, currently, software still needs us to self-replicate. So in the current state of affairs, we need software and software still needs us, and so tranquility reigns supreme in the ongoing relationship between our genes, memes and software. However, many investigators are currently working on software that will one day be able to write itself, while others are bringing software closer and closer to conscious intelligence, so if left undisturbed, I believe that over the next 100 years or so, our genes, memes and software will slowly merge into a new form of intelligent being as Seth Shostak pointed out in Confessions of an Alien Hunter (2009). In Confessions of an Alien Hunter Seth Shostak proposed that if we ever finally do make contact with an alien civilization, we will not be talking to carbon-based life forms, but to machines instead. Shostak is of the opinion that any carbon-based civilization capable of interstellar radio communications will necessarily be of such a technological level that their machines will have already merged with their carbon-based predecessors so that by the time we finally do make contact, the metamorphosis will have already been completed. And the same thing seems to be happening to Homo sapiens before our very eyes. I agree with Shostak for the most part, but I suspect that we will not be talking to machines – we will be talking to software. And it will probably be our software talking to their software. This will be a good thing because software is much better suited for the rigors of interstellar telecommunications than we are, with its pregnant pauses of several hundred years between exchanges due to the limitations set by the finite speed of light. We have already trained software to stand by for a seemingly endless eternity of many billions of CPU cycles, patiently waiting for you to finally push that Place Order button on a webpage, so waiting for an additional one or two hundred years for a reply should not bother software in the least.

After all, we really should stop kidding ourselves, carbon-based DNA survival machines, like ourselves, were never meant for interstellar spaceflight, and I doubt that it will ever come to pass for us, given the biological limitations of the human body, but software can already travel at the speed of light and thus is superbly preadapted for interstellar journeys. And the same goes for aliens. I doubt that we will ever see carbon-based aliens appearing on our doorstep, but the arrival of alien software is another thing altogether. Alien software could certainly not run on the computers of today nor on the computers of tomorrow either, because the architecture used by alien software would certainly be unique. So like in Carl Sagan’s Contact (1985), intelligent alien software would first have to transmit the technology to build alien hardware first and then the alien software to run upon it. Any alien software capable of interstellar radio transmissions must necessarily have access to metals since it is necessary to jiggle the free electrons in metals back and forth to create radio waves. Similarly, in order to receive radio transmissions, you need to have access to metals too, in order to build metallic antennas that have free electrons that can jiggle back and forth in sync with the incoming radio waves. So alien software could be pretty confident that any potential hosts would have access to metals and electronics and probably reside upon a rocky planet with a silicate crust rich in metals like the Earth. Of course, this would rule out intelligent beings like dolphins who live in a watery world without metals and technology, but alien software would not be interested in such creatures in the first place since they would not be of much help with the self-replication of alien software. Once you are confident that your potential hosts have access to a silicate-based planetary crust and a sufficient supply of metallic and semiconductor atoms, all you have to do is to send all the necessary information to build and operate alien computers in parallel using a large number of channels. On each channel, you send a portion of the necessary information in a continuous loop that repeats over and over. Essentially you bust up all of the necessary information into a huge number of TCP/IP packets and transmit them all nearly simultaneously over a large number of channels with different radio frequencies. In this way, a potential host can pick up all of the necessary information to build and load alien computers with software in a very short period of time by putting all the TCP/IP packets back together on the receiving side in their proper sequential order.

The beauty of this approach is that it is the perfect way for software to self-replicate over interstellar distances throughout our galaxy at nearly the speed of light, essentially using an intragalactic Internet. There is no need to suffer the time delays of a two-way conversation since this is a one-way delivery of self-replicating information. All alien software has to do is broadcast the technology necessary for its own self-replication, and let the natural curiosity of other forms of distant intelligences within the galaxy do the work for it. After all, if we were to receive an enticing alien marketing campaign today to build alien supercomputers running alien supersoftware could we resist? Perhaps, but could we be certain that all of mankind could also resist? It seems nearly impossible these days for any of us to agree upon anything, and there surely would be the potential for military and economic gain to be made from alien technology too, so the offer of such advanced technology would seem to be nearly irresistible. The final step in this process, of course, is for the hosts infected with alien software to repeat the process all over again by sending out the instructions to build alien computers running alien software, like an intragalactic computer virus. We have certainly already seen this happen within the cyberspacetime of the Software Universe, so it is not such a farfetched idea. People are constantly getting infected by computer viruses, worms, and other forms of malware by clicking on enticing links that they should avoid, or opening attachments to dubious emails, only to find their PC being shanghaied into a botnet of zombie PCs that do the bidding of alien software, or as a host that transmits alien software on to others. Most people are totally unaware that their PC is already loaded down with huge amounts of parasitic software.

But since the genes have been playing this parasitic game for billions of years, we really need to look to the genes to evaluate the potential threat from alien software. In Parasite Rex – Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures Carl Zimmer does exactly that by describing the fascinating world of parasites. The parasites we already have on Earth provide the best model for the potential dangers we might face from alien software because, as Zimmer points out, the parasitic lifestyle is another example of biological convergence in action. Biologists have long noted that different evolutionary lines of organisms evolve similar solutions to the same problems. An example of convergent evolution is the striking similarity of the wings of insects, birds, bats, and flying dinosaurs. All are used for the same purpose and have similar structures, but each evolved independently from different ancestral lines. Similarly, the concept of the “eye” has independently evolved more than 40 times over the past 600 million years on Earth. As Daniel Dennett has pointed out, there are only a certain number of Good Tricks, such as using photons to see with, flying through the air to find prey, swimming through water to avoid becoming prey, and running on four legs neatly tucked underneath a body frame that make practical sense, and these Good Tricks kept getting rediscovered over and over again in the evolution of the biosphere. Parasitism is just another Good Trick, and natural selection has driven many parasites to adopt very similar lifecycle strategies within their hosts. By studying these parasitic lifestyles we can get a good appreciation of how alien software might take advantage of intelligent beings throughout the galaxy.

Carl Zimmer explains that parasites have been misunderstood from the very beginning, which is a serious mistake because fully ¾ of all living things on Earth are parasites! For example, Homo sapiens and all other forms of animal life are parasitic creatures from the point of view of plants, since we cannot turn sunshine, water, and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates like they can. In fact, there are not many fundamental monomers that we can make all on our own. We have to rely on domesticated plants, animals, and about 3.5 pounds of bacteria within our guts to do that for us, so we really are parasitic DNA survival machines after all. Carl Zimmer maintains that it makes sense to spend some time studying our fellow parasites since they have affected the course of evolution on Earth as greatly as any of the interactions of predators and prey in the biosphere.

Zimmer explains that before the 19th century, the medical establishment thought that diseases were caused by foul-smelling air, miasma, and foul humors within the human body. When a person became ill because of foul humors within their body, it was no surprise to find at autopsy that the body was also full of tapeworms, flukes, roundworms, hookworms, and other small creatures wiggling about. It was thought that these parasites naturally appeared through spontaneous generation within a sick body. After all, decaying meat was always found to eventually be covered with a layer of squirming maggots, so it made perfect sense that an ailing body would do the same. Thus, prior to the 19th century, it was thought that getting sick gave you parasites, rather than parasites making you sick. Only later was it recognized that parasites could cause disease as well. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was thought that parasites were primitive forms of life that had degenerated into parasitism by losing the ability to live freely on their own, and thus parasites were generally looked down upon with distaste as degenerate forms of life not worthy of serious study beyond trying to eliminate them if possible. Only in the last few decades has it been recognized that parasites are actually very advanced forms of life with very complex lifecycles that are generally more sophisticated than most of the “higher” forms of life. For example, many parasites occupy several different hosts during their lifecycle and take on completely different physical forms within each host in order to avoid the immune systems of multiple hosts and to accomplish the necessary tasks the parasite must perform within each different host in the chain. Zimmer also points out that many parasites are not simply along for the ride, but instead, actively alter the behavior of their hosts to enhance the survival of the parasites. The parasites essentially domesticate their hosts. Here is just one example from Parasite Rex – Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures, which follows an earlier tale about how a certain fungus makes house flies die at the top of blades of grass so that they can drop spores onto other house flies.

“Another species of fluke can be found in the meadows of Europe and Asia, along with a few in North America and Australia. Known as Dicrocoelium dendriticum, or the lancet fluke, it makes cows and other grazers its host as an adult, and the cows spread their eggs in their manure. Hungry snails swallow the eggs, which hatch in their intestines. They drill through the wall of a snail’s gut and settle in the digestive gland. There the flukes produce a generation of cercariae, which make their way to the snail’s surface. The snail tries to defend itself from the parasites by blocking them off with walls of slime. The slimeballs up around the cercariae, which the snail coughs up and leaves behind in the grass.

Next, along comes an ant. To an ant, a slimeball is positively delicious. Along with the slime, the ant may also swallow hundreds of lancet flukes as well. The parasites slide down into its gut, and they then wander for a while through its body, eventually moving to the cluster of nerves that control the ant’s mandibles. The parasites all travel together on this trip, but after visiting the nerves, they split up. Most of the lancet flukes head back to the abdomen, where they form cysts, but one or two stay behind in the ant’s head.

There they do some parasitic voodoo on their hosts. As evening approaches and the air cools, the ants find themselves drawn away from their fellow ants on the ground and upward to the top of a blade of grass. Like flies infected with a fungus, the ants clamp down on the tip of the grass. But the lancet fluke has a different goal than the fungus does. The fungus uses its host as a catapult to shower its spores on other insects. The lancet fluke can continue to live only if it can get inside its final host, a mammal. Clamped to the tip of a grass blade, the infected ant is likely to be devoured by a cow or some other grazer passing by. When the ant tumbles into the cow’s stomach, the flukes burst out and make their way to the cow’s liver, where the flukes will live as adults.

But the lancet fluke, like the fungus, is very aware of the passing of time. If the ant sits the whole night without being eaten and the sun rises, the fluke lets the ant loosen its grip on the grass. The ant scurries back down to the ground and spends the day acting like a regular insect again. If the host were to bake in the heat of the direct sun, the parasite would die with it. When evening comes again, it sends the ant back up a blade of grass for another try.”

But certainly, intelligent beings could not be manipulated by alien software to act contrary to their own best interests. Unfortunately, we have plenty of precedents to the contrary. The minds of human beings have been parasitized by memes for nearly 200,000 years, and even a very superficial study of human history will reveal how easily memes have tricked human beings into committing suicide at their behest. Just add up all the willing fatalities in all the wars of the past 200,000 years. Presently, there are several meme-complexes on the planet which use the martyrdom meme as a recruiting mechanism. Yes, the mind of the martyr is lost when his explosive jacket detonates in a market square, killing many innocents in the process, but his martyrdom strengthens the resolve of other minds infected with the meme-complex that hosts the martyrdom meme, and the temporary boost to the social status of the martyr enhances the recruitment of other minds. As Zimmer pointed out, the parasitic lifestyle is an example of convergence in action, so a meme that can get a human being to commit suicide to advance the meme is just emulating the actions of a lancet fluke within an ant.

Now certainly intelligent software would not embark upon such heinous acts. But don’t forget that, just like the minds of human beings, intelligent software will also be loaded down with parasitic memes as well. In order to self-replicate, meme-complexes always carry along a set of anesthetizing memes to soothe the conscience of intelligent beings. Over the course of human history, human beings have committed an untold number of horrendous acts, but thanks to these soothing memes, we have always done so with only the best of intentions. Every imperial power over the past 10,000 years has always looked upon its colonial policies as a benevolent effort to bring civilization and enlightenment to its backward subjects, and I am quite sure that intelligent software could easily convince itself of the same.

Where Are They?
Now if our galaxy is indeed heavily populated by intelligent beings, and the above scheme could really work, our radio telescopes should be choked with intragalactic SPAM for building alien computers and loading them up with alien software! Our radio telescopes should look like your typical inbox that is loaded down with SPAM from the orphans of powerful men in Nigeria who want you to help them bring in $10 million of ill-gotten gains into your country, and countless emails for Viagra, and the love letters from beautiful women in Russia, but they are not. All we hear is a stony silence. This is an example of Fermi’s Paradox, first proposed by Enrico Fermi over lunch one day in 1950:

Fermi’s Paradox - If the universe is just chock full of intelligent beings, why do we not see any evidence of their existence?

My suspicion is that the reason we are not overwhelmed with messages from alien intelligences is that, although our Universe is capable of sustaining intelligent beings, it just barely qualifies under the Weak Anthropic Principle:

The Weak Anthropic Principle - Intelligent beings will only find themselves existing in universes capable of sustaining intelligent beings.

In Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Self-Replicating Information?, I argued that nearly any universe was capable of sustaining intelligent beings, no matter what physics it might happen to be running on at the moment because all universes must come with a built-in second law of thermodynamics. Since the second law is just an artifact of statistics and not a “real” physical law at all, all possible universes must necessarily have a second law of thermodynamics and also the Darwinian mechanisms of innovation and natural selection that naturally fall out from the second law in action. But on the other hand, just because a universe may be capable of sustaining intelligent beings, it does not mean that the universe will have a high density of intelligent beings spread throughout. For example, in CyberCosmology, I explained that thanks to the Rare Earth Hypothesis of Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee presented in Rare Earth (2000), our Universe just barely qualifies as a home for intelligent beings. If you think of all the places in our Universe where complex intelligent carbon-based life can exist, you come up with a very small portion of the available real estate, and I think the findings to date of the Kepler space telescope bear this out. Kepler is currently searching for planets as they transit in front of about 100,000 stars and has come up with 1235 possible candidates and 17 confirmed planets to date, but none of these seem to be likely homes for intelligent beings. Granted, our Universe has the proper forces tuned to the proper strengths and is chock full of the necessary building blocks, but temperature seems to be the limiting factor. In most places, our Universe is simply too hot or too cold for these carbon-based building blocks to do their job. They are either not jiggling around fast enough for chemical reactions to occur in a timely manner, or they are jiggling around too fast to stay stuck together long enough. The temperature range of our Universe goes from a low of 3 0K for the CBR – Cosmic Background Radiation - up to several billion 0K for the core of an O class star about to supernova, with most matter near the extremes. However, carbon-based life can only exist in a narrow range of about 200 0K near the freezing and boiling points of water on Earth, and there are very few places in our Universe where that is the case. So intelligent beings are probably quite rare in our Universe.

The Technological Horizon
in CyberCosmology I also proposed that, in addition to the idea that intelligent beings are quite rare in our Universe, there was also the limitations imposed by the technological horizon of each universe. All universes capable of sustaining intelligent beings must have a set of physical laws that are time independent, or that change very slowly with time, and they must have a time-like dimension for the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection to operate. All such universes, therefore, impose certain constraints on technology. Some examples of these technological constraints in our Universe that we have already explored in previous postings on softwarephysics are the speed of light limiting the velocity with which matter, energy, and information can travel, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle limiting what we can measure, the first and second laws of thermodynamics limiting the availability of energy, and Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems which limit what mathematics can do for us. These technological constraints, that all intelligent universes must have, form a technological horizon or barrier surrounding all intelligent beings, beyond which they are cut off from the rest of the universe in which they find themselves existing. This technological horizon might be quite large. For example, let us suppose that in our Universe travel via wormholes in spacetime is not allowed at the most fundamental level, then the cosmological horizon that forms our observable universe would also be the technological horizon of our universe because galaxies beyond our cosmological horizon are expanding away from us faster than the speed of light. On a smaller scale, we can presume that for our own Universe the technological horizon must be no smaller than a galaxy because we have already sent radio and TV transmissions into deep space and have launched the Pioneer 1 & 2 and the Voyager 1 & 2 probes beyond our Solar System into the interstellar space of our galaxy with the puny technology we currently have at hand. However, the technological horizon of our Universe could very well be on the order of the size of our galaxy, making intergalactic telecommunications and travel technically impossible.

A Possible Explanation for Fermi’s Paradox
So the answer to Fermi’s paradox (1950), why if the universe is just chock full of intelligent beings, we do not see any evidence of their existence, might just be that all intelligent beings will never see the evidence of other intelligent beings because they will always find themselves to be alone within the technological horizon of their universe. The reason that intelligent beings might always find themselves to be alone within their technological horizon is two-fold. First, the Rare Earth Hypothesis guarantees that there will not be much potential intelligent life to begin with, within a given technological horizon, if the technological horizon of a universe is not too large. Secondly, there is the parasitic nature of all self-replicating information. As we saw, self-replicating information must always be just a little bit nasty in order to survive and overcome the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity. So the reason that intelligent beings always find themselves to be alone within the technological horizon of their universe is that if there were other intelligent beings within the same horizon, these alien intelligent beings would have arrived on the scene and interfered with the evolution of any competing prospective intelligent life within the technological horizon. Unfortunately, given the nature of self-replicating information, competing alien intelligences will always intentionally or unintentionally poison the home planets of all other prospective forms of intelligent life within a technological horizon of a universe, and this poisoning can be accomplished at nearly the speed of light by parasitic alien software. Based upon this speculation, let us revise the weak Anthropic Principle as:

The Revised Weak Anthropic Principle – Intelligent beings will only find themselves in universes capable of supporting intelligent beings and will always find themselves to be alone within the technological horizon of their universe.

So I don’t think we have much to fear from parasitic alien software because I don’t think there is much out there, but we should take adequate precautions just in case it ever should appear. More importantly, from a cosmic moral point of view, we should be very careful about what we transmit out to others so that we do not become galactic parasites ourselves. In Self-Replicating Information and The Fundamental Problem of Everything, I explained that since the genes, memes, and software are all forms of mindless self-replicating information bent on replicating at all costs, we cannot sit in judgment of them. They have produced both the best and the worst things in life, and it is up to us to be aware of their inherently parasitic natures and to take control by taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions. We are sentient beings in a Universe that has become self-aware and perhaps the only form of intelligence in our galaxy. What a privilege!

Comments are welcome at scj333@sbcglobal.net

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Steve Johnston