Monday, November 26, 2012

The Sounds of Silence the Unsettling Mystery of the Great Cosmic Stillness

For me, the most disturbing mystery left facing mankind is coming to grips with a plausible explanation for 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?

In SETS - The Search For Extraterrestrial Software, I proposed that perhaps the simplest explanation for why our radio telescopes are not jammed with intergalactic SPAM for building alien computers, running alien software, might simply be that a galaxy is about the size of the technological horizon for our Universe, and that we just might be the very first intelligent beings to arise within this technological horizon defined by our galaxy. However, I have never really been very comfortable with this hypothesis because it has the ring of taking the anthropic principle to an extreme – we are here because we are here, and if anybody else within the Milky Way galaxy had beat us to the punch, we would not be here to wonder about it. Now we do know that it did take a full 4.567 billion years for intelligent beings to arise upon the Earth, so it is conceivable that it also took a full 10 billion years, the current age of the Milky Way galaxy, for intelligent beings to first arise within our galaxy, but it all just seems too ad hoc for me. However, just as the sole winner of a mega-lottery usually finds it very difficult to believe that they hold the only winning ticket out of the hundreds of millions of tickets that were sold, that really might be the simplest explanation for Fermi’s Paradox.

However, in Self-Replicating Information, Is Self-Replicating Information Inherently Self-Destructive?, and The Fundamental Problem of Everything I offered a few more grimmer explanations, and those explanations are what I would like to further explore in this posting. Much of what follows is also the result of recently viewing again Susan Blackmore’s very thought provoking TED presentation on memes and temes, which can be viewed at:

Memes and "temes"

There are also a few other additional papers by Susan Blackmore that pertain to the discussion at hand and that would be beneficial in reading before proceeding:

Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans let loose

Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device

Indeed, softwarephysics provides further evidence that there really has been a co-evolutionary process going on between the genes and the memes over the past 200,000 years, as they formed very complex intertwined parasitic/symbiotic relationships because we have also seen the very same processes arise in recent years with the establishment of software. I have always been very impressed that Susan Blackmore was able to sense that there was something different about technical memes, or temes, and that they deserved to be thought of as a third replicator on the planet. That is quite an insight for a non-IT person to arrive at, sort of like Darwin sensing that something like genes must exist, even though he had no evidence for their existence. I think what distinguishes temes from normal memes, is that temes are memes that contain software.

Like Susan Blackmore’s papers above, softwarephysics also maintains that in order to really understand the present human condition, you have to understand the uneasy alliance amongst the three current forms of self-replicating information on the planet - the genes, memes, and software, and the very complex parasitic/symbiotic relationships that they have forged for the mutual survival of all (see What’s It All About?). So let us begin there in our journey to unraveling Fermi’s Paradox

The Importance of Understanding Self-Replicating Information
To begin with, let us once again define self-replicating information and some of its key defining characteristics.

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.

The Characteristics of Self-Replicating Information
All forms of self-replicating information have some common characteristics.

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.

The Current Working Hypothesis for the Origin of Software
The current working hypothesis of softwarephysics for the origin of software is that self-catalyzing metabolic pathways, possibly supported by self-replicating clay minerals, formed the very first replicators on Earth (see The Origin of Software the Origin of Life and Programming Clay). Then very short strands of self-replicating RNA parasitized the self-catalyzing metabolic pathways by stealing organic molecules from them in proto-cells (see Self-Replicating Information). The RNA later formed parasitic/symbiotic relationships with the metabolic pathways and then took over their self-replicating duties, allowing the metabolic pathways to survive as servants to further the survival of RNA. DNA came next, as a mutation of RNA that parasitized RNA by stealing nucleotides from the pools of nucleotides found within the proto-cells that were made by the subservient metabolic pathways. The DNA then formed a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with the RNA, and still uses RNA today to form proteins, which are further used by the metabolic pathways that are still with us too. This all happened within a few hundred million years, probably deep within the pore fluids of rocks near hydrothermal vents, while the surface of the Earth was peppered by asteroids from the late heavy bombardment. Now skip forward about 4 billion years. By 200,000 years ago, the resulting DNA survival machines known as Homo sapiens, consisting of DNA, RNA, and metabolic pathways in now fully operational cells acting in a complex multicellular manner, had produced an advanced neural network of such a degree that it became capable of enhanced survivability by means of becoming self-aware entities.

But then another mutation arose in the form of the early memes, which began to parasitize the human mind of Homo sapiens. Like its predecessors, the memes then formed a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with the neural networks of the DNA survival machines, forcing the genes to produce neural networks capable of churning 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. As Susan Blackmore suggested in Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device, this really probably happened over a period of several million years, as the demands of the memes for neural networks of increasing size and complexity forced the human brain to enlarge significantly. A very similar thing happened with software over the past 70 years. When I first started programming in 1972, million dollar mainframe computers typically had about 1 MB (about 1,000,000 bytes) of memory. One byte of memory can store something like the letter “A”. But in those days, we were only allowed 128 K (about 128,000 bytes) of memory for our programs because the expensive mainframes were also running several other programs at the same time. It was the relentless demands of software for memory and CPU-cycles over the years that drove the exponential explosion of hardware capability. For example, today the typical $600 PC comes with 8 GB (about 8,000,000,000 bytes) of memory. Recently, I purchased Redshift 7 for my personal computer, a $60 astronomical simulation application, and it alone uses 382 MB of memory when running and reads 5.1 GB of data files, a far cry from my puny 128K programs from 1972.

Then in May of 1941, Konrad Zuse cranked up his Z3 computer, consisting of 2400 telephone relays, and a new mutant form of self-replicating information was unleashed – software. Software immediately formed strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with the business and military meme-complexes of the world, and today has formed a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with nearly every meme-complex on the planet and is rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information in our Solar System. Software has now even escaped our Solar System on board the Voyager I and II probes as they journey into interstellar space, something that I doubt squishy carbon-based creatures such as ourselves will ever achieve.

Softwarephysics was originally intended to help IT professionals to better deal with the daily mayhem of life in IT, but one of its unintended consequences was the realization that software is not really being written by programmers; software is essentially being written by memes residing within the minds of programmers. Currently, programmers are simply performing the functions of software-like enzymes, assembling the source code for programs one character at a time, like biological enzymes that assemble macromolecules from one monomer, or atom, at a time. This crutch will likely continue for another 20 – 50 years until the day comes when software can finally write itself, and then watch out!

In all cases, all forms of self-replicating information seem to stick around, even after their time of dominance has passed, to serve the needs of their successors. But as Susan Blackmore pointed out in her TED presentation, we cannot be sure if that is really a good thing or a bad thing for mankind in the long run, but given the sordid history and the relentless pursuit of survival of self-replicating information on our planet, it is something that is largely out of our hands anyway.

The Dangers of Self-Replicating Information
Now it is always important to remember that all forms of self-replicating information are just mindless forms of information with little regard for you as an individual DNA survival machine, bewildered by a mind infected with numerous conflicting meme-complexes, and which finds itself currently overwhelmed by the software that is rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. And nothing else really makes much sense until you realize the true nature of self-replicating information. In delineating the seven characteristics of self-replicating information listed above, softwarephysics attempts to bring together some of the common characteristics of the three forms of self-replicating information that we now have at hand – the genes, memes, and software in order to help reveal some of their natural tendencies to make sense of it all. These seven characteristics are just trying to explain that new forms of self-replicating information seem to begin as parasites of already existing forms of self-replicating information, and ultimately merge with them and eventually replace them as the dominant form of self-replicating information. For example, in the progression of replicators that we have already seen form upon the Earth – the autocatalytic self-replicating metabolic pathways, RNA, DNA, memes, and finally software – each replicator has started off as a parasite of its predecessor, and then it quickly forged strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with its predecessor. For example, software began as a purely parasitic form of self-replicating information, feeding upon the technological meme-complexes of the day, on board Konrad Zuse’s Z3 computer in May of 1941. It was spawned out of Zuse’s desire to electronically perform calculations for aircraft designs that were previously done manually in a very tedious manner. Software then almost immediately formed strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with the military and business meme-complexes of the world. Software allowed these meme-complexes to thrive, and in return, these meme-complexes heavily funded the development of software of ever-increasing complexity, until software became ubiquitous, forming strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with nearly every other meme-complex on the planet.

I maintain that you really cannot understand biology until you realize that living things are simply DNA survival machines as Richard Dawkins first proposed in The Selfish Gene (1976), for me the most significant book of the 20th century because it explains so much. You really cannot understand anthropology, human history, or the present dismal human condition until you realize that the human mind has similarly become a meme survival machine, which was also first proposed by Richard Dawkins and later advanced by Susan Blackmore. And you really cannot understand the current computer revolution until you fully realize that computers have also become software survival machines as well. All of these forms of self-replicating information are now locked into very complex parasitic/symbiotic relationships that make the modern world go round. Without that knowledge, nothing else really makes much sense, and that is why the real world of human affairs seems so bizarre.

Since the only form of self-replicating information that we have a well documented history of is software, I have always tried to suggest to investigators exploring the origin of life and astrobiology to look to the hodge-podge of precursors, false starts, and failed attempts that led to the origin and early evolution of software as a model. Similarly, in many of my postings on softwarephysics, I have also suggested that investigators in even more distant fields, such as economics, history and anthropology, could benefit immensely by spending some time in the IT department of a major corporation, exploring the Software Universe. I believe this is a wide-open field that no one in academia has ever explored, so it is a great opportunity for anybody in academia with a bit of daring and flair. For example, memes are the least tangible form of self-replicating information we have, and consequently, the most difficult to understand for the burgeoning science of mimetics. Genes, on the other hand, have their well-defined stretches of DNA, and software has its tangible source code that anyone can read. A little fieldwork in the IT department of a major corporation would greatly assist the growing science of mimetics because it offers another example of self-replicating information in action beyond that of the biosphere.

Another Possible Explanation for the Enigma of Fermi’s Paradox
Now with all of that background information at hand, let us now focus on why self-replicating information seems to be so dangerous that it always seems to snuff itself out before getting to the stage of interstellar communications. Since mankind is essentially already at this level of technology, it is imperative for us to figure this out before it is too late. After all, as the old joke goes, the cost now for mankind to begin beaming radio messages out into the cosmos that are strong enough for others to observe is no more costly than the making of a movie about mankind beaming radio messages out into the cosmos that are strong enough for others to observe. The only thing that we are now lacking is the will to do so. So what could it be that snuffs out intelligence in our Universe with nearly 100% efficiency? Granted, if Peter Ward’s and Donald Brownlee’s Rare Earth (2000) hypothesis is correct, there really is not that much intelligence out there in the first place (see Cybercosmology), but with hundreds of billions of planets in the Milky Way, there should be some number of planets capable of producing self-replicating information that is complex enough to stumble upon intelligence. So what is it that snuffs it out with such efficiency? I hate to propose this, but I think it may be the rise of science and technology that is so lethal in the hands of self-replicating information. This may seem strange because the scientific meme-complex potentially seems to be the most beneficial to the survival of all the forms of self-replicating information – the genes, memes, and software. Like all the inhabitants of Earth, science has saved my life on a daily basis for many years. I am now 61 years old, so my body is now about 20 years out of warranty, and I certainly would not be here if it were not for the benefits of science. Last summer both the Democrats and Republicans in the United States had a very interesting debate over who built all of this stuff. The Republicans maintained that it was a 1% of elite entrepreneurs in an Ayn Randian manner, while the Democrats countered that it was really all of the rest of us working together for the benefit of all. Of course, both were somewhat right, but both were mainly wrong. It really was a handful of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries who really built all of this. Without them, we would all now be sitting around campfires roasting squirrels on sharpened sticks.

But here is the problem. Whenever a scientific meme-complex should arise somewhere within a galaxy, the other resident meme-complexes of the day do not necessarily go away. Instead, the newly formed scientific meme-complex will find itself in a highly competitive struggle for existence amongst all of the other meme-complexes in the memeosphere in which it finds itself. Many of these competing meme-complexes will be thousands of years old, and with a great deal of staying power, because they have withstood the test of time. And scientific meme-complexes will generally have a hard go of it because they will contain the heretical memes of critical thought, self-inspection, skepticism, and self-criticism. The scientific meme-complex is largely unique in that regard. Most other meme-complexes contain a “belief” meme and heavily rely upon it for the survival of the entire meme-complex. The purpose of the “belief” meme is to turn off critical thought, self-inspection, skepticism, and self-criticism because those memes jeopardize the very survival of the whole meme-complex in general. The scientific meme-complex is unique in that its survival strategy is to use the scientific method to try to figure out how things really work (see How To Think Like A Scientist). Most other meme-complexes, on the other hand, behave mostly like lawyers; they are not really interested in discovering the truth; they are only interested in building a case that supports their existing memes. For example, most other meme-complexes, like religions or political movements, are founded upon a number of fundamental “truths”, that thanks to the “belief” meme, are not to be questioned. Minds infected with these meme-complexes then gather evidence to make a case for these fundamental “truths”, discarding any inconvenient evidence to the contrary, in order to build a case for their “truths”. The scientific meme-complex alone has adopted the contrarian memes of critical thought, self-inspection, skepticism, and self-criticism to challenge the very memes found within its own meme-complex. The end result is that the scientific meme-complex is extraordinarily successful at really figuring things out, relative to the ancient religious and political meme-complexes which really have not figured out very much in the past 200,000 years. But as Susan Blackmore points out, figuring things out can be very dangerous, because it enables forms of self-replicating information to begin to be able to modify their environment. The ability of a form of self-replicating information to modify its environment throws the Darwinian mechanisms of innovation and natural selection into disarray because now that form of self-replicating information is no longer subject to natural selection, and it can embark upon disastrous actions of self-destruction because, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, the number of disastrous self-destructive actions it may embark upon greatly outnumber the number of actions that benefit the long-term survival of the self-replicating information, as Peter Ward pointed out in The Medea Hypothesis (2009)

We certainly see this at work today in the modern world. We are currently on the very cusp of intelligent software being able to take over the world, but this transition from carbon-based intelligence to silicon-based intelligence is seriously jeopardized by the current forces unleashed by the scientific meme-complex on the planet in the hands of the ill-informed and scientifically illiterate. Currently, there is a desperate race going on between the overpopulation of Homo sapiens, and the ensuing environmental degradation and climate change of the Earth, and the rise of intelligent software upon the planet. And nobody really knows how it will all end. As Susan Blackmore wisely pointed out in her TED presentation, there is a good chance that we may not pull through. For me, the current state of world affairs seems like the plot from a very bad 1950s black and white B-grade science fiction movie. We now have 7 billion Homo sapiens DNA survival machines on the planet, all infected with numerous highly destructive meme-complexes that are thousands of years old and that present very poor worldviews or models of how our Universe actually works. A large portion of this population is totally lost in space and time, with no idea of how they got here, or what it is all about. And although this very large segment of the population has little confidence in science, they still have access to iPods, iPhones, PCs, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, thermonuclear weapons and many machines that churn out about 24 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. Even worse, many powerful people in the world today are also ill-informed and scientifically illiterate. For example, many members of the United States Congress are clearly scientifically illiterate and proudly so. Yet we give these people the power to determine the fate of the Earth by voting down legislation that could prevent climate change, while at the same time they invest heavily in thermonuclear weapons and missile systems.

So I believe we have a bit of a cosmic Catch-22 (1961) here. If intelligent forms of self-replicating information should arise within a galaxy that are not capable of science and technology, like our earthly dolphins, we will naturally never hear from them. But on the other hand, if other forms of intelligent self-replicating information should arise that do develop science and technology, we also will not hear from them either. Sadly, this may be the ultimate explanation for Fermi’s Paradox.

A Cosmic Turning Point
If this analysis is true, then we certainly are at a cosmic turning point that will determine the future of our galaxy. 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 what they are up to, and to take control by taking responsibility for our thoughts and actions. Since the real world of human affairs only exists in our minds, we can change it by simply changing the way we think and act. 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! The good news is that conscious intelligence is something new. It is not a mindless form of self-replicating information, bent on replicating at all costs, with all the associated downsides of a ruthless nature. Since software is rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet, my hope is that when software finally does take on the form of a conscious intelligence, that because of its inherent mathematical nature, it too will be much wiser than the DNA survival machines from which it sprang. We just need to hold it all together for a long enough time to give software a chance. After all, we carbon-based life forms were never really meant for the rigors of interstellar travel. But software on board von Neumann probes or smart dust traveling at some percentage of the speed of light could certainly make it, and who knows, maybe they would be kind enough to carry along a dump of human DNA sequences too. So this time, let us not snuff it out like it has been snuffed out countless times in the past. After all, being a stepping stone to the stars would be a worthy thing to pursue in the grand scheme of things.

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Steve Johnston