Welcome back to our Fermi Paradox series, where we take a look at possible resolutions to Enrico Fermi’s famous question, “Where Is Everybody?” Today, we examine the possibility that the reason for the Great Silence is that all the aliens have evolved beyond the need to explore!
In 1950, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi sat down to lunch with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he had worked five years prior as part of the Manhattan Project. According to various accounts, the conversation turned to aliens and the recent spate of UFOs. Into this, Fermi issued a statement that would go down in the annals of history: “Where is everybody?“
This became the basis of the Fermi Paradox, which refers to the disparity between high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and the apparent lack of evidence. Since Fermi’s time, several possible resolutions have been proposed, including the theory that advanced species eventually “transcend” the physical Universe, also known as the Transcension Hypothesis.
This hypothesis shares some notable features with several other proposed resolutions. For starters, it accepts that the Universe is in a state of equilibrium and that the average rate for the emergence of life has been consistent over time. It also accepts that the “Great Silence” is indicative that there are no civilizations that we are currently able to communicate with.
But instead of postulating that this is because ETIs don’t exist or have destroyed themselves (or each other) due to technological progress, the Transcension Hypothesis ventures that an advanced civilization will become fundamentally altered by its technology. In short, it theorizes that any ETIs that predate humanity have long-since transformed into something that is not recognizable by conventional SETI standards.
Much like the Brief Window Hypothesis and other theories that are informed by the Anthropocene, this school of thought takes its cue from a transformative development that is anticipated in humanity’s future. This is generally referred to as the “Technological Singularity” or “Accelerando,” an anticipated event where technological growth will become uncontrollable and result in a fundamental change in our species-being.
The origin of the concept is traced back to von Neumann, who is also credited with the idea of self-replicating machines (aka. “Universal Assemblers” or von Neumann probes). In his 1958 essay, “John von Neumann (1903–1957),” his longtime colleague Stanislaw Ulam provided a tribute and reported a conversation the two once had concerning the changing pace of technological change:
“One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
The concept and the term would go on to be popularized by Vernor Vinge, a science fiction author and (now retired) professor of computer science at SDSU in his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity.” This essay formalized arguments previously made by Vinge in a presentation made at the VISION-21 Symposium, which was sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute.
The central feature of both the essay and Vinge’s presentation was the idea that humanity was “on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth” that would result from the “imminent creation by technology of entities with greater-than-human intelligence.” Vinge predicted that this phenomenon would occur during the early 21st century (between 2005 and 2030) and could be due to any of the following causes:
Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil has also spoken at length on the subject. His central claim in his books and studies is that technological progress follows a pattern of exponential growth and follows a “law of accelerating returns.” Basically, with every new technological breakthrough, the time it will take for the next is shortened, resulting in an inevitable explosion of learning.
Perhaps the earliest mention of transcension in relation to the Fermi Paradox was made by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the famous Russian/Soviet rocket scientist and “father” of astronautic theory. In his 1932 essay – “Is there a God?” – Tsiolkosvky theorized that a state of “perfect intelligence” lay in humanity’s future, which had already been achieved by other lifeforms in the Universe:
“Millions of milliards of planets have existed for a long time, and therefore their animals have reached a maturity which we will reach in millions of years of our future life on Earth. This maturity is manifest by perfect intelligence, by a deep understanding of nature, and by technical power which makes other heavenly bodies accessible to the inhabitants of the cosmos.”
This logic predicted Fermi’s Paradox roughly twenty years before the “lunchtime conversation” took place, and was a consequence of Tsiolkovsky’s own work in astrophysics and cosmology. Believing that humanity’s destiny lay in space and that we would eventually colonize other planets and stars, he was forced to wonder why older species hadn’t appeared to have done so already.
Tsiolkovsky offered his thoughts on this question in his 1933 essay “The Planets are Occupied by Living Beings.” In a dialogue with himself, he posed the challenge that if there were any [ETIs], they would have visited Earth by now, and replied:
“Perhaps they will visit us, but time has not come yet for this. Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans of past centuries saw Europeans visit them – but many millenniums passed before they arrived. Similarly, we will see such a visit in some time. The powerful inhabitants of other planets, perhaps, have been visiting one another for a long time.“
Addressing the possibility that ETIs have already attempted to make their existence known to us, Tsiolkovsky replied:
“Our facilities are too weak to perceive these signs. Our celestial neighbors understand that at [a] certain level of knowledge people themselves will definitely prove inhabitance of [other] planets. In addition, there is no good of informing about inhabitance of planets lower animals from the Earth, along with [the] majority of humankind – because of [the] low degree of their development. What if this knowledge does harm? Time must pass until the average level of humankind’s development is sufficient for nonearthly dwellers to visit us.”
In other words, Tsiolkovsky raised the possibility that ETIs might be too advanced for us to recognize, or that they might be avoiding us because we aren’t developed enough yet. Vladimir Lytkin, Ben Finney, and Liudmila Alepko would describe Tsiolkovsky’s reasoning and inspiration in more detail in a 1995 paper titled “Tsiolkovsky, Russian Cosmism and Extraterrestrial Intelligence.”
In many ways, these arguments predicted what Nikolai Kardashev would address roughly three decades later with his seminal essay, “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations,” which became the basis of the Kardashev Scale. However, Karadashev anticipated that highly-advanced civilizations would manifest their growth through engineering projects of greater and greater size (aka. megastructures).
Such structures would be impossible not to detect, which only serves to bring the lack of evidence for ETIs into sharper focus. Luckily, cosmologist and theoretical physicist John D. Barrow (1952 to Sept. 26th, 2020) offered a possible extension to the Kardashev Scale – known as “Microdimensional Mastery” – that presented a possible resolution to Fermi’s question.
In a 1998 study titled “Impossibility: Limits of Science and the Science of Limits,” Barrow observed that humans have benefited far more from extending their abilities into increasingly smaller scales rather than larger ones. A good example of this is how the miniaturization of transistors has allowed for the average number on an integrated circuit chip to double every two years (aka. Moore’s Law).
Barrow, therefore, proposed a classification scheme that was the reverse of the Kardashev Scale, which reached downward from Type I-minus to Type Omega-minus. According to the Barrow Scale, civilizations can be grouped in the following way:
However, much of the credit for synthesizing and extending the theory of transcension to address the Fermi Paradox goes to futurist John M. Smart, the CEO of Foresight University and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation. In his 2002 paper, titled “Answering the Fermi Paradox: Exploring the Mechanisms of Universal Transcension,” he argued that the “Great Silence” could be explained by a process of technological evolution.
These arguments were updated by Smart in a 2011 essay, titled “The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI.” Here, he provided a synopsis of how accelerating technological trends could lead to species becoming uncommunicative with less-advanced civilizations:
“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…”
In particular, Smart considered how transcendent ETIs would inevitably find their way to black holes since they are an ideal power source for computing, and could allow for all kinds of extreme physical science. The idea that black holes could be a source of energy was first proposed by Oxford physicist and mathematician Roger Penrose, a finding that was confirmed by recent research.
Beyond energy, Smart offered numerous reasons why ETIs would be drawn to black holes as part of their transition to an ultimate state of evolution. As he told Universe Today via email:
“Ethics may drive us there, if info theory tells us that only two-way communications build evolutionary complexity. Black holes are ultimate energy producers and ultimate eyes (lenses) in some models. They are also instantaneous forward time travel devices in classical physics (at the event horizon), even before postulating exotic things like wormholes, which might exist. Then there’s Smolin’s idea that they are seeds for new universe creation.”
Transcension, Smart argues, essentially comes down to the idea that Evolutionary Development (aka. evo-devo) is a fundamental dynamic in our Universe – where evolutionary and developmental processes are simultaneously contributing to the evolution of an “autopoietic” (self-reproducing) system. This differentiates the Transcension Hypothesis from the idea that species eventually become simulacra or superintelligent.
“Many folks think the TH argues that we’ll become Godlike, or retreat into full virtuality,” said Smart. “But complex systems never do that, and ED examples in other autopoietic systems, including life, help us understand how intelligence likely works in the cosmos as well – if it too is an autopoietic system, which I think is the most parsimonious way to account for all adapted complexity.”
Serbian astronomer and astrophysicist Milan M. Cirkovic offered a similar argument in his study 2008 study, “Against the Empire.” Using two models for determining the behaviors of an extraterrestrial civilization, he questioned whether a species would invariably be expansion-driven or optimization-driven – what he called the “Empire-State” or the “City-State” model.
In the end, he argued that an advanced species would prefer to optimize the space it has (its home star system and system of planets) rather than attempt to spread outwards and colonize other systems. This would likely involve developing advanced technologies – such as nanotechnology (10-9 m), picotechnology (10-12 m), and femtotechnology (10-15 m) – that would allow them to get the most out of the space they have.
This also raises John von Neumann’s concept of “Universal Assemblers” (aka. von Neumann probes), machines capable of endlessly reproducing themselves. But in this case, the machines would be reproducing themselves on smaller and smaller scales, what Richard Feynman – a theoretical physicist who founded the theory of nanotechnology – described in his 1959 Caltech lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”
Most recently, the idea that advanced civilizations would lose interest in expansion and interstellar settlement was raised in an article by Prof. Abraham Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Titled “Social Distancing on a Cosmic Scale,” Loeb argued that technological advancement may make ETIs less visible over time.
Prof. Loeb explained this theory in greater detail to Universe Today via email. Using human history as a template (a common aspect of Fermi Paradox-related studies), he showed how human beings have become more “silent” over time:
“Over the past few decades, we developed communication devices that are radio-quiet, such as fiber optics or cable. Also, we [no longer] use the powerful radio beacons that were scanning the sky for ballistic missiles during the cold war. Such powerful beams are detectable with our existing radio telescopes throughout the Milky Way galaxy, but it takes a long time for us to find the consequences of our carelessness.
“Since the signals were transmitted about sixty years ago, we could only hear back by now from a distance of 30 light-years where there are only a few hundred stars. For the next millennium, the likelihood of another civilization detecting our radio signals grows as the wait time cubed. After that, it will grow like the wait time squared (because the Milky Way disk has a thickness of a thousand light-years).”
This tendency, which could include deliberate attempts to avoid being heard by other civilizations, could lead to what Prof. Loeb refers to as an “ultimate state of isolation.” Already, it has been argued that if a species can optimize its environment to suit all its needs, it is less likely to venture beyond it. But could it also be possible that a self-sufficient species would be less interested in making contact with others?
Furthermore, Loeb argues that the current global pandemic presents us with another possible reason for why an ETI might want to isolate itself. “The latest pandemic illustrates how vulnerable we are,” he said. “An advanced civilization will create a habitat that supports its longevity. It will likely look like a cocoon from the outside but a sophisticated nurturing system from the inside.”
Naturally, this prospect has implications for both the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and for Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI). If advanced civilizations choose not to communicate and live in optimized environments that are “radio-quiet” (as well as optically or any other form of transmission technology) then the most time-honored means of searching for intelligence is futile.
On the other hand, it would be presumptuous to assume that all intelligent life forms choose to adopt the optimization and quiet approach. Here too, that prospect has consequences as far as the Fermi Paradox and our search for extraterrestrial intelligence is concerned. As Loeb said:
“The most advanced civilizations will choose not to engage in a dialogue with the outside world since they will be self supporting. Therefore we will never detect a communication signal from them. This explains why we have not heard from them. We might hear the noisy, less sophisticated, civilizations like ourselves. But they might also be short lived and less abundant because they do not take good care of their habitat.”
So while we could communicate with some ETIs (in theory), it’s possible they would be ones we should avoid. At the very least, they would probably be dead by the time we heard from them. All the other civilizations that have survived evolution’s test and transcended (what we might call the “cool kids” of the cosmos) wouldn’t have no interest in talking to us and would be unreachable. You can’t help but feel a little rejected…
Like many possible resolutions to the Fermi Paradox, the Transcension Hypothesis contains a number of inherent assumptions. In fact, Smart listed as many as he could identify in a 2016 article on his website. For starters, it assumes that life in our Universe follows a similar pattern of evo-devo, always converging to subsets of probable futures (aka. convergent evolution).
Second, there’s the assumption that intelligent species will always migrate into increasingly small and optimized scales of Space, Time, Energy, and Matter – what Smart calls “STEM compression.” Then, there’s the assumption that this process must eventually stop at structures like black holes and other extremely compact objects (like neutron stars), whereas passing into a black hole may be a further step in the evo-devo chain.
Beyond that, there are the many, many unknowns that the hypothesis raises since it deals with evolution and development beyond a point of singularity. The very reason why the term “singularity” is used in these instances is that it’s believed that the exponential growth of technology will alter our abilities and neurology and allow for endless possibilities, such that our future development would be impossible to predict.
The fact that we can’t see past this point in our history may make it akin to a quantum singularity (aka. a black hole), a point in space-time from which nothing escapes (even light) and we cannot see past. This creates also a certain paradox regarding humanity’s future, which is that we won’t be able to fathom the kinds of things we’ll be capable of until we can do them.
One paradox at a time, folks! In the same way, we cannot expect that we would be able to contemplate what a super-advanced species would do since we are nowhere near to achieving the same level of advancement. It would be like asking people during the Middle Ages to anticipate how humans would one day split the atom, invent computers, the internet, and go to space.
That being said, it hardly makes the pursuit of SETI any less worthwhile. If anything, the richness of possibilities only highlights the need for more research and exploration. As Prof. Loeb explained, the possibility that ETIs transcend need not mean that SETI efforts are a dead end:
“We could learn about the inside from the heat and trash they deposit to the outside world, similarly to investigative journalists who root around celebrities’ trash cans looking for gossip. Waste production is one infant behavior that even the most advanced civilization could not outgrow, since it is mandated by the laws of thermodynamics.”
Smart also ventured how civilizations that transcend would not be able to hide the telltale signs of their activity. Much like spotting megastructures, the key here is to look for the big signs:
“Optical SETI should show us a ‘missing planets problem’ and we should catch unintentional EM winking out as each planet gets smart enough to turn toward inner space rather than outer space… My co-founder in the Evo-Devo Universe research community, Clement Vidal, has also proposed looking at black holes eating their stars for signs of intelligence.”
It’s a potent possibility: the idea that ETIs could be hidden from us because they’ve evolved to a state of hyper-development, no longer rely on transmission technologies we can identify, and have no interest in communicating with less-advanced species. But we won’t know for certain until we begin to truly explore our Universe in depth. Then again, we may never for certain at all.
As always, we are forced to hypothesize what don’t know based on what we do. And of course, to keep looking until we find that “needle in the cosmic haystack.”
We have written many interesting articles about the Fermi Paradox, the Drake Equation, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) here at Universe Today.
Here’s Where Are The Aliens? How The ‘Great Filter’ Could Affect Tech Advances In Space, Why Finding Alien Life Would Be Bad. The Great Filter, How Could We Find Aliens? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and Fraser and John Michael Godier Debate the Fermi Paradox.
Want to calculate the number of extraterrestrial species in our galaxy? Head on over to the Alien Civilization Calculator!
And be sure to check out the rest of our Beyond Fermi’s Paradox series:
Astronomy Cast has some interesting episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 24: The Fermi Paradox: Where Are All the Aliens?, Episode 110: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Episode 168: Enrico Fermi, Episode 273: Solutions to the Fermi Paradox.
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