Why Don't We See Robotic Civilizations Rapidly Expanding Across the Universe?

The central region of the Milky Way, also known as the Zone of Avoidance. Credit: ESO/S. Brunier

In 1950, while sitting down to lunch with colleagues at the Los Alamos Laboratory, famed physicist and nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi asked his famous question: “Where is Everybody?” In short, Fermi was addressing the all-important question that has plagued human minds since they first realized planet Earth was merely a speck in an infinite Universe. Given the size and age of the Universe and the way the ingredients for life are seemingly everywhere in abundance, why haven’t we found any evidence of intelligent life beyond Earth?

This question has spawned countless proposed resolutions since Fermi’s time, including the infamous Hart-Tipler Conjecture (i.e., they don’t exist). Other interpretations emphasize how space travel is hard and extremely time and energy-consuming, which is why species are likely to settle in clusters (rather than a galactic empire) and how we are more likely to find examples of their technology (probes and AI) rather than a species itself. In a recent study, mathematician Daniel Vallstrom examined how artificial intelligence might be similarly motivated to avoid spreading across the galaxy, thus explaining why we haven’t seen them either!

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Before we Develop Self-Replicating Machines to Explore the Universe, we Should Figure out how to Turn Them off Again

An early NASA concept of an interstellar space probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

In 1948/49, famed computer scientist, engineer, and physicist John von Neumann introduced the world to his revolutionary idea for a species of self-replicating robots (aka. “Universal Assemblers”). In time, researchers involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) adopted this idea, stating that self-replicating probes would be an effective way to explore the cosmos and that an advanced species may be doing this already. Among SETI researchers, “Von Neumann probes” (as they’ve come to be known) are considered a viable indication of technologically advanced species (technosignature).

Given the rate of progress with robotics, it’s likely just a matter of time before humanity can deploy Von Neumann probes, and the range of applications is endless. But what about the safety implications? In a recent study by Carleton University Professor Alex Ellery explores the potential harm that Von Neumann Probes could have. In particular, Ellery considers the prospect of runaway population growth (aka. the “grey goo problem”) and how a series of biologically-inspired controls that impose a cap on their replication cycles would prevent that.

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We’ll be Building Self-Replicating Probes to Explore the Milky Way Sooner Than you Think. Why Haven’t ETIs?

An early NASA concept of an interstellar space probe. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The future can arrive in sudden bursts. What seems a long way off can suddenly jump into view, especially when technology is involved. That might be true of self-replicating machines. Will we combine 3D printing with in-situ resource utilization to build self-replicating space probes?

One aerospace engineer with expertise in space robotics thinks it could happen sooner rather than later. And that has implications for SETI.

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If Alien Probes are Already in the Solar System, Maybe we Could Detect Them Calling Home

Artist's impression of the Milky Way Galaxy. Credit: ESO

It’s been seventy years since physicist Enrico Fermi asked his famous question: “Where is everybody?” And yet, the tyranny of the Fermi Paradox is still with us and will continue to be until definitive evidence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) is found. In the meantime, scientists are forced to speculate as to why we haven’t found any yet and (more importantly) what we should be looking for. By focusing our search efforts, it is hoped that we may finally determine that we are not alone in the Universe.

In a recent study, two researchers from the University of Li├Ęge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recommended that we look for evidence of transmissions from our Solar System. Based on the theory that ETIs exist and have already established a communications network in our galaxy, the team identified Wolf 359 as the best place to look for possible interstellar communications from an alien probe.

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