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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Why Would an Alien Civilization Send Out Von Neumann Probes? Lots of Reasons, says a new Study

Artist's concept of the New Horizons spacecraft encountering a Kuiper Belt object, part of an extended mission after the spacecraft’s July 2015 Pluto flyby. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

In 1948-49, mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and engineer John von Neumann introduced the world to his idea of “Universal Assemblers,” a species of self-replicating robots. Von Neumann’s ideas and notes were later compiled in a book titled “Theory of self-reproducing automata,” published in 1966 (after his death). In time, this theory would have implications for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), with theorists stating that advanced intelligence must have deployed such probes already.

The reasons and technical challenges of taking the self-replicating probe route are explored in a recent paper by Gregory L. Matloff, an associate professor at the New York City College of Technology (NYCCT). In addition to exploring why an advanced species would opt to explore the galaxy using Von Neumann probes (which could include us someday), he explored possible methods for interstellar travel, strategies for exploration, and where these probes might be found.

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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 Liège 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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China’s FAST Telescope Could Detect Self-Replicating Alien Probes

One of the most challenging questions to answer when confronting the Fermi Paradox is why exponentially scaling technologies haven’t taken over the universe by now.  Commonly known as von Neumann probes, the idea of a self-replicating swarm of extraterrestrial robots has been a staple of science fiction for decades.  But so far, there has never been any evidence of their existence outside the realm of fiction.  That might be because we haven’t spent a lot of time looking for them – and that could potentially change with the new Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope (FAST).  According to some recent calculations, the massive new observational platform might be able to detect swarms of von Neumann probes relatively far away from the sun.

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Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” VI: What is the Berserker Hypothesis?

Credit: ESA

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 are dead!

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, there have been several proposed resolutions to his question, which includes the Berserker Hypothesis. This theory suggests we haven’t heard from any alien civilizations because they’ve been wiped out by killer robots!

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Maybe Self-Replicating Robot Probes are Destroying Each Other. That’s Why We Don’t See Them

SETI's Allen Telescope Array monitor the stars for signs of intelligent life (SETI.org)

During the 1940s, Hungarian-American scientist John von Neumann developed a mathematical theory for how machines could endlessly reproduce themselves. This work gave rise to the idea of “von Neumann probes“, a class of self-replicating interstellar probes (SRPs) that could be used to do everything from exploring the Universe to seeding it with life and intervening in species evolution.

Some have naturally suggested that this be a focus of SETI research, which would entail looking for signs of self-replicating spacecraft in our galaxy. But as is always the case with proposals like these, the Fermi Paradox eventually reasserts itself by asking the age-old question – “Where is everybody?” If there are alien civilizations out there, why haven’t we found any evidence of their SRPs?

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Where Are All The Alien Robots?

If you’ve seen at least one other episode of the Guide to Space, you know I’m obsessed about the Fermi Paradox. This idea that the Universe is big and old, and should be teeming with life. And yet, we have no evidence that it exists out there. We wonder, where are all the aliens?

Ah well, maybe we’re in a cosmic zoo, or maybe the Universe is just too big, or the laws of physics prevent any kind of meaningful travel or communications. Fine. I doubt it, but fine.

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