What has been humanity’s greatest achievement?
When you boil it all down, survival is, and will continue to be, the most important thing ever achieved by humanity.
All our other big achievements have merely been in pursuit of survival. Farming led to fewer people dying of starvation. Medicine means fewer people die of disease. Diplomacy means fewer people die in wars.
All these achievements lead back to survival.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the way in which you survive is also incredibly important. But in order to lead a life you enjoy, and pursue meaningful endeavours, you need to be alive in the first place.
Without survival, we have nothing. Which is why I find the Fermi paradox so fascinating.
If you’re not aware of the Fermi paradox, here’s a short explainer courtesy of Wikipedia:
(But be warned, you may never think about your life in quite the same way again after you learn about it.)
There is no reliable evidence aliens have visited Earth and we have observed no intelligent extraterrestrial life with current technology nor has SETI found any transmissions from other civilizations. The Universe, apart from the Earth, seems “dead”; Hanson states:
Our planet and solar system, however, don’t look substantially colonized by advanced competitive life from the stars, and neither does anything else we see. To the contrary, we have had great success at explaining the behavior of our planet and solar system, nearby stars, our galaxy, and even other galaxies, via simple “dead” physical processes, rather than the complex purposeful processes of advanced life.
Life is expected to expand to fill all available niches. With technology such as self-replicating spacecraft, these niches would include neighboring star systems and even, on longer time scales which are still small compared to the age of the universe, other galaxies. Hanson notes, “If such advanced life had substantially colonized our planet, we would know it by now.”
The fascinating part, for me, is when you start to think about why the universe seems “dead”. And in particular, I’m drawn to an explanation known as the “Great Filter”.
Have we already survived the great filter, or will it turn out to be our one true test?
If there really are no aliens, this then means there must be a point in the development of life that is very, very difficult to get through.
This event is known as the Great Filter.
The idea of the Great Filter was hypothesised by physicist Robert Hanson, who has become since become famous for it.
Hanson describes nine stages a lifeform must go through before it can expand out into the universe.
- The right star system (including organics and potentially habitable planets)
- Reproductive molecules (eg, RNA)
- Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
- Complex (eukaryotic) single-cell life
- Sexual reproduction
- Multi-cell life
- Tool-using animals with big brains
- Where we are now
- Colonisation explosion
According to the Great Filter idea, at least one of these stages must be virtually impossible to get through.
The part where it all gets interesting is when you start to think about which stage the filter appears in. Has humanity passed it, or is it hurtling towards us?
From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
If the past steps are likely, then many civilizations would have developed to the current level of the human species. However, none appear to have made it to step 9, or the Milky Way would be full of colonies. So perhaps step 9 is the unlikely one, and the only things that appear likely to keep us from step 9 are some sort of catastrophe, an underestimation of the impact of procrastination as technology increasingly unburdens existence or resource exhaustion leading to the impossibility of making the step due to consumption of the available resources (like for example highly constrained energy resources).
Read that part I have highlighted and you’ll see that we could be passing into the Great Filter during our own lifetimes.
As we reach a stage in technology where we can seemingly automate away everything, and rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to do our thinking for us, it certainly is “unburdening our existence”.
We have also come close to exhausting our natural resources. In fact, for many years, scientists predicted we had already reached peak oil production and we’re heading for disaster as our oil eventually ran out.
Technology, as it tends to do, got us out of that mess. New techniques were developed for extracting oil in hard to reach places, and the idea of “peak oil” fell from favour.
Why renewable energy is so important – it’s like the evolution from foraging to farming
But running out of resources may well be the Great Filter event.
When resources become scarce, it’s not just the lack of them that becomes a problem, but the fighting over them leads to large-scale wars, too. So running low on resources is a double whammy for our prospects of annihilation.
This is why the idea of renewable energy is such a strong one.
Using fossil fuels for energy is essentially the same as foraging for food. You’re simply taking what’s there.
Renewable energy is much more like farming. You’re putting a system in place that can sustain itself indefinitely – or at least until the sun explodes.
If you think about the progress that faming ushered in, I think you could argue that over the long run, renewable energy will be just as significant. It’s the same principle, applied to a different area.
That’s why developments like the one coming out of India last week are so important. If you didn’t catch it, here’s a recap: India, currently the world’s third largest polluter, which generated 74% of its electricity from coal, is switching to solar power.
From the Independent:
For the past three years in a row India has seen greater total investments in renewables than in fossil fuels, the report [by the international energy agency] shows, while spending on solar energy overtook spending on coal-fired power generation for the first time in 2018.
And if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that India is far from the only one. I’ve written many times this year alone about the global shift to renewable energy.
So, what about the threat of AI?
In Friday’s essay, I showed how AI is being used both for good and for ill.
AI, with the help of some satellites and some of Google’s money, is set to be used to monitor the pollution produced by all the world’s major power plants – in real time.
Up until now it’s been very hard to get accurate emissions from these power plants as their owners game the system and obfuscate real results.
And as Vox noted:
It won’t just be regulators and politicians who see this data; it will be the public too. When it comes to environmental enforcement, the public can be more terrifying and punitive than any regulator. If any citizen group in the world can go online and pull up a list of the dirtiest power plants in their area, it eliminates one of the great informational barriers to citizen action.
But AI, as we well know, could lead to humanity’s undoing. If you’re ever seen any of the Terminator films, you’ll be familiar with scenario.
And it’s certainly a scenario space-obsessed tech billionaire Elon Musk believes. Here are just a few of the comments Musk has made about AI in the last few years:
“AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilisation.”
“I keep sounding the alarm bell, but until people see robots going down the street killing people, they don’t know how to react.”
“Mark my words. AI is much more dangerous than nukes.”
So perhaps the birth of AI really is the Great Filter event.
Don’t fear the Great Filter, we’re probably in a zoo anyway
Or perhaps it’s not. Because, we have to remember, the Great Filter idea – as popular as it is – is still just one of many possible answers to the Fermi paradox.
True, it’s an interesting and terrifying one, but it’s really no more valid than the other solutions I wrote about in this essay last year.
Here’s what I wrote back then:
There is something in human nature that makes us go in for apocalyptic visions. But that doesn’t mean those visions are correct, no matter how much they feel as though they are.
The Great Filter is certainly a leading solution to the Fermi paradox. But, thankfully, it’s not the only one. Here are four more.
This one steals from popular sci-fi such as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
The theory goes that other intelligent life is so far advanced it merely observes us, as we observe animals in a zoo.
Going one step further, to the idea proposed in the film Prometheus, aliens may have in fact created all life on this planet, to observe and maybe come back to one day.
I have written about this one before. The idea is that once a civilisation gets so advanced, it ends up becoming more cybernetic than human. Eventually, the species uploads itself to “the cloud” like in… actually, I won’t give the film away.
Another side to the mind-uploading theory is that we may already be uploaded into a computer system. Just like in The Matrix, we could really just be in some tank of goo somewhere, with our brains plugged into a network.
Or, taking it one step further, we may never have been human in the first place. We may ourselves be some kind of AI, running in a simulation. Maybe just to find out the answer to a mundane question posed by a far more advanced species.
Finally we have the theory that intelligent life is already out there, and it is abundant. We just can’t comprehend what it is yet.
In the 1961 novel Solaris, by Stanisław Lem, humans visit a strange planet. It turns out the planet itself is alive, and supremely powerful.
The planet tries to understand humans, just as they try to understand it, and neither does very well. It was later made into a film of the same name. But the book is far more intriguing.
If you liked this article, then you need to read this book
I got the idea for today’s article after reading a book called The Exponentialist.
It’s written by the man who runs the business I work for, Southbank Investment Research. You’ve probably heard of him before, his name is Nick O’Connor, and he was the first editor of Exponential Investor.
Nick has a great interest in technology, and in making money through investing in technology. So when he wrote his book (which you can find out how to read for free here) he combined these two areas.
What resulted was The Exponentialist. It’s a book about where technology is taking us, and how you can invest in it. Basically what I write about here every day, but in much more detail, and much better researched.
Nick is now offering a free copy of The Exponentialist to Exponential Investor readers. So if you liked any of the ideas I talked about today, or if you have an interest in technology, and how to invest in it, claim your free copy here.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor