April 16, 2010

Flanders vs. Fermi

PlanethouseWhy We Haven't Met Any Aliens by Geoffrey Miller in Seed Magazine has a nice essay about one explanation for the Fermi paradox:

Life evolves to make use of indirect cues of fitness rather than fitness itself: it is not possible to estimate fitness effects directly of objects or actions. So we evolve heuristics that link certain properties (nutritious food, healthy mates, safe environments) with pleasure (or at least, set up motivation systems that makes us pursue them), and conversely things that tend to reduce fitness with pain or aversion.

Intelligent species are good by definition of solving problems, so they solve the problem of getting whatever they want. The result is not just improvement of real fitness (as demonstrated by the 7 billion of us) but also the ability to produce fake fitness: signals that stimulate our reward systems but do not actually improve evolutionary fitness: computer games, pornography, ultra-tasty junk food, hundreds of facebook friends.

Miller argues that any species will run into the Great Temptation as it develops, creating an environment that gives the strongest fitness signals possible without actually having a real effect on fitness. Once you can have perfect sex with an android partner, play totally engrossing VR games and avoid experiencing any suffering, why should you care about the rest of the universe? The end result, Miller thinks, is that alien species mostly go extinct because they allocate too much resources on pleasure and too little on their fitness.

I think the Great Temptation model is true: technology aims at making a magical world where desires become safe reality, and it (together with culture) can provide an endless distractions. But to work for the Fermi paradox the temptation needs to be very strong: it needs to get any alien species, regardless of whether they are eusocial scorpions, intelligent slime molds or floating brains in a brown dward atmosphere. All the species need to be unable to resist the temptation of building the experience machine and tune in. Not only that, it has to be every individual too.

Miller points out that some individuals - for various reasons - will resist the temptation and may form lineages where there is evolutionary selection for resisting temptation. He suggests the future belongs to hard-working, child-rearing, green religious beings - the Flanders families of the universe. In the long run our xbox-avoiding descendants will meet the alien serious super-parents.

But it seems that this addition breaks the Great Temptation as an explanation of the Fermi paradox. If intelligence just partially succumbs to the Great Temptation, then we should expect to see a lot of Flanders civilizations out there. And given the evolutionary pressure towards greater fitness, they might be less timid neighbours than voracious locust swarms - Robin Hanson's "burning the cosmic commons" model seems to apply here with full strength. If species always lack the coordination or foresight to avoid temptation but they can evolve to resist it, then it would seem that they can also evolve towards total fitness-maximizers in the interstellar environment (Homers?) and there would be no foresight/coordination strong enough to stop this process.

So the Great Temptation explanation seems to require a strong convergence hypothesis: all species develop technologies that entice them to turn inward, and subgroups that can resist that pull will (in time) develop something else that will catch them. Eventually everybody ends up trapped (but happy).

Posted by Anders3 at April 16, 2010 06:32 PM