Universe Today: Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed?

Gaia_galaxyMy friend over at Universe Today, Fraser Cain, has been busy of late! In his latest podcast, he asks an all-important question that addresses the worrisome questions arising out of the Fermi Paradox. For those unfamiliar with this, the paradox states that given the age of the universe, the sheer number of stars and planets, and the statistical likelihood of some of the supporting life, how has humanity failed to find any indications of intelligent life elsewhere?

It’s a good question, and raised some frightening possibilities. First off, humanity may be alone in the universe, which is frightening enough prospect given its sheer size. Nothing worse than being on a massive playground and knowing you only have but yourself to play with. A second possibility is that extra-terrestrial life does exist, but has taken great pains to avoid being contacting us. An insulting, if understandable, proposition.

alien-worldThird, it could be that humanity alone has achieved the level of technical development necessary to send out and receive radio transmissions or construct satellites. That too is troubling, since it would means that despite the age of the universe, it took this long for an technologically advanced species to emerge, and that there are no species out there that we can learn from or look up to.

The fourth, and arguably most frightening possibility, is the Great Filter theory – that all intelligent life is doomed to destroy itself, and we haven’t heard from any others because they are all dead. This concept has been explored by numerous science fiction authors – such as Stephen Baxter (Manifold: Space), Alastair Reynolds (the Revelation Space universe) and Charles Stross (Accelerand0) – all of whom employ a different variation and answer.

kardashev_scaleAs explored by these and other authors, the biggest suggestions are that either civilizations will eventually create weapons or some kind of programmed matter which will destroy – such as nuclear weapons, planet busters, killer robots, or nanotech that goes haywire (aka. “grey goo”). A second possibility is that all species eventually undergo a technological/existential singularity where they shed their bodies and live out their lives in a simulated existence.

A third is that intelligent civilizations fell into a “success trap”, outgrowing their resources and their capacity to support their numbers, or simply ruined their planetary environment before they could get out into the universe. As usual, Fraser gives a great rundown on all of this, explaining the Fermi Paradox is, the statistical likelihood of life existing elsewhere, and what likely scenarios could explain why humanity has yet to find any proof of other civilizations.

Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed:


And be sure to check out the podcast that deals strictly with the Fermi Paradox, from roughly a year ago:

The Fermi Paradox Explained:

The Council of Muraqaba – Part I

HD_85512_b_(Artists's_impression)Hello all! Now that I’ve finally finished with all my edits and revisions for Papa Zulu, I thought I might get back on the science fiction train and start working on some the ideas that have been piling up in my memory folder. Awhile back, I began proposing dusting off an old idea – the Council of Muraqaba – and making it see light again. And today, I managed to put the finishing touches on the first installment.

To recap, the story takes place in the distant future and is part of the Legacies universe I came up with many years ago. In this universe, Muraqaba is a colony that grew up around an institution started by Sufis seeking relief from the intense and rapid pace of progress taking place in the Core. However, over the course of many generations, it became an interfaith institution connected to the rest of the universe.

Within the Council, all matters pertaining to faith, belief, practice and the spirit could be contemplated and ironed out. People of all walks of life and faith were free to set up an annex in the place, either physically or virtually, and eventually, it would become a beacon for the establishment of a universal religion. But in this particular story, the institute becomes the site of something much more interesting.

Contact with a presence that is something else entirely. After generations of leading all of humanity in the contemplation of higher things, it seems a higher intelligence wants in on the discussion…

gliese-581-ePlanet Muraqaba, Gliese 581 d
Sol 66, 2278

“If the Qutb is indeed the pole and axis of the universe – a man through whom divine grace did flow – does it follow that men who demonstrated wilaya would have been invincible to attack?”

The specter of Mahdi Grasciano peered intently at the others in the circle, each of which had been rendered flawlessly amidst the background of the Rifa’i. At the moment, the prayer hall was bathed in the faint glow of artificial light, courtesy of the floating embers that ensured the circle could see each other clearly now that nighttime had fallen on the Mosque in real-time.

Standing on the far side of the circle, Imam Selvanayagam hummed thoughtfully and formulated a reply to this latest challenge.

“It does, necessarily, follow. The Qutb could not have been harmed by men, being under the protection of God.”

Grasciano was quick to jump on that:

“Alas, Mohammed, the example of the armed prophet, was unvanquished by men. But Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama, and all other candidates mentioned here today, did not share that fate. They succumbed to treachery, judgement, and poisoning, thus demonstrated that they were of mortal condition.”

Imam Koteib, who had been standing quietly by the northeast column, chose to intervene on this point:

“And yet, in An-Nisa, it clearly states ‘but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise.'”

Selvanayagam spoke again.

“Such a circumstance pertains to this one of God’s Prophets, but can it be said to extend to those others as well?”

The heads in the circle turned to Zahawi, who stood at to the south-west end of their circle. Being their host, the one who had selflessly offered the Rifa’i prayer hall to conduct it, his was the place of honor – his back facing towards holy Mecca.

Scratching at the white, wispy beard that covered his chin, he offered what insight he could. “Such a condition could be said to apply, in that all such men triumphed over death in their own fashion. Who can remember the names of the Athenian statesmen who sentenced Socrates to death. And did Sidharta’s wisdom not live on in the absence of his corporeal being?”

Yusuf finally saw an opportunity to offer a point of consensus and spoke from his spot at the east end. “Indeed. Shall it be agreed upon then that the condition of death does not rule out the existence of sanctity?”

“It so shall…” Koteib said, nodding. Grasciano smiled and appeared ready to reply, but the smile quickly faded. His next words sounded almost like a pained admission.

“Hmm, I’m not sure where that leaves us.”

Zahawi also began to look grave and added his voice to Grasciano’s. “Indeed. Have we determined the existence of Qutb, or merely found a way to redefine it?”

A pause followed as each specter groped for something more to add, a comment or illumination that might break the deadlock. Eventually, a number of the Imams began to laugh. There seemed little else to do under the circumstances. Many times, expounding on such matters only served to cloud them further, expanding upon the mystery rather than dispelling it.

One could only laugh in the face of such irony, and perhaps conclude that divine obfuscation was at work. In any case, the debate had run its course, a sort of consensus settling in after many hours of discussion. It now fell to Yusuf to conclude the transmission.

“I would like to thank you all, masters of your turuqs, for your continuing participation in these majalis. In so doing, you are a part of the greatest ongoing spiritual dialogue our species has ever conducted.”

“As-salamu alaykum,” the Imams said in near-unison. Yusuf replied in kind.

“Wa alaykumu al-salam.”

They concluded with the dhikr, citing the appropriate verses and repetition of His name. The simulation began to fade a moment later – the elaborate stone walls and flickering light from the suspended aerodrones that marked the interior of the Rifa’i slowly retreated from his consciousness and was replaced by his true surroundings.

Yusuf became aware of the room, the tall metal panels and the lighting that emerged from behind them, and the cool air like a man waking up from a dream. His mind responded to it all like a harsh reality intruding upon quiet sleep.

As always, he sat on the room’s central dais with his legs crossed, but his knees ached as if he had been upright for some time. The sensation of being offworld was so immersive that he truly felt that he had been standing for hours in an entirely different setting. But of course, that was the point of the experience, and an ongoing cause of concern amongst the more conservative elements in their turuq.

The sound of the door opening behind caught Yusuf’s attention. He turned his head just in time to see Mansur appear in the open doorway.

“Maruf!” he said informally, smiling. “You’re timing is impeccable.”

“I know, Master. I waited until you were finished. I did not wish to disturb you while you were conferring with the others.”

Yusuf slowly stood up and tried his best to hide the sudden sense of chagrin he felt.  It was sometimes difficult to tell how just long a session lasted. Even without the effects of dilation and correcting for local time, hours could feel like days. And knowing Mansur, he could be expected to wait indefinitely.

“So what can I do for you, Maruf?”

“It’s Lusserer, master. She asked that I come find you.”

“Ah, and what does the lady of technical support require of me?”

“Well, sir…” he said delicately. “It’s the signal. We seem to experiencing some trouble.”

“Trouble?” Yusuf stopped, turned to face him. “That’s a little vague, Maruf. Care to elaborate?”

“She did not say,” he replied. “In all truth, master, I don’t think she’s quite sure what the problem is either.”

Yusuf suppressed a scowl. Any sign of misgiving was likely to be taken on by the young Mansur, who was in the habit of taking on his master’s moods and amplifying them by varying degrees. He tried to sound as calm and even as possible as he replied.

“Then I shall go to her forthwith, and see what I can do to help.”

“She would be most pleased by that, I’m sure,” Mansur said and smiled happily. He stood there for a moment, idle and twitchy, as if expecting something more. Another quirk of the young man, always in search of a duty, and always in need of being dispatched before he could tell that a conversation had run its course.

“Perhaps she and I could do with some tea. Would you fetch us some and meet us in the ISIS lounge?”

“Certainly, master!” said the young man, quickly slapping his hands together and issuing a short bow. He was gone quickly after that, letting Yusuf address his own thoughts in private. At the moment, he only had two, and they were vying for just about every inch of his cortex.

A problem with the interstellar array and Lusserer is at a loss, he thought. This must be something of consequence…

3-D Printing Martian and Lunar Housing

3dprinted_moon_base1For enthusiasts of 3-D printing and its many possibilities, a man like Berokh Khoshnevis needs no introduction. As for the rest of us, he is the USC’s Director of Manufacturing Engineering, and has spent the last decade working on a new direction for this emerging technology. Back in 2012, he gave a lecture at TEDxTalks where he proposed that automated printing and custom software could revolutionize construction as we know it.

Intrinsic to this vision are a number of technologies that have emerged in recent years. These include Computer-Assisted Design/Computer-Assisted Manufacturing (CAD/CAM), robotics, and “contour crafting” (i.e. automated construction). By combining design software with a large, crane-sized 3-D printing machine, Khoshnevis proposes a process where homes can be built in just 20 hours.

contour-craftingKhoshnevis started working on the idea when he realized the gigantic opportunity in introducing more speed and affordability into construction. All of the technology was already in place, all that was required was to custom make the hardware and software to carry it all out. Since that time, he and his staff have worked tirelessly to perfect the process and vary up the materials used.

Working through USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies, Khoshnevis and his students have made major progress with their designs and prototypes. His robotic construction system has now printed entire six-foot tall sections of homes in his lab, using concrete, gypsum, wood chips, and epoxy, to create layered walls sections of floor.

3dprinted_moon_base3The system uses robotic arms and extrusion nozzles that are controlled by a computerized gantry system which moves a nozzle back and forth. Cement, or other desired materials, are placed down layer by layer to form different sections of the structure. Though the range of applications are currently limited to things like emergency and temporary shelters, Khoshnevis thinks it will someday be able to build a 2,500-square-foot home in 20 hours.

As he describes the process:

It’s the last frontier of automation. Everything else is made by machines except buildings. Your shoes, your car, your appliances. You don’t have to buy anything that is made by hand.

contour-crafting2As Khoshnevis explained during his 2012 lecture at TEDx, the greatest intended market for this technology is housing construction in the developing world. In such places of the world, this low-cost method of creating housing could lead to the elimination of slums as well as all the unhealthy conditions and socioeconomic baggage that comes with them.

But in the developed world, he also envisions how contour crafting machines could allow homes to be built more cheaply by reducing labor and material costs. As he pointed out in his lecture, construction is one of the most inefficient, dirty and dangerous industries there is, more so than even mining and oil drilling. Given a method that wastes far less material and uses less energy, this would reduce our impact on the natural environment.

3dprinted_moon_base2But of course, what would this all be without some serious, science fiction-like applications? For some time now, NASA and the ESA has been looking at additive manufacturing and robotics to create extra-terrestrial settlement. Looking farther afield, NASA has given Khoshnevis a grant to work on building lunar structures on the moon or other planets that humans could one day colonize.

According to NASA’s website, the construction project would involve:

Elements suggested to be built and tested include landing pads and aprons, roads, blast walls and shade walls, thermal and micrometeorite protection shields and dust-free platforms as well as other structures and objects utilizing the well known in-situ-resource utilization (ISRU) strategy.

3dprinted_moon_baseMany existing technologies would also be employed, such as the Lunar Electric Rover, the unpressurized Chariot rover, the versatile light-weight crane and Tri-Athlete cargo transporter as well some new concepts that are currently in testing. These include some habitat mockups and new generations of spacesuits that are currently undergoing tests at NASA’s Desert Research And Technological Studies (D-RATS).

Many of the details of this arrangement are shrouded in secrecy, but I think I can imagine what would be involved. Basically, the current research and development paradigm is focusing on combining additive manufacturing and sintering technology, using microwaves to turn powder into molten material, which then hardens as it is printed out.

sinterhab3To give you an idea of what they would look like, picture a crane-like robot taking in Moon regolith or Martian dust, bombarding it with microwaves to create a hot glue-like material, and then printing it out, layer by layer, to create contoured modules as hard as ceramic. These modules, once complete, would be pressurized and have multiple sections – for research, storage, recreation, and whatever else the colonists plan on getting up to.

Pretty cool huh? Extra-terrestrial colonies, and a cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly construction industry here on Earth. Not a bad way to step into the future! And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of contour crafting at work, courtesy of USC’s Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, nasa.gov