Posted on Feb 07, 2023Read on

Aliens, AI, and the Great Filter

This week’s Lex Fridman episode with David Kipping was good, but not great.

I thought Kipping was smart and thoughtful, but the conversation just didn’t hit. Nothing stood out as particularly interesting, at least for the first few hours.

But about 3 hours in, Kipping drops an awe-inspiring, optimistic, and just plain cool perspective on the Fermi Paradox. He talks about the growth of artificial intelligence and the incredible novelty of this moment — like, right now — in time. His theory is hopeful, thought-provoking, and tucked deep into a 4 hour long podcast, so I’m summarizing his ideas here.

Kipping is a member of the Department of Astronomy at Columbia University, studying ‘exsolar planetary systems’. He also runs an educational YouTube channel called Cool Worlds.

Fermi Paradox

Some of the build-up to the interesting bits of the Lex Fridman conversation revolves around the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox (not technically a paradox, but I won’t argue semantics) is summarized as:

… where is everybody?

alone in the universe, realism – Stable Diffusion

We know that the universe is 14 billion years old, and we know that there are something like 300 million planets in our galaxy alone. And our galaxy is just one of several trillion (trillion!) galaxies in the observable universe.

We also aren’t sure that the observable universe is the whole picture — why would the entirety of the universe just be the portion that we can see from our non-special point on the interstellar map? — but even if this is everything… it’s a lot.

The Drake Equation formalizes this probabilistic argument about alien civilizations, but the Fermi Paradox basically just asks the question — where is everybody? 

I mean, it’s hard to imagine that these stupid freakin’ ape creatures tucked away in a corner of the Andromeda Galaxy are the only things out there. How could we be?

But still, we see and hear nothing. No hints of life anywhere, no signals from the outer reaches of the galaxy, nothing to suggest that there’s anyone (or anything) out there. Except us. 

And while little green men visiting Earth in UFOs is still a fringe-y topic, some of the popular theories exploring the Fermi Paradox — where the hell is everybody!! — are compelling, or at the very least, thought-provoking.

Great Filter

One theory is that there’s a Great Filter that civilizations inevitably face at some point during the civilization’s expansion.

The filter could be ‘in front’ of us in time, like “every civilization that advances technologically beyond a certain point blows itself up with nuclear weapons” or “every civilization consumes too many resources for their preferred natural environment and that environment then changes beyond repair.“

This is not an impossible theory to believe… but it’s pretty depressing, and life is too short for depressing theories.

nuclear war ending civilizations – Stable Diffusion

Or the Great Alien Coffee Filter (trademark pending) could be ‘behind us’, in the sense that every other civilization out in the stars has been caught by the filter, but somehow, we slipped past.

Maybe the filter behind us is the transition from single-celled bacteria to multi-cellular organisms. In that case, the universe could be scattered with hundreds of billions of planets filled with measly bacteria and slime, but only one lonely planet was lucky enough to mutate past single-cellularity into Darwinian complexity.

Or maybe the filter is ‘consciousness’, broadly defined — self-reflection, mental-awareness. An entire species battling internally over the true nature of the universe, with an innate ambition to try and figure out the answers. Inevitably, this ambition leads to exploration and expansion. Somehow, we’d be the only ones to have reached this stage. 

Maybe there’s gaseous monkeys or silicon giraffes on a planet far away, but without the intelligence or irrational conquistador spirit that humans possess, they’re all just slowly roaming their planet, munching on alien grass, instead of cruising through the stars. Aliens, but not the kind we’d be really excited about.

At least in this case, we made it past the Great Filter! Good for us.

This is obviously all just semi-coherent speculation. Maybe civilizations like ours are incredibly rare but, given the size of the universe, they’re still completely ubiquitous, and we just haven’t seen them yet. They could be smart and exploratory but just haven’t made it to our corner of the galaxy yet, or maybe these types of civilizations only happen once every hundred billion years and we’re just the first ones to the party, right now.

Kipping’s Theory

But about 3 hours into the Lex Fridman podcast, Kipping shares a different theory about the Fermi Paradox:

“You go back for the last 4.5 billion years, the planet was dumb, essentially. If you go back the last few thousand years, there was a civilization but it wasn’t really producing any techno-signatures. Then over the last maybe 100 years, there’s been something that might be detectable from afar.

But, we’re approaching this cusp where we might imagine… I mean, we’re thinking of years or decades with AI development typically when we’re talking about this. But as an astronomer, I have to think on much larger time scales, centuries, millennia, millions of years.

So if this wave [of AI development] continues over that timescale, which is still the blink of the eye on a cosmic time scale, that implies that everything will be AI out there, if this is a common behavior.

That’s intriguing because it implies that we are special in terms of our moment of time as a civilization.  It’s normally something we’re adverse to as astronomers. We normally like this ‘Mediocrity Principle’ — we’re not special, we’re a typical part of the universe, the Cosmological Principle — but in a temporal sense, we may be in a unique location. And, perhaps, that’s part of the solution to the Fermi Paradox in fact.

If it is true that planets go through basically these three phases; 1) dumb life for the vast majority, 2) a brief period of biological intelligence, and 3) an extended period of artificial intelligence that they transition to; 

Then we would be at a unique and special moment in galactic history that would be of particular interest for any anthropologist out there in the galaxy. That has, for me, recently been throwing the Fermi Paradox a bit on its head. And this idea of the Zoo Hypothesis, that we might be monitored, which for a long time has been seen as a fringe idea even amongst the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) community, but if we live in this truly transitional period, it adds a lot of impetus to that idea.”

At this point, Lex Fridman — who I greatly respect as a podcaster, scientist, and as a person who puts great energy out into the world on a daily basis — makes the cardinal sin of podcasting, and interrupts a guest deep into the sharing of a profound insight.

But the idea Kipping describes deserves further analysis. (To be fair, David is not necessarily endorsing this idea, just speculating on its implications).

A special slice of time

Kipping is suggesting that, in this specific solution to the Fermi Paradox, we, as biological, non-artificial intelligent beings, are at the most special moment possible.

Not the most special moment in human history, but at the most special moment in the history of our galaxy.

See, for the first 4 billion years on Earth, not much happened. Just a metric shit-ton of Earth slime and boring, single-celled organisms. 

A few hundred million years ago, the first multi-cellular organisms started making things a tiny bit more interesting.

Then, over the last few hundred thousand years, the apes that would eventually become humans started pounding rocks, making spears, and inventing the wheel.

Now, just a few hundred thousand years later, those same apes have developed to a point far down the exponential curve of technological advancement. Reusable rockets can land on small carriers in the middle of the ocean. CRISPR. Autonomous ride-sharing. Censorship-resistant decentralized blockchains. And a new class of sometimes-dumb but clearly-awesome large language models like ChatGPT.

And even if you subscribe to the belief that the ChatGPT-era of large language models isn’t close to reaching the holy grail of AGI (artificial general intelligence) – then just round up. Round up from “right now” to “in 5,000 years”.

5,000 years is the same as 5 years on the cosmic time scales — insignificantly small – and it feels safe to suggest that even 10,000 years out, we’ll have ironed out all the kinks. 

And then AI takes over.

artificial intelligence everywhere in the universe, digital art – Dall-E

Even if humans somehow manage to corral AI without blowing ourselves up, we probably aren’t going to enhance human longevity to the point where we can send humans outside of our solar system. Why would we build multi-generation spaceships, when we can just scatter a bunch of AI all over the place, and wait for them to report back?

So Kipping’s idea explicitly suggests just that – that we’re on the cusp of spreading artificial intelligence far and wide. 

We are in a unique, fleeting moment of biological intelligence in the Universe, right after billions of years of slime but right before artificial intelligence is omnipotent. We are right there. We live at the thin slice in history between the Boring Slime Age and the ChatGPT-X age. Forever. We will always have that. That uniqueness, that novelty, that tiny insignificant fact that makes us special.

And maybe that’s the answer to the Fermi Paradox. That we are truly a novelty in the universe, existing at the most special moment conceivably possible, and because of this, there is nobody else to talk to. 

We are the only ones. We are the only ones in the history of ever (!!) that will be able to experience the world before the unbounded expansion of artificial intelligence, but after all the boring times. How lucky are we?