Ever since Enrico Fermi questioned back in the 1950’s why, if a multitude of civilisations are likely to exist in the Milky Way, no sign of their existence in the form of probes or spacecraft has ever been detected, scientists and critical thinkers have struggled to resolve the problem by supplying a host of inventive arguments with mixed reception.
To date one of the most common answers to the Great Silence was simply that life is so rare, so widely distributed, and the scale of the universe so immense, that the probability of contact or communication between any two space-faring civilisations is almost non-existent. Needless to say an outlook which seems like a very lonely, sad and pessimistic state of affairs for intelligent life to find itself in.
However, John Smart, of the Accelerating Studies Foundation, has proposed a novel idea which suggests a rather more exciting and stranger fate for intelligence than previous conceptions. In the Transcension Hypothesis, he suggests that sufficiently advanced civilisations may invariably leave our universe by using and eventually relocating to black-hole-like destinations! Bizarre as this notion may initially sound the suggestion is backed by considerable research drawn from fields as diverse as biology, physics, computer science, information theory and sociology, with a series of falsifiable claims which will become testable in the coming decades.
A central principle of the theory is that the evolution and development of our universe should in some sense be broadly predictable and constrained by its internal processes in much the same way as the life cycle of a biological organism is constrained by its developmental genetic toolkit. The biological analogy, as it turns out, is a vitally important means of conceptualising both the divergent and convergent physical trends that will shape any far-future emergent order. Before examining this idea further, a distinction is made between two complementary genetic mechanisms; evolutionary and developmental systems.
Evolutionary systems are those that are defined as the unpredictable, creative, locally-driven mechanisms that involve two way communication/feedback modes and bottom-up organisation which is characteristic of the vast majority of biological change. Developmental systems by contrast are considered to be responsible for less than 5% of genetic material and accounts for the predictable, cyclical, globally driven, one way and top down modes of organising. One process accounts for the creative complexity and phenotypic variation of biological life, the other for the pattern conservation and repetition of forms, such as the development of general body plans and life cycles. Those genes which direct and constrain developmental change naturally alter very slowly over time while those involved in evolutionary processes change considerably faster.
It is these developmental processes in biology that govern cycles of birth, growth, maturation, reproduction, senescence and death that Smart seeks to apply to the possible development of the universe as a system. If the universe can be described as existing within a life cycle, then it becomes feasible to ask which aspects of the observable universe are attributable to evolutionary processes and which to developmental ones. If quantum mechanics, chaos, non-linear dynamics can be described as fundamentally creative and unpredictable then the laws of classical mechanics, conservation and entropy can adversely be seen as conservative and predictable.
It is Smart’s contention furthermore that if we could witness the evolutionary development of two parametrically identical universes from birth to death we would expect to see huge differences in terms of the creation of internal structure, the evolution of life, emergence of intelligence and the application of technology within such civilisations whilst at the same time observing deep commonalities in terms of historic processes, as well as biological, cultural and technological convergence. Species convergence in the sense of a non-identical, dynamic progression towards universal milestones is of critical importance to Smart’s next suggestion; rather than advanced civilisations seeding the galaxy in a process of expansion, evolutionary development guides intelligent life increasingly into inner space and what is referred to as STEM, small scales of space, time, energy and matter that eventually lead to black hole like domains.
The reversal of scale from the very large stellar engineering projects predicated on the expansionist model to the very small atomic and subatomic realms offered by the transcension model would certainly explain why no evidence so far exists of galactic intelligence despite the relative lateness of humanity’s arrival on the scene, particularly as the universe seems to many cosmologists as a life friendly environment. But what evidence is there that transcension is a feasible developmental trend?
Here Smart turns to the history of structural complexity and argues that much in the same way that cosmological superclusters gave birth to the first galaxies, which in turn created the first stars that lead to stellar habitable zones, the evolution of planetary life and the emergence of localised human cultures, so to do human societies develop increasing specialisation, the construction of industrial cities which have become the leading edges of our civilisation, one that now stands on the brink of creating localised self aware technology. This great leap downwards will represent a further order of connectivity and miniaturisation as intelligent computers will have access to micro-realms and nano-computational domains currently beyond present technology. While expansions do occur such as the colonisation of the land by marine life or the future colonisation of the solar system by robots, Smart maintains that these events are limited, temporary phenomena compared to the predominant trend of increasing locality of the spatial domain within complex systems.
According to the hypothesis, the reasons for this trend are fairly simple; compression and energy rate density (energy flow per unit mass or volume) leads to increasing efficiency and computational capability:
‘Energy efficiency acceleration has also been shown to be smoothly logarithmic for at least the last few hundred years, across a broad variety of lighting, power, computation, and communications technologies and nanotechnologies. Note also that the higher the energy flow density of any system, the closer the system approaches the universal density limit—a black hole.’
Following this train of thought the growth in computational capability as measured by information creation, processing speed and connectivity, would appear to progress exponentially at the leading edge of complex systems with each medium being replaced by more STEM efficient substrates. The idea of accelerating complexity as a universal developmental process will not be new to anyone familiar with the concept of a technological singularity. But where transcension is unique is that it offers a framework by which people can examine the possibility within the context of an, at least partly, predictable cycle.
Rejecting the Kardashev scale as a meaningful measure for civilisation Smart goes on to support John D. Barrow’s scale of particle manipulation as a more appropriate indicator. In the Barrow scale a civilisation is assessed based on the spatial localisation of their engineering; the ability to miniaturise increasingly dense, efficient and complex structures down to Planck-scale limits. STEM compression rather than energy consumption becomes the key factor in judging the level of development, from the manipulation of genes and molecules down to the level of elementary particles and the fabric of space time itself. That seemingly magical capability may in fact be closer to reality than people imagine. For the human species it is estimated that if Moore’s law continues to hold, within 600 years a physical limit to computational acceleration will have been reached, leaving only one remaining domain to utilise. The energy dense environment of a black hole.
There are a number of reasons why black holes would seem to be an attractive environment for STEM density and general learning systems. Seth Lloyd has proposed that black holes may provide the ultimate computing environment by removing the energy cost of information transfer. This would solve the ‘memory wall’ that exists in contemporary computing and allow instantaneous communication and computation from any point to point in the event horizon. Also, bizarrely due to gravitational time dilation, the closer you approach a black hole the slower non-local time becomes to the point that near instantaneous forward time travel with respect to the rest of the universe would take place.
This means that any miniaturised civilisation situated directly above the event horizon of a black hole would witness the universe speed through its processes in the literal blink of an eye. Galaxies such as the Milky Way and Andromeda would collide and merge, and if our current theories are sound, so would all black holes in their local gravity wells. In fact according to some, all the matter in our universe will one day end up inside merged black holes. Entering a black hole without losing structural information would therefore be a considerable challenge to any advanced intelligence and one of the ways it might do this would be by reengineering itself with femtotechnology, structures at sub atomic scales.
If you are part of a civilisation which has utilised all STEM resources to create a super dense, super efficient computational substrate, commonly referred to as ‘computronium’, you may increasingly find the rest of the universe too slow and informationally dull relative to you. If this situation became intolerable then capturing as much non-local information as theoretically possible in the shortest amount of time might become a central priority. Black holes could act as ‘ultimate learning devices’ by altering the physical constraints of the universe, enabling you to merge rapidly with the most complex regions in existence, namely other intelligences. This would have interesting ramifications for astronomical features currently observable, for instance there are certain classes of accretion disc around super-massive black holes that are the most efficient energy harvesters known to exist, in some cases 50 times more efficient than stellar nuclear fusion. It might be that some unusual, highly efficient black hole formation may be evidence of intelligent processes rather than classical ones.
However, Smart conceives black holes as being much more than simply ideal attractors for advanced complexity, but rather as test beds for further competition, cooperation and natural selection at the merger point. The artificial creation of black holes and the passive coalescing of intelligence is seen as a possible developmentally constrained destination for all advanced civilisations. What is more Smart connects this possibility with Lee Smolin’s Cosmological Natrual Selection or the fecund universe theory that suggests black holes may act as seeds or replicators of universes within a multiversal structure.
Over the decades the central singularity within black holes has been postulated as an ideal candidate for universe creation as the laws of relativity collapse in this region, allowing for improbably infinite energy and spatial densities. Any daughter universe generated here might, according to Smolin, exhibit fundamental parameters that are causally different from the parent universe. As with Smart’s hypothesis these fundamental parameters can be divided between those that are regarded as developmental, responsible for cosmological longevity, complexity and black hole abundance, and those that are responsible for generating phenotypic variation and thus regarded as evolutionary. So, through transcension, intelligent life may avoid the eventual decay and death of the universe in much the same way that biological systems transcend the death of the body through germline replication. As Smart iterates:
‘ In this scenario, each universal civilization may be in the process of turning into something analogous to a seed, a developmental structure that packages its evolutionary history and experience in a way that transcends our apparently finite and potentially dying universe, just as seeds transcend finite and dying biological bodies. An equivalent biological analogy for our universe itself might be an ovarian follicle, a developmental structure that assembles many potential seeds and puts them in a competitive selective system to generate the best new seed.’
Smart also believes that this is something which will become increasingly plausible to test via computer modelling and scientific simulation. Just as phylogenetic trees of living systems are being created, so universe morphology is being conceptualised and mapped with the intention of categorising which fundamental parameters are conserved and which are stochastic and variable processes. The hope is that with advances in computing it will be possible to simulate various universe models and gain valuable insights into the way our own is structured.
One of the biggest implications of an evolutionary developmental universe lies in the field of METI (messaging extra-terrestrial intelligence) which has continued in the optimistic vein of assuming that contact is not only possible but would be beneficial to the two parties concerned. But if transcension is correct in its proposal that sufficiently advanced civilisations will accelerate technologically via STEM compression and the use of black hole environments, then this may be an unwitting mistake.
Remembering Smart’s biological analogy that all civilisations undergo two separate yet parallel processes, one unpredictable, innovative, and often reversible, the other predictable, constrained and often irreversible, we can observe two very different messaging systems in action. Evolutionary mechanisms require constant feedback from the environment while developmental processes use one way communication that is not altered by the local environment. A case in point is the developmental constraints of two human identical twins that have been separated at birth.
Due to the particular self organisation of our universe and the limiting factor of the speed of light any interstellar send and receive cycle would be far too slow to aid in local evolutionary progression. If every message takes at least 100 light years to cross the chasms of space, what sort of meaningful conversation could ever be sustained? Because of this it is Smart’s contention that any such occurrence would be a very rare, very local, and short lived phenomenon. Across such time and distances the only worthwhile messages would be developmental ones, which would have to be one way and hence only useful for control and constraint not for innovation. Sending simple information already known by the receiver would not be worth the cost to send, while transmitting complex and advanced data could only serve to limit the receiving civilisation by directing them to transcension in a similar way.
This could be extremely disagreeable as any later merger would be considerably standardised and monocultural in nature. Monocultures are evolutionarily non-advantageous and any reduction in variation amongst complex organisms may be inherently undesirable.
Decreasing the variability of another civilisation’s evolutionary path would be condemning them to accept and follow our incomplete and culturally biased world view, which poses a rather unique moral problem. If one way messages are genuinely destructive of variation then perhaps a moral incentive exists amongst advanced civilisations not to contact burgeoning cultures in a variation on the zoo hypothesis. The zoo hypothesis contends that alien life chooses to avoid contact with less developed societies and adopt a strategy of non-intervention in order to prevent precisely such a scenario occurring. Even if such messages or interventions do occur it is assumed that the vast majority of advanced cultures have arrived at similar conclusions to those expressed by transcension and do not violate the principle.
So far the case for transcension has made logical sense within the framework of an evolutionary developmental universe that possesses the traits outlined above, but are there any empirical tests that can be undertaken to prove the hypothesis one way or another? Here Smart proposes exactly that. Based on the rate at which technological civilisations like ours develop electromagnetic communications it is estimated that a brief window of around 200 years may be all that unintentionally emitted ‘leakage signals’ from radar, radio, and TV etc, have to emanate from our planet. If calculations regarding the exponential acceleration of computing are correct, it is suggested that a mere 400 years after radio silence intelligent civilisations may reorganise themselves into near black hole dense matter.
The regular cessation of leakage signals and any METI program would therefore be a common feature in a life-friendly, transcension universe. Assuming that the number of civilisations our age or older that exist in the Milky Way is in the millions, then using a sensitive radio telescope that can survey the whole galaxy we would expect to detect thousands of leakage signals. This would depend on the accuracy of the 200 year signal life span. If it was possible to measure the cessation curve in space and time this might be experimental evidence supporting a transcension like process of some kind.
Unfortunately developing the infrastructure which will be necessary to search such a vast region of space is no easy feat and comes with significant hurdles. Those arrays which are in the early stages of planning and construction are limited both in terms of the potential range of the instrumentation and the relatively small radio-loud leakage window, only 100 years in some estimates. Earth was loud for a similar period and by now most communications have been moved to the much higher bandwidth domain of fibre optics, which is unlikely to be reversed. The Murchison Wide-Field Array under construction in Australia might detect signals from 30 light years away but would be confined to 11 G-type stars only, needless to say an insignificant population. By 2019 the Square Kilometre Array may cover 1000 G type stars up to 300 light years away, but again proportionally these numbers are small and considering the chances of the signal window being open, unlikely to yield much.
Furthermore, estimates of detection probability may be misleadingly high due to overestimating signal strength and the integration time. If transcension is a ubiquitous process then until much larger arrays can be built either on the ground or ideally in space or on the far side of the moon, where a radio blackout exists with respect to the earth, it is unlikely that SETI radio telescope programs will accomplish much in the near future.
Fortunately this is not the case for optical SETI which may provide a wealth of information that can be analysed on a transcension related basis. Using methods such as transit photometry it is increasingly possible to detect planetary, atmospheric and importantly life signatures of exo-planets hundreds of light years away. The abundance or deficit of earth-like planets exhibiting signs of life and their distribution in the galaxy potentially says a lot about the likelihood of transcension being a valid destination for intelligence. If the theory is correct we would expect to see an inner ring within each galactic habitable zone of far older planets that have collapsed into near black hole densities as part of a growing transcension zone. Smart describes this as the ‘missing planets problem’, an absence or a much lower frequency of life-signature exo-planets observed in the inner rings of the habitable zone. The expanding edge of the transcension zone should be well defined with planets of the right age and distance from the galactic core regularly flipping states and becoming STEM dense objects.
Assuming reaching the limits of Moore’s law coincides with transcension and we are within a millennium of our own black hole like state, then the Earth should appear on the outer boundary of such a transcension zone. We may also be able to detect high rates of unusual phenomenon, such as black hole migration towards the galactic core or potentially artificial binary systems which you might find as Jupiter-mass black holes absorb their parent stars. Claims such as these may take a while to verify or refute but the central point is that methods exist that will in future provide evidence either way.
At the heart of the transcension hypothesis lies the belief that the accelerating leading edge of computational abilities and our ability to access STEM densities and efficiencies, must in some way be representative of the developmental processes of our universe. The more computationally complex a system becomes, whether this system is biological or mechanical in nature, the more STEM efficient and STEM dense becomes its physical substrate. Smart see’s growth curves across the spectrum of technological and social phenomena as being indicative of developmental processes, which are in some sense becoming increasingly irreversible as our civilisation matures. From economics, production rates and price-performance, to social morality and falling rates of violence in developing societies, Smart identifies a general sweeping trend of greater complexity, interconnectedness, self-organisation and regulation, computational capacity and miniaturisation. Much as biophysicist Gregory Stock has explored, the emergence of a global brain is to Smart an almost foregone conclusion:
‘While evolutionary process is best characterized by divergence and speciation, the hallmark of developmental processes is convergence and unification. A planet of postbiological life forms, if subject to universal development, may increasingly look like one integrated organism, and if so, its entities will be vastly more responsible, regulated, and self-restrained than human beings. If developmental immunity exists, planetary transitions from life to intelligent life, and from intelligent life to postbiological life should be increasingly high-probability. The exact probabilities of each of these transitions, also seems likely to be empirically measurable by future astrobiology and SETI.’
Evo devo theorists will argue that a failure to transcend would be due to evolutionary variation disrupting a developmental process, while success would mean the triumph of development in preventing evolutionary disturbances. The key question that must be asked is how much do evolutionary processes contribute to transcension? If the answer is high then we must expect a great deal of variation in when and how civilisations within the galactic habitable zone achieve transcension. Some of them may well be evolutionary failures involving expansionist surges, stellar engineering feats and major exploration of outer space. If on the other hand developmental processes are dominant then we should expect to see predictable advancements and phenotypic parameters as well as a well defined pattern of distribution amongst transcension civilisations. While this will not be true for every case, and behavioural deviancy amongst alien cultures in terms of METI and interstellar probes will undoubtedly exist, any universal developmental process should be robust enough to absorb local variation.
From Greg Egan’s Diaspora; where an uploaded humanity disappears into subatomic wormholes in search of novelty, to Stephen Baxter’s Xeelee omnibus; where all baryonic life must flee our universe before the dominance of dark matter lifeforms, science fiction has long portrayed visions of future civilisation transcending the known universe. But it is far more interesting when a scientific hypothesis, one that incorporates and connects with a wide variety of contemporary studies, should make similar far reaching claims. Whether transcension into a computational microcosm is a viable route for advanced civilisation I will leave up to more informed thinkers to debate the issue, but what I imagine is exciting to many is just how boundless the possibility state seems to be for humanity should it survive the next few hundred years.
Short of some existential catastrophe the future of our species may be more bizarre then we could ever imagine. Is transcension an intriguing answer to the Fermi paradox or another technological/space-time singularity fantasy? Is density really our destiny?
Owen Nicholas is a recent graduate from Nottingham University where he majored in History and Political Science; he is involved in numerous charities aiding the elderly and ethnic minorities and teaches English to foreign students.
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