The Turing Solution

Why haven’t we made contact with intelligent civilizations?

Of all the things to think about during breakfast, my mind drifted to the thoughts of life on planets beyond Earth and advanced civilizations that exist on those planets. That thought came back to me later during the day and I remembered reading about the Fermi paradox for the first time. Fermi’s paradox can be summarized by the following argument:

  • There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are similar to the Sun, many of them are much older.
  • With high probability, some of these stars will have Earth-like planets and some might develop intelligent life.
  • Some of these civilizations might develop advanced technology to travel between stars.
  • By this point during the history of the universe, the Earth should have already been visited by extraterrestrial aliens.

Another way to paraphrase this argument is to ask the question of where is everybody? If intelligent life exists, then where is it? There are a few interesting solutions to Fermi’s paradox, but the most convincing ones include:

  • The nature of intelligent life is that it destroys itself.
  • Intelligence civilizations are too far spread apart, like needles in a haystack.
  • The advanced civilizations tend to isolate themselves.
  • They are around, but undetected.

I would like to focus on the third solution, because it implies that eventually advanced civilizations turn inwards instead of exploring outwards. So why would they just stop searching? Maybe they realized that even though travelling from one start to another is possible, only machines are capable of sustaining the journey. If they can’t travel themselves, why not just observe life on other stars? It would be far easier and safer to make better machines to simply observe instead of making contact. In this sense, they might just lose interest.

But I have an interesting alternative. Humans like to build stuff, and we’re always getting better at it. I’d like to call this property Turing-completeness which can be described as follows:

Turing completeness is a property of advanced life forms to create “things” (of varying complexity) that can incrementally get better or evolve.

A great example of this property is virtual reality (VR) which will soon be coming to the world at-large (think of headsets like Oculus Rift coming out in April). Eventually, virtual reality will penetrate all aspects of our life from training and simulations to personal assistants at work. It isn’t unreasonable to think that in the future we would be able to create whole scenarios inside of VR. VR will become complex enough to where we can put on our headset and use a creator studio to create a “virtual world”. With increasing computational power, these virtual worlds can become more detailed. This idea is similar to playing Sims but instead of controlling the game, you’re immersed within the game environment that you created. And you can create more as you wish, while you’re in that world.

What if Turing-completeness becomes the solution to Fermi’s paradox? Instead of searching outside, advanced civilizations end up turn inwards to create new detailed worlds in VR. The reason no one has made contact is because they evaluated their choices and realized that it would be much more fun to create immense worlds within VR. It is also more natural given that our species survived in the past by controlling their environment and living in those restrictive and well-controlled environments. Now instead of living in such a world, we would become immersed into it and “plug out” when we’re done playing in that VR.

A scary thought, wouldn’t you agree? At a certain point in our progression, we realize the limits of what we can do and then decide to completely change direction. Although this solution has many assumptions, with improvements to VR technology and faster computational processing, it isn’t unimaginable.