THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE

one advanced civilization to have colonized the galaxy. Hart (1975), as we have seen, rests his case for uniqueness on the fact that not even one colonizing civilization has reached the Earth despite ample time to do so. Objectors have pointed to the drawbacks of colonization which include the cost of highly expensive physical interstellar travel. But as the projected number of advanced civilizations is high and as Zuckerman (1985) argues, mass migration might be the only option for long-established civilizations facing the collapse of their sun, the evidence of colonization should be available. So where are they? This problem has been given a new solution by Louis K. Scheffer (1994), who sees a resolution of Fermi’s Paradox lying in an appeal to developments in machine intelligence.

Scheffer considers alternative methods of travelling across the galaxy other than expensive physical craft, and offers some intriguing proposals for down-loading our consciousness into intergalactic cyberspace. He begins with the notion of teleportation which, as yet, has been confined to science fiction. The idea is that a sufficient level of data is collected and measured from particular persons, including their mental states, and then these data are transmitted to their destination via electromagnetic signals. There have been many objections to this proposal. One objection was that the very act of measuring the original object would collapse its quantum state and prevent an exact replica from being constructed at the destination. Scheffer drew attention to a theoretical counter to this objection by C.H. Bennett et al. (1993) who suggested that by pre-arranging the transfer of correlating but unmeasured particles the exact quantum  state could be reproduced at the destination despite collapse of the original quantum state. But this theoretical solution, says Scheffer (1994: 158), does not resolve a major problem of teleportation, namely that the reproduction of any object of significant size would require sending an enormous amount of information at great expense.

Thus Scheffer suggests a less expensive method involving information transfer  by computer program. The questions he then poses are [1] how does one get the receiving computer to its destination in the first place?; and [2] is it possible to construct a conscious being as a computer program? The answer to the first question is that the teleporting civilization sends out probes  to  various  destinations which will contain robots that will build and maintain receiving computers. As far as the second problem is concerned, Scheffer considers the notion that a consciousness could be mapped and teleported by computer. Most scientists, he  says, would in theory agree that the state of every sub-atomic particle of any object, including a human being, could be measured and its evolution under quantum mechanical rules could be simulated. Then, in theory, its behaviour could be predicted. This, of course, is a massive problem. A human body contains at least 1027 atoms and even one bit of information per atom is too much information for any foreseeable computer to handle. Moreover, as Scheffer concedes (ibid.: 159), we have no idea how to measure a human being on a sub-atomic scale.

 

 

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This problem has been addressed by Lawrence Krauss (1996) who points out that if it took just one page to describe the configuration of each one of a person’s atoms, its electrons, its orbits, state of motion, its nearest neighbours, etc., then to get all the information for a whole person on 10-gigabyte hard drives would require a stack reaching from Earth to one-third of the  centre of the Milky Way. Using the best of current technology it would take longer than the age of the universe to download the information.

Yet despite the impossibility of practical implementation, Scheffer considers teleportation as a thought experiment. The problem might be reduced if we scale down to the transfer of a simulated nervous system, a brain whose operations might be simulated by a computer program. This again raises major philosophical problems, which Scheffer recognizes, as it can be argued that the program would not be a real consciousness, but only a simulation (see Searle, 1987). Nevertheless, appealing to the most optimistic predictions in artificial intelligence research, Scheffer concedes that the reason why a complete simulation is not possible today is largely because we know so little about the human brain. Thus, for the purpose of sustaining the thought experiment, Scheffer assumes that ‘in some cases shorter conscious programs are possible’. Despite reservations with this thesis, namely, the objection that no increase in the perfection of a simulation will transform its identity to the original object, we shall continue with Scheffer’s thought experiment which could suggest a plausible solution to Fermi’s Paradox.

Scheffer proposes that once consciousness is captured on a computer program then its transfer would be as follows: a computer program is started on one machine, then it is stopped and the current state of  the  program is sent to another machine at a different location, which then resumes the execution of the program. It would appear that the program – a conscious entity – has  been teleported. To secure plausibility Scheffer cites work in today’s computer networks which already allows computers  to send incomplete programs which are devised in such a way to allow another machine to complete it. There are also developments in cyberspace technology where ‘simulations’ of conscious experience could be teleported. The fundamental  philosophical objection is that if a simulation of a person is teleported the person remains behind, unless we revise our views which place a conceptual restraint on the idea of a person being in two places at the same time.

So how does Scheffer’s thought experiment resolve Fermi’s Paradox? Teleportation eliminates the need for physical systems of transport and colonization, so they are not likely to be here in any physical sense even though their computer simulations are hurtling around the galaxy. Once the first civilization developed the technical means of information travel its members can go anywhere at the speed of light at a fraction of the cost of physical transport. It requires no major engineering challenge, no need for large spaceships or programs for strip-mining the galaxy. Now one of the arguments in support of Fermi’s Paradox is the large numbers argument which Hart (1975) employs

 

 

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