27 July, 2019

Exponential Solitude

Why the Fermi paradox is anything but. 

You and me and the kid next door.  We all were lied to.  By the ones we truly trusted: James T. Kirk, Spock, Yoda, and even E.T.

All the Star Trek episodes are big fat lies.  AndStar Wars and E.T.  They should have told us upfront: we will never meet intelligent aliens, become friends with them, or wage war against them.  Never. 

We might one day hear echoes of civilizations long gone, yet we will not meet them.  Humans are condemned to eternal solitude by the rate of our technological progress, the span of life, and the scale of interstellar distances.  As Princess Neytiri remarked in Avatar, “This is sad. Very sad only.” 

The Neanderthals, with whom we mated and then exterminated, were our last Star Trek.

Here is the story of how we are quickly accelerating into solitude.

By any measure, the long history of life on Earth is a story of acceleration.  It started slowly, taking over 3,000 million (3 billion) years to progress from single cells to primitive animals.  It then took 400 million more years to move from primitive animals to mammals, then some 100 million years to early primates, and around 40 million years from first primates to our ancestors.  Nearly 6 million years separate humans and chimpanzees from our common ancestor.  We Homo sapiens are only 0.3 million years old.  We have been able to speak for about 0.1 million years.  Writing, and thus all recorded history, is less than 0.01 million years old. 

On a human timescale, it took millions of years to develop speech, then 100,000 more years to develop writing.  Only 5,000 years after that, we invented the printing press.  From there, it took just 400 years to invent the telephone, 120 more to the World Wide Web, and just 10 years to Google.  Feel the acceleration?

Let us now imagine that, by an incredible coincidence, two planets capable of supporting life were hatched right next to each other in the same galaxy at exactly the same time.

The planets’ stars were identical as were the compositions of the planets and their atmospheres.  The evolution of life on both planets started simultaneously and progressed at an incredibly similar pace, with a difference of less than 0.1%.  By today, this minute difference in the speed of evolution would amount to a 3 million-year gap in progress. 

In other words, it would have been an astounding coincidence to be just a few millionyears away, in evolutionary terms, from a nearby civilization.  However impossible the chance, what would this actually mean?

If our nearest neighbors were 3 million years behind us, they would be closer to chimpanzees than to Neanderthals.  They would not have speech, could not use fire, and it would take them another million years to invent the stone ax.  If their planet was orbiting the star closest to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, we could, within this century, observe them via tiny robotic spaceships, orbiting high above their planet.  They would never know we existed. 

Over time, this gap in development between us and our neighbors would widen.  Over the next 100,000 years, our neighbors might develop slightly improved fighting sticks, but otherwise would not change.  Meanwhile, over the same 100,000 years, humans would most likely either cease to exist or become gods - gods who can conjure chimpanzees and Neanderthals by simply wishing them.

We would probably grant our neighbors a chance to uniquely develop and never attempt to communicate with them.  They would not be able to even comprehend the concept of us, because it would take millions of years to develop speech, and then more time to conceive of gods.  And should humanity choose not to have a neighbor, they would never see it coming or realize what it was, no more than dinosaurs understood the asteroid that did them in.

If the same nearest star, Proxima Centauri, harbored a planet identical to Earth on which life developed 0.1% faster, our “twin” species would be about 3 million years ahead of us today.  “All-powerful immortal bodiless beings, pondering the questions where Albert Einstein would not have understood a single comma…” does not even begin to describe the gap we would likely face.  We just cannot imagine that far into the future.

Given the accelerating speed of evolution and technological progress, our neighbors, 3 million years ahead of us, would either have ceased to exist long ago or became so advanced that the difference in intelligence between them and us could be akin to the difference between humans and oysters.  How do you communicate with oysters?  Or, more pertinently, how do we, oysters, send a message to humans?  Try that, SETI.

Whether we are a million years ahead or behind our closest galactic neighbor, the intellectual gap would be both insurmountable andwidening very fast.  

Now, what if another civilization was developing more slowly or quickly than we were?  Would we not catch up to them or they to us?  While theoretically possible, we would have to be impossibly lucky twice, in both time and space.

If another civilization was developing more slowly than humans, they would, at some point, catch up with us and be roughly on the same level.  The problem is that this parity could be achieved when we both had just invented the stone ax, some 1.5 million years ago or, much luckier still, when we both first made bows and arrows, some 65,000 years back.  

It would be an incredible coincidence, with life developing over billions of years, and then two intelligent life forms shooting their first arrows the same year.  Yet, you cannot shoot an arrow across the stars.  And since this shared “equality” moment, the more slowly developing species would have fallen behind.  By now, they could be brewing their first beers in their first village, a stage that humans passed about 10,000 years ago.  By the time they develop the first telescopes and radio signals, we would be over 10,000 years ahead, which means we would either be long dead or would have become gods.  Again, an incredible coincidence, but absolutely no Star Trek.  And no communication.

Now, let us just imagine that there is, in our tiny corner of the Milky Way galaxy, a civilization that is at exactly our level.  They got their iPhone X two years ago and watched The Incredibles 2last fall.

For this impossible coincidence to mean anything, they would also have to be very, very close in distance, because nothing travels faster than the speed of light, and our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. 

Assuming the two contemporary civilizations are in the same 1% of our galaxy’s space, we would be, on average, 5,000 light years away from each other.  So we would receive their first signal 5,000 years after they sent it.  By that time, we could be dead or be demigods, and the signal sent so long ago would likely be what the smoke signal is to us today.  Even if we received it and cared to reply the same day, their response would come back after another 10,000 years.  Assuming they are still around and want to text us again.  An information exchange with a 10,000 year delay.  Fun.

To be able to communicate, two civilizations would probably have to be within roughly 20 light years, so information exchange would onlytake 40 years.  The two civilizations would also need to be on roughly the same technological development level.  The problem is there are only about 100 stars within 20 light years from us.  And the chances of one of them having a civilization that is similar to our development level are none.  Why none?  Even without the (im)possibility analysis, if they had radio technology, we would have heard them by now.  Thank you for confirming this, SETI.

It is not difficult to see why we should be on roughly the same technological level, within 200 years or less, development-wise.  On Earth, 200 years ago marks the dawn of the industrial revolution in England, before the first public railway.  Given the acceleration of progress, it would be harder for us to imagine the knowledge of 200 years forward than for Napoleon, trotting across a field at Austerlitz, to imagine live videos from Mars and peoplehabitually circumventing Earth in 90 minutes.

In essence, we could not contact a civilization that was 200 years behind us – think Napoleonic France.  No radios and the fastesttransport was a horse.  And if we were to blast a signal toward a civilization that is 200 years ahead, they would most likely ignore us, to allow us a chance to develop in our own unique way.  Or, less magnanimously, they could send us a purpose-built virus or two and wipe us out.

Yet, even this tiniest of time gaps, 200 years (vs. the 3,500,000,000 years that life has existed on Earth), would be widening quickly as progress accelerates.  There were no fundamental advances in Imperial Rome’s culture, economy, tools, or weapons between 1 AD and 200 AD.  By contrast, the same 200-year difference between the 1800s (hello again, Napoleon Bonaparte) and today is unsurmountable. 

If you enjoy visual illustrations, you could watch the Netflix documentary about the first encounters with previously uncontacted tribes in the Brazilian Amazon, First Contact.  These tribes are exactly like us, Homo sapiens.  Their bodies and brains are identical to ours, and they share 99.9999% of our history, having been separated from the rest of civilization for a few thousand years.

You may be able to exchange an imperfect greeting with tribe members through a chain of interpreters, and you may understand what they are talking about (or what the interpreters think they are talking about).  The tribes have no written language of any kind and know no history older than 100 years.  Yet they are exactly like us, Homo sapiens.  Now, try to visualize communicating with species from another planet who are either ahead or behind us by 10,000 years - cavemen and gods, but noStar Trek.

                                                                                          * * *

This is how the enormous span of life, the vastness of interstellar distances, and theaccelerating speed of our technological progress condemns humanity to solitude.  We better get friendly with our fellow humans – we are about to experience an incredible ride, alone in the universe. 

27 October, 2018

In South Africa, can a helicopter land anywhere?

Here are the rules and regulations:

(1) No pilot-in-command of a helicopter shall land at or take-off from any place unless the place is so situated to permit the helicopter, in the event of an engine failure arising during such landing or take-off, continue to operate in a manner that allows safe operation without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(2) The pilot-in-command of a helicopter shall ensure that any place used for landing, take-off or hover—

(a) shall have—
(i) physical characteristics;
(ii) obstacle limitation surfaces,
commensurate with the ambient light conditions and the characteristics of the helicopter being operated;

(b) allows the helicopter to operate clear of obstacles and without causing nuisance to third parties through its rotor wash;

(c) has a surface area suitable for touch-down and lift-off; and 

(d) meets the requirements of regulation 91.08.2.

(3) No pilot of a helicopter shall land on, or take-off from, any elevated helicopter landing place, unless such place meets the design requirements prescribed in Part 139 of these regulations for the operation of heliports, and unless such elevated helicopter landing place, if situated within a build-up area, the place has been licensed or approved in terms of Part 139. 

(4) No pilot-in-command of a helicopter shall land or take-off from any place within a build-up area unless he or she has assured him- or herself that local by-laws do not prohibit such take-off or landing without specific permission by the local authority; provided that this restriction shall not apply to a helicopter engaged in an emergency medical service operation, referred to in Part 138, of undertaking a flight necessary for the exercising of any power in terms of any law. 

(5) The Director may, in the interests of aviation safety, impose conditions or institute restrictions as to the use of any building, structure or place for the landing or take-off of helicopters, or require special flight procedures to be adopted at, or special routes to be followed to or from, such building, structure or place by helicopters, and the Director may impose different conditions, institute different restrictions or require different special flight procedures to be adopted in respect of different buildings, structures or places.

(6) Nothing in this regulation shall be construed as conferring any right to land at any building, structure or place against the wishes of the owner of, or any other person who has an interest in, the building, structure or place or as prejudicing the rights or remedies of any person in respect of any injury to persons or property caused by the helicopter or its occupants.

23 August, 2016

Possible solution to Fermi's paradox - Where is everybody?

Below I make a few predictions, derived from the assumption that human Intelligence is not the final word in evolution. Most people agree with this assumption, yet keep on imagining our future without taking it into account. Well, I do. And over the years I came to some startling conclusions.
For example:
 - Startrek movie like space ships, will remain just that - a movie.
 - Humans, visiting in person other solar system, will never happen. (Never mind colonizing the entire galaxy.)


1. Life arises all over the Universe, whenever a handful of basic conditions are met.
The universe as we known it, is teeming with life (as we know it).
3. After life arises, Intelligent life is a given and not a special case. 
4. Evolution by natural selection is UNIVERSAL ! 
5. Civilizations arise naturally, whenever individual Intelligence has passed a certain threshold. 
6. Because of the astronomical distances involved (Space and Time) and the exponential increase in development, almost all civilisations will proceed to some incomprehensible, "next level’ of intelligence, before they are able to notice one another. From their point of view, when a civilisation is at about our level of development, the universe seems to be there "just for them".
7. Intelligence is the ultimate and most important criteria of classification of any civilisation, anywhere in the universe. In essence, the deciding factor is the speed at which the level of intelligence is envolving within a civilization. Basically there are only two developmental stages: 
a) Natural -very slow  (Static) - Intelligence on Earth right now.
b) Non natural -very fast (Dynamic) - Intelligence on Earth in the 22nd Century???

How did I arrive to these conclusions? Before I start, I want to mention one peculiar observation I made:
Most people (some really clever ones too) try to solve this (future) problem (let's say 22 century) with past thinking methods (20th century or 19th or 16th for that matter).

Now let's check some sobering facts:
Even if the nearest star system harbors a civilization technologically similarly advanced to ours, there is no way of knowing about it. By human standards, even among the closest neighbours, the distances involved are truly enormous!

1.    On the one hand, the best radio receivers are just about able to receive a radio signal from a distance of 1 light-year. The nearest star system is more than 4x further away! Yes, we are transmitting electro-magnetic waves in all directions and for over 100-years but most of this waves are beamed by the atmosphere back to Earth. The ones which make it thru are so feeble and scattered, they barely reach the moon. We got used to seeing pictures from Mars and even as far away as Pluto but unless you are into data transmission over huge distances, you have absolutely NO CLUE what it takes to make it work. See it as a miracle and leave it there.

2.    On the other hand, lays the ever increasing speed at which civilization advances. Because scientific development is building on itself (future advancement is laid on previous foundations), the entire technological evolution, is exponential. At our level of development this is insignificant and most people (some really clever one too), fail to realize the future impact such a development process will have. But in another 50 to 100 years the situation will be different. Vastly different. Exponential functions are extremely difficult to see or even notice, unless you have a glimpse of the inflection point! Now this sets an upper time limit to any civilization trying to contact another by electro-magnetic waves. (The lower limit is set by the discovery of the radio waves themselves).

What I am saying is, in reality there is a very short "window of opportunity" when two civilizations can "see" each other. Actually, in practice it might turn out that the window is non-existent! In other words, the inflection point of the evolutionary exponential curve happens before the technology is sufficiently advanced to make communication possible. And this scenario is the one I put my money on. Therefore, I think that the universe is teaming with (intelligent) life as we know it, yet from our point of view, we and all the other civilizations out there, are absolutely alone - for all eternity.

Herewith I, Mario Butoi predict that us humans will find in the coming decades indisputable signs of life all over the galaxy yet the chance of finding life at our Intelligence level (or higher) is extremely low – never mind communicating and interacting with it. And exactly the same applies the other way around.

In conclusion - Here is the extract originally submitted as a letter to Scientific American, June 17, 2000 in response to Where Are They?
July 2000

Proposition: - The transcedental solution to the Fermi Paradox -
"The simplistic response to Fermi's paradox is that industrial civilizations inevitably self-destruct. Ian Crawford points out that it is improbable that all civilizations would do this, and that even one persistent industrial civilization should provide us with evidence of its existence. There is, however an answer to this paradox other than inevitable industrial self-destruction. It is a more plausible solution, but not necessarily a more pleasant one.
It may be that once the drive to intelligence begins, it develops an irresistible dynamic[1]. Consider the time intervals required to produce multicellular organisms (quite long), then basic processing (insects), social processing (reptiles), social communication (mammals), spoken language (human primates), writing/reading[2], and then computing. At each step in this processing curve the time intervals to the next inflection shrink.
There is no reason to assume that the curve stops with us. There may be only a few hundred years between industrial civilization and silicon/nanonic processing. Beyond that speculation is impossible; non-organic minds would operate on qualitatively different timescales from ours. Vinge, Joy, Kurzweil and others describe this as the Singularity (see Links).
It may be that the kinds of civilizations we might communicate with typically exist only for a few hundred years. During their short existence they produce only the kinds of radio output that we produce. In other words, they are very short-lived and the radio output is in the "dark" area of the SETI exploration space. With intense study we may detect one or two of our fellow organic civilizations in the short time that we have left -- perhaps within the next 50 to 100 years.
We may even be able to see their radio emissions go silent; replaced by the uninterpretable communications of silicon minds. Shortly before our emissions do the same thing."

14 March, 2015

Pics from my work

2015-02-11 European Storks
The European Stork eating insects on a freshly burned field.

2015-03-14 Mario Witekleibosh
Me in front of the base of one of the 3.4KW wind turbines.