Virtual Reality Could Explain the Fermi Paradox

Galaxies from deep space photo

A recent article in Technology Review by Nick Bostrom generated a lot of discussion about the Fermi paradox, which states:

The size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.

I’ll add my 2 cents to this discussion by saying that there’s a possibility that any civilization that becomes advanced enough discovers that physical reality can’t hold a candle to virtual reality and makes the transition (alien transubstantiation, to coin a phrase). This could explain why they haven’t colonized the galaxy, or why we aren’t bathed in their radio communications.

Virtual worlds can be, in theory, both much more pleasant to inhabit, with unlimited freedom and none of the downsides of an existence based on crude physical processes, and also much more energy-efficient. Even without cold computing, it would take a lot less energy for an advanced civilization to do all that it wants to do within a simulation than by moving atoms around.

As I mentioned before, they could also think much faster, subjectively pushing back the heat death of the universe (while at the same time making communication with ‘slow’ beings almost impossible).

I haven’t read all the serious papers on SETI and the Fermi paradox yet, but I’m pretty sure this is not an original theory. It’s just something that I haven’t seen mentioned yet and that I think deserves thinking about.

Update: Just to make things clearer, the kind of virtual reality I’m envisioning here is not one where you connect a biological body to a machine that sends it sensory information (like in the Matrix, for example). What I’m thinking of could probably be called ‘mind uploading’. There is no physical body, because one is not required. Everything would be inside the virtual world, kind of like how an artificial intelligence would not require a physical presence other than its computing substrate.

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48 Responses to “Virtual Reality Could Explain the Fermi Paradox”

  1. J.R. Mooneyham Says:

    Yes Michael, I agree. And have written about it in:

    13. The growing lure of inner space
    http://www.jrmooneyham.com/ctctc.html#section7

    …which is part of ‘The Rise and Fall of Star Faring Civilizations in Our Own Galaxy’, which I first compiled (with references) some years back.

    I may be too optimistic in my opinion that a race might do a bit of manned exploration beyond their own solar system, before finally settling into VR to stay. Or that some significant faction would do so for an extended period of time. But perhaps the simple urges to be different– or face real and random dangers as opposed to controlled VR environments– will keep a few of us outside of VR, and exploring space, until the end.

    – J.R. Mooneyham

  2. anonymous Says:

    http://seedmagazine.com/news/2006/05/why_we_havent_met_any_aliens.php

  3. jon Says:

    Read metamorphisis of prime intellect hosted on kuro5hin.org

  4. J. Rose Says:

    Even if they retreated to virtual reality, they will continue to want more and more processing power in their simulation, and that will require exponentially more physical substrate to do this computing. Ray Kurzweil calls this the “waking up” of the universe, and predicts that eventually, we will be “waking up” the universe, transforming all matter in all directions into computing substrate as fast as we can- presumably the speed of light.

  5. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    J. Rose, that’s a good point and a real possibility. But there might also be reasons that are still unknown to us for why advanced civilizations might not have an expansionary mindset (or at least not beyond a certain point). What we think of as normal and logical might be tainted by our specific human heritage. I wouldn’t estimate that as very likely, but it’s possible.

  6. From Bob Says:

    http://www.frombob.to/you/

    An interesting read!

  7. Walter Sear Says:

    This is quite unlikely.

    Virtual reality is never going to replace the real world, no matter how much more compelling it will become, neither will communicating with the slower moving denizens of the outside ever become impossible.

    Virtual reality is simply an overlay we place on the real world in order to manipulate it. That overlay might be some very nice place that we enjoy spending our time, but the fact of the matter is that it, at a fundamental level, still resides in the real world, only in a very different form than the one were are currently used to. Somewhere out there, is a server with your virtual reality on it, but it is >somewhere< out there – it’s not ‘virtual’, unless you watch too many Star Trek the Next Gen episodes where they all vanish into their ‘holodeck’ and perderate wearing Victorian clothes.

    Virtual reality might be incredibly rich and distracting – more so even than the existence it is based on, but it’s just a conduit to the outside: a user interface, if you will. It’s not like we will have vanished to another dimension, or otherwise become less able to interact with it.

    As for ‘communication with ’slow’ beings almost impossible’ – this is a laughable conjecture. If you can do something 1,000 times faster, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it at the original speed. Or do 1,000 other things at the same time. Or be 1,000 time more thoughtful and reflective in your response.

  8. DiggDuggDone Says:

    Perhaps it’s because of the peril we ourselves face, from ourselves. Our knowledge is increasing far faster than our wisdom to use it. Everyone “respected’ says that Large Hadron Collider won’t create black holes. They also want it to work and to further their research. What if we missed something?

    We’re advanced enough to create it but not advanced enough to know what EXACTLY will happen when we use it. That there folks is the rub I speak of! Perhaps we don’t see any evidence of ‘advanced’ civilizations because as knowledge is learned from the cosmos they’ve all ended up killing themselves.

    That or they’ve become Ascended Beings and no longer rely on protoplasm…

    Just saying!

  9. Chris Haley Says:

    Nick Bostrom actually has a separate paper with a theory that there is a good chance that we are in fact living in a simulated universe.

  10. John H. Says:

    “Prove to me I’m/you’re not a brain in a jar.”

    Michael Graham Richard, I believe it was Jean Paul Sartre who said, in effect, “Nobody moves, and nobody gets hurt” which could be the impetus behind some non-expansionism.

    I wonder if ‘wisdom of life’ begins and ends in a single ‘Brahmic breath’ or known-universe creation/destruction cycle: or perhaps not? Is there a memory imprint that basically forms the seed of a universe?

  11. stevarino Says:

    I would recommend Accelerando http://www.accelerando.org/

    It deals with much the same concept as you’ve thought out, but from the perspective of an outsider. Humanity divides, and later alien life is explored in all it’s quirkiness. By far one of the most mind-blowing books I’ve read in a while. I think you can read it free there or at http://manybooks.net

  12. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    “Virtual reality is never going to replace the real world, no matter how much more compelling it will become, neither will communicating with the slower moving denizens of the outside ever become impossible.”

    How do you know? You are not experiencing the real world directly, you are a moist brain in a dark place. Ultimately, to subjective experience it doesn’t really make a difference where the sensory input comes from.

    But to be clearer, the kind of virtual reality I was imagining was not one for biological entities. Rather, minds would be uploaded directly into a computing substrate, a bit like artificial intelligence. You wouldn’t need a body plugged into the ‘machine’.

    “As for ‘communication with ’slow’ beings almost impossible’ – this is a laughable conjecture. If you can do something 1,000 times faster, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do it at the original speed.”

    Have you read the article I linked? In it I explain why I think this could be a problem.

  13. Johnny Photon Says:

    I more or less agree with the VR idea but J Rose makes an interesting point. On the other hand, there may be other factors involved.

    1. Aliens would probably use a method of communication so advanced we wouldn’t be able to pick up on it. Something like entangled photons instead of radio.

    2. We wouldn’t be interesting to them.

    3. We live in the backwaters of the Milky Way.

    4. You think gas is expensive? Crossing the huge distance of space would require enormous energies which would probably be put to better use.

    5. There is probably a really cool party going on out there somewhere in the galaxy.

  14. Chad Says:

    Greg Egan has some stories that touch similar ideas. http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/

  15. Schenn Says:

    Kudos. You’re figuring it out.

    As for the communication with slow beings above… How many 2 dimensional realities have you communicated with?

  16. Ralph Dosser Says:

    See “Accelerando” by Charles Stross. Eventually you wind up turning all the matter you can into computational resources (“computronium”) to maximize the size and speed of your virtuality. You basically dismantle reality to convert it into virtual reality.

  17. Ralph Dosser Says:

    Damn smileys!

  18. SheepRock Says:

    Interesting Idea, except for a few little details..

    Presumably a system capable of running a virtual reality able to house not only the minds of all of its advanced inhabitants but also the simulation itself would require not just maintenance from the outsite but also massive energy input just to function, let alone grow, and grow it would, assuming the population of the alien planet in question grows as well.

    This could be explained away I guess by saying that the advanced aliens also figured out perpetual energy, but since that seems (to us at least) to be an impossibility, lets assume that it is. How would this virtual reality exist in the real world? would the aliens need sun power plants to maintain to fun the virtual reality complex?

    Also, we might want to consider the possibility of this view point: perhaps the aliens havent mapped the entire galaxy/universe yet and so there might be a chance of an even more advanced alien out there thats ready to kill them all. paranoia of the unknown is a good reason for any race or species to stay rooted in reality.

    So while the theory sounds intreguing, im not certain that the aliens would willingly lock themselves into a virtual playground instead of trying to conquor or otherwise control that which can actually affect them.

  19. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    “Presumably a system capable of running a virtual reality able to house not only the minds of all of its advanced inhabitants but also the simulation itself would require not just maintenance from the outsite but also massive energy input just to function, let alone grow, and grow it would, assuming the population of the alien planet in question grows as well.”

    Running most of a civilization in a virtual reality doesn’t preclude manipulating the external world when it is required. Most likely via robotics and nanotechnology.

    As for the power requirements, they would probably be high, but not as high as if that civilization wasn’t in a virtual world. A very advanced computing technology might require relatively little energy inputs per operation. We’ve only had computers for a short amount of time, and already there’s a huge difference between how many calculations per second you could do with 100 watts 30 years ago and how many you can do with 100 watts now.

  20. Jeriaska Says:

    You might want to check out John Smart’s universal transcension scenario hypothesis, which comes to very similar conclusions. He describes the advantages of virtual worlds as an extension of matter, energy, space and time compression that is responsible for ever more intelligent species and more efficient computer hardware. I wrote my impressions on this hypothesis below.

    http://www.jeriaska.com/blog/2006/evolutionary-development/

  21. anon Says:

    Any intelligent life at our level uses up its resources rapaciously, collapses and vanishes. An outgrowth of the brutal competition of evolution.

  22. Chris Says:

    While virtual reality would be nice, these other civilizations would still need to concern themselves with the ‘real world’. This is because resources are not unlimited, so in due time a greater civilization (or being) would need the resources being hoarded by the civilization in the virtual world and would attack the civilization playing around in virtual world.

    I think a more likely reason that we cannot see evidence of other civilizations is that they would prefer not to advertise themselves. It would be quite bad if another civilization (or, again, being) who was much more powerful than you and also much more meaner than you discovered you. Its just not worth the risks. I imagine there have been very extensive efforts made by other civilizations on working out how to hide themselves from potential predators.

    I often wonder about black holes. Is there any chance those are the galactic equivalent of a nuclear bomb? Could a civilization somehow be hiding in one to protect itself? Probably not, but there is just so much we don’t know.

    Nice post, by the way.

  23. dantebronto Says:

    Cool article. An equally probable explanation for the Fermi paradox would be the possibility that advanced civilizations undertake the aforementioned black hole inducing particle accelerator experiments that swallow entire solar systems with curious inhabitants.

  24. Captain LeMont Dreyfus McAwesome Says:

    Kurzweil already hypothesized about this in the Age of Spiritual Machines. He said we all go nano and virtual.

  25. Sandro of Chegem Says:

    Interesting, but somehow doubtful. Firstly – and this is a bit of anthropomorphic bias on my part – physical reality, though limiting in many ways, is still the reality in which the supposed critters live in and have created a virtual world in, and thus is an object of timeless curiosity to anyone inhabiting it. Anyone smart enough to create such a virtual world would presumably be curious enough about his surroundings to get to that point, and therefore would be fundamentally unsatisfied with something that’s not the “real” world (philosophical musings about the nature of perception and reality aside). A kind of malaise would set in…

    There’s also the question of maintenance and the helplessness that comes about with uploading yourself into a machine. Either way, they would have to create a machine that interfaced with the outside world – for their own safety, it would have to be powerful enough to deflect any cosmic cataclysms, and out of curiosity, it would have to be able to observe (or travel through) the universe in ways that are probably more powerful than they could have achieved as organic beings.

    As far as not being swamped with radiowaves, it hasn’t been that long. These things take time to travel, and if we assume that our civilization is progressing at an “average” rate (I mean, planets formed at roughly the same time in the grand scheme of things), then even ancient civilizations would need to have invented powerful signaling technology thousands, even millions of years prior to us.

  26. guy Says:

    I must say that I’m perpetually astonished at the narrow mindedness of the so called “enlightened” citizenry of our world.

    I will keep my rebuke short, but it’s quite simple: anyone who’s ever done *any sport* more than superficially can attest to just how much more deep and satisfying the real world is.
    I say sport, because that is within the reach of any human. But there are countless other endeavors which are equally satisfying and can never ever have any equivalent in a virtual world (be it craftsmanship, a trade skill, dance or music).

    The sooner you realize that your virtual worlds are “much more pleasant” because you have abandoned your real world, the sooner you will learn what happiness is.

    NB. this is coming from a veteran programmer of 15 years.

  27. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    “anyone who’s ever done *any sport* more than superficially can attest to just how much more deep and satisfying the real world is.”

    I’m not talking about virtual reality as we can currently do it, with a little headset. I’m talking about what a sufficiently advanced civilization could do.

    When you are doing sports in the physical world, you are in a kind of virtual reality. You are your brain, sitting in a dark place. All that you know about the world is coming from your nervous system, which sends a bunch of electro-chemical signals. That’s not the real world, that just a model of it built by your brain.

    A sufficiently advanced virtual world would be truly indistinguishable from the physical world, if that’s what it wanted to reproduce. Or it could be a better world, where more is possible, without suffering, with deeper inter-personal connections, no need to work at jobs that you don’t like, with more arts, no disease and aging-related death, etc (or whatever else it is that an alien race would value and cherish).

    Or whatever. My point is not to describe what this would be, because nobody knows yet how to make this or how it would be (there’s not just one kind of virtual world anyway – there’s a limitless number of possible ones). I’m talking about the possibility that advanced civilizations upload their minds and live in a world that they built for themselves, which could explain why they don’t colonize the galaxy much.

  28. anant01 Says:

    I think fermi paradox is a hoax because the string theory has revealed, the layers are infinite, whatsoever,

  29. jheidbrink Says:

    The graphic novel Transmetropolitan contains characters that have been uploaded into a cloud of atom-sized machines. So, your idea may not be wholly original, but, on the other hand, it’s interesting that two minds apparently have drawn similar conclusions from the same technological facts.

  30. lacune Says:

    These ideas are pretty interesting, yet… what if it becomes the contrary? Most of the time, the most powerful experiences arise from pain, or from trying to escape all those problems that an ideal “virtual world” could eradicate.

    Maybe… virtual worlds as we imagine will become boring, and “players” or “admins” would react by putting more challenging elements: wars, property, pain leading to enlightenment, arts, great accomplishments.

    Perhaps the only difference between our reality and their virtual worlds are some “transgressions” to physical laws, which would increase freedom to act.

    And perhaps we were pretty bored and decided to create a world like this one, where you can fight and endure all you want…

  31. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    Lacune, that’s indeed the usual hollywood way to make the movie exciting :)

    But I think that it’s very hard to predict details without anthropomorphizing too much, or even predicting how much smarter beings would deal with any problems that would arise.

  32. Craig Says:

    “the kind of virtual reality I’m envisioning here is not one where you connect a biological body to a machine that sends it sensory information (like in the Matrix, for example). What I’m thinking of could probably be called ‘mind uploading’. There is no physical body…”

    The virtual reality explanation as a whole is plausible and interesting, but this idea of ‘mind uploading’ is highly questionable. It seems predicated on an idea of some sort of ‘soul’ that can be transferred. I can imagine (very distant) technology that can totally replicate my brain in a machine, and that that machine might then be sentient and feel like it previously existed in my physical body (because it has all my memories etc.) But how does the real, original me that’s in my body stop existing, except by death. That consciousness doesn’t get transferred, just duplicated. I’m not going to kill myself just because I’ve created a machine that thinks it used to be me. The only way we would give up our bodies is if there were literally a non-physical soul that could truly be transferred. Do you really think science is going to find and figure out how to manipulate “the soul”?

  33. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    “The virtual reality explanation as a whole is plausible and interesting, but this idea of ‘mind uploading’ is highly questionable. It seems predicated on an idea of some sort of ’soul’ that can be transferred.”

    I’m not a dualist, I’m a monist. I think your brain is you, and if you could model your brain with sufficient accuracy, your consciousness would be in that model.

    “But how does the real, original me that’s in my body stop existing, except by death. That consciousness doesn’t get transferred, just duplicated. I’m not going to kill myself just because I’ve created a machine that thinks it used to be me. The only way we would give up our bodies is if there were literally a non-physical soul that could truly be transferred.”

    I was asking myself the same question (in different terms) a little while ago, and it seemed like a nightmare to duplicate your consciousness, but then have to die so that the other version could live. Seems like a deal-breaker to me (or at least, a way for the copy to start a better life, but not for me).

    But after a little more thought and research, I found ways that could allow one to be ‘transfered’ without the need for a consciousness to die.

    The outline is: You connect a brain to a virtual world. You still have the biological brain, but you connect its sensory system to a virtual world. You then scan that brain and create a model of it in the virtual world. Then consciousness can then be switched from one substrate to the other (from biological to virtual model) without subjective discontinuity.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    You could have objective continuity, too. You don’t maintain the same suite of neurons over your whole life, and it’s probably entirely possible to coax the mind into transferring itself onto silicon neurons after a while. As far as maintenance goes, robots that the inhabitants of the various virtual worlds could control remotely would be sufficient for their purposes – maintenance, expansion, defense, and exploration. But those would occupy a fraction of their attention.

    As for the “real world is better!” stuff, this is ignorant nonsense. I lucid dream often, to the point where it’s a reasonable expectation for me to do so any given night. Lucid dreams – where you’re ‘awake’ during your dream and can control it – are pretty much indistinguishable from the sufficiently advanced VR described above. Real life does not compare; it is not even close. The fun stuff is not as fun, the cool stuff is not as cool, the amazing things are not as amazing. Even the tranquil places are not so perfectly peaceful, and the scary stuff is not as scary. I’d much rather take a nap than watch TV, personally.

  35. Johnny-T Says:

    Stevarino,

    Thanks for the heads up on Accelerando. It’s pleasantly filling up an otherwise really boring day at work.

  36. putting the j in jjosh » Blog Archive » when I get that feeling I need virtual healing Says:

    [...] science corrospondent Pat G returns with a link to an article that suggests the reason aliens haven’t contacted us yet is that they’re probably all [...]

  37. TruePath Says:

    So I made much the same point on my blog in reaction to these points but I think you can go one step further.

    There is no reason to postulate that aliens get wrapped up in VR at all, only that they transition from physical brains to computational ones. This will dictate that such beings seek out the most computationally efficent enviornments which, one would expect, would also be the most energetic. As far as such aliens are concerned neutron stars and black holes will be where all the action is and a trip out to the slow cold regions we inhabit would take an unimaginably long subjective time for those who remained behind in the high energy regions.

    Moreover if valid such aliens would have no incentive to explore the boring cold darkness. Any interesting civilization would also be found in the high energy regions.

  38. eshafto Says:

    Sorry, you lost me at “mind uploading”. Mind is not a substance you can suck out of a brain and slurp into a simulation. Simulations aren’t /places/ and you don’t /go/ into them. That’s just a bad metaphor. If you did manage to create a near-perfect simulation of yourself inside a virtual reality, you’d still be sitting there with the terminals on your head wondering if the virtual you was having a good time. Then you’d get hungry, so you’d go get lunch, and then to pay for it you’d go back to work, and then you’d go back home to your family so you could rest and lather, rinse, repeat.

    I’m reminded of the teleportation device that scans your body and transmits the information to a receiver any distance away, which then creates an exact duplicate in almost no time. The transmitter also contains a gun. If you don’t use the gun, it’s a duplication machine. If you do use the gun, it’s a transporter. :-)

  39. Michael Graham Richard Says:

    “Mind is not a substance you can suck out of a brain and slurp into a simulation.”

    Actually, all evidence points in the direction that it is. Dualism is popular, but not very scientific.

  40. Kevin Niemi Says:

    Very interesting. Remember that if a space faring civilization emerged a million years ago two hundred light-years away and spread outward, colonizing systems along the way, their survey ships would be entering our solar system only about now. This is because a sphere two hundred light-years in radius contains over 200,000 star systems for potential colonization. They would not have yet received even our earliest radio broadcasts that would make our system stand out. And with SETI’s low budget we still have yet to listen to their star. =< ———————————But i agree with J. Rose in that no matter how much time they spend in their “perfect world” they will always feel the need to reproduce real intelligences and build a greater world. !THEY WILL ALWAYS GROW!

  41. jay ess Says:

    perhaps this advanced civilization has found a way to make “organic computers” out of some sort of biomass and have engineered their brains to connect and function within these “organic computers.” this might also solve the problem of creating robots to provide energy and repair and upgrade the computer. the “organic computer” can grow and feed itself thus getting rid of a need for the advanced civilization to interact with physical world. this “organic computer” would be a new being that houses the advanced beings within it and powers itself (eats) and increases its computing power (grows).

  42. a response to the response of the fermi paradox Says:

    [...] just finished reading a (rather old) post on michaelgr.com about how an advanced civilization might upload its conscious to some sort of [...]

  43. chairmanlmao Says:

    How is it that we can imagine a virtual reality that’s better, or more perfect, or less painful than the reality that we’re currently in. We’re incapable as a species of designing THIS reality such that it is perfect, wonderful, unpainful, etc…so what makes anybody think that we could somehow design a reality within this reality that was? What would a better reality look like? What if I’m straight, and I’m intolerant of Gays…and you’re Gay. These are opposing viewpoints. How then can you construct a reality that’s ‘perfect’ and that also houses both of us?

    The idea that aliens, then, have decided to withdraw into some perfect virtual reality and leave this reality behind is flawed, because it’s predicated on the idea that these aliens are already perfect and perfectly alike. Perfectly selfless, such that they all want the same things for all people within this new reality. Perfectly trusting in their technology such that they don’t need to leave anybody outside to maintain it, or to ensure that no parameters are altered.

    And if they were already perfect, and so advanced that they could construct such a thing, then why wouldn’t they just stay in RL?

    Or in other words…any civilization sufficiently advanced enough to create a perfectly immersive ‘better’ reality than the one they currently inhabited wouldn’t need to bother.

  44. Anonymous Says:

    This topic brings up the paradox of feeling like being in 2 places at once. You have a “Star Trek Fax” and fax yourself. Now, you are the original, and the copy of you is at the receiving fax. Would you feel in both places? Or would feel only in one place as the original? Until we do develop this kind of technology (or the extreme VR above) we can’t find out.

    If you DO feel in both places, this means the “soul” is simply data in a brain!

  45. dedetski Says:

    well one can postulate that we are the very beings that live in virtual world because one can argue that all of what we sense with your physical brain is virtual. all we are are brains in the dark and electrical and chemical signals dictate our reality. Death will unveil what is not virtual for us all.

  46. Miguel Says:

    Yeap, definetly not new. Should read the books from Alan Kardek about his “scientific spiritism” research sessions.

  47. Mark Says:

    Read the book Pendragon: The Reality Bug for an example of what the world could end up like if virtual reality were a…well…a reality…

  48. chris Says:

    I would like to point out another fact about the Fermi Paradox. According to the Drake Equation there should be 10,000 alien civilizations we should be able to communicate with. But where are they? Well let me remind you the galaxy’s a really big place. So let me show you (through the power of math) why we haven’t made contact with any advanced civilization yet. Let’s just say that the milky ways a perfect circle. Let’s calculate it’s area. Area = (3.14)(50,000ly x 50,000 ly). When you do the math the milky way has an area of about 785,000,000,000 square light years. Now if you divide that by the number of supposed civilizations (10,000) you get that there should be 1 civilization for every 78,500,000 or that each would be in a rough circle with a radius of about 8800 ly. So that would mean with logic that the nearest alien civilization would be at least 17600 ly away. Which you all know would mean that it would take at least 17,600 years to reach us or if they had a space ship that could travel at 99.99% the speed of life about 17602 years.

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