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.