Day 095 - Colonizing the Galaxy

Submitted by Sam on 24 August, 2011 - 02:49

If we do ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence first hand, then it seems most likely to be machine intelligence rather than a biological intelligence like us. Biological beings are simply not robust enough (being too huge and too squishy) in comparison to purpose-built engineered solutions for crossing interstellar distances. It seems likely that any space-faring civilization, including our own, will eventually reach a level of sophistication where it becomes more effective and more economical to send intelligent machines to colonize and explore the universe than it would be to send spacecraft built to sustain bulky, vulnerable biological life.

A civilization in possession of advanced nanotechnology and equipped with nano-scale universal constructors could in theory create self-replicating robot spacecraft that would be highly efficient at galactic exploration, moving from planetary system to planetary system to source the materials to build copies of itself. If the planetary system was anything like our own solar system, then the replicators would have a wealth of raw material to work with, harvesting asteroids, comets, dust and planets as appropriate. This type of machine is known as a Von Neumann probe, and is named after the mathematician John von Neumann who was one of the first to develop a mathematical theory of how machines could make replicas of themselves.

Equipped with a basic propulsion system and carrying a payload as small as a nanoscale self-replicating constructor, these probes could colonize the entire Galaxy in only 4 million years. Directed by on-board programming, perhaps even an artificial intelligence powered by nanocomputers, the probes would replicate in each new system, sending some copies further into the Galaxy and instructing others to explore the current system and make scientific observations to be transmitted back to the home planet. Equipped with a universal constructor, some probes could be programmed to terraform suitable planets, creating life-sustaining environments to be 'seeded' with a biological payload (which could either be synthesized from the molecular level up using genomic instructions stored on-board, or alternatively derived from stored frozen embyros) to create a living colony of biological pioneers tended by artificial sentinels. This process would repeat with exponential rapidity to create swarms of trillions of self-replicating probes to allow a race to explore and colonize a vast area of space in an astonishingly short amount of time.

As with the risk of a replicator-induced earth-bound grey-goo scenario, Von Neumann probes carry the threat of dramatic misfirings which could consume entire planetary systems in obeyance of their directive to reproduce. Whilst artificially intelligent probes would be resistant to error, there is always the risk of mutation in the replication process, just as there is mutation in biological reproduction. A cosmic ray could cause a misalignment of the atomic architecture of the probe during its construction, creating a mutation that would eventually evolve a new “species” of probe, potentially with a different interpretation of its programming. All it would take is one of the trillions of probes to malfunction for the Galaxy to be threatened by a technological cancer.

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