So proud of these students — they designed an autonomous UAV capable of flying 140 miles through waypoints for < $3K . Using the principles on this blog, of course! 😉
One of the more interesting characters populating the physics community — in particular, the cosmology/Theory of Everything Physical group is Stephen Hawking. Hawking is a pioneer in understanding black holes, and most of his reputation relates to mathematical predictions of their curious dynamics, as well as links up and down the atomic scale to the world of quantum physics. He has been honored with just about every prize available to physicists, from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the Fundamental Physics Prize — the most lucrative of all the great prizes. Hawking has no qualms about speaking his mind on a variety of issues, and for the most part is not bullish on the future of humanity.
And, not surprisingly, the popular media look to someone with a brain as sophisticated as Stephen Hawking as an enlightened individual. Yet, when reading his pronouncements, it’s tough to tell. He’s obviously a big-picture thinker, and his attempts on creating a Theory of Everything are far more famous (and that’s an understatement) than those discussed on this blog. But certain things he says I take deliberate exception to — especially when it comes to contact (potential or real) with extraterrestrial civilizations. Hawking’s on the record for saying he fears such civilizations will squash us like a bug, citing human history and events like the Columbian Exchange as precedent. His logic runs like this — “if humans did that kind of thing, we shouldn’t be surprised if aliens would do the same.”
Whether extraterrestrials would kill us upon contact (at least intentionally) is a great opportunity to explore the idea of empathetic evolution as it applies to advanced technology, and understand the social ramifications of creating more and more complex technology, as well as how different social organizations might view such tech. So let’s start with a couple of concepts that will help us answer this question — will aliens view us as Nutella on a potential lunch sandwich?
Remembering that this blog is about empathy, and related to physical (as opposed to spiritual) properties and development, we can pull everything back to thermodynamics. Everything we do has to be related to time, space, and energetics. Expanded empathy/information coherence is related to some combination of these three fundamental variables. So if we want to travel vast distances, over long (or even short!) times, likely with space travel, we’ll likely need a fair bit of energy to make it happen.
Where will that energy come from? We can gain insight from a famous Russian astrophysicist, Nikolai Kardashev, who came up with the eponymous Kardashev Scale. The scale runs from Type 0-3, and characterizes the advancement of a civilization by its ability to harness energy at these three different levels. Implicitly embedded in this is also space and time, as Kardashev geared it to astrophysical exploration. Type 0, where we are currently at (actually slightly above) uses fossil fuels, and is fundamentally unsustainable. Type 1 uses the energy of a whole planet; Type 2 an entire star; and Type 3 an entire galaxy. Dr. Michio Kaku lays down the basics here in this video, using Buck Rogers as a Type 1 civilization, Star Trek as a Type 2, and Star Wars as a Type 3.
But Dr. Kaku leaves some important stuff out. Implicit in any Type I civilization — or at least the odds are dramatically in that direction — is sustainability. A Type 1 civilization must not destroy their home planet. Not destroying their home planet is imperative for the time scales necessary to continue to develop the technology. In fact, sustainability has to become Job One in order for a Type 0 civilization to become a Type 1 civilization, because of those time scales. We’re seeing the clock running on our own efforts with global warming, for example. And while, in the video, Dr. Kaku talks about a Type 1 civilization controlling things like earthquakes, methinks that’s a little Authoritarian v-Meme talking. The reality of a Type 1 civilization is that in order to become one, we have to understand the deep synergies that exist in planetary ecology, geology and so forth. It’s not going to be about controlling the weather.
Here Conway’s Law steps in and gets our minds right. In order for THAT to happen — in order to understand deeply the issues of planetary ecology, which would then give us the knowledge to design the synergistic life support systems that would enable long-term spaceflight — we have to have evolved social/relational systems that could share the knowledge to create those physical manifestations. And that’s going to involve greater empathetic development. We can’t share enough information across disciplinary boundaries, nor develop the trust necessary to figure out what our responsibilities are to our proposed disciplines, to create the larger transdisciplinary physical systems (and social systems) necessary for long-term spaceflight.
Or develop methods of colonization of hostile environments either. We can’t get to the idea of terraforming — creating an Earth-like environment on another planet — until we deeply understand our own environment. In fact, without support of enlightened empathetic scientific communities, we can’t even grasp our metacognitive limits — knowing what we don’t know, or having some idea of the unknown unknowns out there.
There is the possibility that there will exist a genius mind in the future that may discover the secret to accessing hyperspace, and create the highly improbable scenario of a history-changing single-technology solution to spaceflight – a singularity. That would map to the Authoritarian (or possibly Performance) “I” v-Meme. But even with that one tech discovery, there still has to be an massively integrated approach toward navigation, life support and structures that will require developed empathy to share the information. And that will involve, once again, teams of integrated experts, freely and appropriately sharing knowledge structures up and down the v-Meme/social-relational structure ladder. It’s not just a matter of sharing data, or algorithms. It’s also going to be a function of sharing heuristics, or multiple heuristics, and doing that at the appropriate time. That’s going to require mindfulness, and a whole host of skills that Wilber and others call Second Tier thinking. You’re going to have to be self aware to keep in check why you do what you do.
And when it comes to design processes, we’ve barely scratched the surface. I wrote here about OpenIDEO, that insists on ingraining cultural relevance with a distinctly Communitarian v-Meme vibe. That’s really just the beginning. We’ve got to go far past that. And I, who have put a ton of time in attempting to understanding design processes in this context, get stuck much past the self-reflective, bias-aware designer.
Here’s some speculation. If we want to move to a Type 1 civilization, we might barely have the roadmap for empathetic development and evolution to get there. We already make complex, reliable moving systems that carry our ecosystem all over the world, in pretty much a continuous fashion. We call them commercial aircraft. And we have the beginnings of a true Type 1 information network that has emerged rapidly in the last 25 years. That would be the Internet. The Internet is rapidly being expanded in the physical world with the Internet of Things, as well as our increasingly complex smart phones. The sensor (and actuator) network that will be attached to all of this will continue to grow, and create its own emergent dynamics. All this will require more synergistic thinking to process both the data collected, as well as the impact of our actions, and that’s a good thing. So we could make it.
Much past Type 1, though, I have no clue. I’ve confessed that I can’t really get a handle on a more profound understanding of mechanisms for Global Empathy, though I’d bet we’ll have to move past that as well for going to Type 2 civilizations. That’s going to involve things we can’t really concretely establish (new dimensions?) other than to speculate on using mathematics. String Theory anyone?
The bottom line here is that any society capable of traveling great distances across the interstellar void is going to have to be, well, civilized. And empathetic. Because they simply couldn’t make the technology without being that way. There’s probabilistically no way to make it happen, according to the laws of social physics we lay out on this blog. That means that we don’t have to worry about a Pacific Rim scenario, a la Guillermo del Toro, where aliens open up a crack in the ocean floor attached to an interstellar portal to invade the Earth with large Kaiju Godzilla monsters. What we can learn from watching movies like Pacific Rim is more how their creators think — which is pretty arbitrary and authoritarian.
Which brings us back to Stephen Hawking. Originally, when I started thinking about Dr. Hawking, I was predisposed to think ill of him. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out he was a narcissist — lots of awards, and being catered to his entire life because of his brain, even with his disability. And it’s the height of egocentricity to believe that alien civilizations are going to be patterned on the Spanish conquistadores at this point in time. No way that this is gonna happen. But then I read a little more about his life history on the Wikipedia page and this link, and besides have ALS, the debilitating disease that robs your body of muscle function, he was also married for a second time to a woman whom there are allegations of physical abuse. Could Stephen Hawking be a trauma survivor? How would that influence his more Survival v-Meme interpretations of alien contact? Hawking refuses to talk about his second marriage. Could unprocessed, non-integrative trauma affect his larger global worldview?
There are a couple of takeaways in all of this. First and foremost, aliens aren’t going to eat us. If we go back to our understandings of inter-v-Meme conflict, we likely can’t even understand any communication that alien civilizations might be using, unless they wanted to contact us directly. They’d have to dumb things down so much – de-synergize them. And they’re going to have a much deeper perspective on what them attempting to communicate with us is going to mean. Empathetic evolution means longer temporal and spatial scales in their thinking. There would be no surprise if they had evolved a Prime Directive mentality, a la Star Trek.
The second conclusion is a little more surprising. If we’re going to achieve a Type 1 society, we’re going to have to confront our policies that generate trauma in our societies and organizations. There’s no way we can create a trauma-free society. I’m not a utopian. But when someone as famous as Albert Einstein says:
“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
we might ask ourselves what insights someone like Dr. Hawking might have delivered, had he not been traumatized. Or the other Dr. Hawkings-in-waiting, across our entire world.