Existential Education, Cosmic Intelligence, and the Colossus Project

April 12, 2014

Watch video of the talk on Youtube

This slide collection was created for a TEDx presentation on Colossus in Honolulu in April 2014. This 18 minute talk was about the questions "Are we special?" and "What could we do to increase our existential probability into the future?", but the bottom line is that the Colossus Telescope can detect the extraterrestrial civilization biomarkers that will tell us how "special" we are and perhaps what it takes for long-term survival.

On the right, you can download the entire talk in PPT or PDF formats with notes. Below is the narrative to the slides.

Talk on the Colossus at EBI2014:

1. How long do you think you'll be here? ...I don't mean you personally, I mean you as a representative of our species... homo sapiens. While I don't propose to answer this, in the next 18 min I want to convince you that this is a question we should care about, and that we can make a plan to answer.
...of course, our plan depends on what we do as a species. It depends on ...

2. Education?
...but lets agree on what this is, and why its important...

3. Education is what gives us "perspective" or a view of where we are - lets briefly see where we are in time...

4. Answering this big question depends on things we can't know, and the range of answers is enormous ...consider the bulletin of atomic scientists who for more than half a century have been warning about the threat of self-destruction by atomic aggression, and now by man-made climate change.
While the threat of self-annihilation, is troubling, if we manage to survive our own bad technology habits there are bigger natural hurdles to our long-term survival. To appreciate this, just look at the last 10% of the Earth's history...

5. The history of the Earth is all about extinction. It was in a series of geological "eyeblinks" of time in the past when most of the living species ceased to contribute to our fossil record, and therefore became extinct. The dinosaur extinction isn't even the most dramatic example, although it was that change in the Earth about 60 Myr ago from a comet or asteroid that allowed larger mammals to expand. The "great killing" was a period of a few million years about 260 Myr ago when more than 90% of all species died out.
If you think that hominids (our immediate ancestors) were special just look at the last 5 million years, 0.1% of the Earth's history...

6. We can see that hominids, and we humans in particular, show no signs of long-term survival. Even Neanderthals, who we competed with for thousands of years, survived on Earth much longer than we have. Every hominid species died out within about 1 Million years (and you can be sure it wasn't because of hominid climate change or nuclear conflict).

7. When we look at the recorded history of our species over just the last 2/1000 of 1/1000 of the history of the Earth, we realize that civilizations are even more fragile than our species - they come and go because of human and non-human forces - like natural climate change. Over the last 10,000 years of human history there is strong evidence that civilizations appear and die off in synchrony with sunspot climate indicators. For example, in the 13th century the Chinese observed many sunspots, which from modern studies we know meant the Sun was brighter, which made the earth hotter which made life difficult for southestern pueblo cultures in the 1300's. That's when the Mogollon, Anasazi and other pueblo cultures vanished. Conversely when there were few sunspots heading into the 16th century it was colder and the viking colonies in the west of greenland collapsed during the "Little Ice Age" as the cold temperatures persisted and worsened into the 17th century.

8. I find it a bit humbling to realize that in this whole Earth ecology, the most successful species, one that has survived all the changes the Earth has weathered, are cyanobacteria. These come in many forms, but we believe they are not much changed from the organisms we know from fossils that formed in the oceans 3.8 billion years ago. They photosynthesized the Earths early CO2 atmosphere to make O2 in preparation for the more complicated multicellular organisms (like us) that only appeared during the last 10% of the Earth's history. The Cyanobacteria are, by almost any measuring stick you can imagine, the most evolutionarily successful organism on Earth.
So what makes us special... why do you think we can do what no other 2 legged biological species has done... survive for millions of years?

9. In fact, throughout our history we've regularly exhalted ourselves as "special" either because of where we are or who we are... but this has always turned out not to be the case...
...what could make us special? We think its our "educability"!

10. Nature has been educating us for billions of years. DNA has been the transgenerational information transfer mechanism. Throughout the Earth's history, biochemistry was the mechanism for transgeneration al "education" - DNA carried survival information between generations. This molecule, through a sequence of "nucleotide" alphabet characters, transfers the biological information that makes us who we are, between generations. Over billions of years the evolutionary process has allowed the emergence of more complex life (like us) requiring a much more complex code. The first cellular life had only 10^5 alphabet characters 3.8 Gyrs ago, while today humans and other mammals have billions of nucleotides, so many that if you stretched out a single human DNA molecule into a straight line it would be almost 2m long. Some believe that the evolutionary process works in a way that doubles the amount of biological complexity (as measured by the length of useful DNA-coded nucleotides) every 200 Million years. This is an example of an exponential process.
This level of complexity allows us the luxury of being not just a working biological organism but having a brain capable of random access memory storage and a high level of cognitive data processing.

11. But now, over the last few decades and as a byproduct of our development, humans have created, stored, and analysed vast amounts of information. The sum total of all stored human digiital information is more than 10^21 (1000 exa-)bytes, and this is doubling every 3 years or so. This exponential growth shows no signs of slowing and by some estimates already uses about 10% of world electrical power production. In comparison some believe the total data storage capacity of a human brain is about 10^16 bytes.
We've reached the point where we can transfer vast amounts of useful information from one generation to the next, much more efficiently than biological evolution. This capacity for "education" is our "unfair competitive advantage" for human survival.

12. What if we knew examples of civilizations that survived for long times? Or, alternately, What if we learn there are none and that the Universe really is a lonely place? Would we use the knowledge that no other civilizations exist to help us survive here on Earth into the future?
About 2 years ago a privately funded group of about a dozen scientists and engineers was formed to explore the possibility of learning about our chances for survival by studying the planets around other stars. This is called the Colossus Project and what it aims to do is conduct a cosmic census...

13. The central idea of Colossus is to look for universal technology "biomarkers" on Earth-like planets around other stars that could be visible from the Earth. The planetary waste heat signature generated by a distant civilization and its technology is a powerful and essentially unavoidable civilization biomarker. An important number that describes the detectibility (or strength) of this signal is the total power used (and then converted to heat by the civilization) divided by the power the planet receives from its star... that keeps it warm and at a temperature where liquid water can exist on the planet. This value we call "omega" is a way of knowing how technologically advanced a civilization is from all of its power utilization...

14. There isn't time today to explain all the very cool technologies that go in to measuring the heat signature of a civilization living around one of the hundreds of stars within 60 light years of the earth that the Colossus is sensitive to. But I can tell you this can be done with an instrument that is less than the size of a football-field and with less money than the cost of a typical NASA space mission, a couple of Boeing 777s, or the cost of one B1 bomber.

15. The history of life on the Earth is all about extinction. Past experience suggests that as a species we don't have great odds of long-term survival, but it is quite possible that a species educability promotes survivability. The vast amount of information education generates on a long-lived successful civilization must also create an astronomical heat signature which would be visible to Colossus here on Earth if the Earth-like civilization survives among the hundreds of planets within 60 light years of the Sun.