Examining The Earliest Possible Rise of a Technological Singularity
by Paul Hughes
The other day I decided to re-examine the idea of when the earliest possible time our universe could have given rise to the first technological singularity using the latest discoveries of science.
Let’s examine the physical evidence and make some conjectures.
In order to determine the earliest theoretical time frame, we need to know what the necessary precursors of a technological singularity are. Since the Earth and the emergence of our own civilization is the only example we have, we’ll conservatively assume that life, and therefore a technological civilization, requires a planet.
So when were the first planets formed? Since planets require heavy elements, the earliest possible time would be after the supernova explosions of a first-generation stars. Since these first generation stars were composed entirely of hydrogen and helium, the heavier elements necessary for planetary formation were not available yet. However, thanks to nucleosynthesis in the core of these stars, these necessary heavier elements were created at a furious pace. These first generation stars first appeared 160 million years after the Big Bang. The most short-lived of these were the blue giants. After the first of these blue stars exploded, all of the material necessary for planetary formation was available to give birth to second generation stars with planetary bodies.
According to this story at the New York Times, the Hubble Space Telescope found tantalizing evidence that planets first appeared much earlier in cosmic history, around 1 billion years after the big bang, and therefore may be more abundant than previously suspected. Since we know both the earth and sun are each 4.5 billion years old, the earliest possible earth like planets could have appeared as early as 12.7 or 13.7 billion years ago, depending on who you ask. According to this article, the universe may be 1 billion years older than previously thought, moving the age of the universe from 13.7 to 14.7 billion years old.
So from here we need to examine Earth’s history to determine the next part of our equation. This is where a bit of guesswork is required.
There is observational evidence that archaebacteria, the first type of life, were around as early as 3.97 billion years ago. Then for the next 2.2 billion years, life on earth consisted of nothing more than anaerobic bacteria and archaeans. Then about 1.8 billion years ago eukaryotic cells appeared as fossils too. With the beginning of the Middle Proterozoic 1.8 billion years ago, comes the first evidence of oxygen build-up in the atmosphere. This global catastrophe spelled doom for many bacterial groups, but made possible the explosion of eukaryotic forms. These include multicellular algae, and toward the end of the Proterozoic, the first animals.
With the Cambrian Explosion soon after, all the major phyla of life we know today emerged. Between the Cambrian explosion 543 million years ago and today there have been 5 great extinctions, the last of which was 65 million years ago, when 90% of life, including all the Dinosaurs, were wiped out by a comet. From the lowly 10% that was left emerged almost all the complex life we see today.
The real question now is could this 3.97 billion year history of life have happened at an accelerated rate? We know the first 2.2 billion years of life consisted of nothing more than simple anaerobic bacteria and archae, and the next 1.2 billion years single-celled eukaryotic oxygen-breathing bacteria. So for the first 3.4 billion years the degree of evolutionary change was almost non-existent. There is no reason to suspect the emergence of eukaryotic cells couldn’t have happened sooner, perhaps as earlier as a few million years after the first bacteria. The mechanisms underlying these punctuated periods of evolution are still largely unknown, so it’s mostly conjecture. But lets take a crack at it anyway.
I think most of this period’s stagnation was the result bad luck, or perhaps a lack of good luck. A low probability of correct mutations necessary for the emergence of multi-cellular life may be the reason it took so long. We know that quadrillions of bacteria were spread out all over the earth, and only after 3.4 billion years relative stagnation did it eventually give rise to the first multi-cellular organisms. If this is the result of statistics rather than a slow necessary build up of a complex ecology, then life multi-cellular life could have emerged shortly after the first life appeared, maybe as little as a few millions of years, rather than 3.4 billion. Then again, mutli-cellular life could be so rare, that only 1 out of a million bacteria bearing planets give rise to multi-cellular life during the lifetime of its parent star.
It’s possible that multi-cellular creatures could have emerged as early as 3 billion years ago, giving rise to the equivalent of the Cambrian explosion 2.5 billion years earlier than it did. This leaves the last 543 million years after the Cambrian Explosion until now. Perhaps if we had a larger gas giant in a orbit closer than Jupiter’s, there would’ve been less asteroid and cometary impacts, further accelerating the right kinds of conditions for life to occur. In the scheme of things, this time frame is small enough that it doesn’t matter much with a 13.7-14.7 billion year time frame. So for the sake of this essay, I’ll assume that 500 million years is the minimum time necessary for complex technological civilization to evolve from the first appearance of multi-cellular life.
Assuming my 2.5 billion year compression of the history of life is possible in a planetary system with the right conditions, this means technological civilization on the Earth could have occurred as early as 2 billion years after the formation of Earth itself.
Since we know that the first planets were forming as early as 13.7 billion years ago, and using earth’s history as our example, this means the first technological singularity could have occurred as early as 10.7 billion years ago, or just 3 billion years after the Big Bang. If we take out my conjectured time compression of evolution, we add an additional 2.5 billion years, giving us 5.5 billion years after the big bang.
This leaves us with a theoretical minimum of 8.2 – 11.7 billion years ago, that a technological singularity could have first occurred.
This means a civilization, having passed through the bottleneck of a technological singularity, could have emerged as early as 4 to 6 billion years before our Sun was even born, some 12 billion years more advanced than our own.
So, what are the odds that life exists elsewhere?
We now know from the Mars Opportunity Probe, that Mars once contained a salt-water sea. The importance of this finding cannot be overstated.
Until now, we have known for sure of only one planet on which liquid water has flowed — and water is absolutely essential for supporting life as we know it. There are no chemical processes that will permit the formation of the long, complex organic molecules composing living organisms other than in the presence of water.
It is an extremely simple rule: No water, no life. As long as Earth was the only planetary body containing liquid water — and, more particularly, seawater — then it was the only place in the universe where life was possible.
Now, suddenly, there are two. And that’s just in our local planetary group. Now that there are two planets where water once flowed, there no longer is a reason to doubt that millions, perhaps billions of water bearing planets might exist right within our own Milky Way galaxy.
Further out, thanks to images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the observable universe appears to contain several hundred billion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. This means there could be trillions of planets bearing water and possibly life.
Tying this in with the above preconditions for live and the probabilistic chances of technological singularities occurring with some frequency as long as 8.2 to 11.7 billion year ago, the universe could likely have advanced civilizations who are as much as 12 billion years more advanced than us.
What would their technology be like? Is the reason we don’t see them, because they have evolved so far, that this dimension of existence, our four dimensional space-time continuum been completely transcended by them?
Perhaps they already spread through the universe, have recorded every last part of it, and we are now in one of their simulations.
It reminds me of Clarke’s Law (by science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke):
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Magick.
Imagine a technology a hundred years beyond ours. A thousand years beyond ours. A million years beyond ours. And then remember that many stars, which might have planets and civilizations, are literally billions of years older than our sun. There might be intelligences in this galaxy advanced as much as 12 billion years beyond our technology.
If Clarke is right, even on a materialistic level, the only answer to “How many advanced Civilizations are monitoring the events in this room?” must be “As many as want to”
Wilson’s Corollary to Clarke’s Law:
Any sufficiently advanced parapsychology is indistinguishable from Magick.
Consider the slow advance of parapsychology, despite entrenched opposition, during the past 70 years. Project it forward another hundred years. A thousand years. A million. And imagine intelligences 12 billion years ahead of us in this area.
Extraterrestrials with advanced psionic knowledge may have been experimenting on us and/or aiding our evolution and/or playing ontology games with us for millions of years, projecting any form they desire from Mescalito to the Lord God Jehovah, without ever leaving their home planet.
Are UFO’s simply some part of their ontology game? Part of some gentle stimulus to keep us guessing, keep us evolving?