Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


16.4.3  Machine Evolution

Tools have been used on Earth for many millions of years. Baboons use handy sticks to pry up tasty roots and grubs. Thorns are used by birds to probe for insects. Wasp and bee hives are splendid examples of architectural perfection. But each of these represent a static technology. Only with the advent of higher intelligence, the mind of man, could tools -- machines -- really begin to improve and evolve.

This is not to say that machine evolution must occur among all sentient extraterrestrial races. Consider the well-known Van Loon’s Law, which states: "The amount of mechanical development will always be in inverse ratio to the number of slaves at a country’s disposal."972 The more slaves that are available to do drudge work, the slower machines will evolve.

The ancient Greeks, with a population of only five million freemen as against twelve million slaves, neither needed nor invented any startlingly new labor-saving contrivances. The Romans, too, developed no power engines and made few significant improvements in machines or tools. It is said that the emperor Vespasian, when offered a mechanical device with which to cheapen construction work, bought the only model and had it destroyed.

Still, we may expect that many ET races will develop machines because they make the business of survival and reproduction easier. Barring technological stasis, three distinct classes of machine evolution may be clearly identified: Directed Evolution, Participative Evolution, and Natural Evolution. Directed Evolution is mechanical development authorized, planned and executed wholly under the direction of sentient biological lifeforms. As organic beings successively design, build, and test improved models of labor saving or data-processing devices, these machines "evolve."

The term is not inappropriate in this context. In the 20th century on Earth we have witnessed the explosive evolution of the automobile, airplane, radio, and digital computer. Each year new models come out. Improvements are added, troublesome parts deleted or modified. The least versatile or desirable machines become extinct, while the more adaptive ones survive and spawn new generations. The evolution of terrestrial machines, directed by man, is a fact. Elsewhere there must be machines evolving under the guidance of alien minds.

Directed Evolution proceeds much faster than normal biological evolution. In just 1000 years, the tools of man have advanced from axe and shovel to Saturn V moon rockets and 95-ton caterpillar earthmovers. This represents an increase in raw physical power of from four to six orders of magnitude over bare human muscle. Yet Nature required 10-100 million years to achieve comparable results, when giant dinosaurs evolved from their weaker ancestors during the Mesozoic. Another example: It has taken 300 years for human stablemen to create a diminutive breed of horse that bears remarkable similarity to ancient Eohippus. The partial unraveling of 30 million years of natural evolution in only 300 years of directed evolution is again a factor of about five orders of magnitude.

As a rough guess, then, we might suppose that Directed Evolution may be anywhere from 104-105 times faster than natural evolution. Marvin Minsky claims it might be as much as a million times faster. This is, he says, be cause a sentient race "can combine separate improvements directly, where nature depends upon fortuitous events of recombination."92

If Directed Evolution is fast, Participative Evolution must be even faster. Participative Evolution occurs when the sentient biological race turns over its executive functions to an artificial intellect. Further mechanical evolution then occurs at the behest and under the direction of an intelligent computer sentience. We have already seen the benefits of participative evolution in connection with genetic engineering, as when man takes control of his own evolutionary development. Once flesh-and-blood creators abdicate their directive role, machines will participate in their own evolution.

Dr. N.S. Sutherland, Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Sussex, believes it will be easier to engineer a superintelligent machine lifeform than to breed a more powerful biological one. If this turns out to be correct, alien civilizations may experience what some writers have termed an "intelligence explosion" -- a chain reaction of rapidly increasing intellectual capacity and mental sophistication.1174 Computers on any world, claims Dr. Sutherland, could rapidly "bootstrap themselves on the experience of previous computers" to create advanced artificial intelligence almost instantaneously on evolutionary timescales. Such machines may quite literally lie beyond the comprehension of any biological being.

Participative Evolution should provide the fastest means for improvement available to any race, mechanical or biological. As in Directed Evolution, superior characteristics are accumulated by each successive generation. But since the executive intelligence is also improving by leaps and bounds, the rate of evolution actually accelerates.

We can estimate how fast this will be. In the last century man has begun to use his computers to design new machines as well as other computers. Total memory capacity of terrestrial artificial intelligences has gone from a few thousand bits of information up into the ten terabit range (1013 bits).583 A similar ten-billionfold rise in biological brain capacity -- from primitive animals to man -- has required on the order of one billion years of natural evolution on Earth. So we might guess that Participative Evolution proceeds perhaps 106-107 times faster than Natural Evolution, or about 100 times faster than Directed Evolution.

All of the above is not to imply that technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations must all be robotic, androidic, or bionic. There may be cultural taboos, mineral shortages, or fundamental biological reasons for the lack or slower pace of machine evolution on any given world. ETs may vary widely in their motivational structures, or may be so adaptive or immortal that they have no need for machines.

Still, we must remain alert to the possibility of advanced alien automata in the context of culture contact. For many extraterrestrial races, and perhaps our own, James Wesley’s prediction may prove chillingly accurate:

In terms of the 4½ billion years of carbon-based life on Earth, the advent of machines has been amazingly abrupt. Yet the evolution of machines is subject to the same laws as the evolution of ordinary carbon-based life. Machines have also evolved toward an increased biomass, increased ecological efficiency, maximal reproduction rate, proliferation of species, motility and a longer life span. Machines, being a form of life, are in competition with carbon-based life. Machines will make carbon-based life extinct.1717

Natural Evolution is the third and slowest alternative for the emergence of machine life on other planets. In this case, automata evolve slowly under the forces of natural selection in an environment favoring their development. The main problem is finding the right environment.

Poul Anderson, a well-known science fiction writer, has concocted an imaginative scenario that would readily permit natural robot evolution. In his story "Epilogue," human space travelers return to Earth after a hiatus of three billion years because of unusual relativity effects. They discover to their horror that Earth has been rendered sterile by global war. The planetary ecology is wrecked beyond repair; mankind died out when biology disintegrated around it. The spacemen descend to the surface for one last farewell look, and discover that the planet is teeming with life: Machine life.

"Robot evolution," Frederika said. "After man was gone, the machines that were left began to evolve."

"Before the Traveler departed, self-reproducing machines were already in existence. Each had electronic templates which bore full information on its own design. I expect that hard radiation would affect them, as it affects an organic gene. The {floating sea-mining robot) rafts started making imperfect duplicates. Most were badly designed and foundered. Some, though, had advantages. For instance, they stopped going to shore and hanging about for decades waiting to be unloaded. Eventually some raft was made which had the first primitive ability to get metal from a richer source than the ocean: namely, from other rafts. Through hundreds of millions of years, an ecology developed. The land was reconquered. Wholly new types of machine proliferated.982

Machines with the ability to mine and reproduce may be turned loose on purpose by their alien biological creators. Evolving on the home planet or on some foreign world, these automata would quickly radiate into a multiplicity of machine species under the influence of normal selective forces. However, there may exist environments which don’t require any initial "pump priming" by a biological race. There might be a few locales in the Galaxy where machine life of some form can arise spontaneously much as carbon-based life did on Earth many eons ago.

Electromechanical life may be able to evolve on jovian worlds or at the surface of black dwarf stars. The chemistry of substances at very high pressures is well understood.1177 Many insulators become conductors at pressures above 105 atm. Experiments with metallic hydrogen -- believed to constitute the core of Jupiter -- show that there is a sharp transition in electrical resistivity from 108 down to 102 ohms between 1-3 million atm pressure.2684 Diamond, silicon dioxide (sand), and other common materials have been crushed into the metallic state around 106 atm. Semiconductors such as silicon and germanium collapse into a tin-like material and become electrical conductors under high pressure.

Since different materials conduct differently, an ordered regime of metallized substances may become functional as a kind of primitive electronic intelligence. Evolution of such lifeforms could be possible at or near the Jovian core. Note that this environment will strongly favor machine life over carbon life. Sugar and most other carbohydrates become violently unstable above 50,000 atm, decomposing explosively to carbon dioxide and water.1177 Another possibility is that beings elsewhere may have evolved with superconductive brains. Polymeric sulfur nitride has been shown to be superconductive a low temperatures, and strands of this or related materials may comprise the nervous systems of low temperature creatures on other worlds.

But extreme coldness may not be required at all. A room temperature solution of the enzyme lysozyme, when subjected to magnetic fields in excess of 600 gauss, apparently exhibits distinct regions of superconductivity.2686 And other substances are known to be unidirectional conductors -- a kind of one-dimensional metal. They may have the conductivity of copper in one direction yet are excellent insulators in the other two. According to V.L. Ginzburg of the Lebedev Physical Institute in Moscow; "It is not science fiction to assume that evolution on some other planet, evolution by the methods and materials we know, has given rise to superconducting organisms."22

Still another possible site for the spontaneous natural evolution of machine life might be the surface of a hot planet about the size of Mars at the orbit of Mercury. V.A. Firsoff claims that such a world could not hold on to an Earthly atmosphere for long and would soon shed all lighter gases. All gaseous components with molecular weight less than 30 would be lost. This results in a high-molecular-weight atmosphere, rich in hydrogen sulfide and, perhaps, such oddities as diborane, silane, and carbon disulfide. One planetary solvent, available in limited quantities, might be a form of phosphorus sulfide. P4S3 is the most stable of these.352

A porous surface and a network of caves are cooked in scalding sunlight. There is no oxygen, so free silicon is available at the surface in amorphous form.2192 Planetary rotation, coupled with temperature and pressure gradients, give rise to violent gales of variable composition. By day, the hot phosphorus-and arsenic-laden winds whistle through the surface caves which hide the layers of free silicon, "doping" it with excess electrons. At night the cooler boron-rich atmosphere "drifts" the substrate with electron holes.

Arbitrarily fine photosensitized patterns slowly crawl across the cave floors and walls as the sun passes overhead, due to the changing angles of intense solar radiation filtering through the porous ceiling. Countless random channels of N-doped and P-doped material are slowly carved over the millennia. Caves located near coastlines or on lakeside beaches are periodically flushed with rain and rising tides. Complex electronic "circuits" eventually arise.

Photosensitive spots permit this "intelligence" to see. A piezoelectric crystal formation gives it a limited sense of touch. Contact with sunlight generates solar power.2813,2815 After much time has passed, the intelligence manages to establish "an immense number of dipoles along a polymer thread with regularly spaced charged groups along it" to form a sheet of contractile polymer.2685 (Drops in current across a cell membrane are thought to be able to move certain molecules in the membrane. It’s believed that sodium-ion-driven currents help bring about limb regeneration in salamanders and other small amphibians.) Current passed along its length causes it to contract. After sufficient effort, manipulatory appendages emerge. The geographically-dispersed sentience sets itself the task of constructing a more complex, compact, and mobile physical form.

Eons old, a grey-skinned bloodless humanoid lifts its sensors to the night sky and beholds the glory of a billion suns.


Last updated on 6 December 2008