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January 25th, 2008
Most readers of this column probably are familiar with the Fermi Paradox. In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi famously wondered, "Where is everybody?" He was referring to the strange silence in the universe, the apparent lack of any advanced civilizations beyond Earth.
The first proposition, that we humans are unique and special, appears quite absurd. It contradicts all that we have discovered during the last 500 years about the true nature of the universe and our place in it. We're not special: the Earth is not at the center of our solar system, the solar system is not at the center of our galaxy, and our galaxy is not at any special position in the universe. Our placement in space and time seems to be random and unremarkable.
Moreover, we humans, along with every other form of life, have evolved to our present state in accordance with natural selection. There's nothing special about us.
Why, then, would it even be conceivable that earthlings are destined to be the very first species to make a noticeable mark on the universe?
If we reject proposition 1, then we must choose between propositions 2 and 3.
There is a crucial distinction between the second and third propositions. The former relies on choice, while the latter implies restriction by some force or law of the universe.
It seems strange to imagine, as suggested by proposition 2, that all extraterrestrial civilizations would, without exception, choose to expand or exist in such a way that they are completely undetectable to us. If proposition 2 is correct, it requires every one of potentially hundreds, thousands, or even millions of advanced worlds to make the exact same decision. We might expect some to do so, perhaps even most, but all? That defies logic.
So we are left with the third answer. Whatever civilizations have come before us have been unable to surpass the cosmic roadblock. They are either destroyed or limited in such a way that absolutely precludes their expansion into the visible universe. If that is indeed the case -- and it would seem to be the most logical explanation for Fermi's Paradox -- then there is some immutable law that we too must expect to encounter at some point. We are, effectively, sentenced to death or, at best, life in the prison of a near-space bubble.
How might this sentence be carried out? Is it possible that nanotechnology could play a role, either in bringing about our extinction or possibly preventing it?
At the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, we take seriously the danger that atomically-precise exponential manufacturing could enable such concentrations of unprecedented power as to result in either terminal warfare or permanent enslavement of the human race. Of course, that sounds terribly apocalyptic, but it is worth considering that the warnings we heard at the start of the nuclear arms race, and the very real risks we faced in the height of the Cold War, were but precursors to a much greater threat posed by an arms race involving nano-built weaponry and its accompanying tools of surveillance and control.
Could that be the pre-determined limiting factor that dooms all advanced civilizations? Or is it something else? In any case, we'd do well to carefully investigate the potential power of nanotech weapons systems and the destabilizing impacts they might have before they are actually produced. Otherwise, we may run the risk of pronouncing our own Fermi Death Sentence.