Lex Friedman Interviewed Robin Hanson About Grabby Aliens and Many Other Topics

Robin Hanson and his co-authors have paper and presentations that the universe will become dominated by expansionist aliens who he calls grabby aliens.

There are two kinds of alien civilizations. “Quiet” aliens don’t expand or change much, and then they die. We have little data on them, and so must mostly speculate, via methods like the Drake equation.

“Loud” aliens, in contrast, visibly change the volumes they control, and just keep expanding fast until they meet each other. They should be easy to see as they will be reorganizing the stars and galaxies they are in.

If grabby aliens exist and start expanding at over one-third the speed of light then we would not see their changes until the aliens get very close. Robin Hanson models that there is intelligent grabby aliens once in every million galaxies.

There is more to this and it is discussed between Lex and Robin and in animated videos.

21 thoughts on “Lex Friedman Interviewed Robin Hanson About Grabby Aliens and Many Other Topics”

  1. Everyone thinks of biochemical alien life like ours will move in. Life itself will be bio-machines, which is only compatible to move around in space and radiation. Furthermore depending on the planet of initiation for our species…size, habitual factors also arise to incompatibility with most planets. We keep thinking we’ll find another earth, well I’ve got news for you this earth is the best one and only planet for us.

  2. I don’t think that there is much in this article, actually…

    Just to bring out one obvious shortcoming… The authors assume that the age of a civilization can be measured in “hard steps” and then they try to estimate how many steps we have taken. But why would this even be a meaningful measure of the age? Who says that it’s the “hard steps” that take a long time to traverse rather than the “normal” trudge of evolution?

    It seem completely take out of thin air..

  3. It should be obvious to anybody following the UFO news lately that the Aliens are already here and have been here for most of our existence. My guess is that intelligent Aliens are far more common in our Galaxie than thought. We are still here so they must not be to grabby.

  4. That second video bothers me a bit with the idea that we must search for an explanation so that our situation is typical. It is reasonable to assume, barring lack of evidence, that our situation must be typical (so our Solar System is a typical star system, our Milky Way galaxy is a typical galaxy, etc.); but saying that we have to seek models that can explain it so that our situation is necessarily normal or common or commonplace is putting the cart before the horse.

    Again, it’s fine to assume that our situation is a high probability one, but there are plenty of things where we are unlikely. It is extremely unlikely that any genus will be tool using; it is extremely unlikely that any life will be complex; it is extremely unlikely that any planet will be life-bearing. It’s fine to accept that we are, in several respects, in an unusual situation. It is also fine that we may, in fact, be “early” for some definition of “early.” But to construct a model just for the sake of making us seem more pedestrian is perhaps sacrificing too much at the altar of Occam’s Razor.

  5. Not much substance there… Just one of many things… The human race is 400k years old. In that time we changed from homo erectus to home sapiens But somehow the theory supposes that a “grabby” species can expand for hundreds of millions of years without changing..

    Let me tell you this.. If humanity kept expanding for millions of years, one end of the expansion sphere would have nothing in common with the other end. Neither the number of fingers nor number of braincells. It would be a conglomerate of completely different species with no common history or even knowledge of each other… It’s pointless to talk about it as if it would be a part of an expansion of something unitary.

  6. I take it as a given that almost every species of intelligent tool-using spacefaring life will be expansionist (i.e. grabby) as it only takes a few individuals of that species to be that way and, boom, you have an expansionist species.

    Next, the possibility of grabby aliens appearing once in every 100 million galaxies seems a solid guess. The greatest likelihood I can find (and I’ve put a lot of time and research into this) for intelligent tool-using spacefaring life is about one for every 750 thousand galaxies, and that involves some serious fudging in favor of them being there. Just a bit more pessimism and the figures would support the probability of only one such species every few universes, so I have no problem with an estimate somewhere in the middle.

    The point being, we may not be able to guess at how likely intelligent tool-using spacefaring life might be, but we are beginning to get some rather daunting figures on how unlikely it almost certainly has to be.

    And yes, the Drake equation is solid . . . except that each of the variables in it come from equations that have their own variables and, like anything else, garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t have the right values it won’t give the right answer.

    I also suspect the appearance of a grabby species within in a galaxy (and almost all of them would be grabby) would preclude any more such races as ever arising there, even if they would have. In other words, if we take to the stars we should not be surprised to find ourselves the only species out there, because any other species would have precluded our existence. (We also probably would not remain a single species for very long, but never mind that.)

    The Federation’s murky Prime Directive may apply to inhabited worlds, but they seem to happily snap up and colonize every other world they find, meaning an intelligent species, that might have arisen there some day, never will.

    • I can understand this all, for sure. So, by that logic, the fact that we’re even alive is because there is currently no other grabby aliens in our galaxy. But, the key to that is “currently”. And I should preface the rest of this with saying that maybe this fits into unknown variables that the Drake Equation can’t accout for:

      We currently have no way to know if a grabby civilization existed far away and long ago in our galaxy, only to have since died out for whatever reason sounds interesting. Developing a technology to quickly traverse the galactic neighborhood doesn’t necessarily preclude advancements in medicine that would stop a plague from knocking them dead. Or, perhaps they were more grabby-expansive at one point but eventually quit because the mindset of their species changed.

      What would be curious is if we find that the UFOs (UAP… sigh.. rebranding) are technologies we’ve built from our own ingenuity– i.e., deciding to think outside mainstream academic physics and throwing s[BEEP]t at a wall until something stuck… and WE are about to become the Milky Way’s grabby species. [insert evil laugh here]

      • I suspect that once a species escapes its home star and spreads beyond the local cluster, killing off all of its intelligent tool-using descendants in a galaxy becomes much more difficult than forcing all the COVID in the world back into a laboratory in Wuhan. Something of them will likely persist until all the stars go out — unless the impending collision with the Andromeda Galaxy sets off a quasar when the central black holes collide.

        Which is why I expect that we are the first in this galaxy — providing we can take the last few steps required to be that species. After that, everything that follows would derive from us.

        Most of the human race could be saints but, of course, if only a few individuals are grabby, then yes, we would still be a grabby race. Which from what I can see, makes it inevitable.

        Fortunately, there seems to be only a vanishing small chance that, in a galaxy over ten billion years old, two such races would arise in the same very narrow window of less than a million years — because they would probably both be grabby.

        Still, given that even a single species can divide into different factions, or even different species, it might be useful to look for galaxies where a lot of stars are exploding while they are still on the main sequence. There would also probably be a lot of matter whizzing about at substantial fractions of the speed of light, although this might only detectable when it collides with something. And, of course, this whole thing would probably occupy only a very small window of time, stopping almost as abruptly as it started.

        • It’s possible, though, that advanced civilizations think just copying themselves a billion times over is boring, and decide to diversify.

          In the novel, “Midnight at the Well of Souls”, a very early intelligent species had decided that it needed variety, and groups experimented, designing and becoming new intelligent species in novel ecosystems, which would then be planted on planets, rather than just copying the original species and civilization.

          It’s a sensible thing to do, monocultures are vulnerable to being wiped out by a single cause, while a diversity of species and cultures might be more resilient.

  7. Cranky speculation: for me the lack of visible mega-engineering and the mysterious presence of UAPs, entering and disappearing out of our world and now officially acknowledged, suggests alien intelligence may take another route: migrating to other universes.

    If jumping between worlds turns out to be easy and takes you to parallel Earths or parallel inhabitable planets, there is no reason for mega-engineering works in this same cosmos.

    So, it’s likely any megastructures are the result of civilizations immature enough to not know about the vast reaches of existence at their disposal.

    And probably that knowledge arrives before anyone needs to build very visible things like Dyson swarms or stellar engines.

  8. If the frequency of occurrence is one every million galaxies they won’t become a problem because the universe’s expansion will most likely make the nearest of them unreachable before they can get here. Their Expanding at one third c will be too slow vs dark energy.

    • Returning to realism: this is actually a strong longtermist argument for investing in space settlement technologies ASAP.

      Every year we take before finally being able to settle space results in far future losses for potential life.

      Given they consider life as the gratest value, the more life, the better. Therefore inhabitable planets escaping future settlement by virtue of being dragged along their stars and galaxies (due to cosmic expansion) would be actual tragedies!

      I think this is a bit extreme view, due to the ways we have to make star systems dense with life (e.g. O’Neill habs, orbital rings and shell worlds). But in terms of maths and additive life in the universe, it might make sense.

      • With just travel below c, the physically accessible Universe is pretty much confined to the local group, our Galaxy + M31 and some minor irregulars. M31 will collide with our Galaxy and eventually form a single new Galaxy – which will seem by that time to be essentially alone in the universe. All those billions of other Galaxies with potentially grabby aliens will have become too distant to even be visible much less relevant. The Galaxy will be an “Island Universe” as was assumed at one time. If grabby aliens are as common as Hanson assumes most will be confined in the same way to their local bit of the universe.

        It’s not likely that faster expansion will make much difference to this unless it’s faster than light.

  9. Drake’s equation is less than worthless. Not only is it completely trivial to derive and you can go on and split all the factors into ever more factors with ever more intermediate steps if you like; 6 of the 7 factors are completely unknown, so the whole thing is not the least bit helpful. We can’t even put any sensible bounds on them.

    I say less than worthless because Drake’s equation only serves to dignify a wild-assed guess and disguise it as something more than just numbers pulled out of your behind.

    • Drake isn’t scientific, no. But it is still useful; it acts as a reminder that there are a lot of variables, including those which we know fleetingly little about. It enforces humility. One way of looking at this is (Reagan cabinet member) Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Drake points out that we can’t even know the defined parameters, much less the hidden ones we are yet to discover. All models are wrong. Some are useful. Drake is a useful tool.

  10. “every habitable planet is already taken”

    Gerard K. O’Neill has a different outlook!

    • I certainly doubt every habitable planet has been taken. I also think that any civilization capable of rapid interplanetary settlement also has the technology to make any planet habitable for their own people in short order. They may also be capable of sustaining massive space settlements without planets (we can have both; why can’t we have both? Both is way cooler).

      • In theory, you can have much, much larger populations if you don’t do both, because you could disassemble planets for additional habitat building materials.

        But planets, while they’re terribly inefficient compared to habitats, are really good at lasting a very long time. Can you imagine how fast a stellar system would lose volatiles if they were in habitats rather than held by planets? An Earth sized planet might lose 50K metric tons of air in a year, with a population of billions.

        Could any feasible habitat match that? I doubt it.

        I could see civilizations having huge population booms, followed by loss of volatile elements, and then either a retreat back to planets or a transition to a form that doesn’t require them. Organic life as we know it is probably stuck on planets for the long term, and only represents a transitional form in the life of any species, it’s not well suited to space.

      • Such advanced species would be capable of transforming themselves as well, to something more suitable to wherever they want to colonize. Whether they would want to is something else, but it’s a mistake to think that even humans will choose to stay in the same basic form as we evolved to be so far.
        Bionics, gene-editing, cyber-merging – all of these will render what “human” is in just 1,000 years, probably beyond recognition or, alternatively, we will sink into a new Dark Age of reverse progress. Standing still won’t work for ecological and social reasons.

        Or…the “Superman” hypothesis: Superman’s ancestors came from the doomed planet Krypton, but their “evolution” has never been explained, so a proposed hypothesis, hinted at by “Smallville” and other efforts, is that there is some relation to humans on Earth. This is way more plausible than parallel evolution on a completely different planet. Just look at the variety here on Earth! Aliens could have modified, then transported, prehistoric humans – 99% of humanity’s time on Earth was prehistoric – to Krypton, a much more massive world with a thick atmosphere (hence, the need for X-ray vision) and a dim red radiation-emitting sun (hence, the need for tougher, cold-resistant skin) etc. It may always be easier to modify existing advanced sentient life than to start from scratch.
        Why would aliens bother? Well, when you’re advanced enough, you may not worry about mundane things like colonizing planets when you can zip anywhere in the universe at multi-c velocities, with/without spaceships. Maybe creating new intelligent life is the final goal of the most advanced life forms; the ultimate challenge, or simply the greatest way to create meaning in the universe. Without intelligent life, there is no meaning to anything that happens within it.

        • From my interview with Superman at Starbucks:

          Me: Despite how much your race modified itself to survive, you just intimated that there was something about the human-like form that was important enough Kryptonian scientists weren’t allowed to change it, even though it is not well suited for life on an artificial neutron star?
          Superman: Yes, Kryptonians had a rather traumatic history and that led to an adamant resolve to retain a strong sense of who they ultimately were, and where they came from.
          Me: Where they came from? Are you hinting that they didn’t evolve there?
          Superman: Surely, you don’t believe parallel evolution is sufficient to explain the similarities between the peoples of Krypton and Earth?
          Me: So it’s some sort of ancient astronauts’ story? Was Earth settled by ancient Kryptonians that somehow lost their powers or possibly even dated back to before they gained them? Or is it that Kryptonians came from ancient earth? Or did both come from somewhere else?
          Superman: None of those work, either. Humans clearly evolved on Earth yet Kryptonians don’t merely resemble humans, we primarily resemble humans of northern European descent, an ethnicity that probably did not even exist more than ten thousand years ago. Yet the people of Krypton existed much as I am now for far, far longer than that. For periods of time long enough you might refer to them as geological.
          Me: So where did they come from?
          Superman: I’m not supposed to talk about that. As I said earlier, time travel is one of those topics I’ve been asked not to discuss overmuch.
          Me: Who asked that?
          Superman: Oops, I need to run; there’s a gas main about to blow on Tenth Street. Be safe and don’t try to carry that hot coffee in your car without a lid firmly attached.
          Me: But . . .
          Superman: Up, up, and away!

          Me: (to an empty table) I didn’t know he ever actually said that.

          • Can near-instantly travel to any coffee shop in the world.
            Chooses a Starbucks.

            I have trouble believing this story.

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