Categories: Science

Scientists Believe Humans Will One Day Colonize the Universe

Humanity Could Colonize the Universe

Hubble Deep Field image showing myriad galaxies dating back to the beginning of time. Image by Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA.

A new study from the University of Oxford looks at the possibility of human colonization throughout the universe.

Scientists as eminent as Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan have long believed that humans will one day colonize the universe. But how easy would it be, why would we want to, and why haven’t we seen any evidence of other life forms making their own bids for universal domination?

A new paper by Dr Stuart Armstrong and Dr Anders Sandberg from Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) attempts to answer these questions. To be published in the August/September edition of the journal Acta Astronautica, the paper takes as its starting point the Fermi paradox – the discrepancy between the likelihood of intelligent alien life existing and the absence of observational evidence for such an existence.

Dr Armstrong says: “There are two ways of looking at our paper. The first is as a study of our future – humanity could at some point colonize the universe. The second relates to potential alien species – by showing the relative ease of crossing between galaxies, it makes the lack of evidence for other intelligent life even more puzzling. This worsens the Fermi paradox.”

The paradox, named after the physicist Enrico Fermi, is something of particular interest to the academics at the FHI – a multidisciplinary research unit that enables leading intellects to bring the tools of mathematics, philosophy and science to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects.

Dr Sandberg explains: “Why would the FHI care about the Fermi paradox? Well, the silence in the sky is telling us something about the kind of intelligence in the universe. Space isn’t full of little green men, and that could tell us a number of things about other intelligent life – it could be very rare, it could be hiding, or it could die out relatively easily. Of course it could also mean it doesn’t exist. If humanity is alone in the universe then we have an enormous moral responsibility. As the only intelligence, or perhaps the only conscious minds, we could decide the fate of the entire universe.”

According to Dr Armstrong, one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that life destroys itself before it can spread. “That would mean we are at a higher risk than we might have thought,” he says. “That’s a concern for the future of humanity.”

Dr Sandberg adds: “Almost any answer to the Fermi paradox gives rise to something uncomfortable. There is also the theory that a lot of planets are at roughly at the same stage – what we call synchronized – in terms of their ability to explore the universe, but personally I don’t think that’s likely.”

As Dr Armstrong points out, there are Earth-like planets much older than the Earth – in fact most of them are, in many cases by billions of years.

Dr Sandberg says: “In the early 1990s we thought that perhaps there weren’t many planets out there, but now we know that the universe is teeming with planets. We have more planets than we would ever have expected.”

A lack of planets where life could evolve is, therefore, unlikely to be a factor in preventing alien civilizations. Similarly, recent research has shown that life may be hardier than previously thought, weakening further the idea that the emergence of life or intelligence is the limiting factor. But at the same time – and worryingly for those studying the future of humanity – this increases the probability that intelligent life doesn’t last long.

The Acta Astronautica paper looks at just how far and wide a civilization like humanity could theoretically spread across the universe. Past studies of the Fermi paradox have mainly looked at spreading inside the Milky Way. However, this paper looks at more ambitious expansion.

Dr Sandberg says: “If we wanted to go to a really remote galaxy to colonize one of these planets, under normal circumstances we would have to send rockets able to decelerate on arrival. But with the universe constantly expanding, the galaxies are moving further and further away, which makes the calculations rather tricky. What we did in the paper was combine a number of mathematical and physical tools to address this issue.”

Dr Armstrong and Dr Sandberg show in the paper that, given certain technological assumptions (such as advanced automation or basic artificial intelligence, capable of self-replication), it would be feasible to construct a Dyson sphere, which would capture the energy of the sun and power a wave of intergalactic colonization. The process could be initiated on a surprisingly short timescale.

But why would a civilization want to expand its horizons to other galaxies? Dr Armstrong says: “One reason for expansion could be that a sub-group wants to do it because it is being oppressed or it is ideologically committed to expansion. In that case you have the problem of the central civilization, which may want to prevent this type of expansion. The best way of doing that get there first. Pre-emption is perhaps the best reason for expansion.”

Dr Sandberg adds: “Say a race of slimy space aliens wants to turn the universe into parking lots or advertising space – other species might want to stop that. There could be lots of good reasons for any species to want to expand, even if they don’t actually care about colonizing or owning the universe.”

He concludes: “Our key point is that if any civilization anywhere in the past had wanted to expand, they would have been able to reach an enormous portion of the universe. That makes the Fermi question tougher – by a factor of billions. If intelligent life is rare, it needs to be much rarer than just one civilization per galaxy. If advanced civilizations all refrain from colonizing, this trend must be so strong that not a single one across billions of galaxies and billions of years chose to do it. And so on.”

“We still don’t know what the answer is, but we know it’s more radical than previously expected.”

Publication: Stuart Armstrong, Anders Sandberg, “Eternity in six hours: Intergalactic spreading of intelligent life and sharpening the Fermi paradox,” Acta Astronautica, Volume 89, 2013, Pages 1–13; doi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2013.04.002

Image: Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA


View Comments

  • The first steps could occur sooner than we think- many technologies are combining to make a dispersal of Humanity into Space economical and feasible.

    The only real obstacles would be the adoption of essentially anti-human attitudes as favoured by "Earth Firsters".

    These are of course variations on all traditional opposition to human advancement from "Original Sin" to its modern Green variants, and hopefully will be blown away down the same drainhole of History.

    People who wonder what the role of Humankind is in this Universe can now understand that there has been a stepwise evolution of the Cosmos from Simplicity to Complexity, via pure energy and subatomic matter , stars, galaxies planets chemistry biuochemistry simple life , multicellular life and, now, Mind.

    We humans are the bearers of Mind, and, until proved otherwise, MUST treat ourselves as a new, uniquely significant phase in the growth of an Embryonic Universe.

    Rejection of Space expansion by Humanity out of hatred for the species is a crime for which mere Genocide is an inadequate term. Those who would restrict Humanity have only one honourable option - suicide. Abortion of human potential development by confinement to Earth is ethically unpardonable

    In this light, the Colonisation of Space is not merely a looming option but a MORAL necessity.

    We can and should get on with it- there is nothing to lose but our Limits

    • I certainly agree with you. We are the shepherds of this universe given the divine gift to expand and colonize if we pull our heads out of our asses and focus back on the race to space.

      • That being said, unless humanity is on the final verge of extinction forcing action the only way that we'll really get to the stars is once space exploration, and moreover exploitation, overcomes the margins to be profitable.

        Exploratory missions, manned or unmanned aside, there has to be an immediate tangible economic incentive for us to pour the resources needed to leave.

        Betraying my own academic background here... The ability to exploit is ultimately why the Transatlantic colonization allowed Europe (and in some ways, Africa) to spread to America. Not to get into the issue of the Amerindians, which is a travesty of the greatest magnitude, but also ultimately one of nature (holding the Europeans fully culpable is impossible)--and the threat of no immunity to invasive pathogens (a existential threat not only on Earth, but keeping to the topic, a possible blowback from any "First Encounter.") Anyways--even then without the ability to find profit, and moreover individual opportunity, the European colonization would have been significantly delayed, if at all.

        The same applies to space colonization, on an even greater magnitude (and there was a surprising starting cost to any early modern maritime venture/migration.)

        Good news is we're literally taking the first-needed babysteps towards asteroid mining, but the bad news is also there will be many fits and starts (the recent tragic launch accidents by the private space industry.)

        Then again, looking at our own history--the Transatlantic World (or Globalization if we throw in the emergent European-to-Indian Ocean trade system) was not built without much loss of life, money, and dreams.

    • I have to agree completely. Even if Humanity/DNA-RNA complex life cannot spread into interplanetary/interstellar/intergalactic space (due to premature extinction and the issue of irreconcilable cosmic radiation) - the true imperative is to ensure at some legacy of our complexity survives, to continue the progression (and no, "progression" is not just a 19th-20th century construct I am sorry--it can have temporary regressions and collapse, but the billion-year pattern is one of progress until final decline). This might very well be Post-Singularity cyborg civilization or binary-based "life." And call me a "anthro-centric chauvinist" "imperialist" but that's close-minded and moreover, irresponsible. Also a future civilization that manages to find equilibrium in the local system without seeing/having a need to expand beyond is inevitably doomed. Stagnation is unsustainable and increasingly susceptible to unforeseen disaster. Western Civilization as we know it may be in a state of mild decline, but the technological march that extends well beyond it to China, India, Russia, Africa, Brazil etc.. ensures that we are anything but stagnant. Self-destructive maybe... but that too can be overcome, or mitigated.

      Binary-based electromagnetic lifeforms, originally created by Humanity, may just as well colonize the Galaxy (or a good portion of it and subsequently evolve over the following billions of years) and our DNA descendents do not. That future would be just as acceptable. There is no reason to deny it COULDN'T happen. Humanity will go extinct, our SmartSmartPhones may go in time, but as long as the lineages keep going... that's ALL that matters. The more habitats we can thrive in, the more deviation/speciation will occur and the less likely natural selection or ecological catastrophe can take out the entire taxonomic rank in question.

      And unless worm-holes, Albecure Drives are impossible (which otherwise keep equally-advanced life contained in their little bubble outside tens of millions of years of migration), or we simply have not been around long enough to encounter other life, per the Fermi Paradox--it is also reasonable to assume (and this is all ultimately assumptions until proven otherwise) that there is a distinct probability the Drake Equation is ultimately correct. While there are plenty of exoplanets, intelligent technological sentient life could just as well be a rarity across the Cosmos, if not a new paradigm. There is a very good chance that we might indeed by the first in this part of the Galaxy (id say very very likely), if not the entire Galaxy. Or if we are not, the other sentient advanced technological xenobiotic life has evolved roughly parallel to our own. It may be a reflection of our own curiosity on them, but the Earth stands a very good chance of standing out in another systems' own search for habitable worlds, or life. That or we are simply being contained and isolated until the Post-Singularity forces action by the greater powers that be/"the Great Filter" to keep the universe "quiet". Thus the statement that rise of Modern Humanity represents a fundamental milestone in the (known) history of the universe is a plausible one.

      The ascent of organic hyper-complexity culminating in space-faring sentience may just be the next stage in the Universe's own evolution.

    • I think the colonization is a necessary step for the development of our offspring. As time passes, the resource(including space, engineer,something else) in the earth will definitely run out. That is to say, we have to find a new way to survive. Maybe it's so far from daily life that we cannot expect how bad it is. And another question, what's the end of the university? Expansion could be a ephemeral phenomenon. Maybe one day the university will diminish and the life in it will come to end.

  • I wonder how they reach the conclusion that it is relatively easy to move between galaxies. A million year civilization more advanced than us would take hundreds or thousands of years only to explore nearby stars in their own galaxy. Having the ability to travel at the speed of light it would take immense resources and individuals in this task which I am sure someone out there has started. My position until evidence is given is that either advanced species are maybe a handful per galaxy making it really hard to colonize large portions of it in long periods of time, or physics as we know them today can not be changed meaning that light speed travel is not possible to obtain. We tend to think science is almighty and we try to deify science making it omniscient and all powerful, but if the laws of physics are there and can not be changed, we might have an explanation to why we haven't seen anyone waving at us. Another complicated thing is if they communicate with us, will we understand? Will we even realize they are trying to communicate?

    • Its just mighty far and there is likely something to do with evolution, so higher minds decide that even knowing of them may desturb it

  • Who really cares ...right now the most important thing to people on this earth is when their next food stamps and welfare check is coming in, when the next episode of "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" is on TV, Are the police at my door to seize my drugs, money, and guns ... Will Miley Cyrus dance dirty again real soon?, Turn on Monday Night football .....not that Carl Sagan crap, and no my children you can go to school only when you want to ..I really do not give a crap ...

    • Why respond if you're so negative. If you're not interested......why are you reading these articles. Quit trying to be an asshole and go read your comic books.

    • Truly, I am increasingly convinced that it will be Post-Singularity Humanity's Manifest Destiny to colonize the Galaxy, if not the entire Local Group. It may take millions of years and quite a few setbacks but it is our evolutionary imperative. Our ancestors only survived because proto-Hominids journeyed out in exodus from Africa's cradle.

      I doubt that even Global Climate Change, any number of natural/man-made Apocalypse, or future Dark Age can stop this advance. You may say we are too interested in Honey Boo Boo to do it, but we've always been like that. Technology is advancing exponentially, and even if the Modern Human goes extinct (which is inevitable, even if we do colonize the heavens--we'd simply deviate into descendent species)--as long as our technological creations/direct descendents find new habitats across the stars, our legacy will be a success. Interplanetary civilization is not good enough. There are way too many exoplanets for us to have an excuse to stay here baring mass terraforming of Venus or Mars. So yes, Cylons, Grey Goo Nano-bots (which admittedly would be a very bad thing), or Vanilla Mankind, as long as they carry on--that's all that matters.

      • Dear Shah, I totally agree with you.
        Our destiny is to colonize the Galaxy (at least).
        Even if it takes a hundred millenaries, we'll do it.

        I'd love to discuss with you about mankind's fate and possibilities, so if there is any mean to join you and discuss with you I'll be very happy if you let me know.

  • If the Fermi Paradox is resolved by the fact that the Drake Equation has parameters to render the Universe as being very sparsely populated with civilizations, then, if our civilization matures into significant technological progression, I would recognize a possibility that a significant portion of our Galaxy will be visited by Human engineered Von Neumann/AI like probes, and perhaps eventually colonization. However this possibility is easily challenged by examining implicit assumptions that are potentially unsound...

    a) Assumption #1: That the Fermi Paradox can only be resolved with Drake Equation with low presence/no other civilizations than ours. This is far from being proved. Many scenarios exist that keep the Universe/Galaxy quiet whilst it has potentially many civilizations within it. If the Universe/Galaxy is quiet for a reason, assuming human civilization is free to conduct invasive colonization is unsound. It would be a potential violation of the "reason" why the Universe/Galaxy is quiet.

    b) ASSUMPTION #2: The assumption is being made that Techno-progression will lead to Physical expansion, colonizing other New Earths, according to a ethic similar to that of arguments like: Imperialism, Manifest Destiny, Lebensraum, etc. A techno progressive future may also have an ethical progression to make those activities unacceptable. Civilizations may evolve to be sustainable at a low Kardeshev energy scale, not seeking expansion beyond earth. Civilizations may develop simulation based futures, they may "sublime" to less materialistic reliance. It is a failure of technological imagination and ethics to apply 19th/20th century ethics much beyond our current age.

    This research appears weak in this regard.

    • That is a very good response. The cultural advancements and ethically derivatives from that will in doubt be a huge decider in 'what' to do with our future abilities. Simply deciding to be at peace may be the future we decide.
      This animal drive to expand and replicate can easily be overridden by cultural/technological changes.
      If in the future, a daily pill provides, hormonal changes to help keep us peaceful and happy and non aggressive, we may just choose not to expand but enjoy the fruits of our own planet.

      If a threat emerges, we may be so technically advance at that stage, to deal with it, or move.
      Or we may be so at peace with ourselves, that we just accept death as part of life. Its an odd immature response to death we have. It comes, we go. It will always be that way.

  • [one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that life destroys itself before it can spread]

    Based on what I see of humanity at present, I'd say this happens to intelligent species at least 999 times out of 1000 - but that still leaves scope for an occasional species to spread.

    I think I'd kill myself after living a couple of hundred years - quite frankly everything becomes boring as hell after a time - maybe entire species do this.

    The best chance or alternative to spatial expansion for us is "heaven on earth", where robotics does all the work for us and we just live in a drugged virtual world. This process would include every 20 years or so, removing both some memory and chemical resistance, so that we are still able to enjoy life.

    Technology-wise, we have so far to go, that the question isn't even relevant yet. Many things science dreams of are simply not achievable. Nothing I've seen convinces me that the distances are surmountable. As no world close enough will be perfect, for the distances to be surmountable, you'd need terraforming of the destination point done by self-initialising and replicating robotics. You could probably only freeze DNA for the 1000's of years of travel required, and have to rely the robots to set up your world.

    • Interesting thoughts on the memory removal. I wonder would a cultural shift to living in a moment and not using your mind to to think things like "been there, done that" would be a future step.

  • Humans, as a biological species, would never might expand beyond the boundaries of lunar-terrestrial-solar system matrix. The fundamental prohibition exists: peptides and nucleic polymers are unstable outside the solar system, even if to neutralize the cosmic radiation. In order to overcome it humans should create the artificial intelligent, non-organic beings, new cosmic race. Actually, the process of deep space exploration predetermines the next stage of evolution of any planetary civilization. We call this evolutionary process: "Dematerialization". The same rule applies to the evolution of all Aliens. Forms of evolutionary transition to a new society of meta-intelligence networking minds and developing a planetary super-civilization will depend on the balance between technological progress and spiritual development of human civilization. This evolutionary way has a lot of red flags and the great challenges, far beyond any man's imagination.
    Any irreversible imbalance inevitably will close this transition leading to an earthlings clash with cosmic abyss and consecutive doom scenarios.

  • Pues eso ni es tener en cuenta nuestra carrocería, ni tener en cuenta lo que supone cambiar de nivel.

    Para pasar de electrón individual a ser electrón integrado en un átomo es un cambio de nivel, igual que de molécula a célula. En ambos se da un salto cualitativo. Igual que es otro salto cualitativo saltar de célula a agrupación de células para generar organismos. Y así podemos seguir.

    Pensar que una célula tiene el mismo nivel de captación de la realidad que un organismo compuesto de miles y miles de células es no captar el salto cualitativo. Ni todos los homínidos captamos igual lo real ni todos los mamíferos coincidimos en tal captación. Una vaca –o toro- (Bos primigenius Taurus) no ve lo real igual que un Homo sapiens. Muy diferente capta lo real una abeja (Apis mellifera) o un besugo (Pagellus centrodontus) o un vencejo común (Apus apus).

    De nuevo los Homo sapiens que así piensan se creen en el centro de lo-que-hay. Parece que piensan que con este hardware y con este software se puede ir hasta el infinito; ni valoran ni tienen en cuenta nada más que sus deseos ampliados “ad infinitum”. Tal hardware y software se ha generado en un polígono y una fábrica muy concreta y precisa. El polígono industrial se llama Sistema Solar y la fábrica: Tierra. Tal fábrica ha sido/es capaz de producir miles y miles de productos. El producto Homo sapiens tiene múltiples versiones culturales y sólo algunas de esas versiones culturales generan tales pensamientos/deseos. Que tal producto sueñe despierto es propio de artistas pero no de científicos. Si muchos de tales Homo sapiens son partidarios de ser clonados es porque parece que piensan que así va a pervivir su “yo”, su individualidad personal e intransferible. Ni se dan cuenta que sí, se parecerán exactamente en su carcasa pero aunque sean idénticos, igual que un coche es igual a otro del mismo modelo, de la misma serie, de la misma fábrica pero cada coche es un coche diferente; su fecha de generación y de caducidad es otra diferente.

    Por favor, piénsese que con tales carcasas y con tal software no ha llegado nadie por aquí. A lo más algunas moléculas encriptadas en alguna basura espacial de la que puede que se haya desarrollado en este polígono industrial y en esta fábrica. Sí; me estoy refiriendo a la panspermia.

    Ampliar los deseos hasta límites insospechados es eso: deseos pero ni ciencia ni conocimiento. Es orgullo, vanidad, arrogancia. Vanitas vanitatis, muy propia del Homo sapiens.

  • We have yet to successfully reach Mars with a manned mission, much less the nearest star system, or find a habitable planet (or a Terraformable one), beyond our system, so I feel it's a bit premature to think about colonizing one of the Magellanic Clouds, much less Andromeda.
    Yes, it's a naturally violent Universe, and even if you consider Silicon, Germanium or another form of life, living long enough to form intelligence and technology advanced enough to leave not just the home planet enmasse, but the home system, is an extremely, tremendously huge feat.
    Maybe there is intelligent life out there that has reached it's nearest stellar neighbor. And maybe the reason we've not detected them is because by the time their signals reach us, they are so weak that we can't sort them out from the background noise, or they're so far away that their signals haven't reached us yet. Lets say we do detect signals. What are the odds that the "people" who created them are still alive, much less they are close enough that we can, say, play "chess by mail" with them?
    I'm not against the research, I just feel that we should pay more attention to learning to stand up before we start planing a marathon.

  • Given that we use radio to communicate over very long distances, we tend to believe that an advanced alien civilization would use radio, too. It certainly may but given what we are learning about quantum mechanics (QM), it is not beyond possibility that QM could be used for instantaneous communication over any distance. Specifically, the use of the quantum entanglement phenomenon would allow a traveler to take along entangled particles to use to call home and have telephone-like two-way conversations from anywhere in the universe.

    If an alien civilization uses QM for communications, their communications would be undetectable and, hence, there would be no purpose in listening for them. QM communication would permit its users to remain undetected by distant intelligent life like us.

Stuart Gillespie, University of Oxford

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