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Biotechnology and the lifetime of technical civilizations

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Abstract

The number of people able to end Earth's technical civilization has heretofore been small. Emerging dual-use technologies, such as biotechnology, may give similar power to thousands or millions of individuals. To quantitatively investigate the ramifications of such a marked shift on the survival of both terrestrial and extraterrestrial technical civilizations, this paper presents a two-parameter model for civilizational lifespans, i.e. the quantity $L$ in Drake's equation for the number of communicating extraterrestrial civilizations. One parameter characterizes the population lethality of a civilization's biotechnology and the other characterizes the civilization's psychosociology. $L$ is demonstrated to be less than the inverse of the product of these two parameters. Using empiric data from Pubmed to inform the biotechnology parameter, the model predicts human civilization's median survival time as decades to centuries, even with optimistic psychosociological parameter values, thereby positioning biotechnology as a proximate threat to human civilization. For an ensemble of civilizations having some median calculated survival time, the model predicts that, after 80 times that duration, only one in $10^{24}$ civilizations will survive -- a tempo and degree of winnowing compatible with Hanson's "Great Filter." Thus, assuming that civilizations universally develop advanced biotechnology, before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers, the model provides a resolution to the Fermi paradox.

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... Another study [2] views self-annihilation as the answer to the Fermi Paradox [3]. Many possible causes of our self-annihilation, such as climate change and biotechnology [4], have been studied and modeled. However, due to the obvious lack of data regarding humanity's self-annihilation, assumptions vary widely across different studies and as such it is difficult to compare the effects of certain potential threats originating within our civilization relative to one another. ...
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... Furthermore, according to our assumptions, we can determine the probability function P(N). (4) In the following sections, we shall delve deeper into our prediction model and pose an indepth discussion of the parameters being used. ...
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In this compelling book, leading scientists and historians explore the Drake Equation, which guides modern astrobiology's search for life beyond Earth. First used in 1961 as the organising framework for a conference in Green Bank, West Virginia, it uses seven factors to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilisations in our galaxy. Using the equation primarily as a heuristic device, this engaging text examines the astronomical, biological, and cultural factors that determine the abundance or rarity of life beyond Earth and provides a thematic history of the search for extraterrestrial life. Logically structured to analyse each of the factors in turn, and offering commentary and critique of the equation as a whole, contemporary astrobiological research is placed in a historical context. Each factor is explored over two chapters, discussing the pre-conference thinking and a modern analysis, to enable postgraduates and researchers to better assess the assumptions that guide their research.
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A global catastrophic risk is one with the potential to wreak death and destruction on a global scale. In human history, wars and plagues have done so on more than one occasion, and misguided ideologies and totalitarian regimes have darkened an entire era or a region. Advances in technology are adding dangers of a new kind. It could happen again. In Global Catastrophic Risks 25 leading experts look at the gravest risks facing humanity in the 21st century, including asteroid impacts, gamma-ray bursts, Earth-based natural catastrophes, nuclear war, terrorism, global warming, biological weapons, totalitarianism, advanced nanotechnology, general artificial intelligence, and social collapse. The book also addresses over-arching issues - policy responses and methods for predicting and managing catastrophes. This is invaluable reading for anyone interested in the big issues of our time; for students focusing on science, society, technology, and public policy; and for academics, policy-makers, and professionals working in these acutely important fields.
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The L factor in the Drake equation is widely understood to account for most of the variance in estimates of the number of extraterrestrial intelligences that might be contacted by the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). It is also among the hardest to quantify. An examination of discussions of the L factor in the popular and technical SETI literature suggests that attempts to estimate L involve a variety of potentially conflicting assumptions about civilizational lifespan that reflect hopes and fears about the human future.© (2001) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.
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Attempts to explain away the Fermi Paradox often led to pessimistic extrapolations of the Human Analogy. It has been argued that most civilisations, reaching a technological level, are likely to destroy themselves and that therefore the factor L in Drake's equation should be a short period of time. The shortness of ETI's lifespan would help to explain why we haven't been detected and why we still haven't discovered evidence of ETI's existence. This paper rejects this pessimism and holds that our human society is slowly but successfully coping with our crisis syndromes. Underlying tendencies are moving humankind towards a higher peaceful organisational order. Self-extinction is ruled out. The proper interpretation of the Human Analogy argument therefore suggests that advanced ETI also will have progressed towards a superior political and ethical order. Its longevity is likely to be indefinite. Contact with a benign ETI would be highly beneficial for us. On the other hand, since we study primitive micro-organisms and molecules in space, it is only plausible to suppose that ETI would be interested in our species and civilisation.
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A new paradigm is needed for industrial civilization, because neither the traditional theory of exponential industrial growth nor the more recent steady-state hypothesis can satisfactorily explain historical data. As a basis for the paradigm, the long sweep of human history is divided into three phases: (1)pre-industrial, (2)industrial, and (3)de-industrial. This essay focuses on the second, or industrial, phase. The paradigm is embodied in four theories. The first theory states that industrial civilization can be graphed over time by energy-use per person in the shape of asingle pulse waveform. The second theory is derived from a well-established principle of human ecology. It defines a set ofnecessary conditions for the advance, stagnation and decline of industrial civilization in terms of world total energy-use and world total population. Next, the subject ofgoverning is analyzed in terms of ten requirements for system control. The third theory is derived from this analysis. It relates thesize, orcomplexity, of a society over time to the average energy-use per person in that society. Historical population and energy-use data and other considerations are used as the basis for the fourth theory. This, a predictive theory, states that thelife-expectancy of industrial civilization is less than 100 years.
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This paper introduces “computer viruses” and examines their potential for causing widespread damage to computer systems. Basic theoretical results are presented, and the infeasibility of viral defense in large classes of systems is shown. Defensive schemes are presented and several experiments are described.
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Emergence of resistance is a major concern in influenza antiviral treatment and prophylaxis. Combination antiviral therapy might overcome this problem. Here, we estimate that all possible single mutants and a sizeable fraction of double mutants are generated during an uncomplicated influenza infection. While most of them may sustain a fitness cost, some variants may confer drug resistance and be selected during therapy. We argue that a triple combination regimen would markedly reduce the risk of antiviral resistance emergence in seasonal and pandemic influenza viruses, especially in seriously ill or immunocompromised hosts.
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Twelve key events leading up to the emergence of the current pandemic swine-origin influenza A (H1N1) virus are reviewed.
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The probability is analyzed that intelligent civilizations capable of interstellar communication exist in the galaxy. Drake's (1960) equation for the prevalence of communicative civilization is used in the calculations, and attempts are made to place limits on the search range that must be covered to contact other civilizations, the longevity of the communicative phase of such civilizations, and the possible number of two-way exchanges between civilizations in contact with each other. The minimum estimates indicate that some 100,000 civilizations probably coexist within several tens of astronomical units of each other and that some 1,000,000 probably coexist within 10 light years of each other. Attempts to detect coherent signals characteristic of intelligent life are briefly noted, including Projects Ozma and Cyclops as well as some Soviet attempts. Recently proposed American and Soviet programs for interstellar communication are outlined.
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If extraterrestrial intelligent beings exist and have reached a high level of technical development, one by-product of their energy metabolism is likely to be the large-scale conversion of starlight into far-infrared radiation. It is proposed that a search for sources of infrared radiation should accompany the recently initiated search for interstellar radio communications.
Discussion of Space Science Board, National Academy of Sciences Conference on Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life
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