A Free Energy Solution to Fermi's Paradox

A Free Energy Solution to Fermi's Paradox

“But where is everybody?”

Asked Fermi, in the summer of 1950, while having lunch with fellow physicists Teller, York and Konopinski. He was referring to the absolute lack of extra-terrestrial contact with intelligent life despite the strong probabilistic evidence of their existence in the observable universe. This question garnered fame as “Fermi’s Paradox” and several explanations have been proposed in the last 69 years without scientific consensus on any particular one.

In this short article, I propose another such explanation, loosely based on mathematical fundamentals behind Karl Friston’s Free Energy Principle which models human behavior and brain functions on mathematical grounds of restrained entropy.

Free Energy Principle in a Nutshell

The free energy principle tries to explain how biological systems maintain their order by restricting themselves to a limited number of states. It says that biological systems minimize a free energy functional of their internal states, which entail beliefs about hidden states in their environment. In essence, it implies that biological beings try and build predictions of their environment in their minds and then act to make their environment similar to their prediction while updating their predictions themselves. The key point is survival, with the crux of theory being that we’ll survive better if we can predict accurately how our environment is going to change. You can read more about it here.

Looking at Multi-Agent Interactions

In Friston’s work, the external environment is modeled as an event space with only one active-agent : the living creature who’s trying to predict its environment. But what if we try to model this environment as a multi-agent event space? Can the Free Energy Principle explain how we interact with other humans, creatures and information in general?

Expanding Interaction Circles and Communication

In a multi-agent environment, such as ours, we can’t interact with everyone, our interaction will be bound to a small number, we’ll largely communicate with a small number of people while in existence and any information that we attain will be through this small circle of ours. This was true for thousands of years of human history, but with expanding means of communication, and converging social circles, the way we communicate is changing. My hypothesis is that the weights we assign to pieces of information while updating our internal prediction models are dwindling because of a multitude of reasons:

  • The sheer volume of information we consume
  • Presumptions on authenticity of the information
  • Large volume of sources that we keep tapping into

On a first look, the information revolution seems like an excellent deal. The ability to communicate with someone a continent away is nothing short of a miracle. The problem might arise when we look at the other side of the coin : our ability to contact everyone a continent away. How much do we trust our new-found social circles? How much weights do we assign to information that we gain today? Are our prediction models slowly becoming blind to the obvious and focusing on fictional stories that we can build out of the thousand sources that we have?

The Theory

The hypothesis is that no alien civilization has contacted us because intelligent life is bound to drive itself to extinction as its communication prowess crosses a threshold after which its prediction model becomes inefficient and wrapped in a fictional sphere. This without any doubt is a hugely pessimistic outlook which implies that intelligent life will always die out because they’ll essentially stop looking at the problems that are imminent and right in front of their eyes. The way present humanity is ‘dealing’ with the threat of Global Warming makes for a good example. The United States government denies the existence of Global Warming while an overwhelming majority in the scientific community vouches for more policy-centric focus on the threat.

What You Can Do

Just keep your eyes open for the next time you choose to believe a more convenient truth. You might just be setting up your brain for temporary comfort at the cost of our species’ survival. :)

A Free Energy Solution to Fermi's Paradox



Vivek Kaushal

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