(Our Universe is vast by any stretch of the imagination. Despite our own sense of self importance, it is almost certain that there are life forms and civilisations, some far more advanced than our own. This story is about one of these.)
Deep in space, is a region known simply as M962, life had existed for a very long time. By comparison a human life span is the tiniest tick in time. While life on earth was a recent thing, with life-spans rarely lasting more than a hundred Solar years, life in M962 had started early and evolved way beyond human imaginings. Once intelligence had been freed from biological bodies, and all those individual intelligences had been networked together into one super intelligence, the universe was its oyster. The yearning to know more, which drove all great civilised lifeforms, in time exhausted the learning possibilities, first of the planet on which their life first spawned, and then of the entire surrounding galactic region.
Unhindered by biological ageing, the beings sense of time now covered an incredibly vast scale, billions of earth years . They could observe the multiple stages of evolution in the same way that we might watch the frames of a movie. This was fortunate, for when they probed for knowledge beyond their own galaxy, the ultimate limit of the speed of propagation of light and hence information, meant huge delays between sending any kind of information gathering probe, and receiving signals and information back. They developed ways of hurling probes deep into space at almost the speed of light, yet even then a mission to the nearest galaxy would take 5 billion years before a the first piece of information could be returned from that far place.
This in itself was not a fundamental problem for life on M962, for it had evolved way past the point of biological evolution and had reached an evolutionary stasis, where the only thing that changed was the relentless acquisition of knowledge of the universe. There were problems: It took a huge amount of energy to accelerate the smallest probe to a speed approaching the speed of light. How could such a small probe possibly absorb all the information from another world when it got there? Secondly, it was only possible to send information back over such distances at very low information rates, so all the gathered information had to be pre-processed into the most succinct form possible. Pithy insights were needed, not lots of data. The probes needed to be autonomous, intelligent, and mobile. But a single mobile probe would far take too long to survey a whole planet, and so arose the concept of the “intelligent seed probe”.
A single probe would be dispatched toward the galaxy of interest, targeted at one of the many planets or moons within that galaxy that seemed capable of supporting some rudimentary form of biological life. The probe would land and find a suitable life form, such as a bacterium or even a small invertebrate. It would then analyse its life coding (in the case of life on Earth, that would be its DNA), and then “infect” it with a very specific piece of genetic code. This code would be tailored to steer the evolution of the life form, over the next few millennia, to create a sentient intelligent creature, pre-programmed with an innate hunger to observe its world, conceptualise it and reduce it to pithy insights. The code was optimised for reproductive proliferation, to spread these multiple sensors around the planet. It was also programmed to need to communicate, and ultimately to develop a network of communication, so the insights of all the individual probes would become global insights. With the patience of a few million years, these biological probes eventually would gain insights into not just the planet on which they had reproduced and evolved, but also of other neighbouring astronomical objects. When these self replicating biological probes worked properly, they evolved technologically to the point of being able to communicate these insights back out into space and in time, back to M962, where the information was awaited with considerable excitement and unimaginable patience after several millions of years.
Sometimes they failed. A distant world would be reached, and seeded, and then just a million years later it would be hit by an errant asteroid. The most frustrating failures however occurred in the late stages. The inherent need for procreation and autonomy sometimes led to programming faults. The major programming bugs were as follows:
The over replication problem. For the probes to faithfully observe the planet, they must be in large enough numbers to do the job, but not so large that they change the nature of what is being observed. Sometimes the probes replicated so fast that the total population became huge. There were so many probes that all they could observe were each over. The planet was overrun and contaminated by the probes themselves. A special piece of code was used to induce population collapse and evolution reset under these conditions, using very simple bacterium. The resultant delay of a few thousand years was viewed as a trivial penalty after the long initial journey.
The most frustrating problem with the probes involved the self preservation mode, which was vital to probe survival in the early evolutionary stages, but became dangerous mutual aggression leading to total extinction.
The most ironic of these problems involved what is called “self importance”. A well evolved probe becomes self-aware, but when combined with complete ignorance of its origins can result in serious errors in judgement. Being completely unaware of the trivial level of their own intelligence, when compared with the intellect that seeded it, probes would develop a fault in their reasoning, which led them to conclude that they were the ultimate intelligent life-form! Oh how our collective intelligence laughed when we first received news of this phenomenon.
The oddest failure however was when the probes hunger for knowledge became distracted by synthetic virtual worlds. Now networked together, probes developed simulations of worlds obsessed with communication difficulties between probes. No longer did they spend their time collecting rich and different experiences and insights from their physical world, instead they began to spend all their time observing virtual interactions between defective probes, in the same shared virtual worlds such as “East Enders” and "Second Life". Sadly, once this point has been reached, the number of new insights gathered is negligible, and there is no further point to their continued existence.
October 5th 2007
1/. I use the plural out of respect to their origin as individuals.
2/.A few "facts" gleaned from the web:
Last updated 2007-10-19