Difference between revisions of "Great Filter"

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==Concept and Motivation==
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The '''Great Filter''' is a proposed explanation for the [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox Fermi Paradox]. The development of intelligent life requires many steps, such as the emergence of single-celled life and the transition from unicellular to multicellular life forms. Since we have not observed intelligent life beyond our planet, there seems to be a developmental step that is so difficult and unlikely that it "filters out" nearly all civilizations before they can reach a space-faring stage. Robin Hanson coined the term in his 1998 essay [http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It?].
The '''Great Filter''' is a very improbable step leading to an interstellar civilization, its existence is a proposed explanation for the [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox Fermi Paradox]. Robin Hanson coined the term in his 1998 essay [http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It?].
 
  
Given our actual knowledge of the universe, it is uncontroversial to assume that many other habitable planets - fulfilling the conditions for life to flourish until it develops into a interstellar civilization - are bound to exist.  At the same time, there is a complete [http://lesswrong.com/lw/ih/absence_of_evidence_is_evidence_of_absence/ lack of evidence] for the existence of other civilizations. Those two facts implies the existence of a extremely improbable step, a Great Filter, in the path leading from the basics conditions for originating life to the emergence of interstellar civilizations.  
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==Should we worry?==
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The Great Filter might a step in our evolutionary past, in which case our civilization has already passed it. But the hard step might also be ahead of us: surviving the creation of nuclear bombs, [[AGI]], biotechnology, [[nanotechnology]] or an asteroid impact [http://www.global-catastrophic-risks.com/docs/Chap01.pdf]. In that case, we should be worried, as the Great Filter seems to have been successful in stopping the development of every other civilization so far. Estimating the location of the Great Filter is thus important for helping estimate the magnitude of [[Existential risk|existential risk]]. [http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html Many] [http://hanson.gmu.edu/hardstep.pdf efforts] [http://www.stat.berkeley.edu/~aldous/Papers/GF.pdf have] [http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/fermi.pdf been] [http://www.global-catastrophic-risks.com/docs/Chap01.pdf made] [http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/sia-doomsday-the-filter-is-ahead/ in] that direction, but much remains uncertain.
  
==Should we worry?==
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Traces of life on other planets are evidence for a later Great Filter[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W8zu7lFmhY]. If we were to find that complex life had evolved independently both on Earth and some other planet, it would suggest that getting to such a developmental stage was relatively easy. Thus the Great Filter would have to be at a later stage.
The Great Filter might be the transition from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, or from unicellular to multicellular life forms, or yet the appearance of photosynthesis. Should this be the case, we have already passed through the improbable region, the filter is behind us and we shouldn’t worry. But the hard step might also be ahead of us: to survive the creation of nuclear bombs, [[AGI]] biotechnology, [[nanotechnology]] or an asteroid impact [http://www.global-catastrophic-risks.com/docs/Chap01.pdf]. In this scenario, we are passing or will pass through the improbable region and we should worry. Estimating the location of the Great Filter is a crucial task for dealing with [[Existential risk]]. [http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html Many] [http://hanson.gmu.edu/hardstep.pdf efforts] [http://www.stat.berkeley.edu/~aldous/Papers/GF.pdf have] [http://www.nickbostrom.com/papers/fermi.pdf been] [http://www.global-catastrophic-risks.com/docs/Chap01.pdf made] [http://meteuphoric.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/sia-doomsday-the-filter-is-ahead/ in] that direction, but much remains uncertain.
 
  
Traces of life in other planets are an evidence for a later Great Filter[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_W8zu7lFmhY]. Any indication, anywhere in the universe, that life evolved until a period anterior to ours it’s an indication that evolving until such anterior period isn’t so improbable. Hence, the Great Filter probable location shifts in the future direction, enhancing the chances he is just ahead of us.  
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The study of [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_event#Major_extinction_events past mass extinctions] and astrobiology can provide ideas for estimating the location of the Great Filter. However, there are many difficulties involved. For instance, the time that it takes to pass a step doesn't reveal much about how easy or hard that step was. Robin Hanson gives the following example in his [http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html seminal paper]:
  
The study of [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_event#Major_extinction_events past mass extinctions] and astrobiology can provide ideas for the estimation of the Great Filter probabilistic distribution. However, there are many difficulties involved. For instance, one can not estimate the improbability of a step based on its completion time. Robin Hanson gives the following example in his [http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html  seminal paper]:
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"…say you have one hour to pick five locks by trial and error, locks with 1,2,3,4, and 5 dials of ten numbers, so that the expected time to pick each lock is .01,.1, 1, 10, and 100 hours respectively. Then just looking at those rare cases when you do pick all five locks in the hour, the average time to pick the first two locks would be .0096 and .075 hours respectively, close to the usual expected times of .01 and .1 hours. The average time to pick the third lock, however, would be .20 hours, and the average time for the other two locks, and the average time left over at the end, would be .24 hours. That is, conditional on success, all the hard steps, no matter how hard, take about the same time, while easy steps take about their usual time."
“…say you have one hour to pick five locks by trial and error, locks with 1,2,3,4, and 5 dials of ten numbers, so that the expected time to pick each lock is .01,.1, 1, 10, and 100 hours respectively. Then just looking at those rare cases when you do pick all five locks in the hour, the average time to pick the first two locks would be .0096 and .075 hours respectively, close to the usual expected times of .01 and .1 hours. The average time to pick the third lock, however, would be .20 hours, and the average time for the other two locks, and the average time left over at the end, would be .24 hours. That is, conditional on success, all the hard steps, no matter how hard, take about the same time, while easy steps take about their usual time”
 
  
 
==Consequences==
 
==Consequences==
[http://hanson.gmu.edu/hardstep.pdf On a subsequent paper], Hanson constructs a simulation of the hard steps distribution given earth habitable time, and concludes that there is a total of 4 to 7 hard steps uniformly distributed . It also shows that since hominid evolved there has been at least one hard step and that the best extinction model that fits all these requirements is [http://www.pnas.org/content/91/15/6735.full.pdf William Schopf’ model]. Taking evolutionary arguments for [[AGI]] and [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Observation_selection_effect observational selection effects] together, [http://www.nickbostrom.com/aievolution.pdf Bostrom and Shulman argue] that Hanson’s results can narrow the bounds on where AGI engineering difficulty can be found.
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[http://hanson.gmu.edu/hardstep.pdf In a subsequent paper], Hanson constructs a simulation of the distribution of the hard steps, which suggests that there should be about four to seven hard steps, uniformly distributed in our past. It also suggests that there has been at least one hard step since the evolution of hominids, and that the best extinction model that fits all these requirements is [http://www.pnas.org/content/91/15/6735.full.pdf William Schopf's model]. Taking evolutionary arguments for [[AGI]] and [http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Observation_selection_effect observational selection effects] together, [http://www.nickbostrom.com/aievolution.pdf Bostrom and Shulman argue] that Hanson’s results can help estimate the difficulty of creating AGI.
  
  

Revision as of 21:29, 4 September 2012

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The Great Filter is a proposed explanation for the Fermi Paradox. The development of intelligent life requires many steps, such as the emergence of single-celled life and the transition from unicellular to multicellular life forms. Since we have not observed intelligent life beyond our planet, there seems to be a developmental step that is so difficult and unlikely that it "filters out" nearly all civilizations before they can reach a space-faring stage. Robin Hanson coined the term in his 1998 essay The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It?.

Should we worry?

The Great Filter might a step in our evolutionary past, in which case our civilization has already passed it. But the hard step might also be ahead of us: surviving the creation of nuclear bombs, AGI, biotechnology, nanotechnology or an asteroid impact [1]. In that case, we should be worried, as the Great Filter seems to have been successful in stopping the development of every other civilization so far. Estimating the location of the Great Filter is thus important for helping estimate the magnitude of existential risk. Many efforts have been made in that direction, but much remains uncertain.

Traces of life on other planets are evidence for a later Great Filter[2]. If we were to find that complex life had evolved independently both on Earth and some other planet, it would suggest that getting to such a developmental stage was relatively easy. Thus the Great Filter would have to be at a later stage.

The study of past mass extinctions and astrobiology can provide ideas for estimating the location of the Great Filter. However, there are many difficulties involved. For instance, the time that it takes to pass a step doesn't reveal much about how easy or hard that step was. Robin Hanson gives the following example in his seminal paper:

"…say you have one hour to pick five locks by trial and error, locks with 1,2,3,4, and 5 dials of ten numbers, so that the expected time to pick each lock is .01,.1, 1, 10, and 100 hours respectively. Then just looking at those rare cases when you do pick all five locks in the hour, the average time to pick the first two locks would be .0096 and .075 hours respectively, close to the usual expected times of .01 and .1 hours. The average time to pick the third lock, however, would be .20 hours, and the average time for the other two locks, and the average time left over at the end, would be .24 hours. That is, conditional on success, all the hard steps, no matter how hard, take about the same time, while easy steps take about their usual time."

Consequences

In a subsequent paper, Hanson constructs a simulation of the distribution of the hard steps, which suggests that there should be about four to seven hard steps, uniformly distributed in our past. It also suggests that there has been at least one hard step since the evolution of hominids, and that the best extinction model that fits all these requirements is William Schopf's model. Taking evolutionary arguments for AGI and observational selection effects together, Bostrom and Shulman argue that Hanson’s results can help estimate the difficulty of creating AGI.


Blog posts

External links

See also