Is AI the “Great Filter”?

Back in 1964 soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev (no relation to she who breaks the internet) proposed three categories or types for technological development of civilisation. Type one being technological level able to harness power roughly approximate to all of earth today (everything, solar, wind, earthquake, we are about 100-200 years from there according to most estimates I’ve read). A type two civilisation would be advanced enough harness the power from a star and type three would be advanced enough to harness the power of an entire galaxy.

The universe is approximately 14 billion years old, the solar system, where we live, the solar system, is a relative late comer at 4.5 billion years, there are stars  over 11 billion years old with earth like planets . One could speculate reasonably, in my opinion, that there are likely to have been much older civilisations out there than our own. In the words of the famous physicist Enrico Fermi “So? Where is everybody?” (also known as the Fermi paradox)(Armstrong & Sandberg 2013).

In all the billions trillions of stars and planets (around 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 in our observable universe) vastly older than ours, is it unreasonable to imagine that there would be at least one type three civilisation by now?, certainly type two civilisations don’t seem like a huge stretch given the pace of technological development here on earth, but we haven’t seen any evidence, at least none in the public domain (Barlow 2013).

This is what Professor Robin Hanson called the Great Filter back in 1998. For some reason, in 14 billion years there doesn’t seem to have been even one type three civilisation, at least as far as we have looked in the sky. Is there some kind of technological reason for this?, does every civilisation hit some kind of filter that stops it in its tracks from developing further?(Aldous 2010)

Is becoming a type three civilisation is too technologically demanding even for civilisations potentially billions of years older than ours? If we can accept that (and I don’t) then where are all the aliens? Even with slower than light travel there has been plenty of time for at least probes from other civilisations reaching here or being detected by us, but officially at least , we haven’t.

One might think that the distances are just to far, but give we can already conceive of ships equipped with alcubierre-warp-drives that would make travelling to the stars a matter of a few years then surely a civilisation with billions of years head start on us can actually build and likely improve on anything we have thought of so far? (Davies 2012, Cotta & Morales 2009)

Again, so where is everybody?

Which brings us back to earth. Are we really the center of the universe as Galileo believed, the only manifestation of God as the Catholic church would believe or is something else going on?

Theory one – there are type three civilisations out there, there are aliens out there, we just haven’t seen them because we have only searched a tiny fraction of the sky for life, according to SETI  we’ve seen less than one fifteen millionth of our own Milky Way galaxy. Which is one of one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe). It doesn’t seem like much, but it doesn’t have to be considering that one in five stars has a planet in the inhabitable zone (not to close to cook everything, not to far to freeze everything). We surely should have seen at least a type two civilisation by now. I’m not buying it.

Theory two – Space is big, they just haven’t got here yet. Some research argues that its possible that the distances are just too big, that intelligent life is so rare that its entirely conceivable that they just haven’t reached us here and are spread so far apart that we haven’t seen them yet.

Theory three – They are out there but have transcended into a form that’s undetectable by us, maybe this is dark matter for example.

Theory four – The Zoo Hypothesis  , they are out there but choose not to reveal themselves to us for reasons unknown, perhaps they have an alien “Prime Directive” (Fogg 1987)

Theory five – Every advanced civilisation develops AI eventually. It becomes so smart that they loose control of it and are wiped out because, in the words of Eliezer Yudkowsky, The AI does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are made out of atoms which it can use for something else (Yudkowsky 2008)

Theory five is worth a deeper look, Elon Musk has called AI akin to summoning the demon , Stephen Hawking said The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race and Bill Gates has said I don’t understand why some people are not concerned. These people are not lightweight commentators, they are some of the brightest people on the planet today.

So if we accept that AI is going to rampage across the earth sometime in the future then surely we would see signs of it in the stars as it gobbled up resources to feed its own development?   Maybe this is the reason for the fast radio bursts scientists have detected. Surely in the billions of years head start other advanced civilisations had on us it would have eaten us by now? Or maybe there is another explanation..

What if all advanced AI’s are in black holes?

Sounds crazy right? Consider this, as CPU’s get more and more powerful, they become more and more dense. It has been estimated that if Moores law holds true that we will be at the Planck scale within the next 250 – 600 years (Nagy et al. 2011), in other words the smallest possible size we can currently conceive of. So what does our super intelligence do now?, how does it improve itself any further, sure it could expand itself until it consumes all matter in the universe but the distances are huge and it would have to expend huge amounts of energy to achieve this and eventually it will reach a limit after it has consumed every atom. Futurist John M. Smart has another theory – the transcension hypothesis : sufficiently advanced civilisations invariably leave our universe. Once the Planck length has been reached the super AI moves to or creates a black hole which has infinite density and where time virtually stops – in other words its potential to improve is virtually limitless for all intents and purposes, it has transcended. He alludes to this (he calls it inner space) in the video below which is well worth a watch (from 8:19 onwards, though the whole thing is pretty interesting)

So is AI the great filter?, are we summoning the demon?

Either there are aliens out there that we haven’t yet detected or who haven’t chosen to reveal themselves, in which case it would seem that AI is controllable when it arrives, or, AI eventually gets so advanced that the only place in the universe it can eventually go to improve itself is a black hole.

I’m rooting for E.T.


Worth a watch..Hon. Paul Hellyer – Minister of National Defense, Canada



Aldous, D.J., 2010. The great filter, branching histories and unlikely events. Unpublished manuscript, Berkeley, CA, July, 9.

Armstrong, S. & Sandberg, A., 2013. Eternity in six hours: Intergalactic spreading of intelligent life and sharpening the Fermi paradox. Acta Astronautica, 89, pp.1–13.

Barlow, M.T., 2013. Galactic exploration by directed self-replicating probes, and its implications for the Fermi paradox. International Journal of Astrobiology, 12(01), pp.63–68.

Cotta, C. & Morales, Á., 2009. A computational analysis of galactic exploration with space probes: Implications for the fermi paradox. JBIS – Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 62(3), pp.82–88.

Davies, P.C.W., 2012. Footprints of alien technology. Acta Astronautica, 73, pp.250–257.

Fogg, M.J., 1987. Temporal aspects of the interaction among the first galactic civilizations: The “interdict hypothesis” Icarus, 69(2), pp.370–384.

Nagy, B. et al., 2011. Superexponential long-term trends in information technology. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 78(8), pp.1356–1364.

Smart, J.M., 2012. The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI. Acta Astronautica, 78, pp.55–68.

Yudkowsky, E., 2008. Artificial intelligence as a positive and negative factor in global risk. Global catastrophic risks, 1, p.303.




4 thoughts on “Is AI the “Great Filter”?

  1. great post !!

    I do not know if there are aliens out of the space and how intelligent they are. But I think AI definitely can be utilised to improve the communication between human and unknown species. Also AI can help us to build up a more comprehensive knowledge of ourselves.

    Language is the tool for human communicating and information exchange. However, it is difficult to handle a new language. Also language can make wrong expression based on different understanding. Maybe in the future, AI can help us get rid of language. We can read other’s mind directly and no need to transfer it into language.


  2. Great subject for a post. I really like the work of Michio Kaku, and in particular his interpretation of whether a more technically advanced alien civilisation would recognise our ‘sophistication’.
    He says: “Imagine walking down a country road, and meeting an ant hill. Do we go down to the ants and say, ‘I bring you trinkets. I bring you beads. I give you nuclear energy and biotechnology. Take me to your leader?’ Or we have the urge to step on a few of them??”


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