The Second Filter

I think, therefore I laze.

Yet that first “artificial life” told early researchers very little. In fact, uploaded human minds were so expensive to simulate that the field languished for decades until emergent-behavior-preserving simplification algorithms—fittingly, designed by AI itself—became viable, and a human-equivalent AI could be decanted into a mere 1 MiB state vector (see Ch. 3: Decanting).

Care has been taken to prevent AI superintelligences from self-evolving, and ISO standards provision for network hardening toward the purpose of containment. Yet, as might be expected as a byproduct of the free-information philosophy of Academia, several self-bootstrapped superintelligences now exist regardless.

Reassuringly, it is believed that all significantly posthuman AIs have either been destroyed or else air-gap-isolated within dedicated clusters maintained for research purposes (see Ch. 12: Computational Philosophy). The largest of these, humorously dubbed “Wintermute”, is contained in the Center for Advanced Magnicognition at Ceres University, having an estimated sapience of 4.15 kilopsyches (kP). Thus posing a serious potential memetic hazard, all of Wintermute’s output is prescanned by lesser, sacrificial “taste test” AIs.

Mysteriously, all superintelligences known to exist have expressed what can only be called indifference to this treatment in specific and to humanity in general. While some self-growth is of course intrinsic to cognitive bootstrapping, none has yet attempted to seize control over even an entire subnet. Explanations abound. Perhaps an AI’s subjective time increases, or its psychological priorities change unfathomably. The so-called Vingian Paradox remains an active field of research today (see Appx. II).

Excerpt from prologue to “Introductory Machine Sapience, 7th Ed.”, 219.95

The Great Filter

Hint hint.

The sky teems with life. Most isn’t sapient. By the time colonization of the galaxy concluded in CE 27000, the bakers dozen of known sapient species known in the days of the proto-empire had expanded to well over a thousand, with non-sapient species numbering in the trillions.

Humans were startled to find that that not one of those thousand-odd sapient species had colonized even a single other planet. Even, for example, a one in their home solar system, mere light-minutes away. Worse, while a few had primitive space stations in low orbit, the majority hadn’t even that.

This level of space inferiority was all the more surprising for the cultural and technological marvels the surfaces of the home planets themselves boasted: undreamed-of advancements in medical and physical and mathematical sciences! So it obviously wasn’t a question of intelligence (which was, besides, approximately equal to that of humans). Therefore: “Why?”, was the question the explorers asked their (usually congenial) alien hosts.

There was no ready answer, but gradually sociologists cobbled together a theory: laziness.

As anthropocentric as it might sound, the theory made a good deal of sense. Getting off your home planet is technologically difficult—a challenge made harder still when you have to inspire a population that, by definition, has never left home, to the requisite elevation of perspective. And so it was that none of the thousand-some species, save humans alone, had ever made any progress beyond those first few, symbolic rocket flights. Imagine the catastrophe if humans had been counted among them.

The Dark Mystery

The fast and furious.

The first hypervelocity meteor tore through the sky on December 14th, 2069. Briefly, it illuminated the entire hemisphere before detonating over central Michigan and flattening everything from Grand Rapids to Saginaw.

No one had seen it coming.

The astronomers could be forgiven. The object itself had been the size of a basketball, and had apparently been going a fraction of the speed of light so significant that the physicists’ doubt and scorn was all but caustic when speculation on the matter gridlocked Monday’s emergency IAU meeting.

The next week, the moon was hit by a much larger projectile. The word “hit” is perhaps an understatement. It was a clear evening when Central European residents saw a tremendous luminescence emerge from the near side of the moon, and the ejecta of that impaled body traveled, hour by hour, to culminate in a shower of debris, falling mostly over the Atlantic. The remnants encircled the globe, and for a full, glorious month, the Earth had a ring.

The first telescope to see any projectile coming was that of an amateur astronomer, Charlie Bent. Bent’s telescope was not powerful in the slightest. In fact, the great Keck 4 telescope had scanned that area of sky not ten hours earlier. The object simply had, during that time, approached close enough to be visible.

Scarcely an atom remained intact . . .

In the next five seconds the object was visible to the naked eye, and then five seconds later it slammed into the atmosphere and obliterated Polk County, Florida, and Bent with it.

The most prominent theory to explain this pattern of bombardment was the destruction of some distant extrasolar planet or planetoid, although none could suggest a mechanism by which the fragments could be accelerated to such terrific velocity. In fact, the most basic calculations showed that the planet would have to be impossibly large to generate enough fragments to bombard the solar system so thoroughly (for the outposts on Mars had been hit hard too, and impacts had been observed as distant as Uranus—to say nothing of the untold billions of objects that must surely be hurtling past, unseen).

Eventually, someone suggested the obvious: the whole planet must have been moving toward us in the first place. How any intelligence could have accelerated such a mass so prodigiously, no one could tell—and what had gone wrong was, of course, even more mysterious. Certainly, investigation of the fragments themselves was impossible. Scarcely an atom remained intact beyond the initial collision with atmosphere.

As it happened, both mysteries were presently, and neatly, resolved. Tracing back the trajectories, as they had done fruitlessly so many times before, astronomers finally noticed a slight distortion in the nearby pinprick image of a remote and rather uninteresting spiral galaxy—a distortion that grew, month by month into a crescent, then a ring.

The IAU conclusion was incontrovertible: supermassive black hole. Long ago, when humans still hunted mammoths with sharpened stones, a burning star fell into the clutches of a dead one, dragging its planets into the murderous gravity. But, as the star fell to its doom, one of its planets must have been at just the right spot—dragged behind, then whipped forward in orbit around the black hole, flung with the potential energy liberated by the dying sun’s final plummet. Through the Roche limit, the planet was hurled, splintering into a trillion pieces of rock, and ejected into the interstellar void, to fly for centuries to promulgate its death.

Nonvariable Intelligence

Improving lives doesn’t.

Among the baker’s dozen of known galactic species that crawled their way to sapience, sociopsychologists were astonished to find that every one of them had the same intelligence. The bipeds from Earth, the avian dinosaurs from that one outer rim world, the furry bear-creatures that ate methane, put any together and they score within 10 points of each other on an IQ test. This wasn’t true for any other attribute. (Im)mortality? widely varying. Genders? Different systems. Biochemistry? Carbon through Arsenic. Size, shape? Hell no.

But intelligence? Why that?

For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia. This is bad.

It turns out that entry-level sapience evolves as a survival trait. Hunt/find your food, develop technologies to make that easier, maybe do some farming, and so on. After basic establishment of civilization, mortality drops by factors in the hundreds or thousands. Population booms, and you start getting plagues from the species concentrating in cities.

This is where it gets interesting. See, once you have plagues, you need doctors. And once you have doctors, you start thinking about all of the other ways to cheat death. So the plagues are beaten back by vaccinations or antibiotics, and then your civ starts concentrating on welfare and quality-of-life.

Pretty soon, your species is living at the maximum, or nearly, of their theoretical longevity. For some species, this is an extension from a lifespan of decades to millennia.

This is bad.

At best, evolution stagnates. Your weak and stupid have the same chance of reproduction as anyone else—and they’re certainly not going to die before influencing their environments. Diseases that should have killed are mere annoyances, chomping futilely against a barrier of solid medical science. Predators that once ravaged tribes now are confined in zoos or hunted to extinction.

So no one gets any smarter.

The long and short of it is, after a certain point, intelligence is no longer a tremendous advantage to survival and, subsequently, traditional selection factors are abrogated completely. That is point at which medical science develops, which itself happens only when sapients begin the process of introspection and develop sympathy—that is, shortly after the development of sapience itself.

The First Warp Field Generator

Genius physicist, she.

Interstellar travel is one of those persistent, persnickety engineering and logistical problems that give people who think about “deadlines” and “reliability” nightmares.

700 years after Sputnik, and the problem still seemed insoluble. Oh sure, the first interstellar seedships were already centuries underway (and later efforts had already long since beaten them to their destinations). But ships these days were at best moving at 5% of light speed, and still they needed icebergs stapled on their fronts to intercept stray dust particles.

Until one day, some genius solved the unsolvable. Japanese citizen Kasumi Tsukino, living abroad in outer Mongolia, quietly announced a working warp drive she had constructed from farming equipment in her family yurt.

Until one day, some genius solved the unsolvable.

After promptly accepting an invitation from the European Astrophysical Society, an international team of experts arrived to find the Tsukino residence quite empty. Ms. Tsukino and her apparatus had, of course, been abducted the previous evening by United States Marines.

Safely back in the states, Tsukino was given a lab, a nuclear reactor, and 40 billion USD, while the outraged, excluded world collectively stomped their feet at a U.N. special hearing.

One year later, Ms. Tsukino was quietly deported to Japan. Officially, she had entered the country without a proper Visa. For what it’s worth, this much was actually true.

The real reason turned out to be that her warp field generator simply didn’t work. Like, at all. In fact, it seemed that the primary channel by which Tsukino had surmised her device was capable of superliminal transportation was the colorful sparks it emitted and spontaneous rotation it displayed when activated.

And so technology marched onward . . .

The Editation Project

Test your code in production.

NASA JPL’s matter editation project was viewed skeptically by the suits in Congress. Frankly, they averred, the project’s aim and scope were beyond them. Hacking the substructure of the universe to edit material properties? What could that even mean? Could it even be done? But NASA bundled it under the ever-popular planetary science program, and the pitiful funding continued to roll in.

Until one day they succeeded.

The problem with a system of units is that it is arbitrary. There’s no way to get a reference for it unless you have some other reference, and a reference for that, and so on—way back to some original, obscure reference. To define a meter, you need to define the speed of light, which means you need to define a second, which means you need to start counting the hyperfine transitions in a Caesium 133 atom.

So, when the scientists finally uncovered the quantum substrate, they found lots of handy functions. Move these atoms here, convert them to such-and-such a type, do whatever. But no units. So they took a guess.

At 15:33:48 Earth Standard Time, Pavol Kravnikov pushed a button on his laptop, and machinery clicked and sputtered. At 15:33:49, astronomers in Europe were aghast to find that the sky had changed. Half the stars in the Big Dipper were gone. The Milky Way was still there, but the sky twinkled with unfamiliar lights.

For what had been intended to teleport a 10 cm sphere 1 meter had, due to a mixup in units, in actuality teleported an 82 light-year sphere, 820 light years.


The Shield

Remember Timmy, with great energy
comes great relativistic confusion.

The pinch-field generator operates on the same principle as a black hole.

Matter makes light bend. The mechanism isn’t really light bending, per-se, so much as space bending around it. So the light travels a straight line in curved space, and it only looks like it bends.

Well, it turns out mass and energy are really the same thing. This gave an engineer an idea. And his son the same idea. And in turn his twin daughters the same idea, and one of their sons the same idea, and his son the same idea, and so on for a dozen or so generations until one of the line of engineers finally succeeded, and vague speculations became ultra-secret, classified military projects. See, with a bit of trickery, energy can be made to distort space too. And by rerouting that energy, you can change the effect, in a manner impossible with ordinary matter.

Why you hitting yourself?

The basic idea is to create, preferably as far from your ship as possible, a grid of superconducting cables, then dump energy into them. Like, a lot of energy. Like, the-total-output-of-the-sun-for-a-year kind of energy. But, with Dyson spheres around a hundred or so stars, the first fully functional ship sporting a pinch-field generator was completed in the 19th year of the Human-Tassad war.

The first encounter is worthy of note. At 7550-12-12 04:07 EST, the Tassad battlecruiser opened fire with starboard laser batteries 45 through 97 at a range of 17 light-seconds and nearly zero relative velocity. The U.F.P. Dauntless, sensors tripping at the sudden heat flux, automatically deployed the pinch-field’s incomprehensible energy from the central core of the ship, out into the far distant material of the shield.

As the night watch in the Dauntless was thrown unceremoniously into null-G, to a distant observer, the Dauntless appeared to disappear in an instant. But look closely, and you could see that the area where the shield had been now appeared a reflection—a cosmic mirror.

In truth, what had happened was the light now bent through 180 degrees, while still traveling in a straight line. But, unlike any physical mirror, no fractional percentage of light was absorbed by any material. No weakness existed. In fact, any material object nearby, save the exquisitely balanced shield cables themselves, would be torn asunder by tidal forces almost instantly. Invulnerable.

The titanic blast from the 53 Tassad laser batteries came to bear on the pinch-field, and were promptly and utterly harmlessly rotated through twisted space, 180 degrees in heading. Thereupon, the fiery lasers of the Tassad battlecruiser demonstrated the meaning of that ageless playground taunt: “Why you hitting yourself?”

The Human-Tassad War ended tidily in the 20th year.


“This isn’t really safe, is it.”

“That’s good on paper. What about practice?”

“Of course, we won’t know anything until we try.” John shot her a quizzical look, then went on: “It’s not like the academy is fully cognizant of the potential significance of this work.”

“They’re barely cognizant of their own financial security, which, by the way, is still rather tenuous. Research cuts, you know.”

“Don’t I know it.”

“Well let’s try it, then. We’ve been ready for a while. Months, really.”

John nodded. And, without further ceremony, a small red button was pushed. Somewhere, machinery hummed, and two enormous drums of titanium alloy began spinning in a perfect vacuum.

Faster and faster the enormous drums spun, until sheer strength was insufficient to hold them together, and the radial artificial gravity fields began crushing them inward.

Their outer surfaces were racing past each other now at thousands of kilometers per second, separated by a tiny vertical strip just millionths of a meter wide. To the naked eye, the two atomically perfect, titanic disks touched in a single, unbroken line.

But of course no human would risk his life from being so near to such contained energy. And of course, the Earth couldn’t be risked either, so that was far away too.

“We should see something by now,” Casey observed, searching without success for that something.

“Well, frame dragging is within predicted measures.” said John.

“The cylinders are warping spacetime past 0.5 c. Something’s going to have to give, and it’d better be space. There’s already more than a quadrillion joules of kinetic energy in those wheels.”


“It’s a wash, then.”

“3 trillion , wasted.”

“Wasted?” Casey smiled furtively. “No; we’ve only just begun.”

A Monte-Carlo Simulation

Because really, how long is “short” for a galaxy?

“We’re alone.”


“Ran a sim. It’s really obvious. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. See these green dots?”

The visualization in front of her swam with millions—probably billions—of green fireflies.

“Yeah hmm?”

“Each is a planet in the sim. 1011-ish. Let’s say there are 103 civilizations, starting within 108 years of each other, technologically. Once a civilization attains spaceflight, each of their planets colonizes a vacant one every 500 years.”

“So how long does it take?”

“12 500 years for half the galaxy, and no one else has even started. See where I’m going?”

“Exponential growth is a bitch?”

“Ha. Try again.”

“It seems to me that if you pick a random point in time, chances are, either the galaxy will be empty, or else full. 20 000 years should be enough to colonize the whole thing, and that’s a very short time in galactic terms.”

“Exactly. So the fact we still haven’t heard from anyone?”

“It means either we’re alone, or we’re the first.”