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  Columnist: Peter Fotis Kapnistos

Image credit: Berkeley

ET contact: it takes 2 to entangle

Posted on Wednesday, 7 January, 2009 | 1 comment
Columnist: Peter Fotis Kapnistos

Recently, Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), daringly argued that the human race would surely detect intelligent alien life by 2025, if the correct technology is implemented to search hundreds of light years into space, where there are almost certainly thousands of alien radio bases transmitting signals into the heavens. Speaking at a 2008 press meeting in San Francisco, Shostak affirmed: “We'll find ET within two dozen years.”

The principal tool in tracking down Radio ET may well be the Allen Telescope Array, Shostak said. It's a Paul Allen-funded network of six-metre radio antennae operated by SETI and UC Berkeley radio astronomy lab which “could become strong enough” by 2025 to deliver the goods.

Another potential way to detect intelligent extraterrestrial life would be to come across a “von Neumann probe” –– a theoretical space probe designed to self-replicate using raw materials found in any star system. The probe is named after John von Neumann, a Hungarian American mathematician who made the first precise study of self-replicating machines. Shortly after his death in 1957 the idea of using self-replicating machines to explore space began to persist as the most mathematically efficient method. The best-known appearance of a von Neumann probe in fiction was in Stanley Kubrick’s dazzling 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” which portrayed a von Neumann probe as a black monolith. In “The Physics of Extra-Terrestrial Civilizations,” theoretical physicist Michio Kaku presents us with some underlying von Neumann probe models:

For example, nanotechnology may facilitate the development of von Neumann probes. As physicist Richard Feynman observed in his seminal essay, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," there is nothing in the laws of physics which prevents building armies of molecular-sized machines. At present, scientists have already built atomic-sized curiosities, such as an atomic abacus with Buckyballs and an atomic guitar with strings about 100 atoms across.

Paul Davies speculates that a space-faring civilization could use nanotechnology to build miniature probes to explore the galaxy, perhaps no bigger than your palm. Davies says, "The tiny probes I'm talking about will be so inconspicuous that it's no surprise that we haven't come across one. It's not the sort of thing that you're going to trip over in your back yard. So if that is the way technology develops, namely, smaller, faster, cheaper and if other civilizations have gone this route, then we could be surrounded by surveillance devices."

Furthermore, the development of biotechnology has opened entirely new possibilities. These probes may act as life-forms, reproducing their genetic information, mutating and evolving at each stage of reproduction to enhance their capabilities, and may have artificial intelligence to accelerate their search.

According to our most advantageous models, von Neumann probes will most likely be “slave bacteria.” For example, physicist Jan Liphardt at Berkeley University recently advanced a plan to create stripped-down versions of bacteria, with only enough of a genome to perform certain tasks like carving patterns onto microchips. In 1994, Len Adleman of the University of Southern California was the first computer scientist to show that DNA could be used to solve a mathematical problem. In 2001, Ehud Shapiro at the Weizmann Institute of Science invented a simple mathematical computing machine that used two enzymes to manipulate DNA as its hardware. The world’s first biological computer was so small that billions could fit in a drop of water. Four years later, Shapiro revealed an improved version of his original biological computer, 50 times faster than its forerunner. It could read DNA as data and also used it for fuel. In 2003, Pak Chung Wong of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory showed that a song’s lyrics encoded as artificial DNA can be stored within bacteria and then accurately retrieved, even after a hundred bacterial generations. In 2007, solo microbes were modified for up to 100 bits of data storage and backup copying with a technique developed at Keio University. In 2005, researchers at the University of California and the University of Texas created photographs of themselves by programming bacteria to make pictures in the same way film emulsions produce images. In 2006, Yuichi Hiratsuka and his colleagues in Japan used a species of bacteria to push the rotor in the world’s first microscopic motor powered by bacteria. In 2008, a research team from Davidson College, North Carolina and Missouri Western State University, created bacterial computers able to crack a standard mathematical puzzle. In the same year, Bruce Rittman of Arizona State University found a way to use bacteria to generate electricity.

In recent years scientists have embarked upon the heady mission of creating “slave bacteria” that could eventually be used as NASA von Neumann probes. Thousands of such biobots or minicell robots could assemble the kind of microscopic elements needed to build von Neumann self-replicating robot factories in space.

If the speed of a von Neumann probe and its ability to self-replicate is fast enough, von Neumann probes could allow the formation of a “colonization wavefront” of exponentially self-replicating microbes, escalating outwards at a fraction of the speed of light. Physicist Ronald Bracewell proposed a probe with a high level of artificial intelligence storing all pertinent information that its home civilization may desire to communicate to another culture. It would make its presence known, open a channel of communication with the contacted culture, and pass on the results of its investigation to its place of origin. Oxford based philosopher Nick Bostrom, known for his work on the anthropic principle, additionally advanced the feeling that future powerful super-intelligences might create self-reproducing von Neumann probes for space exploration.

Genetically engineered slave bacteria that can roll tiny motors, store photographs, and operate like living computers may eventually help us to develop our first von Neumann probes. But how would we be able to identify von Neumann slave microbes reaching our world from an extraterrestrial civilization? Would they behave unlike naturally occurring amoebas? How do von Neumann probes communicate with each other?

It would perchance be absurd to engineer fresh microbial probes only to receive and transmit old-fashioned radio signals. Bacteria already use built-in natural communication processes that are highly sophisticated. In the 1990s, Gordon Stewart, a biologist from the University of Nottingham, discovered that microbes talk to each other with chemical signals called “pheromones.” It nowadays looks as if all living things — including plants — can communicate with such signalling molecules. Pheromones are chemically linked to sexual attraction in animals and can also transmit impressions of threat or peril. Even the ancestors of humans may have communicated with a sixth sense using such diffusible chemical signals. Therefore, it would probably be much easier to learn how to “steer” molecular pheromone codes as swift communication tools rather than to engineer brand-new microbes to convey out of date radio signals.

How do von Neumann probes communicate with each other? Conventional radio signals represent classical information transmissions. In this situation, data cannot be transmitted faster than the speed of light, and local space-time is based on a Cartesian dimensionality. Since it might take thousands or even millions of years to relay an out of date radio signal through unplumbed space, classical transmissions are perhaps pointless because life on a home planet could conceivably go into extinction before its distant von Neumann probes can report their discoveries. On the other hand, there is currently growing evidence that communication processes between living cells maintain a baffling quality known as “entanglement.”

Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more objects are linked together — even though the individual objects may be spatially separated. In 1982, French physicist Alain Aspect verified that measurements performed on one system instantaneously influence other systems entangled with the measured system, even when far apart. Because quantum entanglement implies faster than light speed interactions, it creates an impression of non-locality or what Einstein called a spooky “action at a distance” connection that defies both classical and relativistic concepts of space and time. In 2003, researchers in Austria led by Marcus Aspelmeyer successfully sent entangled photons to opposite sides of the Danube River by using satellites to beam entangled photons to Earth.

A blood sample is taken from a hospital patient. The two are then spatially separated, located several miles apart. When the patient experiences high levels of stress, matching markers in the remote blood sample spontaneously increase slightly, even though distant from the patient. When the patient experiences deep relaxation, the isolated blood sample markers instantaneously decrease.

Such puzzling observations have led researchers like Chris Clarke to believe that entanglement “or at least something very like it” may play a role within an organism, as part of its internal communication and control system. Stuart Hameroff, a physician and researcher at the University of Arizona, has drawn attention to the possible role of microtubules or tethers forming a “micro-skeleton” inside each living cell. Because of their small size, and the way they are shielded by their surrounding structures, such tubes could support internal vibrations whose states are well protected from “decoherence” by the environment and allow for natural quantum entanglements to hook up. In 2005, a team of molecular biologists from London’s Imperial College detected such long-distance nanotubes connecting multiple cells:

Long membrane tethers between cells, known as membrane nantotubes or tunneling nanotubules, create supracellular structures that allow multiple cell bodies to act in a synchronized manner. Calcium fluxes, vesicles, and cell-surface components can all traffic between cells connected by nanotubes. Thus, complex and specific messages can be transmitted between multiple cells, and the strength of signal will suffer relatively little with the distance traveled, as compared to the use of soluble factors to transmit messages.

Paolo Manzelli is the director of the Educational Research Laboratory at the University of Florence, Italy. Manzelli has written a lot about biological entanglement and acknowledged that “the new idea of viewing bio-quantum states as carriers of pure information energy signals leads to interesting questions regarding the ability of living systems to manage information in a way that otherwise never would have been asked.” Miguel Molla of the University of Florence compared biological entanglement to a “quantum bio-antenna.” Dean Radin, a psychologist writing in “SHIFT:” for the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), recently commented in an article:

Researchers will discover that under certain conditions, living cells also exhibit properties associated with quantum entanglement. Then the idea of bioentanglement will emerge, a concept that is more general than today’s special cases of entanglement involving inanimate particles and photons.

Since “it takes two to entangle” our existing research suggests that the best von Neumann probe must also be able to clone itself into “entanglement pairs.” A slave bacterium of each entangled pair stays right where it is, while its twin bacterium sets off to explore remote space. Although a great distance may separate the twin biobots — perhaps even many light years — they are still tethered and synchronized by a tunneling nanotubule that allows them to instantaneously transmit quantum fluxes that communicate complex and specific messages. A grid of such cloned entanglement pairs leading all the way back to the place of origin would allow a home planet civilization to monitor isolated von Neumann probe activities in real-time and always be on top of the events.

On the seafloor near the Bahamas, researchers recently discovered a single-celled organism about the size of a grape, and they said the unusual organism raises interesting questions about the evolution of complex, multicellular animals.

The oversized single cells were found in 2008 at the end of long, linear tracks that appear to have been made by the slowly rolling amoebas. Writing in “Current Biology,” lead researcher Mikhail Matz from the University of Texas at Austin said the tracks resemble fossilized impressions from over 1 billion years ago, which scientists had assumed were made by multicellular worms. Researchers said the protists, which are named Gromia sphaerica, propel themselves with temporary protrusions called pseudopods. The single-celled ball about the size of a grape may provide an explanation for one of the mysteries of fossil history.
Marine biologists monitoring the seabed in the Bahamas noticed a great deal of tracks made by the grape-shaped creatures. Dr Matz said the giant protists’ bubble-like structure is probably one of the planet’s oldest body designs, and may have existed for 1.8 billion years. “Our guys may be the ultimate living fossils of the macroscopic world,” he said. The marine biologists in the Bahamas used a research submarine to discover large numbers of the unknown, grape-sized, single-celled animal slowly rolling across the sea floor.

“[It's] huge for a single cell. If I had cells that big I'd be six kilometres tall and weigh three trillion kilograms,” said Sönke Johnsen, a biologist at Duke University in North Carolina, and the expedition's chief scientist.

Single-celled animals are usually smaller than the size of a pinhead, but the size of this “sea-grape” isn't the most bizarre thing about it. “We watched the video over and over,” said Johnsen. “We argued about it forever… [we thought] these things can’t possibly be moving. There are other large protists, but none of them move.”

But these large single cells do move, and more importantly, the tracks they leave behind are very similar to fossil tracks that date back to before the Cambrian Explosion, around 530 million years ago, when different types of complex animal first appeared. With DNA testing, the sea-grape has been cautiously identified as a relative of another giant amoeba, Gromia sphaerica from the Arabian Sea – though that species is not known to be mobile.

How do von Neumann probes communicate with each other? Perhaps a von Neumann probe is no bigger than your palm, and not the sort of thing that you're going to trip over in your back yard. Maybe it can’t even recognize a conventional radio signal or the out of date noise of talk show hosts. According to Di Zhou, a researcher of quantum entanglement in biophysics: “The primary focus of the genetic engineer continues almost exclusively at the molecular level of biological functioning, and essential interdisciplinary communication with the physics community remains extremely limited. This area is completely ‘off the radar’ for all except only a few biotechnologists.”

At this time, perhaps old-fashioned radio signals represent the funny idea that Nature somehow overlooked “the need to communicate” when the coupling constants of physics were set into motion. Consequently, conventional radio signals take almost forever to reach the most distant galaxies. But the new idea of bioentanglement shows us that Nature made a quantum communication system that is not restricted by any velocity limitations. Consequently, the distance traveled does not limit the strength or timekeeping of a transmitted message. But maybe only an intelligent culture that truly loves the value of life and respects a humble amoeba’s ability to communicate will ever be able to recognize a von Neumann probe sent to it from an extraterrestrial civilization.

Like Pak Chung Wong’s groundbreaking technique, perhaps we have got to discover a painless procedure to send our computerized bits of information from “Workstation A” by means of pheromone signaling and calcium-fluxed “Morse Code” into a diffused microbial field or biofilm of supracellular structures containing tunnelling nanotubules that can instantaneously transmit our quantum-entangled bits of information to “Workstation B.”

Our ancestors were using the wheel as a tool long before Isaac Newton described the laws of motion and gravity. The secret was to first learn how to steer it, and later worry about why the wheel rolls. Perhaps it will be the same state of affairs with entanglement. Classical physicists may prefer “to reinvent the wheel” from the bottom up in order to understand the underlying quantum principles. But biotechnologists might unexpectedly discover an easier way to control a “faster than light” communication system before they can fully comprehend exactly what makes it happen.

The “technological singularity” is said to be a momentous occasion that before long will occur on Earth when all our computer systems come to life. Mathematician Roger Penrose has argued that computers cannot become living beings even though they will continue to increase their speed in number crunching. That would be as irrational as declaring that mercury thermometers in the future will “feel” because they respond to temperature changes. Yet, maybe just the opposite will happen. Perhaps microbial living creatures will soon become our next computers, as Ehud Shapiro has shown. In that way, our technological singularity can still be straightforwardly achieved without violating the logic of good judgment.

Perhaps von Neumann probes are actually closer than we may imagine, and they’re patiently waiting for us to discover the language required to communicate with them in real-time, seemingly faster than the speed of light. On the other hand, they might see our world as a savage civilization led by pyromaniacs and necrophile sympathizers who have waged senseless wars for generations. If our respect for life is too small to appreciate the lowly amoeba, our desire to send nuclear weapons into space could produce the apocalyptic “Berserker probe,” sterilizing every world it touches.

Article Copyright© Peter Fotis Kapnistos - reproduced with permission.

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