Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Indiana Jones Theory of Space Travel

"Why do they even make this game if I can't win?" - Superbad

And no, this has nothing to do with the (spoiler alert) silly flying saucer at the end of the most recent movie.

When Indy enters into a spooky ancient temple, there are always hundreds of skeletons. Presumably these skeletons are the remnants of other adventurers who attempted to reach the end of the temple and failed. The less skeletons he sees, the greater the likelihood that no adventurer has ever reached that given area before.

The odds are sketchy, because if there are no more skeletons in a "stage" then it is possible that no adventurer has ever reached that stage, and it may still have some deadly booby traps. But generally, less skeletons in a given stage of the temple should signify a lower probability of dying there.

The sequence he must go through reminds me of Nick Bostrom's fascinating article on MIT's Technology Review. He explains why he hopes that we don't find any signs of intelligent life on Mars. There are a few reasons:

1) We have not yet seen any signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. This is a sign that intelligent life is less likely to exist in a technologically advanced form (ie, Von Neumann universal constructors) in our known universe.

2) In order for mankind to survive, we must live through any intergalactic events that threaten the earth, such as the sun exploding, or a catastrophic meteor piercing the atmosphere. Probability dictates that over a long enough timespan, these events are certain to occur. Therefore, in order to survive, humans must develop the technology to colonize other worlds.

3) The fact that we have yet to observe any signs of intelligent life (1), makes the probability that we ourselves will be able to do so (2), less likely.

The best hope for humanity is that there are some large obstacles that a species must cross in order to reach this level of technological advancement, and that humans have already crossed them. He refers to these species-changing obstacles as "Great Barriers." If we find evidence of former intelligent life on Mars, this would be an extremely bad sign for the long-term survival of humans. It would be evidence that we haven't crossed at least one great barrier.

This is like Indiana Jones as he progresses through a temple. Reaching a stage where there are no skeletons doesn't guarantee that he will survive, but it does increase his odds.

So... I'm hoping that we as a species find our way to the end of the temple without getting crushed by a booby trap, and that we don't get stuck trying to horde too much treasure before the temple collapses or the sun explodes. Unfortunately, this isn't Hollywood, so there's no guarantee.