How would you think about something if you had minimal data and a handful of rules?

The late Carl Sagan once asked this question, “What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old… an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque.”

Although any conjecture about such advanced civilizations is a matter of sheer speculation, one can still use the laws of physics to place upper and lower limits on these civilizations. In particular, now that the laws of quantum field theory, general relativity, thermodynamics, etc. are fairly well-established, physics can impose broad physical bounds which constrain the parameters of these civilizations.

This question is no longer a matter of idle speculation. Soon, humanity may face an existential shock as the current list of a dozen Jupiter-sized extra-solar planets swells to hundreds of earth-sized planets, almost identical twins of our celestial homeland. This may usher in a new era in our relationship with the universe: we will never see the night sky in the same way ever again, realizing that scientists may eventually compile an encyclopedia identifying the precise co-ordinates of perhaps hundreds of earth-like planets.

Interesting conclusions follow. My favorite part:

Because distances between stars are so vast, and the number of unsuitable, lifeless solar systems so large, a Type III civilization would be faced with the next question: what is the mathematically most efficient way of exploring the hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy?

In science fiction, the search for inhabitable worlds has been immortalized on TV by heroic captains boldly commanding a lone star ship, or as the murderous Borg, a Type III civilization which absorbs lower Type II civilization (such as the Federation). However, the most mathematically efficient method to explore space is far less glamorous: to send fleets of “Von Neumann probes” throughout the galaxy (named after John Von Neumann, who established the mathematical laws of self-replicating systems).

A Von Neumann probe is a robot designed to reach distant star systems and create factories which will reproduce copies themselves by the thousands. A dead moon rather than a planet makes the ideal destination for Von Neumann probes, since they can easily land and take off from these moons, and also because these moons have no erosion. These probes would live off the land, using naturally occurring deposits of iron, nickel, etc. to create the raw ingredients to build a robot factory. They would create thousands of copies of themselves, which would then scatter and search for other star systems.

Similar to a virus colonizing a body many times its size, eventually there would be a sphere of trillions of Von Neumann probes expanding in all directions, increasing at a fraction of the speed of light. In this fashion, even a galaxy 100,000 light years across may be completely analyzed within, say, a half million years.

If a Von Neumann probe only finds evidence of primitive life (such as an unstable, savage Type 0 civilization) they might simply lie dormant on the moon, silently waiting for the Type 0 civilization to evolve into a stable Type I civilization. After waiting quietly for several millennia, they may be activated when the emerging Type I civilization is advanced enough to set up a lunar colony. Physicist Paul Davies of the University of Adelaide has even raised the possibility of a Von Neumann probe resting on our own moon, left over from a previous visitation in our system aeons ago.

(If this sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it was the basis of the film, 2001. Originally, Stanley Kubrick began the film with a series of scientists explaining how probes like these would be the most efficient method of exploring outer space. Unfortunately, at the last minute, Kubrick cut the opening segment from his film, and these monoliths became almost mystical entities)