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The Cosmic Algorithm: On No Man’s Sky and the Fermi Paradox

Art from No Man’s Sky

The Drake equation is a probabilistic argument that can be used to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the galaxy. It is a simple equation using just seven variables that include, for example, the number of stars in the galaxy, the fraction of stars that are “quiet”, and the fraction of planets that have life. There is a lot of debate about the Drake equation and its validity and utility. One major issue with it is that the results of the equation can vary from estimating many billions of alien civilizations in the galaxy to estimating less than one.

While the Drake equation may or may not be a useful way of estimating the abundance of alien civilizations in the galaxy, it does represent an attempt to boil the galaxy down to a set of variables. This is intriguing because if the makeup of the galaxy can be estimated by an equation, it suggests that by using the correct set of variables in an algorithm, one could essentially recreate an approximation of the galaxy. True, you may not recreate our planet and solar system exactly, but if the algorithm were known and the variables were set exactly correctly, you’d end up with a galaxy made up of, on a grand scale, essentially the same things as the one we already live in.

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Let’s call it the Cosmic Algorithm.

Of course, the Cosmic Algorithm would be more complicated than the seven variables of Drake’s equation. After all, Drake’s equation is only trying to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations, not estimate the makeup of the entire galaxy. It would involve the laws of thermodynamics, gravity, and the movement of celestial bodies. It would account for black holes, magnatars, pulsars, binary stars, novas, gas giants, rocky planets, comets, asteroids, and everything in between. With regards to life, it would account for the building blocks of life — water and amino acids — and the central dogma of molecular biology and genetics.

The galaxy contains a very large number of stars and, recent evidence shows, a huge proportion of those stars do have planets orbiting them, many including planets in what’s called the “Goldilocks Zone” — the region around a star wherein life is possible. This suggests that, depending on the variables in the Cosmic Algorithm, it’s possible life in our galaxy (and maybe in the universe) is very common.

“Pantheon of Planets Similar to Earth”, NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech, 2015
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But then there’s the Fermi paradox. Essentially, the question of why even if the probability of space-faring extraterrestrial civilizations is low, we have yet to encounter them here on our Pale Blue Dot. “Where is everybody?” Enrico Fermi is quoted as asking.

Of course, there are as many answers to that question as there are stars in the Milky Way. (Okay, perhaps that’s overstating it a bit, but there are a lot of answers.)

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The two answers that are probably the most commonly held are as follows:

1) The extraterrestrials are here, but we are either unaware of them or their existence is being hidden from us.

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2) Extraterrestrial life is either exceedingly rare or it is exceedingly rare for lifeforms intelligent enough to master interstellar travel or communication to exist.

There are a number of other reasonable explanations for the Fermi paradox as well. It is worth taking a moment to read the entire list, because some of them are fascinating. Still, even this substantial list does not cover all explanations, and it recently occurred to me that there is one that I am finding increasingly compelling as I engage in a guilty pleasure of mine: playing a video game.

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The game in question is called No Man’s Sky.


Concept art from No Man’s Sky
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No Man’s Sky is a video game from a 15-person game company called Hello Games. In the years leading up to No Man’s Sky’s release, the game was hyped as the biggest game ever — a space-faring game where you would have the opportunity to explore 18 quintillion planets as you made your way from the edge of the galaxy to the center. It promised that every planet would be unique, with a mix of varied environments, resources, plant and animal life, and alien installations. And it would be accurate to say it delivered on that promise.

Now, if the dichotomy between the game being created by just 15 people and the game being the biggest period game period ever period that delivers a completely unique experience on each of the 18 quintillion planets in it seems dramatic, it is only because I have not told you how they did it yet. Rather than designing all 18 quintillion planets by hand (which would take something like 5 billion years to do if you took just 1 second per planet), the game’s designers used something called “procedural generation” to create the planets for them.

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Procedural generation is a way of computationally creating things — in the case of video games, procedural generation is used to create the content of the game world to some degree or another. Rather than designing and creating everything by hand, everything that is procedurally generated is designed and created by an algorithm.

The algorithm does follow a set of rules, however. For example, a rule might be that every solar system must have between one and eight planets, and zero and eight moons. Another rule might be that a planet must have between zero and twelve species of animals. Another rule might be that if an animal has wings, it flies. And another rule might be that a planet will have a certain proportion of alien structures, crashed escape pods, ancient ruins, and trading posts scattered across its surface within certain distances from each other.

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A procedural algorithm will also generally give parameters a likelihood of occurring. So, for example, you might give planets a 40% chance of having no animals, a 50% chance of having from one to eight species of animal, and a 10% chance of having from eight to twelve species of animal on it. In that case, 60% of your planets would have animals, but only a few of them would have a large number of different species of animals.

You can see how, by using procedural generation, one can boil down the creation of an entire galaxy containing over 18 quintillion planets into a much more manageable (if not still probably quite large) set of parameters.

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No Man’s Sky gives us an opportunity to truly experience a procedurally generated galaxy filled with variety. It is completely accurate to say that every planet is unique — even planets that are very similar have some differences, be it the abundance of a particular mineral or the fact that instead of giant flying worms, this one has giant flying snails. It is a fascinating experiment — in one game, the makers of No Man’s Sky have proven that procedural generation, when bounded by a sturdy and extensive set of rules, can create an endless abundance of variety yet still retain stability.

Obviously the procedural galaxy in No Man’s Sky, for all of its amazing variety, is nowhere near as complex as our own galaxy, and no planet in the game comes close to as diverse and interesting as our own planet. But that doesn’t mean that our planet, galaxy, and universe didn’t come into being as the result of a procedural algorithm. Consider that there are laws governing nature and it starts to become more likely that the fundamental nature of our galaxy is exactly that — a procedural algorithm with the laws of physics setting the variables that generate all the variety in our universe.

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Could the Cosmic Algorithm be a procedural algorithm similar to (though almost infinitely more complex than) the procedural algorithm of No Man’s Sky? If we look at empirical data, it seems quite possible. Consider that just a little over two years ago, in April 2014, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovered the very first Earth-sized planet within the habitable zone of another star. Just eight months later, in Januray 2015, it was announced that eight had been found by Kepler. As of May 2016, the number was up to 21, all discovered by a single space telescope observing a tiny fraction of the stars in our galaxy. As recently as this week, astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-like planet orbiting the closest star to Earth after the sun (Proxima Centauri). This means that planets like our planet — the one planet we are positive is amenable to life — are not rare at all in our galaxy. Does this mean there is life on all of those planets? Absolutely not. But it does suggest that solar systems like ours are not an anomaly. Rather, they are scattered throughout the galaxy at some rate.

Just as they would be if the Cosmic Algorithm were a procedural algorithm.

“Star System Bonanza”, NASA, 2014
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So how does all of this relate back to the question of the Fermi paradox and Drake’s equation? How does the fact that our galaxy, our universe may be created according to a procedural algorithm relate to the question of why we have yet to meet alien lifeforms (that we know of)?

No Man’s Sky is a legendary game with respect to the hype it generated prior to its release. It promised the galaxy, and when it was released, people dove in. And what did they think of it? It would be accurate to say that there was a lot of disappointment, generally, in what the game actually ended up being. Without restating the litany of complaints people have had about No Man’s Sky, I would instead say that many people felt they did not receive what was promised by the hype machine. One could fairly say that people had unreasonable expectations for one reason or another. For my part, I enjoyed the game as I started playing it (technical problems aside) because I didn’t go into it with a lot of expectations. I had stayed away from the hype machine through conscious effort, and I think my time with the game was better for it.

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However, I would say that a more egregious accusation has started to be leveled against the game, this time by people who actually enjoyed it at first. This complaint is a bit more damning. Let me quote from Tim Martin’s piece in the Economist’s 1843 magazine on the game entitled, “The Infinitely Boring No Man’s Sky”:

The more I played “No Man’s Sky”, the more these weird and niche qualities became apparent. The first of them was a peculiar sublimity, as I wandered alien landscapes in a haze of psychedelic colours and swooshy, trance-like music. The second, after 20 or 30 planets, was a creeping feeling of boredom with the vistas and creatures: another goat-shaped being, another grey chain of islands. I became frustrated that there were so few ways I could engage with the glorious worlds. I reflected on the comment that Ricky Gervais attributed to his mother: “Why do you want to go to Paris? There are bits of Reading you’ve never seen.”

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Ouch.

Now, to be fair, despite generally agreeing with the above description, I’ve personally continued to play and generally enjoy No Man’s Sky for one reason or another. In conversation with a friend who is also a bit baffled by his own obsession with the game, we agreed that No Man’s Sky is a great “podcast game” — the type of game that is fun to play, but almost requires additional stimuli (in this case, a podcast) to keep interesting enough to continue engaging in. I have seen this same term, “podcast game,” levelled against No Man’s Sky by others on social media as well. The exploration gameplay works on some basic level for those of us who have the “explorer” gamer archetype, though again with No Man’s Sky, it’s really not enough to hold even us on its own.

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Generally, “podcast games” only hold appeal for a short time. Eventually, we want something more engaging, more interesting. For many, many others, “podcast games” are out of the question — they’d rather play action-packed games like Call of Duty, or role-playing games with deep story like Final Fantasy, or any of a number of other types of games that are more wholly engaging.

So essentially, the biggest complaint about No Man’s Sky and its magnificent procedurally generated galaxy is that it’s too boring. Simply exploring planets that are variations on a theme is not interesting or compelling enough for many gamers. Once you’ve seen that giant flying worm on one planet, the giant flying snail on another isn’t quite as amazing.

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And that right there is how No Man’s Sky may help give us a new answer to Fermi’s paradox. Despite the abundance of variety created by a procedural algorithm, once you’re confronted with a nearly endless number of variations that all feel surprisingly similar, you essentially find them boring. Take the discovery of habitable planets outside our solar system as an example. The first one is a huge, very interesting discovery. But what about the twenty-first one? The hundredth one? The thousandth? The billionth? The interest level goes down as the number goes up.

“Hubble Feathers the Peacock”, ESA/NASA/STScI, 2014
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So why hasn’t an alien civilization visited us yet despite the very high likelihood that there are many of them out there? Because we’re boring. Because endless variety is only exciting when it doesn’t adhere to a strict set of rules, but certainly life does adhere to a strict set of rules as far as we know. It needs liquid water. It needs amino acids. It needs oxygen. Even if it doesn’t need these exact things, it needs something similar to them.

And yeah, there are going to be explorers in any group, be they the smallest bacteria, an intrepid human being, or an alien intelligence. But a recent estimate for the number of potential Earth-like planets in the galaxy is around 8.8 billion. Are there a billion alien explorers with the capability and interest level to even take interest in us? Are there enough that they’d have even come close to caring about chronicling our Pale Blue Dot when there are potentially billions of variations on the same theme out there?

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For my part, I’ve visited something on the order of twenty to thirty planets in No Man’s Sky and I’m bored of them. And my trip to them requires nothing of me but my time. Admittedly, they’re less complex than our planet by orders of magnitude but regardless, I can feel my time with the game coming to an end as I lose interest in seeing yet another big flying alien thing on a planet covered in giant mushrooms.

So perhaps the answer to the Fermi paradox is that it is in the nature of a procedurally generated universe for it to be boring at our level to beings with the capability of actually traveling to and observing us. And to be clear, I do not say “boring” flippantly. I mean that as of yet, there’s nothing compelling about our little world compared to the billions of others just like it that would make an alien explorer or civilization interested in us. Because there are so many similar worlds, there’s no compelling reason to come to this one in particular.

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You may think that calling ourselves and our planet “boring” is denigrating. “We’re not boring,” you might be saying to yourself. “We’re special.” But that’s another thing No Man’s Sky can prove to us. We are special. If we are the product of a procedural algorithm, then we are unique. Our planet is one of a kind, and everything about it is special. But when you’re amongst over eight billion unique variations on a theme, you may not be interesting to someone looking at you from afar. That’s not a judgment of us personally. It’s just putting ourselves in the shoes of something advanced enough to be able to visit and explore anywhere it desires.


Before closing, I do want to propose one other potential explanation for the Fermi paradox, one that is similarly represented in the simplistic procedural galaxy of No Man’s Sky: It is possible that our entire universe is a simulation. It is possible that we are literally living in a computer simulation of a very complex version of a procedurally generated universe.

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This is not an original notion at all. In fact, well-respected scientists have earnestly debated the question of whether we live in a hypercomplex computer simulation. If we did, however, then not everything will necessarily follow “the rules” — and therein may lie the explanation for why we seem to be alone in our galaxy.

No Man’s Sky provides a key example of this. The player character is “special” in the galaxy of No Man’s Sky. The player is the only one who seems to be on the “path of Atlas” (if he or she chooses to be), a plot-driven quest to discover strange alien artifacts throughout the galaxy. And while the alien races of No Man’s Sky are abundant and varied, the intelligent ones all fill specific, procedurally generated niches. Only the player (and a couple of other key individual characters who appear to exist only as driving plot elements for the player) are able to move from system to system. Only the player seems to interact with the Atlas Interfaces (large space stations with odd artificial structures) that appear in a subset of systems.

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If the universe is a simulation, it is possible that it has been set such that our planet is the only one with the potential to create life as intelligent as ours with the same motivations as ours. It is also possible that it has been set that interstellar interactions are limited or impossible for one reason or another that we do not yet know about.

This is a disturbing notion for an atheist like myself. It suggests that rather than a Cosmic Algorithm, we live by a “God’s Algorithm”. It suggests that we are not merely a natural occurrence but that we really are “special” — an aberration forced into existence for one reason or another. It is possible that whoever created this simulation wanted to experiment with what would happen if a planet existed where a species of resource-hungry multicellular entropy-driving organisms evolved to be smart enough to travel the cosmos, and therefore set up the perfect environment to create such a species right here on Earth.

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If our universe does essentially follow a procedural algorithm with regards to its creation, it means that once we figure out that algorithm, we can more accurately predict the future and, for what it’s worth, the past. We could also essentially create a new universe in a simulation. In fact, it is arguable that No Man’s Sky has accomplished this already, though there is nothing in the universe of No Man’s Sky that comes near the complexity of our universe, of course. Still, even if the game isn’t perfect, it is inspiring that it represents a primordial form of Cosmic Algorithm. It may well be that exploring the creation of the true Cosmic Algorithm is only interesting to us, as a species, up to a certain point as well. Eventually, humankind may well consider the universe itself to be boring too.

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I take solace that I live in a time long before that, when discovery is still possibly the most human activity we can partake in. As I watch my son learn things for the first time, I see how excited he is at those first discoveries. I am comforted thinking on that, and realizing that we have so very much left to learn about our world, our galaxy, and ourselves.


Thank you for reading. I am M.J. Yamaguchi, PhD. You can always find me on Twitter, my handle is @mjyams. This article first appeared on my Medium page. If you have any questions or comments, they are always welcome, so please post them here or on Medium or tweet them at me! If you have criticisms, please write them on a piece of paper, neatly fold the paper into a small, tightly packed triangle, and place it directly into the nearest waste receptacle.

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