Sunday, July 15, 2012

Star Trek: Velara III and the Physics of Inorganic Life

Star Trek the Next Generation (1987-1994) (Picture)
Season 1, Episode 17
Home Soil

Episode 17 begins with the mysterious death of one of the crew tasked with terraforming the uninhabited planet of Velara III. While trying to determine how he was killed, Geordi and Data discover a small light-emitting sphere. It turns out to be a form of inorganic life. In this post I will consider the implications of finding intelligent inorganic life.

How is life defined?

From wikipedia, the criteria for life is:
  1. Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature.
  2. Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.
  3. Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
  4. Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
  5. Adaptation: The ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity as well as the composition of metabolized substances, and external factors present.
  6. Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion, for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism) and by chemotaxis.
  7. Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms.
The inorganic light-emitting spheres seem to satisfy all the 7 criteria outlined above, so an inorganic being like the spheres would be considered alive.

But didn't Data and Geordi decide they're like transistors?

This is where the story takes an interesting turn. The small lights are comprised of silicon, germanium, and gallium arsenide... water, impurities, and sodium salts. Computers are made from transistors, so these life forms are like mini computers. When connected together by the saline water they form a massive computer, capable of intensive calculations. It is also claimed they are powered by solar energy.

 A picture of Alan Turing, father of the early computer (Source)

The above photo of Alan Turing is presented because I want to propose an interesting thought question: the Turing test.

What is the Turing test? 

The Turing test is basically a test to see if a computer can exhibit intelligent behavior. In the Star Trek episode the little computer beings, or "microbrains," do exhibit intelligent behavior, communicating with the crew of the Enterprise and sending complicated messages. They even hijack its computer systems.

If these beings were to be found, they would answer the question about whether computers can be intelligent. They might also answer a question about consciousness.

 The microbrain, once it has grown (Source)

If the microbrain were deemed a conscious being, and I'm sure it would be, then it begs the question: what makes us different from them? How are people different from computers?

How could the microbrain have grown while on the Enterprise?

This bit of storytelling bothered me a bit. It was claimed that the microbrain was photosynthetic but it grew so quickly it couldn't have been. While duplicating it was seemingly creating mass. It was not taking mass from the Enterprise, so it had to be creating it from pure energy in a sort of anti-annihilation process. This is very energetically expensive, as Einstein could have told you:

E = mc2

That means to create 1g of mass it would take 9 x 1013 Joules (a Joule is a unit of energy). If the room the microbrain was in contains about 10 square meters of floor space, that space can be estimated to receive about 1 kW of power from light, and the microbrain somehow absorbs and uses all of that energy to produce mass, it would take about 9 x 109 seconds, or about 285 years to produce 1g of mass. This is a long time.

Albert Einstein, father of relativity and E = mc2 (Source)

If, however, the power that was being diverted from the enterprise was being used to fuel the growth of the microbrain, I can understand that. Except then it wouldn't have started dying when they dimmed the lights in the room...

So there were small contradictions in the episode, but I thought the underlying question about the nature of intelligent life was very thought-provoking. I wonder if there can be intelligent inorganic life out there. And if there is, would we even be able to recognize it?

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