Quantum Silence

9 min read

On its site about the status of a “warp drive” (no, really), NASA has a useful ruler for measuring the development of any particular technology. This ruler has five stages:

The very beginning of the quest for knowledge. This is when you know what you’d like to accomplish, but you have no idea if it is even possible.
When you have learned enough to know what you do know, and know what you don’t toward solving the problem.
The level when you have learned how nature works. You now know if something can be done and what it will involve.
The level when you can begin to engineer and build working devices to apply those laws of nature to answer your goal.
The final state when the technology is good enough to be put to common use. Cars, airplanes, microwave ovens are all in this category.

While any form of FTL drive would certainly revolutionize space travel, particularly manned spaced travel, amongst other things, there are a number of technologies rapidly moving not from the early conjecture stage to speculation, but from speculation to science, with some even edging, slowly but surely, into technology. One such advancement is the development of quantum-entanglement-powered technologies (or, if you prefer Einstein’s descriptor, spooky-action-at-a-distance-powered technologies).

Now, the point of this article isn’t to explain quantum entanglement (a task which I suspect I am not qualified to undertake and of which Wikipedia has already done a decent job) to any real extent, so I’ll just go with a (very) short, (extremely) simplified, and (somewhat) rough explanation: If two particles are quantum entangled then interactions with one will produce reactions by the other, regardless of the distance between the two particles. That last bit is key; there is, essentially, no difference if the distance between two quantum-paired particles is a yard or a light year. This provides a number of interesting, potential applications. As the theory (i.e., conjecture) goes, if interacting with one particle produces effects upon the other, then there should be some means by which to use that link to transmit data. Simple enough in theory, a bit less so in practice.

There has been plenty of news about quantum entanglement in recent years, much of it, quite reasonably, focusing on the potential technological ramifications of any major breakthrough in the field. However, I believe that there is another implication of our advances in quantum entanglement: We may have an answer to the Fermi paradox, description infra.

Quantum Entanglement and Wireless Networking

If it turns out that quantum entanglement can be used to transmit data between endpoints (e.g., your cell phone and your cellular provider’s communication tower), then wireless networking protocols and the wireless transmission of data will become not only obsolete, but also deeply impractical and, in actuality, unreasonable. Assuming quantum entanglement can be made to provide sufficient bandwidth, it will have fewer security issues than modern wireless transmission technologies. In brief, we’d be removing one vulnerability from our network infrastructure.

Let’s take an example. Assuming you are using a laptop connected to a wireless network, these are the steps it took for the content of this page to go from my server to your browser:

This is actually a rather simplified version of what needs to happen for you to view any particular site on the Internet (and this happens twice if you want to be more precise and include DNS queries, though those may not leave your ISP‘s network). Here’s the short version of what happens when you load my site in your browser:

  1. Your laptop
  2. connects to your wireless router
  3. which sends data to your ISP’s network
  4. which sends the data through
  5. the cloud
  6. and reaches my server which sends the data back through
  7. the cloud
  8. and reaches your ISP’s network
  9. which sends the data to your wireless router
  10. which sends the data to
  11. your laptop

This entire process, usually, happens in less time than it took you to read that list. However, there are at least two steps in that chain where data is leaked into the environment (i.e., 2. and 10., the wireless steps). If you remove those steps, there’s a decreased chance of interception (it is, after all, more difficult to tap wired networks than wireless, though by no means impossible).

Now think of the global communications infrastructure. On a larger scale, wireless data transmission is broadcasting various information out into the Universe in almost all directions. This has been happening since the invention of technology capable of transmitting radio waves. Somewhere fifty light years away, there may be extraterrestrial life receiving (early) reruns of I Love Lucy. In essence, there is an expanding bubble surrounding the Earth inside of which any intelligence capable of receiving our signals can discover our existence. However, the deployment of technology utilizing quantum entanglement could drastically alter this.

Quantum Entanglement and Enhanced Security

Let’s take a look at communications satellites. Transmission from Earth to satellite and back isn’t an exact affair, some of the outgoing signal gets sent into space, some of the incoming signal gets sent into the ground. This is the nature of all broadcast-type wireless networks. Of course, the amount of leakage has been decreasing as more precise targeting of transmissions has become more common, but it isn’t zero. Quantum entanglement could eliminate this leakage.

If you can quantum entangle your communications device with your carrier’s equipment, there’s no reason for wireless transmission, ever. Granted, even if quantum-entangled communications device become not only possible but also economically practical, it will take some time before all wireless transmissions are retooled, but there is little reason not to do so. Unlike traditional wireless networks, quantum-entanglement-based networks do not suffer from distance limitations. It wouldn’t matter if you were across the street, on the other side of the planet, or on Mars.

Further, removing the wireless component from networks makes them easier to harden, easier to secure. Presently, encryption offers good protection against data snooping. However, it is generally preferable not to allow thieves into your house to test the resiliency of your safe. Better to keep them out altogether. This is what sticking to wired networks makes easier. A wired network can be physically secured (though the task may be difficult on larger networks). A wireless network cannot be physically secured, and, further, data transmitted on a wireless network can always be intercepted. If the data is encrypted, it may be worthless to the intercepting party, but, at that point, the reliance goes from two layers (i.e., encryption and physical security) to one (i.e., encryption). A long history of cryptanalysis shows that even systems which are considered unbreakable in theory prove less so in practice; whether through sheer brute force or through technological advance, encryption often fails.

A Narrow Window

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.
— Arthur C. Clarke

So what does all of this have to do with the Fermi paradox? Well, it’s all about timing. Pretend you’re on a beach on a tropical island. It’s present day and you’re standing there with a cell phone. Would your cell phone do you any good if you were trying to intercept a conversation being held over over a portable radio (aka a walkie-talkie)? Likely not. Now what if the conversation you wanted to intercept had taken placed in 1950? That cell phone will do you even less good. This is how quantum entanglement provides a (possible) solution to the Fermi paradox.

The basic premises of the Fermi paradox (modified to account for recent knowledge) are as follows:

  1. Sol (i.e., the Sun) is a young star and there are billions of much older stars in the Universe.
  2. There are other Earth-like planets and some of them may have developed intelligent life.
  3. It is likely that a civilization of intelligent lifeforms will develop interstellar travel.
  4. Colonization or, at least, exploration of the Universe would take only tens of millions of years.

Given these premises, it seems rather odd that the Earth has had no extraterrestrial visitors. In fact, humanity has yet to discover any concrete proof of other intelligent life anywhere in the Universe (at least the bits of it we can investigate in any meaningful way). We’ve met no explorers, SETI has received no signals, and we’ve found no other signs of intelligence anywhere but on our own blue marble. As the paradox inquires: “Where is everybody?”

Perhaps they’ve gone silent. In 1888 Heinrich Rudolph Hertz, whose last name should be familiar to most, proved that electromagnetic energy could be transmitted wirelessly. In doing so, he both proved James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism true and gave birth to radio. If, as now looks perhaps more than possible if not exactly likely, humanity manages to take quantum entanglement from speculation, through science, and into technology and application sometime in the next few decades, then we, as a species, will have been broadcasting signals, which could be detected and deciphered (at least in theory) by extraterrestrial intelligence, for just over a century and a half.

If, as seems likely, we will celebrate the sesquicentennial of radio by obsoleting it, we will have created a sphere with a diameter of roughly a hundred and fifty light years containing our various transmissions, which will continue to spread outward, attenuating and decaying as it goes. As we switch (back) to wired and quantum networks, the center of that sphere will go dark, new transmissions will cease. Consequently, any intelligent life will be akin to you standing on that beach, cell phone in hand, attempting to intercept a conversation using a different technology, taking place in a different era. The odds are not in favor of any interception.

In essence, it boils down to this: The odds of an extraterrestrial intelligence being in the physical location to intercept any of our signals as they pass by, being in that place at the proper time, actually intercepting any of those signals, and recognizing them as signal and not noise (which is another matter entirely, which reduces the odds even further) are vanishingly small. And these odds say nothing of that other life form managing to track the signal’s source (no mean feat) and actually bothering to investigate that source once found; adding these factors into the analysis makes contact an even more remote possibility.

Of course, none of this proves in any way that we are or are not alone in this Universe. It may be that we are alone, and the silence is telling. Or it may be that we simply have quiet neighbors, through chance or through design. However, there are only these two options, and, as Arthur C. Clarke observed, both are terrifying.

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