It’s pretty much impossible to agree with Elon Musk about anything nowadays.
Since buying Twitter for $44 billion dollars, Musk has managed to polarize public opinion like few others. He tweeted dangerous lies about COVID-19, wreaked havoc in his own social media company, tanked shares in Tesla, and promoted baseless right-wing conspiracy theories. If that’s not alienating enough, multi-billionaires just aren’t super popular in a world where most people are struggling to make ends meet. Quite simply, Elon is on the nose.
However, there’s one topic on which Mr Musk and I definitely see eye-to-eye: stopping humanity falling victim to ‘the Great Filter’.
"We must pass the Great Filter"
Elon Musk, June 2020
‘The Great Filter’ is a term that may require some unpacking, but before I do, we need to back up a second and look at a couple of basic concepts. As it stands, all humans (but for a handful aboard the International Space Station) live on Earth, making humans at risk of a meteor impact that wipes us out like the dinosaurs. While such a catastrophe is highly unlikely, every year there’s a 1 in 500,000 chance of an Extinction Level Event (ELE). Movies such as Armageddon and Deep Impact traded on this fear. But it’s not just meteors. There are other existential threats, such as climate change, and the potential for a nuclear doomsday. So even while the odds are against our imminent destruction, we have all our human eggs in one basket.
For all his myriad faults (please, don’t get me started), Elon has a plan to change that. He wants to colonize Mars, an act that would effectively ‘back-up’ humanity in the event of an ELE. This would save us from one component of The Great Filter.
The Great Filter
The idea of the Great Filter is based on two main concepts: one is the ‘Drake Equation,’ a mathematical formula which estimates that many intelligent civilizations (possibly in the hundreds of thousands.) exist in our galaxy. Given this high figure, physicist Enrico Fermi asked the $64,000 question: "Where are all the fickin’ aliens?” (yes, I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the basic idea). The scarcity of evidence for ETs in a universe supposedly brimming with them is known as the Fermi Paradox.
Fermi’s observation led people to speculate as to why we haven’t heard from all the aliens that are casually zooming around our local star cluster. Maybe the galactic distances are just too great. Maybe we’re the most advanced civilization out there, and we’re waiting for others to catch up. Or maybe the aliens simply don’t like us. There are more reasons too numerous to list here. For our purposes, the most pertinent assertion is that these civilizations haven’t passed the Great Filter and, therefore, no longer exist.
So, what is this Great Filter?
If it helps, you can think of the Great Filter as a cosmic Donald Trump weeding out unpromising civilizations from The Apprentice: Galactic Edition: “You’re a loser. You’re fired.” Instant elimination. At this point, I must point out that the Great Filter isn’t human, or even sentient… in other words, it’s exactly like Donald Trump.
Attempted jokes aside, the Great Filter is a thought experiment that suggests there are a series of barriers stopping intelligent life in the universe developing beyond a certain point. We’ve already managed to negotiate a few of these filters. For instance, there probably aren’t many planets suited to life as we know it, but luckily we’re on one of the good ones. It’s also likely that making the jump from simple, multicellular life to intelligent, self-aware life is also rare and unusual, and we’ve managed that too.
But we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet.
There are other potential filters that prevent intelligent civilizations from achieving certain milestones, such as developing the ability to colonize other planets. If we can’t expand humanity beyond our own planet, we then become susceptible to other filters: Extinction Level Events like planet-killing meteors, an out-of-control greenhouse effect, or the old favorite, suicide by nukes.
There might even be other filters humans are simply too stupid to understand.
The Great Filter hypothesis also suggests there are hurdles to be overcome for a civilization to become technologically sophisticated enough to be detectable by other civilizations. If so, the lack of evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life may be due to most civilizations never reaching this level because they were filtered out of existence.
It is important to note that the concept of the Great Filter is still very much a hypothesis. However, it serves as a useful way of thinking about the apparent lack of intelligent extraterrestrial life and the Fermi paradox, and it has helped to stimulate further research and debate on this topic.
So Can Humans Survive the Great Filter?
Er, yes… Maybe. But we still have a long way to go to ensure we don’t destroy ourselves through apathy, ignorance, and cockiness.
Unfortunately, one reason humans may fail to escape the Great Filter is, paradoxically, toxic billionaires like Elon Musk himself. Yes, he’s doing his part to save humanity with SpaceX’s program to colonize Mars, and his pioneering work with electric vehicles may help beat climate change, but he’s seriously undercutting this by being the world’s biggest Internet troll.
In the following reply to a tweet about the Great Filter, Elon even agrees that social media is potentially a great filter:
That tweet from two years ago has aged like seafood in the sun. Elon’s takeover of Twitter and erratic behavior as CEO has done a lot to destabilize civilization. Even his impending departure from that job due to a Twitter poll (seriously, WTF?) doesn’t mean normality is coming back to the bird app any time soon.
All of which begs the question: Is Elon Musk one of the Great Filters humanity must defeat? The answer to that is an emphatic ‘probably not.’ No one human being, not even a Musk, Gates, or Bezos, can cause the end of humanity. But billionaires have greater potential to tip the balance… for good or for bad.
The good news is the Great Filter is only a thought experiment, not an immutable law of the universe. The fact some of us are thinking about it makes the chances of surviving it higher. I’m a positive sort of guy, and we’ve bypassed all the filters so far, haven’t we? Why not a couple more?
I’m not saying it’ll be easy.
Global warming is an existential crisis; but with hard work, luck, and a combination of creativity, sustainable living practices and yet-to-be-discovered green technologies, we can beat that problem.
If and when we drag ourselves back from the brink of global warming, the human population will eventually exceed the Earth’s optimal carrying capacity. Maybe Elon’s idea of colonizing Mars will reduce pressure on the Earth’s population, and have the knock-on effect of futureproofing humanity.
It’s humanity's best and brightest who will help us survive, which is what makes the current crop of science deniers and neo-Luddites perhaps the biggest existential threat facing humanity. Unfortunately, this anti-science trend is fed by trolls on social media.
Which, of course, brings us back to Mr Musk.