[ExI] Extrope Robert Bradbury Has Died

x at extropica.org x at extropica.org
Mon Mar 7 03:42:27 UTC 2011

Forwarded to the list:

Remembering Robert Bradbury

George Dvorsky

Posted: Mar 6, 2011

Robert Bradbury passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend of
a massive hemorrhagic stroke. His passing was the kind of thing that
barely registered anywhere except among his immediate group of family
and friends—and among a group of dedicated and niche scientists,
futurists and technologists. For them, Bradbury’s premature passing
represented a monumental blow to inspired and imaginative scientific

While Robert Bradbury, who died at the age of 54, may not have had the
most recognizable name in the various scientific communities he was
involved in, his impact to future studies, and in particular its
relation to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, cannot be
overstated. Bradbury was a giant in this area, a creative and
unconventional personality who paved the way for other like-minded
thinkers and enthusiasts.

To say that the scientific community lost its foremost thinker on SETI
studies (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and the problem
that is the Great Silence (also known as the Fermi Paradox) is hardly
an exaggeration. Bradbury was a voracious collector of any and all
articles, papers and studies conducted on the subject. From my
conversations with him, I can tell you that his ability to recollect
and reference these works was uncanny to the point of absurdity. He
was an authority in the truest sense.

Nobody more than Robert insisted on the simple fact that the correct
resolution of Fermi’s Paradox—the fact that we do not observe any
presence of Galactic extraterrestrial intelligence—will provide us
with crucial insights into humanity’s future. It was this particular
notion that has personally driven me to pursue SETI studies as a means
to predict humanity’s potential developmental trajectories. Simply
put, if you can predict, or even observe, how advanced
extraterrestrials operate, we stand a better chance of understanding
our own future.

Despite the eeriness that is the Great Silence, Bradbury applied a
natural optimism to his work. He sought to construct and develop
hypotheses to the Fermi problem that did not jeopardize the potential
for human possibilities. This included a grandiose “cosmic vision” of
humanity’s future, and in this sense he was an heir apparent to Olaf
Stapledon, H. G. Wells, and Freeman Dyson.

To this end, Bradbury put forth a number of intriguing
theories—theories that have since become foundational concepts amongst
serious futurists, transhumanists and those concerned about the
potential for a technological singularity. In particular, Bradbury was
intrigued by megascale engineering concepts such as Dyson Spheres and
Jupiter Brains. He even came up with one of his own, the the so-called
Matrioshka Brain—a megascale computer that could exploit nearly the
entire energy output of a star. Bradbury could never be accused of
thinking small. Such concepts would go on to influence such thinkers
as Anders Sandberg, Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson and Ray Kurzweil.

One of his most important works came in 2006 in his collaboration with
Milan Ćirković, “Galactic gradients, postbiological evolution and the
apparent failure of SETI” (New Astronomy 11, 628-639). In this paper,
he argued that the most likely trajectory of a postbiological (i.e.
digital) community would involve the quest for computational
efficiency and optimization. Such a society, he argued, would likely
involve spatially compact civilizations that would be extremely hard
to detect, especially if located in outer regions of the Milky Way.
This conclusion has served as an elegant and rather optimistic answer
that contrasts to the more doom-and-gloom suggestions that are
typically put out.

The paper also criticized the orthodox approach to SETI projects,
which Bradbury found irritatingly old-fashioned and conservative in
the extreme. Instead of listening for intentional (or intercepted)
radio messages, he thought it would be far more promising to search
for artifacts and traces of astroengineering of advanced technological
civilizations, like Dyson shells or Matrioshka brains. Such searches,
he thought, would have to be conducted in the infrared part of the
electromagnetic spectrum. A natural extension of this concept was the
project of setting up new directions and expanded range of techniques
for SETI observations, something which was consistently hinted at
during the half-centennial jubilee of the OZMA Project in 2010. This
study was, sadly, the last one Bradbury worked on and will be
published posthumously. Clearly, his departure will be a great loss
for the astrobiological and SETI communities.

At a personal level, Robert Bradbury was known as a generous, driven
and often outspoken individual. His unorthodox beliefs, a hallmark of
the transhumanist and Extropian communities of which he was a big
part, often translated to personal opinions that made others
uncomfortable. Bradbury never shied away from saying things that might
offend others, but this largely came from his powerful sense of
outrage towards certain issues, including the problem of death. A
radical life extension crusader, Bradbury railed against the needless
deaths of people the world over and and how society spent so
relatively few resources to address the issue.

Along these lines, Bradbury also made a considerable impact on early
efforts to re-conceptualize and pathologize the aging process. Back in
1991 he was already framing the problem of aging as something that
could be solved. To that end he devised a theory of aging that
involved insights into genetic defects, poor biological programming
and insufficient repair mechanisms; the work has served as a precursor
to Aubrey de Grey’s Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence

Not content to merely wax philosophical on heady issues, Bradbury made
a number of attempts at various tech ventures, but often to poor
results. He desperately wanted to succeed at being a technology
entrepreneur, and at the time of his passing, may have felt deep
frustration at not being more successful in this regard. He also
wanted to marry and have children, but seemed to have doubts about
having a successful and lasting relationship.

It may take a few years before Bradbury’s contributions properly hit
the radar. He leaves behind a rather remarkable body of work that I
predict will eventually get the respect it deserves in the various
scientific circles he was involved in.

Thanks to Milan Ćirković and John Grigg for helping me write this piece.


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