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By that I mean a device whose sole function is to travel the stars and silently observe failed alien civilizations, cataloguing their failures and inevitable extinctions for posterity in some sort of macabre scrap book representing the Great Filters argument to the Fermi paradox.

For what plausible reasons would an alien intelligence, natural or artificial, build something like this? What purpose could it serve besides educating other civilizations in the most roundabout and bleakly confrontational way possible? Would such an artifact by its very nature have to be some E.T.'s idea of a joke or a spectacularly grim art project, or is there a good reason to make something like this for the benefit of whoever might find it?

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    $\begingroup$ We've been doing it for milennia: after all, archaeology and history could be seen as "observ[ing] failed alien civilizations, cataloguing their failures and inevitable extinctions for posterity in some sort of macabre scrap book"... We like to think that history is life's teacher (Cicero, 1st century BCE) and that by studying and catalogueing fallen civilizations we develop our capacity to cope with the twists life brings about, and we learn to avoid their mistakes. After all, it's the same reason why we investigate airplane accidents. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 28 '17 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ Ask Jane Goodall why she spent her life observing chimpanzees. $\endgroup$ – wetcircuit Jun 28 '17 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ Essentially in the interstellar age of any spacefaring civlization this function would be carried by xenoarchaeologists who would make it their lifes work to study dead alien civilizations. Also, we have no way of knowing whether the Great Filters argument to explain the Fermi paradox is correct or not. Your question assumes that it is "true", which is fine for a constructed world, but your alien intelligence is doing the work of an archaeologist. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jun 28 '17 at 6:16
  • $\begingroup$ Even if there is no logical reason - a rich and crazy Alien or a marketing gag or scientists doing useless stuff... when dealing with such problems always remember that someone invented the sauna suit $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 28 '17 at 7:15
  • $\begingroup$ Does this device explore and catalogue what has already happened, or does it time-travel and explore things over time? I ask because of your phrase "cataloguing their failures and inevitable extinctions." That sounds like either observing a process or concluding things from a process that already happened. $\endgroup$ – r_alex_hall Jun 28 '17 at 22:28
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"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it".

Our glorious civilization has, obviously, withstood whatever it is that causes other civilizations to fail and go extinct... or has it? Is that factor, whatever it may be, possibly only delayed and still to come? If so, how can we avoid it?

So, this device collects information on all possible reasons for and routes to extinction so its creators can make sure that they avoid them. They do not attempt to help others avoid their fate because hey - what if this factor is somehow TRANSMITTABLE? We do NOT want those doomed-to-fail aliens to infect us with their extinction whatsamajingie.

Although, a truly smart civilization WOULD try to - anonymously, through that device, without risking contact and thus contamination themselves - help other civilizations to avoid known reasons for extinction. Because - if they avoid the KNOWN reasons, they might live long enough to go extinct from some previously unknown reason. Which will allow US to learn of this new reason, and figure out how to avoid that one, too.

All in all, a valuable project for whoever built it.

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Curiosity is reason enough.

As for roundabout and bleak confrontation, mankind's history has plenty of that, but it's arguably too rare that we learn from it. An intelligent alien civilization, assuming they have a lot in common with humans, would probably remain as uneducated despite such records.

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Well, this civilization (if it's still around, the gathering could be done by an automatic probe relaying data to a decaying control center filled only with dust and probably plant life in a ruined astronomy research complex on an uninhabited mud ball circling closer and closer to a dying sun...) obviously passed the great filter. But perhaps they do not understand how they did that. They want to find out, by examination, what stopped the other civilizations to understand the phenomenon better.

They could be altruistic, trying to provide methods for other civilizations to pass.

Or they could be trying to learn how to reproduce the circumstances needed for other worlds to be weeded out in order to secure their place as rightful owners of the universe.

Or, tying into my first though about the civilization doing the cataloguing not being around anymore, perhaps they failed themselves but before transforming their homeworld into a ball of molten glass they launced this initiative so that other civilizations hopefully may learn from the failed examples of others.

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It does not have to be the probe primary purpose.

The probe could be a spy probe aiming at gathering data around the universe in order to, say, plan an invasion. However, each civilisation the probe encounter is already extinct and the civilisation which launched the spy probe just forget about it after some decades because it is so depressing.

Alternatively, the launcher civilisation could simply get extinct in the meantime.

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At current understandings of technology, any ship able to do this would have to be self replicating and probably intelligent to meet its

1) Repair needs

2) Survey needs (drone loss as it explores planets)

3) Memory needs

Any ship that could do that could also replicate/build a monument at every system it visits. This monument could hold all the recovered history of the species just visited, or even all the recovered histories of all those visited. I this way it serves as a

1) preservation of those now extinct cultures

2) Collection of knowledge for future intelligences

"Life ah, ah, finds a way." Where ever life has one risen, it may do so again. These monuments may be set up to warn those future intelligences that arise locally. This probe might even be sophisticated enough to encourage or kick-start new intelligence on planets that remain partially to mostly viable.

So the probes higher goal is to restore life, or heal the planets.

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Sounds like a combination of the Prime Directive and the Encyclopedia Galactica. They feel that they have no right to interfere, especially if the destruction is self-inflicted, but they want to preserve the distinct culture for the education of all those civilizations who survive on their own.

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  • $\begingroup$ Wut? This doesn't answer the (at this writing) yes/no question. $\endgroup$ – r_alex_hall Jun 28 '17 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ @r_alex_hall The question is not just a yes/no question; please re-read the question. While short, this does provide an answer to the question. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jun 29 '17 at 2:31
  • $\begingroup$ It is not a yes/no question anymore because I edited the question to make it open-ended four hours before you asked me to re-read it :) It was a yes/no question. As it stands now it still ends partly with a yes/no question (after the "..or..?") Also, this "answer" isn't any kind of answer, whatever the question. It's a reflective statement. $\endgroup$ – r_alex_hall Jun 29 '17 at 19:19

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