The Great Filter is a proposed explanation for the Fermi Paradox. The development of intelligent life requires many steps, such as the emergence of single-celled life and the transition from unicellular to multicellular life forms. Since we have not observed intelligent life beyond our planet, there seems to be a developmental step that is so difficult and unlikely that it "filters out" nearly all civilizations before they can reach a space-faring stage. Robin Hanson coined the term in his 1998 essay The Great Filter - Are We Almost Past It?.
From that essay:
Humanity seems to have a bright future, i.e., a non-trivial chance of expanding to fill the universe with lasting life. But the fact that space near us seems dead now tells us that any given piece of dead matter faces an astronomically low chance of begating such a future. There thus exists a great filter between death and expanding lasting life, and humanity faces the ominous question: how far along this filter are we?