June 18, 2007

Stross: Space colonization is not in our future

I'm sure most readers of this blog have stumbled upon Charlie Stross's recent post, The High Frontier, Redux, in which he argues that space colonization is not in our future (Charlie's post was BoingBoing'd and Slashdotted and of this writing has over 452 comments!). He crunches the numbers and offers some interesting food for thought about the limitations and absurdities of space travel and colonization.

He says,
This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you're not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money).
I recommend that you read article; there's lots to consider.

That said, I agree with Stross that space colonization is not in our future -- or anybody's future for that matter. But I disagree with him as to why this is the case (this is largely what I'll be speaking about at TransVision 2007 next month).

First, Stross's analysis fails to take into account future civilization types; I get the sense that he takes a normative view of today's technological and economic realities and projects them into the future. This is surprising, not only because he's an outstanding science fiction visionary, but also because he's a transhumanist who has a very good grasp on what awaits humanity in the future (in fact, he was the WTA's transhumanist of the year for 2004). Specifically, he should be taking into account the possibility of post-Singularity, Drexlerian, Kardashev Type II civilizations. Essentially, we're talking about post-scarcity civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology, radically advanced materials, artificial superintelligence, and access to most of the energy available in the solar system.

Stross also too easily dismisses how machine intelligences, uploaded entities and AGI will impact on how space could be colonized. He speculates about biological humans being sent from solar system to solar system, and complains of the psychological and social hardships that could be inflicted on an individual or crew. He even speculates about the presence of extraterrestrial pathogens that undoubtedly awaits our daring explorers. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Biological humans will have no role to play in space. Instead, this work will be done by robots and quite possibly cyborgs (which is how the term 'cyborg' came to exist in the first place).

Stross does mention the possibility of probes being sent out, but again, fails to account for the economic benefits of self-replicating probes. He notes the extreme distances involved in space travel -- another way of saying that it takes too long. Given the alternative mind-space and clock-space that a machine mind could inhabit, time is not a very helpful variable when discussing the limitations of space travel.

Spacecraft propulsion was another topic that Stross addressed. My feeling is that he should have spent more time analyzing some of the more radical possibilities for star-to-star space travel. I'm fairly convinced this is not an inhibitor to space colonization.

Finally, Stross's analysis invokes far too much sociology and rationalization. Cost and time scales aside, he did not take into account the drive for scientific advancement and exploration. The search for life on other planets is a rather important one -- it's a mystery we seem rather hell-bent on solving. Moreover, it's difficult to predict what private individuals or groups may do on their own. I can totally imagine an eccentric and motivated crew that organizes a mission into space.

As for my own arguments against space colonization, like I said, that's the topic I'll be addressing at TV07. Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks.

9 comments:

Chris said...

I found Stross's post more like the screed of a man who's contemplating a career change. Disappointingly unimaginative, and bewilderingly so, given that his novels deal with post-singularity technologies. Also, I didn't appreciate the condescending tone in which he explains the distances and difficulties involved in space travel, as though these haven't been understood for decades by anyone with a freshman level of education.

bw said...

We can think of the world as your parents house and the unfinished basement as the Gobi Desert.
What makes moving out better than living in your parents basement ? It is cheaper in your parents basement. It is tougher to move out, you have to do your laundry and maybe cook for yourself and landscape your new place. You would have enough room in your parents basement. Does your older brother have to remodel and live in your parents basement before you can move out ?

Strike out on your own.
Make an independent life for yourself.

We could keep densifying your parents house and people living in the house could get weapons that could easily blow up your parents house. If we spread out across the block and city then we would not kill each other as easily and we would have more room to stay out of each others way.

re: Perfecting ourselves before leaving the earth ?
Is there some standard that we should be perfect before we leave our parents house ? Do we solve all of our problems before we leave ?

Does moving out mean that parents do not need to keep working on their problems. Don't you have to keep working on your own problems. Would staying under the same roof help solve the problems any faster ? Does it prove anything that you learn to not kill your parents and you learn to live together with them ?

==

Those who think no one will ever colonize space are in the same mould as "I am living in my parents basement and I am happy and it is better economically than moving out, I cannot imagine anyone moving out of their parents basement ever"

bw said...

We can think of the world as your parents house and the unfinished basement as the Gobi Desert.
What makes moving out better than living in your parents basement ? It is cheaper in your parents basement. It is tougher to move out, you have to do your laundry and maybe cook for yourself and landscape your new place. You would have enough room in your parents basement. Does your older brother have to remodel and live in your parents basement before you can move out ?

Strike out on your own.
Make an independent life for yourself.

We could keep densifying your parents house and people living in the house could get weapons that could easily blow up your parents house. If we spread out across the block and city then we would not kill each other as easily and we would have more room to stay out of each others way.

re: Perfecting ourselves before leaving the earth ?
Is there some standard that we should be perfect before we leave our parents house ? Do we solve all of our problems before we leave ?

Does moving out mean that parents do not need to keep working on their problems. Don't you have to keep working on your own problems. Would staying under the same roof help solve the problems any faster ? Does it prove anything that you learn to not kill your parents and you learn to live together with them ?

==

Those who think no one will ever colonize space are in the same mould as "I am living in my parents basement and I am happy and it is better economically than moving out, I cannot imagine anyone moving out of their parents basement ever"

n8o said...

Not considering uploads or AI isn't "too easily dismissing"; it's a simple matter of not being the subject.

I had the privilege of reading this before I found many blog posts to it, and I have to say I'm somewhat bewildered by how summaries have overcharacterized this as naysaying.

He's not saying interstellar colonization is impossible, let alone exploration. He's just laying out how difficult and expensive it will be for "us", meaning the fragile human beings we are today. We are adapted to relatively friendly conditions of Earth. If you're going to explore or colonize interstellar space, "meat in a can" is not the way to go; something more like one of his "magic wands" would be cheaper, faster, more efficient, and thus //sooner//.

I think I can summarize the question of this century in two words: "Who's we"? If uploads or AI count, then "we" can colonize the galaxy just fine. If it doesn't, then we're in for not just a world of hurt, but a galaxy.

George said...

N8O: If your suggestion is accurate, that "He's just laying out how difficult and expensive it will be for "us"," then Stross embarked upon a truly useless exercise.

George

rjs said...

How useless Stross's exercise was depends on how prevalent the notion is that humans-as-we-are-now will be the ones who should be doing space exploration and colonization. I understood that Stross was mainly railing against this romantic notion, which is a particular problem in science fiction.

Pointing out to space colonization enthusiasts that some serious posthuman technology is needed to actually thrive in space seems like a good result to me.

Ed said...

In comment #24 Charlie explicitly stated:

You'll note that I explicitly mentioned starwisp-type probes, nanotechnology, and uploading as possibilities -- then decided not to explore them. Because, y'know, we don't have any definite knowledge of whether they're even possible, yet. If they are possible, then we may actually be able to contemplate interstellar colonization at a not-too-outrageous price -- and we may even be able to go and visit the neighbours -- but it's going to look very different from your traditional SFnal scenario.


Charlie was explicitly writing about space exploration and colonization by canned primates, not by any type of Post-Biological (upload/AI) entity. This is not a useless exercise as the canned primate approach is still the dominant vision of space colonization. I think that Charlie's essay does an extremely clear and cogent job of explaining why this dominant vision is ultimately futile (i.e. distance and energy requirements).

I, personally, tend to agree that if there is going to be a future for humans off of Earth, than those humans will almost certainly not be apes in cans, but rather uploaded personalities. The reasons that I believe this are quite similar to the reasons that Charlie spells out in his post and that George has discussed repeatedly on this blog. It just takes too much support infrastructure to keep us humans w/ bodies alive, an upload takes a fraction of the support infrastructure. If you have to ship this infrastructure up a gravity well or across interstellar distances, the mass really begins to add up. I think that this is the ultimate point that Charlie is making in his post.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with him on space colonization. It is the future of humanity or rather post-humanity. If we wish to survive as sentient beings we must. Existential risk is reason enough.

Humanity moving into space would be one of the best things to happen for global peace in our entire history. Removing issues like scarcity of resources would go a long way to ending conflict and there is enough space out there to allow those who want to live their own way to do so without interference.

If he truly is a transhumanist then he would agree with the idea that we must go into space. Putting all your eggs in one proverbial basket is not a good idea.

It may be difficult to do but as technology progresses it will become easier. It wasn't easy for the first seafarers to travel the oceans but technology progressed and now we have gps navigation and real-time weather tracking. It will be the same with space travel and colonization.

People who argue that we will never colonize space are completely ignorant of human ingenuity and perseverance. We will do it and we will be successful and it will be the greatest moment of our entire existence as a species when we finally divest ourselves of our earthly chains and take our place ,where it rightly belongs, in the Universe. We are explorers and there is a lot of Universe out there to explore, and the sooner the better.

Capacete said...

I'm a noob in SciFi and all this transhumanist stuff, but I found that Charlie's post was insightful only when comparing colonization with exploration, and talking about Moon and Mars exploration.

Talking about interstellar travel is only possible with many many assertions, such like near-magic-wand-technology and different social behaviours. He dismisses them all, assuming that we are going to be just the same as today when we build the first Alfa Centauri spaceship. By the way, isn't solar wind and light a nowadays, feaseable propulsion technology?

Ok, then, let's talk about our near solar system. I though an interesting suggestion to try to colonize Gobi desert and the North Atlantic sea before heading to Moon or Mars, and agreed that by now it's much more useful to send robots to explore these worlds than humans to colonize them.

But... if we have the technology and wisdom to live in these worlds with our bodies, do he really thinks that there won't be men to go there? Even if just for a season, to control the exploration (or mining) machines, to make history?

Bruno Kim

PS.: sorry for any bad engrish =]