March 13, 2008

The intersection of transhumanism and space travel

Athena Andreadis, author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek, has penned an article about the implications of transhumanism on the future of space travel. In the article, titled "Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!," Andreadis correctly observes that most transhumanists with a "a socially progressive agenda" have very little interest in the whole idea of space travel and interstellar colonization.

Indeed, outside of humanitarian efforts, most transhumanists would rather explore inner space than outer space.

But Andreadis argues that transhumanists should take space travel more seriously. She writes,

Consider the ingredients that would make an ideal crewmember of a space expedition: robust physical and mental health, biological and psychological adaptability, longevity, ability to interphase directly with components of the ship. In short, enhancements and augmentations eventually resulting in self-repairing quasi-immortals with extended senses and capabilities – the loose working definition of transhuman.

Coordination of the two movements would give a real, concrete purpose to transhumanism beyond the rather uncompelling objective of giving everyone a semi-infinite life of leisure (without guarantees that either terrestrial resources or the human mental and social framework could accommodate such a shift). It would also turn the journey to the stars into a more hopeful proposition, since it might make it possible that those who started the journey could live to see planetfall.

Ultimately, she makes the case that human intelligence, if it is to survive and prosper, needs to get off planet. Andreadis concludes by saying,
Despite their honorable intentions and progressive outlook, if the transhumanists insist on first establishing a utopia on earth before approving spacefaring, they will achieve either nothing or a dystopia as bleak as that depicted in Paolo Bacigalupi’s unsparing stories. If they join forces with the space enthusiasts, they stand a chance to bring humanity through the Singularity some of them so fervently predict and expect – except it may be a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds instead.
Read the entire article.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

That is a really nice article. Dr. Andreadis makes some really good points and she always seems to have some very interesting things to say. George, please please try and interview her in one of your upcoming podcasts!

Athena Andreadis said...

Dear George,

thank you for showcasing my essay and framing it so eloquently and generously. My thoughts have formed from a lifelong preoccupation with both biology and cosmology, space exploration and SF. I'm one of those dedicated monists who like the concept of synthesis. Hence essays like this one and its siblings.

Mike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nato Welch said...

This article is enormously confusing.

"I, at least, think that improving circumstances on earth and exploring space are not mutually exclusive, either philosophically or - perhaps just as importantly - financially. In fact, I consider this a false dilemma. I believe that both sides have a much greater likelihood to implement their plans if they coordinate their efforts, for a very simple reason: the attributes required for successful space exploration are also primary goals of transhumanism."

We have encountered a bait and switch, here. She sets up progressives (those working to solve the problems of "ecological collapse" and "inequality and poverty") as opposed to those advocating space exploration, then deftly switches the former for transhumanists, who are apparently not necessarily progressive at all, but are simply out for human modifications, and elimination of incurable disease. What happened to the environment and the economy?

She makes a serviceable case that human modifications are prerequisites for space travel, and thus are not mutually exclusive with it. But she sets up this argument by arguing that preogressive goals of "improving circumstances on earth" (eg, solving problems of "ecological collapse" and "inequality and poverty") is what "Most transhumanists, especially those with a socially progressive agenda" find mutually exclusive with space exploration.

Then, in the final paragraph, flabbergastingly enough, she //re-asserts// the mutual exclusivity, not of space exploration with transhumanist modification, but of space exploration with progressive causes, in the ridiculed form of "establishing a utopia on earth".

The effect is to pull transhumanists away from progressive causes. No matter how sexy or "compelling" the mere prospect of space exploration might be, it should never become so important that more pressing actually-existing social issues that truly effect us in the here and now take priority.

sanscardinality said...

"This article is enormously confusing"

I find the article quite clear, but your comments somewhat confusing.

"We have encountered a bait and switch, here. She sets up progressives (those working to solve the problems of "ecological collapse" and "inequality and poverty") as opposed to those advocating space exploration, then deftly switches the former for transhumanists, who are apparently not necessarily progressive at all, but are simply out for human modifications, and elimination of incurable disease. What happened to the environment and the economy?"

Did you miss this part?:

"Most transhumanists, especially those with a socially progressive agenda, are as decisively earthbound as cyberpunk authors. They consider space exploration a misguided waste of resources, a potentially dangerous distraction from here-and-now problems – ecological collapse, inequality and poverty, incurable diseases among which transhumanists routinely count aging, not to mention variants of gray goo"

In my experience, she is correct about this. Most of the progressives I know and read don't want the kind of investment in manned spaceflight necessary to actually get extraterrestrial self-sustaining human communities bootstrapped.

As for whether there are transhumanists who don't give a damn about the environment and poverty - of course there are! Reactionary/classist transhumanism is at the core of a great deal of the work in eugenics and racism in the 1900s-1940s and still has a significant representation among transhumanists, self-titled or not.

"Then, in the final paragraph, flabbergastingly enough, she //re-asserts// the mutual exclusivity, not of space exploration with transhumanist modification, but of space exploration with progressive causes, in the ridiculed form of "establishing a utopia on earth".

The effect is to pull transhumanists away from progressive causes. No matter how sexy or "compelling" the mere prospect of space exploration might be, it should never become so important that more pressing actually-existing social issues that truly effect us in the here and now take priority."

Significant space exploration is somewhat at odds with terrestrial progressive politics. Doing it would be extremely costly. It puts getting a few people off planet ahead of the many having better lives.

Utopia on Earth *is* ridiculous. Survival and progress are realistic, but require time and resources. Eventually, a near-Utopia might be realized, but I suspect that it will take millions of years of evolution. In that time there is a significant risk of an extinction level event taking place on Earth (not a high risk, but a significant one).

I agree with Stephen Hawking and perhaps Athena that we need to establish ourselves off Earth ASAP in order to ensure survival. I don't think this is a lower priority than ending wars or famine, for the simple reason that putting all one's eggs in a single basket is a disaster waiting to happen. All it would take to end humanity completely is for a supernova to be pointed at us with a large gamma ray burst (like this one: http://www.physics.usyd.edu.au/~gekko/pinwheel.html). We'd find out about it when it hit Earth and wiped us all out.

So much for progress.

I'd like to see a merging of progressive ideas (like wealth being more equally distributed) with real efforts to move into space. Maybe a UN "species survival" tax based on net worth of any entity (government, person or corporation) that goes to funding it...

- SC