May 29, 2009

Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

Athena Andreadis is guest-blogging this month. A slightly different version of this essay appeared in her blog on March 13, 2008.

"Mobilis in Mobile": Ellen Ripley/Alien Queen hybrid (Alien Resurrection)

Views of space travel have grown increasingly pessimistic in the last decade. This is not surprising: SETI still has received no unambiguous requests for more Chuck Berry from its listening posts, NASA is busy re-inventing flywheels and citizens even of first-world countries feel beleaguered in a world that seems increasingly hostile to any but the extraordinarily privileged. Always a weathervane of the present, speculative fiction has been gazing more and more inwardly -- either to a hazy gold-tinted past (fantasy, both literally and metaphorically) or to a smoggy rust-colored earthbound future (cyberpunk).

The philosophically inclined are slightly more optimistic. Transhumanists, the new utopians, extol the pleasures of a future when our bodies, particularly our brains/minds, will be optimized (or at least not mind that they're not optimized) by a combination of bioengineering, neurocognitive manipulation, nanotech and AI. 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.

And yet, despite the uncoolness of space exploration, despite NASA's disastrous holding pattern, there are those of us who still stubbornly dream of going to the stars. We are not starry-eyed romantics. We recognize that the problems associated with spacefaring are formidable (as examined briefly in Making Aliens 1, 2 and 3). But 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.

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 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.

Whereas spacefaring enthusiasts acknowledge the enormity of the undertaking they propose, most transhumanists take it as an article of faith that their ideas will be realized soon, though the goalposts keep receding into the future. As more soundbite than proof they invoke Moore's exponential law, equating stodgy silicon with complex, contrary carbon. However, despite such confident optimism, enhancements will be hellishly difficult to implement. This stems from a fundamental that cannot be short-circuited or evaded: no matter how many experiments are performed on mice or even primates, humans have enough unique characteristics that optimization will require people.

Contrary to the usual supposition that the rich will be the first to cross the transhuman threshold, it is virtually certain that the frontline will consist of the desperate and the disenfranchised: the terminally ill, the poor, prisoners and soldiers -- the same people who now try new chemotherapy or immunosuppression drugs, donate ova, become surrogate mothers, "agree" to undergo chemical castration or sleep deprivation. Yet another pool of early starfarers will be those whose beliefs require isolation to practice, whether they be Raƫlians or fundamentalist monotheists -- just as the Puritans had to brave the wilderness and brutal winters of Massachusetts to set up their Shining (though inevitably tarnished) City on the Hill.

So the first generation of humans adjusted to starship living are far likelier to resemble Peter Watts' marginalized Rifters or Jay Lake's rabid Armoricans, rather than the universe-striding, empowered citizens of Iain Banks' Culture. Such methods and outcomes will not reassure anyone, regardless of her/his position on the political spectrum, who considers augmentation hubristic, dehumanizing, or a threat to human identity, equality or morality. The slightly less fraught idea of uploading individuals into (ostensibly) more durable non-carbon frames is not achievable, because minds are inseparable from the neurons that create them. Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies.

Yet no matter how palatable the methods and outcomes are, it seems to me that changes to humans will be inevitable if we ever want to go beyond the orbit of Pluto within one lifetime. Successful implementation of transhumanist techniques will help overcome the immense distances and inhospitable conditions of the journey. The undertaking will also bring about something that naysayers tend to dread as a danger: speciation. Any significant changes to human physiology (whether genetic or epigenetic) will change the thought/emotion processes of those altered, which will in turn modify their cultural responses, including mating preferences and kinship patterns. Furthermore, long space journeys will recreate isolated breeding pools with divergent technology and social mores (as discussed in Making Aliens 4, 5 and 6).

On earth, all "separate but equal" doctrines have wrought untold misery and injustice, whether those segregated are genders in countries practicing sharia, races in the American or African South, or the underprivileged in any nation that lacks decent health policies, adequate wages and humane laws. Speciation of humanity on earth bids fair to replicate this pattern, with the ancestral species (us) becoming slaves, food, zoo specimens or practice targets to our evolved progeny, Neanderthals to their Cro-Magnons, Eloi to their Morlocks. On the other hand, speciation in space may well be a requirement for success. Generation of variants makes it likelier that at least one of our many future permutations will pass the stringent tests of space travel and alight on another habitable planet.

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.


Starship Reckless


Go Democrats said...

All very imaginative, but given the fact that "space tourism" is in its infancy if it comes to be realized at all, and that a ticket on one of Sir Richard Branson's as yet untried spacecraft will set you back a cool 200k, I don't see how space is going to become the next Plymouth or Botany Bay.

Athena Andreadis said...

Go Democrats, you may recall that Plymouth and Botany Bay almost failed. The former would have but for the indigenous people's help. Also, many past expeditions were proportionately as expensive as a major space jaunt and their human losses were invariably far heavier.

As I said in the post, the hurdles cannot be minimized or ignored. You will find more details in my Making Aliens series -- and of course specifics will change as both our knowledge of space and our technologies advance.

Mac said...

Bravo! I absolutely agree with you. And so would Timothy Leary.

Giulio Prisco said...

I agree!
While on the one hand I believe that ultimately space will be for radically modified posthumans, on the other hand I think at this moment we need seeing people like us living and working in space. We need it for our mental health as a species, to remind us of a bright future to build.

Nebris said...

I adore you.

Athena Andreadis said...

Mac, Giulio -- detailed views of the future aside, every careful thinker has reached the same conclusion: if we want to survive in the long term, we must take to space.

Nebris, join the long queue! (*laughs*)

Steve said...

You may have read Clifford D. Simak's great 1944 story, 'Desertion', which features a transhuman and a transcanine(?).

A series of transformed people have been sent to explore the atmosphere of Jupiter. None returned.

Finally the program leader transforms himself to see what has happened, taking his faithful dog with him.

Instead of death in the atmosphere of Jupiter, they soon discover that they are on a higher plain of existence.

Now they know why no one returned.

“I can’t go back,” the man says.

“Nor I,” agrees Towser. “They would turn me back into a dog.”

“And me into a man.”

Athena Andreadis said...

I haven't read that particular story, Steve. But the scene you describe reminds me a bit of the ending of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, in which Pontius Pilate and his faithful dog are walking on the path made by moonlight on their way to heaven.

Emperor said...

I wholeheartedly agree.

I also think that making the leap into space is not just viable but vital. I expressed such sentiments here.

We need to sketch out, in detail, the steps required to get us to a Type 1 civilisation on the Kardashev scale, so we can ensure focus/finance on technologies we need now and ensure that when we move forward everything is already ready to go - you could slice decades off this journey and keep us ahead of man-made disasters (like climate change).

Even the climate change skeptics have to acknowledge we should be working hard to create a smooth transition to a post-Carbon economy (throw in "energy security" and you could skip the awkward arguments about anthropogenic climate change).

So in the short-term we need silicon-free and hopefully printable and flexible solar panels. We need to create solar farms in North Africa (for Europe) and the Southern States in the US (the former having the advantage of providing jobs, income and stability to those countries).

We also need to be planning for a permanent space presence (beyond the ISS) and the Moon seems ideal. Mining Helium-3, creating mass drivers for cheap launching of ships/satellites. Ultimately we'll need giant solar satellites to beam vast amounts of energy back to Earth. It is also round about here that we'll need the space elevators and there are clearly some big technological issues that need addressing before then. It is this point where human augmentation really kicks in - we'll need a way to strengthen bones, miners working for long periods out in the asteroid belt will want upgrading further, as will Martian colonists. Presumably we'll need nanotech to repair wear and tear (as doctors might be a long way away), cybernetic upgrades, perhaps the ability to breath air with lower percentages of oxygen.

This should get us to Type 1 and then beyond that we'll have more need for modifications as people move further out into the Solar System and permanently settling on other worlds/moons/space bases.

So yes they go hand in hand and I don't feel we can focus on just spacefaring or transhumanism as they work together and we need an integrated step-by-step plan to make sure everything is progressing at the right pace to keep everything moving forward (I suspect if we slip and fall back we might not get the chance again).

Athena Andreadis said...

Emperor (of...?), I agree with your last comment: I also think that if we slip now we won't be able to recover, because the resources for our technology (iron, coal, oil, as well as the rare but crucial transition metals like nickel) have been mined to near exhaustion.

I think we need to pass two bottlenecks to guarantee our survival as we'd like it to be. One is bionanotech, which is already here naturally and needs to be explored and fine-tuned; the other is establishment of a second long-term large-scale habitat, which will also force us to understand what works in this one, and how to keep it working.

This underscores the point that space exploration is compatible not only with transhumanism, but with ecology as well -- as long as it's not undertaken as a vanity foray to showcase dominance but as the make-or-break experiment that it is.

Unknown said...

Another good post, thank you for sharing your thoughts, Athena. I support the sentiment that we eventually have to spread out into space and I also think that many transhumanists support such endeavors. I don’t think we should stop developing space access technology until we’ve developed other emerging technologies that might enable us faster/better access to space, but that we should support all of them simultaneously.

"Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies"
Sorry for opening this again, but I don't see why this would be a problem in any meaningful sense. (I'll leave the issues of the technical feasibility of uploading or whole brain emulation aside for the moment.)
The idea of uninterrupted, continuous identity/awareness is, in my opinion, largely an illusion. An exquisitely comforting one, but an illusion nonetheless. Just as the continuity of our awareness is interrupted every time we go to sleep, we might just as well be "copies" of ourselves from yesterday when we wake up. Our constituent atoms are continuously exchanged over time through food/water intake and elimination, so the material our bodies are made of doesn’t stay the same through time. Even the patterns forming our unique mind at a specific point in time are not static and unchanging, they change constantly.
Am I at this moment the same person I was when I was five years old? Legally, I am. Regarding the material that makes up my body at this moment, I am not. Regarding the pattern that constitutes my unique mind, I am not. And that’s what really counts in my opinion. Cognitively, I am more similar to, for example, a stranger, who shares similar beliefs, ideals, ethics, preferences, etc., than I am to myself when I was 12 years old.
I realize that if my (Toni#1) brain was scanned right now and implemented on a different computational substrate (Toni#2), I (Toni#1) would still have the feeling that I am a person distinct from my upload, sitting under a scanner, looking at the computational platform housing my upload (Toni#2). But does that even matter? The thing I really care about is the similarity of the cognitive architecture between the two of us. Even if I were to die, what’s really important about me (my brain/mind) would continue in Toni#2.
At least that’s how I look at it currently, other experimental evidence might change my mind, I think that the patternist philosophy of mind is correct as far as continuity of personal identity goes.

Athena Andreadis said...

Tony, you state explicitly that the upload copy is a distinct entity, which my point. I've gone into (dis)continuity of identity here and elsewhere, so I won't repeat myself. Suffice it to say that the patternist theory is untestable -- and therefore indeed philosophy, not science.

Matt said...

"Suffice it to say that the patternist theory is untestable -- and therefore indeed philosophy, not science." Isn't the same true of your beliefs about personal identity? If you're purely talking about science, then you certainly can't mention "personal identity" as an obstacle to mind uploading. I personally see personal identity as sort of folk concept that has no deep grounding in reality.