March 10, 2011

The case for space colonies

Writing in the Space Review, Stephen Ashworth complains that we're losing sight of the great potential for space colonies:
For example, the material published so far by the DARPA-NASA Ames 100-Year Starship Study ignores colonies in space, despite their obvious relevance, as does Lou Friedman’s report on their recent meeting (see “Fly me to the stars”, The Space Review, January 24, 2011). Joy Shaffer’s 2004 essay “Better Dreams” at, enthusiastically referenced by one Space Review commenter, explicitly excludes colonies in space: “there is no need to massively industrialize any place in the solar system beyond the elevator terminals and power stations at geosynchronous orbit”. Even the Tau Zero Foundation focuses on “the ultimate goal of reaching other habitable worlds”.
Ashworth makes the case that, while the Earth gave us a great start, it's time to move on:
The conclusion has to be drawn that, while a planet is a good place for life to get started using unconscious means that can evolve spontaneously from the chemical substrate, once life has reached the stage of industrial development, its further growth depends on the use of technology to construct artificial space colonies, which use the material resources of planetary systems at a much higher level of efficiency.
As is so often the case in these sorts of analyses, these speculations are predicated upon the assumption that we will colonize space as humans, and not as cyborgs or non-corporeal artificial intellects. Ashworth continues:
First, the project of sending humans to the stars is absolutely dependent upon prior large-scale space colonization. To begin with, the passengers on any interstellar mission will be devoting the rest of their lives to the voyage and the explorations at their destination: a return journey within a human lifetime is hardly conceivable (barring some magical new propulsion technology, and even that is hardly likely to come cheap).

This means that no crewed starship will be dispatched until the viability of a space habitat has been demonstrated for at least one complete human lifetime (including one or more reproductive cycles, unless the starship is conceived as a suicide mission). With space colonization in progress, spurred by general economic and population growth, such a demonstration will be a matter of course, and will be funded by the broader economy. Without it, the demonstration will be an expensive one-off project, and volunteers (together with their yet unborn offspring) will have to renounce all claim to a normal life.

Okay, here's what I say to this: This is a noble endaevor given (1) our current biological condition and (2) our critical need to get off planet before we're wiped out by an existential catastrophe. There's no harm done in figuring out how to create a biosphere in space for biological humans. In fact, a fully robust and operational space station might actually save our ass. I'm all for it.

But if the discussion is about longterm interstellar exploration and colonization, and that's what this is, let's get real and discuss our potential to venture out as a postbiological species. As NASA's Stephen J. Dick has stated, "Biologically based technological a fleeting phenomenon limited to a few thousand years, and exists in the universe in the proportion of one thousand to one billion, so that only one in a million civilizations are biological."

In a post-biological future, machines are the dominant form of intelligence in the Universe. Talk of humans venturing out is just plain silly and short-sighted.


Sean Strange said...

"Biologically based technological a fleeting phenomenon limited to a few thousand years, and exists in the universe in the proportion of one thousand to one billion, so that only one in a million civilizations are biological."

In proportion to what? Based on what evidence? Right now the only evidence we have suggests the proportion is 1 to 0, i.e. infinity, so I have no idea what this NASA guy is saying!

The evidence also tells us that it took billions of years to go from microbes to human level intelligence on this planet, so the idea that we’re going to engineer superhuman machine intelligence from scratch in a century or two seems rather optimistic. It seems more realistic to assume we’ll still be roughly the same silly apes we’ve always been for quite a while yet, which means that we should start figuring out how we’re going to survive in extraterrestrial environments with the substrates we have. I wouldn’t even bet on a singularity happening before interstellar travel becomes feasible, so it’s not too early to start thinking about that. The point is, we humans need to plan for a future in space, but if we put this event horizon in front of us that may not even be real we risk not doing anything but waiting around for the techno-rapture. Screw that!

Astronist said...

Hello, George, and thanks for quoting chunks of my Space Review article.

This question of a post-biological intelligence is a difficult one; I've come across it in recent books by Paul Davies and Seth Shostak. Basically I'm not convinced, because the argument rests on two factors.

Firstly, a very one-dimensional view of intelligence, i.e. sheer information processing power, or flops. Yes, this is still shooting up, and at some point computers will overtake the human brain. But will that make them independent intelligent organisms? What about their quality of life? What about humour and enjoyment and all the intangible things that make us human? Of course you may say these are unnecessary and illogical and will be superseded. My view is that this is a science-fiction cliché, and that we don't really understand too much about conscious intelligence at all.

Secondly, those authors I've encountered who talk about the increase in computer processing power omit an equally important factor, in my view, which is the parallel increase in directness of the human-machine interface. When I was young, communication with a computer was done via a stack of punched cards or punched tape. Then it was keyboards, and point and click, and in the not too distant future we'll surely see a direct interface between human thought and computers.

In other words, in my view of the future we're not looking at the replacement of humans by machines, but rather a symbiotic evolution of humans and their machines into post-humans. These may still be organic beings, but massively augmented by genetic and information technologies.

To put it at its simplest, I'll believe that we'll be replaced by machines the day I hear that machines are having better sex than we are... The post-humans will still be organic, at least on the outside, because of the quality of life issue.

But obviously, neither I nor you really know. We're speculating about an evolution which so far as we know has never happened before.

Oxford, UK