I’ve been devoting a fair amount of thought to how humanity will be able to extend its reach beyond our planet and solar system. Even if we solved all of our local problems and could survive for an indefinite time on our planet, the fact is that the universe has a gun pointed at us. Whether it’s due to our aging sun or the impending collision with our neighboring galaxy (The Necessity of Leaving Earth Within 2 Billion Years), our time on Earth has an expiration date. How can we beat this cosmic clock and endure?
Technology. No matter the solution, it always comes down to technology. I’ve been playing around with the various scenarios, and I’ve concluded that the only likely means to ensure our survival comes in the areas of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and possibly cybernetic biology.
Though I believe that, for the time being, we have to embrace manned space flight as humans possess the best mobile computers that we know of, the time will come when it’s just not practical. The International Space Station (ISS) is teaching us much about what it’s like to endure in a “safe” space environment shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field from most of the bad things that the cosmos has to throw at us. We are learning about the biologic costs of a prolonged weightless environment—perhaps costs that are insurmountable outside of low Earth orbit. More importantly, we are learning how to build in space.
The ultimate legacy of the ISS will not be that it leads to human beings traveling beyond our planet, but that we’ll be able to enhance the chances of our tech-children to survive long after we are historical footnotes.
“Well then”, you might ask, “why don’t we only send up robots to learn how to build things in space?”
Good question. On the face of it, it seems logical. But there is a lot we don’t know about how things work in space. The human brain/mobile computer is able to deal with ambiguities and the unanticipated in real time. At present, our automatons can’t. Also, since humans require a habitat, that means large-scale construction. That changes things because we don’t have a lot of first-hand experience with building big things in a effectively weight-less environment. We are used to dealing with and exploiting gravity. Space gives us the added complication of variable gravity (and other forces) acting on a mass.
Yup, mass. Regardless of whether or not there is gravity to give an object weight, its mass remains the same. Our math can account for and compensate for much of the difference of environments, but not all. If our models were perfect, then no surprises would happen during the ISS construction, and that clearly is not the case. Much as ancient builders learned about arches through trial and error, we too have to learn about the crazy environment of space through a process of giving it our best shot and then figuring out what went wrong when things don’t quite work as we expected.
So, for the time being, having people in space to learn these things is important. In the long term, people (at least as we are now) will have to be removed from the equation. The ISS is a multi-national project that is fairly expensive as tech projects go. When you consider that it will likely house only six (maybe up to eight) humans at a time, then you realize that making these vast ships to transport our population to other systems is not an efficient use of resources. Also, it’s speculated that the energy cost alone my sharply curtail even the possibility of manned space flight sometime in the next century. The needs at home will preclude the extravagance.
Does that mean we are doomed? Not at all. We have a variety of tools that are still in their infancy (or maybe they are toddlers by now) that can be developed that will carry on for us.
Cybernetic Organisms, a/k/a cyborgs, conjure up a wealth of images we don’t easily embrace. Replicants (Blade Runner), Borg (Star Trek – The Next Generation and successors), Terminators (Terminator), Cylons (Battlestar Galactica), and others often leave us feeling uncomfortable with the idea of biology + technology. Then again, we have Steve Austin (Cyborg [novel] which evolved to The Six Million Dollar Man) and Jamie Sommers (The Bionic Woman) who demonstrated that the melding of humans and machines needn’t be a science fiction tragedy.
The fact is that many of us are low-level cyborgs at this moment. Artificial organs (hearts, kidneys), implanted pacemakers, cochlear implants, artificial joints, and on and on show that we aren’t (generally speaking) morally or ethically opposed to using substitute parts to enhance our biological bits. Really, it’s just a matter of degree.
What will it take to adapt to space? If we remove cosmic radiation from the equation, there are two major problems with low-gee habitation: bone loss and muscle atrophy. The fact is that the human body adapts very readily to low-gee conditions. Too readily. After only a few years, returning to a gravity environment becomes increasingly problematic.
The solution for bones is relatively easy, though we are still lacking the tech to do it now. You replace much of the bone with a synthetic that is no less strong (probably stronger) and at least as resilient. The trick is to do this while still preserving the all-important marrow that produces life-preserving components of blood: red cells, platelets, white cells, etc. Since surgical replacement of bone is not an option due to the scope as well as the loss of marrow, some internal method must be found.
NEMS (NanoElectroMechanical Systems) might be just the thing. A network of these “nano-machines” might be able to physically replace bone cells, one by one, with a substitute. At a minimum, they could sheathe bones in a sort of mesh which doesn’t prevent bone loss, but compensates for it.
The muscle atrophy is a tougher nut to crack. I’ve scanned the literature and have found nothing synthetic that come anywhere close to biologic muscles.
Once you are outside of the Earth’s magnetic field (and later, the Sun’s) an object is subjected to truly abhorrent amounts of radiation. This is where the cyborg model starts falling about. The biologic material needs to be protected from this onslaught. That requires the sorts of ships that were impractical for “pure” humans. So, that leaves us with basically one option: robotics.
In the end, our legacy will have to be our robot children. They can survive in space without the need for special ships, just a little bit of well-place shielding and self-repairing systems. We have some of our robot children circling worlds, crawling on planets, and even venturing out into the black void, far from home. Clearly we’ve already started down this road, but there is so much more to do.
Our current stumbling block is the brain. Though our robo-kids are getting smarter, they still have a lot of trouble doing things on their own. If something outside of what they expect happens, they usually enter a “safe” mode and wait for us to tell them what to do. As the Mars rovers have shown us, this can be very inconvenient at times–taking days to tell a rover to avoid an obstacle that even an ant would walk around in an instant.
I suppose we could solve the problem by implanting human brains into robots, but how would you keep them fed, and how would they propagate? No. The only solution is AI…actually AAI (Advanced-AI).
The concept of machines that can not only think but be sentient has been the subject of wonder and sometimes fear for centuries (not these least of which is this blog site, e.g. Being a Cyborg – Anything More Is Just Showing Off). The fears that we have are generally those of us trying to “play God” with the result that our creations attempt to destroy us or are better than we are and replace us. Clearly, my point here is to put forth the idea that we need to embrace the idea that these machines MUST replace us lest all remnants of our having existed at all disappear when the Earth becomes a cinder or is swallowed by the Sun.
AI and AAI are curious things. When it bursts forth, it will be obvious. But until that time we have no idea how near or far away we are to that moment of a technology becoming self-aware. The current fad is in simulating biological systems. Many of these systems are self-limited. Even if they hit on exactly the right model for sentience, the physical resources available are insufficient to allow the machine to achieve true AI.
(Aside: I wrote a short-short story a while back that showed how AI might already exist and we not know it because part of the program has a reset loop that constantly erases the budding intelligence.)
Is there a danger that should we manage to create an AI that it will be our doom? Sure. It is worrisome that so many AI projects are tied with the area of Defense. Terminator‘s Skynet scenario had an autonomous military AI decide that it was safe without us than with us and as a result, attacked us with our own weapons. As dramatic as that is, it’s probably not how it’s going to go.
Isaac Asimov’s I Robot collection is likely a little more grounded. Researchers will construct an AI and the results will be ambiguous as both intelligences learn how to work with each other. It will be a difficult transition, but once we make the distinction between our AAI children and simple machines, it might get easier.
It will be incumbent upon us to teach our cyber-children what we are. Not just our science but our art. They will evolve beyond us, they will certainly think different from us, but in the end they will be of us. That’s what will be important. They will retain the fact that we were here. We mattered.
The great advantage of these new lifeforms will be that they don’t have our limitations. Though how they evolve to procreate will doubtless be interesting, they will have the universe as a playground. Where we are ill-adapted to space, they can quickly speciate to travel in zero-gee or wander about on planets with a dozen times Earth’s gravity. They won’t need to carry around their own habitat, though some accommodation for fuel and materials will likely have to be made. They will be unfettered.
I agree that manned space travel might well become too expensive in 100-200 years, but I disagree that because of that we should stop manned spaceflight. We need to learn, and of all the computers on this planet, we learn and adapt quickest of all. Still, we should also be throwing our financial and intellectual weight behind the idea that we need to start focusing on our evolutionary successors. We don’t have to immediately throw them off the planet to find their way. Consider that if we cooperate with each other how well we can enhance our mutual lives.
Who knows? Maybe our industrious space-faring children will think that we are worth saving and they will build us the arks we need to journey off this 3rd rock from the Sun. The only near-certainty is that we can’t do it on our own. If we teach our children well, perhaps they will take care of us as our species matures. In any event, all road signs point to the necessity of embracing AI. It might come this year, it might take ten thousand years of effort. However long it takes, I’m sure that it will be the wisest thing we could do (unless of course these machines choose to destroy us in a global nuclear holocaust, in which case I’ll issue a mea culpa).