A Human Future Among the Stars?

by Paul Gilster on February 15, 2007

Speaking at the Space Technology and Applications International Forum (STAIF 2007) in Albuquerque yesterday, space historian Roger Launius questioned whether the idea of a human future in interstellar space is still relevant. From a USA Today story:

“We may already be Cyborgs,” Launius pointed out, looking out into an audience filled with people wearing glasses, hearing aids and sporting hip and knee replacements—not to mention those clinging to their handheld mobile phones and other communication devices.

Projecting hundreds of years into the future, Launius said he believed that it is likely humans will evolve in ways that cannot be fathomed today, into a form of species perhaps tagged Homo sapiens Astro. “Will our movement to places like the Moon and Mars hasten this evolutionary process? … I don’t know the answer,” he said.

Neither does any of us. You can read the whole thing here.

{ 8 comments }

Adam February 16, 2007 at 4:52

A fair observation is just how cyborgised we already are – cars, communicators and other augmenters all count. Will we be any less human when we’re seamlessly one with our tech? Will it be a loss or a gain to transcend the flesh? Personally I can see peril and promise, but I’ve no sentimental attachment to being instantiated in a mass of unruly cells. And I won’t fear total replacement of this soma by a purely technical form – if it’s a smooth enough process. I think – though I don’t know it – that if my every neurone was replaced one-by-one with more durable forms then I’d not notice the difference. Though I’d like a bail-out option if things went differently. The psychotic trauma of the Daleks or the Cybermen highlights what’s wrong with coerced cyborgisation.

All the best answers to these sort of questions are in fiction.

Jonathan Burns February 16, 2007 at 6:49

That press report is so insubstantial and padded with irrelevancies that I can’t tell whether it represents Launius’ case accurately.

Have I got this right?

(1) We will colonize our system’s planets.
(2) We will progressively be prosthetically equipped for space.
(3) We will also change biologically to adapt to space.
(4) But still, we might not become interstellar.

Okay. The first prosthesis we’ll need is ten tonnes per square meter between us and the galactic cosmic rays: there is no other way to rad-proof our reproductive process. After that we probably need centrifugal gravity; some adjustment for the inner ear would be convenient. Anything else is optional. Any arguments with that? If so, Launius should be making them, because these issues are not new; if not, why the mystification?

In particular, it irritates me that (according to the report) Launius foresees a process of evolution “that cannot be fathomed today”, in consequence of migrating to space, and then asks whether the migration will “hasten” it. “I don’t know the answer”, he says.

Well, I can tell him. Such a change will commence if we are stupid enough to selectively breed our astronauts from a narrow gene pool, or if we are stupid enough to make them suffer through generations of osteoporosis, vascular degeneration, cancer and birth defects, until these become selection pressures. But of course we won’t; because rad shielding and centrifugal gravity, although inconvenient to construct, are straightforward; and we must have them, if we want a large, permanent space population at all.

All other questions of congenital disease, palliative prosthetics, general eugenics and transhumanist modifications are independent of the space environment. We are perfectly able to build a space environment suitable for humanity as we are.

As for any new paradigm for space exploration, couldn’t we have a definition of the old one? No we could not, because there has never been one, outside of speculative fiction. That’s the nature of exploration.

As a theme address, this isn’t even thought-provoking. It is just an attempt to look as if it’s raising deep questions.

Kurt9 February 17, 2007 at 15:08

The key idea here is that electronics technology is development much faster than space technology. This will certainly be true with biotech and nanotech. It seems clear that electronics technology advance will continue until the molecular-level computation is developed. At this point, around 2030 or so, further progress may stop. However, advances in biotech and nanotech will certainly continue as far as a manufacturing and biomedical technology is concerned.

Although I do not buy into the idea of AI (near term) or drexlerian nanotech, I think the “wet” (biologically-based) nanotech will be developed that will have the manufacturing capabilities of the Drexlerian nanotech. I also disagree with Vernor Vinge that AI is necessary to develop this technology. Developments in synthetic biology and self-assembly chemistry will get us there on this.

All of these technologies are progressing far faster than space and space propulsion technology. So, it is logical to axtrapolate the development of these technologies out, say 50-100 years, to conceptualize what physiological form we will be in by the time we get out into space in a meaningful way. Based on this entirely reasonable assumption, the classic scenario of conventional human beings (complete with balding and aging) travelling around in intersteller space is obviously ludacris by this time.

Matt Robare February 24, 2007 at 3:47

We must remain biologically human. Nature is a free market and as economics shows, interference with that free market invites disaster. Attempting to control things like genetics at a genetic level to the extent as portrayed in movies like “Gattica” will merely showcase the impossibility of that kind of control. How many “environmentalist” measures have been enacted that harmed the environment? Quite a lot.

We will undoubtedly evolve as we reach for the stars, but that’s no reason to sell our souls for microchips, so to speak.

We are not cyborgized at all. To be a cyborg is to be utterly dependent upon technology and we are not. We can cast off all our tools and cell phones and survive.

The mere fact that some technologies become ubiquitous is perhaps an indication of the threat to survival and exploration it poses. It indicates that people burden themselves with crutches to their own detriment. Artificial Intelligence–if such a thing is possible–and all the cyborgization ideas pose real threats to humanity, regardless of an AI’s motives or weather cyborgization is forced or not, but because they would be the ultimate crutches.

If machines were invented that could think, how soon do you think it would be before people stopped thinking? If people could become cyborgs, how soon do think it would be before people stopped taking care of themselves?

It would be all but immediate. The loss of thinking would effectively entail a form of slavery, the physical neglect would mean extreme sloth.

Woe unto that generation.

If we want to get to space we must overcome our “weaknesses” ourselves. Space will be a testing ground of HUMAN endurance. It will be HUMAN accomplishment out there.

In conclusion I offer up this parable: A camel was in the desert one day, praying. It prayed “Oh, Lord, make me into an elephant.” Nothing happened. Why? Because God wanted a camel, so He made a camel.

We are HUMANS and we must make do with everything that entails. And we CAN if we chose to. Unfortunately, too many people aren’t satisfied with being human and put their lot in with robots, thinking that they’re superior to humanity somehow.

But that’s the kind of thinking that will keep us on Earth or keep us from exploring our full potential.

Ron S February 24, 2007 at 11:36

“To be a cyborg is to be utterly dependent upon technology and we are not. We can cast off all our tools and cell phones and survive.” If we picked you up and dropped you into a wilderness how well and how long would you survive? You seem to be ignoring the quality and quantity of life that technology enables. Or perhaps when you say ‘technology’ you would narrowly focus on some but not all of it? I disagree. Strongly.

“Artificial Intelligence–if such a thing is possible–and all the cyborgization ideas pose real threats to humanity, regardless of an AI’s motives or weather cyborgization is forced or not, but because they would be the ultimate crutches.” AI is possible. The proof is that we are intelligent. We can do what nature has done over the eons. It ain’t easy but that does not argue for impossibility. You are correct that some (most?) people rely on technology. But is technology a crutch or a means to put aside drudgery to take up greater tasks? Sure, some folks are content to slouch in front of the TV all day long, but that isn’t technology’s fault – there have always been slackers, and they just have new ways of slacking, and to do so without dying of want.

“If machines were invented that could think, how soon do you think it would be before people stopped thinking?” Ditto.

“The loss of thinking would effectively entail a form of slavery, the physical neglect would mean extreme sloth.” Huh? You have a very pessimistic outlook. Let’s suppose for a moment that AI/robots are among us. What would happen? Why or how would they enslave us? My own prediction is that at some level of development they would become one of us, at least legally and perhaps in time socially. Then they can vote. I live in a democracy, do you? Would they take over, how? If, today, the government in power is antithetical to all you believe, are you a slave? I think not.

To get back on topic, for the foreseeable future we need autonomous agents to help us explore the cosmos. It’s cheaper and lessens the risk to human life. In time I expect we will manage the technological challenges to getting humans into space, safely and comfortably, and explore more directly. I also expect robots to be there with us. They are wonderful tools, and may even one day in the far future become companions.

You need not worry about getting uploaded into a cyborg. There is a profound difference between creating AI and moving a human consciousness into a non-human body.

Matt Robare February 25, 2007 at 0:49

It wouldn’t be slavery like in the South or something. I guess “addiction” is a better term. If all of our thinking is done by machines then we would be dependent on those machines to tell us what to do, etc.

I didn’t say it was technology’s fault that it’s used as a crutch. It’s human nature to want some miracle thing to do everything for you and take care of you. But it’s also very irresponsible because it means that such a person will not do things for himself, will be unable to do anything for himself.

I’m not pessimistic about the future, just AI and cyborgs.

Ron S February 25, 2007 at 20:03

Matt, are you so sure it’s human nature to simply want to kick back and let a machine take care of all your (biological? entertainment?) needs, or is it that some humans imagine they’d like this? Try it. For 6 months sit down and phone in for your meals, have the computer pay your utilities and otherwise hire/ask others to do your various needs and/or wants. I know I’d be bored out of my skull very quickly, and probably so would you. We are not all destined to languish in a puddle of lassitude. We’d quickly stand up and go and do something, maybe something difficult if not improbable. Now that’s human nature.

I am optimistic about the future, including AI and all it entails.

ljk June 2, 2008 at 16:51

In this Space Review article on a recent discussion about
the Presidential candidates and their views on space, Steve
Robinson, a staff member of Barak Obama, made some
interesting comments regarding the humans vs. robots
in space debate here:

http://www.thespacereview.com/article/1142/1

To quote the relevant parts:

Later, O’Brien picked on the theme of inspiration: wouldn’t committing to send humans to Mars, he asked, promote inspiration and stimulate interest in much the same way as Apollo did 40 years ago? “I’d like to remind you that we actually are on Mars, and have been on Mars for four days,” Robinson said, referring to the Phoenix lander.

“I think for many people of my generation, we think of inspiration as being a person on a planet. I think there’s a huge amount of inspiration from the pictures we’ve seen in the last week of a parachute, a heat shield, and a lander on the surface of another planet. I think we shouldn’t limit what inspires us to just exploration by humans. Exploration by robots can also be tremendously inspirational.”

“There aren’t any high schools named after robots, are there?” O’Brien asked.

“No, but they are at high schools building robots,” Robinson responded. “I think it’s important, and my boss thinks it’s important, to have a balance between robotic exploration and human exploration, and to not discount the fact that we are now on Mars, and have been for four days.”

Robinson, a high school teacher before coming to Washington to work for Obama, argued that, for students and young adults, robotic exploration might be more interesting and inspiring than for older generations. Students are using advanced technology, like robots and the Internet, “in such a way that people of our generation maybe discount because we don’t understand it as much as the next generation does.”

Wouldn’t be more inspiring, though, O’Brien continued, to send humans to Mars than just robots? “To me, yes; to some of my high school students, I’m not sure,” Robinson said. “To some of my high school students, it might be more inspiring if we built ways for them to connect to probes on Mars that they could actually interact with in real time… I think we shouldn’t limit our view of inspiration to what inspires us. I think other people may be inspired, and other generations may be inspired, in other ways. I’m not inspired by Second Life, but a lot of kids are.”

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