A Bioengineered Future in Deep Space

by Paul Gilster on September 16, 2010

NASA’s Human Research Program is all about risk reduction, finding ways to counter fatigue and mitigate radiation damage, among other potential issues in space travel. But what if a different kind of program had evolved? After all, back in the 1960s the agency was looking into the much broader question of how a human being might be adapted for space. The notion grew out of a 1960 article by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline called “Cyborgs and Space,” suggesting that re-creating the environment of Earth aboard a space vehicle was not as useful an option as adapting a human being at least partly to the conditions he or she would face.

The idea was a bold one in its day. From the paper (the italics are in the original):

The task of adapting man’s body to any environment he may choose will be made easier by increased knowledge of homeostatic functioning, the cybernetic aspects of which are just beginning to be understood and investigated. In the past evolution brought about the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments. Starting as of now, it will be possible to achieve this to some degree without alteration of heredity by suitable biochemical, physiological and electronic modification of man’s existing modus vivendi.

Altering Physiology to Suit Space

Thus the concept of altering human biology (and, doubtless, psychology) to adapt to this truly extreme environment. It’s one that NASA historian Roger Launius (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum) looks into in a recent magazine article, pointing to his own use of medical equipment to sustain his existence as an example of one such transformation. Is Launius a cyborg? He calls himself one, perhaps partly in jest, but certainly to make the point that while humans cannot survive in space for more than a minute and a half without major help, deep space missions are going to require adaptations that help us weather the long voyage.

This Astrobiology Magazine article gets into the debate, noting Stephen Hawking’s belief that the long-term future of the human species is in space. Assuming we find one way or another to reach nearby stars, colonizing any terrestrial planets there will make huge demands:

If humans are to colonize other planets, Launius said it could well require the “next state of human evolution” to create a separate human presence where families will live and die on that planet. In other words, it wouldn’t really be Homo sapien sapiens that would be living in the colonies, it could be cyborgs—a living organism with a mixture of organic and electromechanical parts—or in simpler terms, part human, part machine.

And Launius himself points to the large number of people with uncontroversial tweaks such as pacemakers and cochlea ear implants whom we pass on the street every day. How many people are, in fact, alive precisely because of technological interventions they carry about in their bodies? The notion of the cyborg, then, shouldn’t really be quite as daunting as it appears, but my guess is that public reaction to a human being altered almost beyond recognition so as to allow survival in an alien biosphere would be considerably different. Such a being calls up ethical questions that make us think not so much of 2001: A Space Odyssey but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Bioengineering: A Step Too Far?

It was the Clynes and Kline paper that originally coined the term ‘cyborg,’ and NASA’s ‘The Cyborg Study: Engineering Man for Space’ followed in 1963, discussing issues like organ replacement and hibernation for deep space journeys before concluding that the technologies required were out of reach at the time. Poking around the Net on this issue, though, I came across an earlier article on the Astrobiology Magazine site looking at implementation:

The development of artificial organs is not too far advanced from what was available when NASA commissioned its cyborg study. Although artificial hearts and lungs are now more compact and better at the jobs they were designed for, they are used mainly as temporary replacements to help patients survive until appropriate donor organs become available. Artificial kidneys – dialysis machines – have posed the greatest challenge, partly due to the need to filter large amounts of fluid. In the 60s, artificial kidneys were the size of a refrigerator.

We have a long way to go, in other words, before we can achieve the kind of bioengineering that this kind of adaptation would demand. But the work continues, and accelerates:

Today, the smallest devices are still not implantable, but a recent prototype can be worn as an extremely bulky utility belt. Artificial bones, blood, skin, eyes, and even noses are now all being developed, and each could conceivably help man cope with the conditions of space. So long as the resulting entity still had a human brain, it could be considered a cyborg rather than an android (a robot that looks like a human).

Ethics of the Cyborg

From an ethical perspective, we also have to weigh the advantages of cyborg-style bioengineering against other possibilities. Assuming we eventually find and travel to a planet that could sustain human life (and assume as well that no sentient species lives there), which would be the superior moral choice: 1) Terraforming the entire world so as to suit our kind of life; or 2) Bioengineering our colonists so that they adapt to the environment they find themselves in?

The question may be resolved in a different way. It’s always possible that interstellar travel will prove so treacherous and lengthy for biological beings that our expansion into the galaxy will be managed by artificial intelligence. Paul Davies’ book The Eerie Silence again comes to mind: “I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe. If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

I can’t close this without mention of Freeman Dyson’s notions on the subject, as found in Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 234:

In the long run, the only solution that I see to the problem of diversity is the expansion of mankind into the universe by means of green technology. Green technology pushes us in the right direction, outward from the Sun, to the asteroids and the giant planets and beyond, where space is limitless and the frontier forever open. Green technology means that we do not live in cans but adapt our plants and our animals and ourselves to live wild in the universe as we find it. The Mongolian nomads developed a tough skin and a slit-shaped eye to withstand the cold winds of Asia. If some of our grandchildren are born with an even tougher skin and an even narrower eye, they may walk bare-faced in the winds of Mars. The question that will decide our destiny is not whether we shall expand into space. It is: shall we be one species or a million? A million species will not exhaust the ecological niches that are awaiting the arrival of intelligence.

The Clynes and Kline article is “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics September 1960, pp. 29-33.

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{ 21 comments }

Eric September 16, 2010 at 11:09

I almost think this sort of thing is inevitable. Look at DARPA and it’s programs toward radically altering people to make better soldiers. Probably, we’ll see a big diversification in the number of solutions people find to living in harsh environments, ranging from different types of cyborgs to 100% non-organic technologies.

The critical period is the next 100 years. We’re very very vulnerable now to collapse or extinction. If we can get past the next 100 years, sure, I see no big objection to a future of lots of AIs and cyborgs drifting through the solar system and beyond.

Interestingly, Charlie Stross (scifi author) had an interesting blog post about what was the minimum number of people a society needed to sustain complex technologies: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/07/insufficient-data.html

He was looking at space colonization (which would include the cyborg variety) and wondering if it was feasible, since to live in space (even as a cyborg), one needs to have a vast socio-technical infrastructure available for life-support. He thinks that infrastructure isn’t that portable. An interesting read.

kurt9 September 16, 2010 at 12:15

Semiconductors has its Moore’s Law progression and biotech has its Carlson’s Curves progression. Space technology has nothing comparable. Unless this changes in the near future, its reasonable to assume that bioengineering will progress at a much faster rate that the development of space technology.

Nat September 16, 2010 at 12:29

What an excellent collection of so many people’s ideas on such a powerful subject. As a computer programmer. I wonder what role I (and others like me) can play in this next step in human evolution…

Pete September 16, 2010 at 12:55

From an ethical perspective, we also have to weigh the advantages of cyborg-style bioengineering against other possibilities. Assuming we eventually find and travel to a planet that could sustain human life (and assume as well that no sentient species lives there), which would be the superior moral choice: 1) Terraforming the entire world so as to suit our kind of life; or 2) Bioengineering our colonists so that they adapt to the environment they find themselves in?

There is a third option- if a planet has a hostile environment, then go back to the propulsion drawing board so as to find a less hostile one. The need for altering our physiology will be mitigated by advances in propulsion. The faster and longer range the propulsion technology, the greater the access we will have to a greater range of less hostile environments and the less time we will have to be exposed to them. Obviously a warp drive or wormhole drive would practically eliminate the need for bioengineering. That’s why investment in this area ought to be a priority over the latter. Also, a significant space migration will never happen if ordinary people have to frankenborg themselves. Put simply, humans don’t belong in space; they belong on the surface of earth-like planets (but not necessarily earth).

donald wilkins September 16, 2010 at 13:43

I remember an old story “Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson: much, much better than a recent movie about the same topic – a handicapped individual whose personality is transferred to an alien lifeform. The Anderson story is wonderful – the technology as you would expect in a 1957 story somewhat dated. Just exactly the opposite with the movie.

Maybe the Singularity will let us transfer minds among objects – which greatly worries me as I am somewhat concerned that I might wind up in a toaster. But count me as an unbeliever in mind transfer and more interested in the methods you describe.

Until that glorious day when we transplant awareness into whatever we wish, cyborgs certainly seem the way to visit alien planets. I never did understand all those dashing space explorers exposing shocking pink epidermis to whatever dangers and ills an alien world might have in store.

Athena Andreadis September 16, 2010 at 16:12

I discuss this issue in detail in my article series Making Aliens, starting here.

A briefer take on the topic: Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

To Donald — mind transfer of the kind you speak of is not possible, for reasons I explain in Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Tulse September 16, 2010 at 16:43

The critical period is the next 100 years. We’re very very vulnerable now to collapse or extinction. If we can get past the next 100 years, sure, I see no big objection to a future of lots of AIs and cyborgs drifting through the solar system and beyond.

One problem is just how much cyborgs or genetically altered humans will be “us”. How much can we change humans before they cease to have a sense of connection to those of us who are unaltered? If we need to perform serious genetic engineering to have humans survive on Mars, for example, will those who end up there still think of themselves as humans, or as Martians?

One always has the problem with remote colonies of the colonists potentially seeing themselves more as a coherent unit than an outgrowth of the originating society (see, e.g., the US). But genetic alterations and cybernetics will greatly intensify that sense of isolation from the ancestral origin. Indeed, it may be possible that these kind of projects could essentially be creating new species of Homo, species that don’t (or can’t) interbreed with each other, and which might in the end actually compete for important solar system resources.

Nathan Currier September 16, 2010 at 17:37

Much better to completely abandon our bodies and all their bulky life support needs. We could scan our brains, emulate them at the synapse level, and live in a Matrix on the ship’s computer (or even turn the Matrix off during interstellar voyages). When exploring a planet we would just send down a bunch of small, disposable humanoid robots operated by telepresence.

Adam September 16, 2010 at 18:04

Hi All
An excellent novel I read featured a fusion of bio/nanotechs with space-adapted humans journeying through space, encountering a whole civilization living in an interstellar dust-cloud. Check out Linda Nagata’s Vast. It’s 10 years old, but Linda still thinks it’s one of her favourites.

For a different human adaptation scenario there’s Cecelia Holland’s Floating Worlds (1975) in which the colonists of Uranus and Saturn have mutated in response to their new environments (they live in floating arcologies in the atmospheres of those planets.) It’s still Cecelia’s only SF novel and she’s still quite proud of it, justly so.

Of course the whole topic of cyborgization was explored masterfully in Fred Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) and Clifford Simak’s City gave us the “pantropy” version.

zarpaulus September 16, 2010 at 21:17

@Nathan:
I suggest you read Athena’s articles (two posts above yours). I’ll summarize the relevant one in four words:
Mind Transference Is Impossible.

zarpaulus September 16, 2010 at 21:37

As for bioengineering colonists as an alternative to terraforming, keep in mind that timetables for terraforming Mars are on the multi-century or millennium scale. I suspect that pressurized habitats will arrive first and depending on how many the initial research teams manage to build there could be thousands or even a couple million people. Eventually someone is going to get tired of having to put on a space suit whenever they step outside and develop cybernetic or biotech. modifications for themselves and others who might want it (the fact that most will probably be scientists might help). Eventually at some point it will be possible for hereditary genetic modifications to enable survival with minimal survival gear on Mars (though probably after a couple centuries of atmospheric thickening) and there will be conflict between those who do and don’t need habitats. Oh, and unless interplanetary travel becomes extremely routine I suspect that the “genemodded” will easily outnumber the “baselines.”

Eniac September 17, 2010 at 2:07

Interestingly, Charlie Stross (scifi author) had an interesting blog post about what was the minimum number of people a society needed to sustain complex technologies: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/07/insufficient-data.html

Very interesting read indeed. Excellent points, and makes you think that maybe colonizing a star system is impossible not because you can’t send one person, but because you cannot send the millions necessary to maintain a technological society.

I think Stross misses one thing, though. He is correct that technology is rapidly getting complicated, but he overlooks the fact that technology itself helps us deal with that complexity. Increasingly, because of the recent advent of electronic information systems, productivity is rising rapidly not only in farming and manufacturing, but also in engineering, science and other “brainy” occupations. Even teaching. It is not inconceivable that a first class education can be had interacting only with clever educational software. In the extreme, this trend could lead to a situation where technology, no matter how complicated, can maintain itself and human involvement becomes optional.

In that case, you do not need to send any humans, machines alone can take our technological society on the road, so to speak. Humans will follow, or rather, “lead from behind”.

Eniac September 17, 2010 at 8:41

Humans are special among animals in that they can adapt to environments by putting on clothes, building homes, turn on the air-conditioning, and so on. I do not expect us to drop this habit in favor of modifying our very nature anytime soon, even if it becomes feasible.

A space suit is a fine cyborg accessory, and it has the advantage that it can be taken off when inside.

Jonathan Burns September 17, 2010 at 9:52

This line of thought always tends to make me imagine our near descendents as round walruslike creatures, coal-black with melanin, two or three transparent membranes to shut down over their eyes and a couple of inches of radiation-absorbing blubber, wearing flippers and haptically actuated prehensile tails.

But haven’t our discussions shifted toward what it would take to set up a decent fraction of the terrestrial biosphere in space? If so, the equivalent of cybernetically augmented human beings would be cybernetically augmented micro-ecologies … and back we go to the Navi and their home-grown bio-net.

Progress in this direction seems natural to me, because if we’re to continue piling up technological complexities, eventually there will be too much of it for a generation to learn. There will be nowhere to put it all, except in a self-regulating global nervous system; and we’ll either just put up with the way it behaves, or we’ll go in and tinker with it.

Interstellar Bill September 17, 2010 at 13:09

While you’re at it you’d have to greatly amplify the DNA-repair capability of space humans, in order to handle ionizing radiation.
Also, you have to genetically remove all vulnerability to zero-gee.
Compared to that it shouldn’t be hard to change legs into arms and feet into hands, to totally adapt to zero gee. Might as well go for bigger brains, and nerve trunks adapted for computer interfaces.
The downside is a whole branch of the human race who will be totally alientated from Mother Earth and will eventually grow to greatly outnumber Earthers.

Mark Wakely September 17, 2010 at 13:41

Since we’re tribal by nature (whether that’s by race, religion, politics or geography/nationality) the more we change ourselves to suit alien conditions, the more we might run the risk of creating future conflicts with those new “tribes.” (Shades of “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) However, if in designing cyborgs we could somehow eliminate from them our inherent tendency to prefer association with “one of our own,” (in appearance, values, speech etc.) at least the cyborgs wouldn’t view us with vague suspicion and distrust and be the ones to instigate conflict, but then the question is have we removed a large part of what it means to be human and created an alien race? There’s also the possibility that if we bioengineer a life form substantially different from our own, they might be so unique that any potential for conflict is eliminated because our environment is wholly unsuitable for them and vice versa, creating a natural division. (In other words, conquest would gain you nothing if what you’ve conquered is toxic to you.) Of course, just establishing a self-sufficient colony on Mars or the Moon runs the “risk” of that colony declaring its tribal independence from Earth without any bioengineering involved (as so many Earthly nations have done from each other) but at least in fully human form, reconciliation and a pact to keep mutual distrust under control is always possible. With cyborgs, though, there might not be any common grounds for reconciliation or basis for trust if what we’ve bioengineered is viewed as a persistent, viable threat. One thing we might do to avoid that is to deliberately engineer some weakness we could exploit in the cyborgs to keep them under control. That, of course, raise the issue of whether we’ve created a race of slaves, something ethically unacceptable (or so I would like to believe.)

CAA September 19, 2010 at 4:38

Why move to survive when you can move the planet when the technology to do so develops. It’d all have to happen in steps that way you move the resources you need to harvest/refine the minerals and space mining vessels 4 da asteroid belt. (4 starters then universe?)
>>
..He was looking at space colonization (which would include the cyborg variety) and wondering if it was feasible, since to live in space (even as a cyborg), one needs to have a vast socio-technical infrastructure available for life-support.

bigdan201 September 19, 2010 at 9:19

This brings up the debate in terraforming – to what extent should we adapt planets to us, and to what extent should we adapt to them.

As we expand into space, body modifications will play a great role for fine-tuning adjustments. However, I don’t see this going to extremes. There are highly formidable barriers to mind uploading, and we will tend to stick to recreating earthlike environments as much as possible. For example, I couldn’t picture humans making themselves fish-like to live on an ocean planet – rather they would have floating habitats etc, perhaps with minor modifications such as built in artificial gills.

Basically, I predict that wherever we fall short in bringing the earths environment with us, we will make minor modifications for fine-tuning. However, I also believe that as humans colonize more worlds, the populations on those planets will drift further apart genetically. On earth, we have very different races which adjusted to different environments, and this will become even more pronounced. This human variety is one of the great benefits to space colonization in my view – I see it as far better for our success as a species than homogenization.

Darrell E September 20, 2010 at 11:20

“Assuming we eventually find and travel to a planet that could sustain human life (and assume as well that no sentient species lives there), which would be the superior moral choice: 1) Terraforming the entire world so as to suit our kind of life; or 2) Bioengineering our colonists so that they adapt to the environment they find themselves in?”

No matter what we choose we will be Terraforming, to one extent or another, any new world we decide to live on simply by living on it. In fact it would take a very large conscious effort to attempt to prevent doing so. And that effort would surely fail. We may not make it over into a copy of Earth, but by living there we would inevitably impact the new planet’s ecosystems in ways similar to how we have impacted Earth’s.

Michael Antoniewicz II September 22, 2010 at 18:24

Helloooo ‘Man Plus’ by Fred Pohl. ;)

James M Essig September 25, 2010 at 11:58

Hi Folks;

Here is a cool Mail Online link to an article about the development of artificial machine and human skin. This skin would need to be appropriately connected to the human nervous system in order to provide a sense of touch and this is indeed a big hurdle yet to overcome. However, the prospect for very tough, durable, and perhaps U-V light blocking artifical skin might include human survival on exoplanets with reduced Ozone layer activity.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1311531/Scientists-invent-e-skin-sense-touch-patients-artificial-limbs.html?ITO=1490

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