A Machine-Driven Way to the Stars

by Paul Gilster on September 27, 2011

Are humans ever likely to go to the stars? The answer may well be yes, but probably not if we’re referring to flesh-and-blood humans aboard a starship. That’s the intriguing conclusion of Keith Wiley (University of Washington), who brings his background in very large computing clusters and massively parallel image data processing to bear on the fundamental question of how technologies evolve. Wiley thinks artificial intelligence (he calls it ‘artificial general intelligence,’ or AGI) and mind-uploading (MU) will emerge before other interstellar technologies, thus disrupting the entire notion of sending humans and leading us to send machine surrogates instead.

It’s a notion we’ve kicked around in these pages before, but Wiley’s take on it in Implications of Computerized Intelligence on Interstellar Travel is fascinating because of the way he looks at the historical development of various technologies. To do this, he has to assume there is a correct ‘order of arrival’ for technologies, and goes to work investigating how that order develops. Some inventions are surely prerequisites for others (the wheel precedes the wagon), while others require an organized and complex society to conceive and build the needed tools.

Some technologies, moreover, are simply more complicated, and we would expect them to emerge only later in a given society’s development. Among the technologies needed to get us to the stars, Wiley flags propulsion and navigation as the most intractable. We might, for example, develop means of suspended animation, and conquer the challenges of producing materials that can withstand the rigors and timeframes of interstellar flight. But none of these are useful for an interstellar mission until we have the means of accelerating our payload to the needed speeds. AGI and MU, in his view, have a decided edge in development over these technologies.

Researchers report regularly on steady advancements in robotics and AI and many are even comfortable speculating on AGI and MU. It is true that there is wide disagreement on such matters, but the presence of ongoing research and regular discussion of such technologies demonstrates that their schedules are well under way. On the other hand, no expert in any field is offering the slightest prediction that construction of the first interstellar spaceships will commence in a comparable time frame. DARPA’s own call to action is a 100-year window, and rightfully so.

Wiley is assuming no disruptive breakthroughs in propulsion, of course, and relies on many of the methods we have long discussed on Centauri Dreams, such as solar sails, fusion, and antimatter. All of these are exciting ideas that are challenged by the current level of our engineering. In fact, Wiley believes that the development of artificial general intelligence, mind uploading and suspended animation will occur decades to over a century before the propulsion conundrum is resolved.

Consequently, even if suspended animation arrives before AGI and MU — admittedly, the most likely order of events — it is still mostly irrelevant to the discussion of interstellar travel since by the time we do finally mount the first interstellar mission we will already have AGI and MU, and their benefits will outweigh not just a waking trip, but probably also a suspended animation trip, thus undermining any potential advantage that suspended animation might otherwise offer. For example, the material needs of a computerized crew grow as a slower function of crew size than those of a human crew. Consider that we need not necessarily send a robotic body for every mind on the mission, thus vastly reducing the average mass per individual. The obvious intention would be to manufacture a host of robotic bodies at the destination solar system from raw materials. As wildly speculative as this idea is, it illustrates the considerable theoretical advantages of a computerized over a biological crew, whether suspended or not. The material needs of computerized missions are governed by a radically different set of formulas specifically because they permit us to separate the needs of the mind from the needs of the body.

We could argue about the development times of various technologies, but Wiley is actually talking relatively short-term, saying that none of the concepts currently being investigated for interstellar propulsion will be ready any earlier than the second half of this century, if then, and these would only be the options offering the longest travel times compared to their more futuristic counterparts. AGI and MU, he believes, will arrive much earlier, before we have in hand not only the propulsion and navigation techniques we need but also the resolution of issues like life-support and the sociological capability to govern a multi-generational starship.

The scenario assumes not that starflight is impossible, nor that generation ships cannot be built. It simply assumes that when we are ready to mount a genuine mission to a star, it will be obvious that artificial intelligence is the way to go, and while Wiley doesn’t develop the case for mind-uploading in any detail because of the limitations of space, he does argue that if it becomes possible, sending a machine with a mind upload on the mission is the same as sending ourselves. But put that aside: Even without MU, artificial intelligence would surmount so many problems that we are likely to deploy it long before we are ready to send biological beings to the stars.

Whether mediated by human or machine, Wiley thinks moving beyond the Solar System is crucial:

The importance of adopting a realistic perspective on this issue is self-evident: if we aim our sights where the target is expected to reside, we stand the greatest chance of success, and the eventual expansion of humanity beyond our own solar system is arguably the single most important long-term goal of our species in that the outcome of such efforts will ultimately determine our survival. We either spread and thrive or we go extinct.

If we want to reach the stars, then, Wiley’s take is that our focus should be on the thorny issues of propulsion and navigation rather than life support, psychological challenges or generation ships. These will be the toughest nuts to crack, allowing us ample time for the development of computerized intelligence capable of flying the mission. As for the rest of us, we’ll be vicarious spectators, which the great majority of the species would be anyway, whether the mission is manned by hyper-intelligent machines or actual people. Will artificial intelligence, and especially mind uploading, meet Wiley’s timetable? Or will they prove as intractable as propulsion?

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Dimos Homatas September 30, 2011 at 10:52

ljk , the scope of the mission has evolved: Icarus will do no flyby. One way or another, a deceleration scheme is needed and much research will be done on site, presumably employing several different kinds of probes (orbiters? landers?).

The implications of the deceleration alone are too many – out of the top of my head, i will only mention the process of collecting and transmitting data back to Earth. Some implementation of a local Interplanetary Internet is needed there. Not to mention the need for programming (or at least describing) each probe’s individual mission, etc.

And this is only about the destination.

bigdan201 September 30, 2011 at 13:32

Once again, I think you guys are overestimating AI and underestimating the human brain. I’m not saying artilects or mental cyborgs can’t possibly happen, but that is distant technology.

We’ve come up with impressive AI and computers, programmed to carry out all kinds of tasks. But being able to learn and make new connections, and have the myriad capabilities of a brain is another story. Even a fool on the streets can do mental feats that a supercomputer can’t quite reach.

AI is basically a tool that acts as an extension of our will into programming. I’m not an expert on this subject, but I’m sure it hasn’t reached anywhere near sentience or free-form thought.

Computers are particularly lacking in imitating what we do mentally. Sure, you can create a clever chat-bot, or a machine that shows realistic expressions (both of which have been done). But that is only skimming the surface of the human mind. In particular, robot parents for an interstellar voyage would not work for raising children. They could be of use, but I don’t see them humanizing anyone, or being effective for development beyond nursing and basic maintenance. I believe that even young children would quickly learn that their “parents” were not really human.

I’m not trying to be a naysayer either, just realistic. As far as mind uploading, it may be possible with much more advanced technology. Still, I imagine that the process would cause a severe shift in consciousness, and not everyone would be able to overcome that, even in the best case scenario.

Robots will definitely be very useful for space exploration in general, including interstellar missions. Robotics will create efficient tools which are well suited to space, minimizing the difficulties of carrying out tasks through astronauts.

Eniac October 2, 2011 at 13:23

Computers are particularly lacking in imitating what we do mentally. Sure, you can create a clever chat-bot, or a machine that shows realistic expressions (both of which have been done). But that is only skimming the surface of the human mind.

I agree. It is possible, though, that after we have covered the entire surface, we may find that what is left is not all that “deep” as we imagine, and we will quickly be able to fill it in and get an entity that is no longer distinguishable from a real personality by anyone but experts. We should always keep in mind that “real” minds are far from perfect, making the task of breaking even less daunting than it may seem.

What I am most worried about is this: If we let this entity read the entire store of human knowledge, what sort of super-intellect will that create? With perfect memory and unlimited information capacity, would not even an inferior mind be vastly superior intellectually to any one human being? Google Search, for example, while still quite “stupid” at this time, is well positioned to take on that role. We are already quite dependent on asking it for advice (speaking for myself, at least). Wikipedia, likewise, would be a great knowledge base to prop up an artificial mind.

ljk October 3, 2011 at 0:26

Dimos, one more question: Why is the Icarus motto “Flying closer to another star” – especially if the mission is now aimed at a landing or two in the system? Shouldn’t it be something like “To the stars!” or “Alpha Centauri or Bust!” Project Apollo, while I don’t know if it had an official motto, was described by President Kennedy as getting a man to land on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth, not “Kinda sorta getting near the Moon.”

Max October 3, 2011 at 1:01

Let’s assume a very powerful computer, running a perfect simulation of a human brain as its software programme? Wouldn’t such a simulation express the same characteristics as a human brain, including intelligence and sentience? Why should sentience be restricted to biological organisms. After all, humans are biological machines.

Tobias Holbrook October 3, 2011 at 6:38

Hmmm… while advances in AI may not allow computers to replace a human, they could seriously reduce the number of humans required. Tag on sufficient life extension, and it’s concievable to have one person “piloting” a “probe” such as Icarus. Whether or not you could find a volunteer who is actually suitable for the mission is another matter… to paraphrase Catch-22, we don’t want someone who’s insane – but you’d have to be insane to volunteer (dying alone around another star…?). Then again, mentally unstable and insane aren’t quite the same thing; perhaps a mentally stable individual, who wouldn’t be considered sane by most standards, could do the mission.

But it has a more significant effect on colonisation, especially embryo space colonisation. A low mass person might not be too much of a penalty to ship out, and they can act as a parent figure for the first generation of “colonists”. Possibly somewhat ethically dubious (less so than computer embryo space colonisation though) and as with the latter, one would worry about the Westmarck effect preventing normal sexuality from developing… probably the best bet is to ship out couples as well as a good supply of frozen embryo’s. That way, we can use the tried, tested, and found to work method of the nuclear family, while still getting enough genetic diversity… you might need only 4-5 couples.

ljk October 3, 2011 at 11:50

Tobias Holbrook – Insanity is such a general term. We see those who do not want to be part of human society as insane or at least bent in some manner, but that is because we are social creatures by very ancient nature. But note that it has usually been the ones who follow a different drummer from the rest of the herd that end up making the changes which uplift our species and society.

Think of our early ancestors who crossed whole oceans in wooden vessels that would never pass today’s safety standards carrying food supplies that were not preserved in much other than salt for months on end. They also took such journeys with the knowledge that they would probably never see their homelands or loved ones again, or that they would even survive to reach their destinations or make it through the first few years alive. But they did it by the many thousands.

As for one-way manned missions into space, here is evidence that there are many who would volunteer for such ventures – and not all of them could be called crazy:

http://www.universetoday.com/13037/a-one-way-one-person-mission-to-mars/

As I have said elsewhere, our first human interstellar voyagers will probably not be the shining astronauts we are given by NASA.

Eniac October 3, 2011 at 22:27

Think of our early ancestors who crossed whole oceans in wooden vessels that would never pass today’s safety standards carrying food supplies that were not preserved in much other than salt for months on end.

I think of this often, and then I try to see who today would do such a thing, and I come up empty every time. The fact is that life was considerably cheaper in those days without safety belts and helmets, FDA and FAA, medical care and life insurance. You could look for today’s pioneers among the extreme sports scene, but these are mostly rich people who generally play it quite safe.

In my opinion the first humans to travel to the stars will travel in comfort, kept absolutely safe by our future automatic friends who will go first where no man has gone before, exploring, building habitats and keeping them safe, warm and waiting for us.

bigdan201 October 4, 2011 at 14:16

I agree. It is possible, though, that after we have covered the entire surface, we may find that what is left is not all that “deep” as we imagine, and we will quickly be able to fill it in and get an entity that is no longer distinguishable from a real personality by anyone but experts. We should always keep in mind that “real” minds are far from perfect, making the task of breaking even less daunting than it may seem.

I can’t say that Replicants from Blade Runner can’t possibly happen. Our technology could reach that point, but I’m sure that it won’t anytime in the near future.

What I am most worried about is this: If we let this entity read the entire store of human knowledge, what sort of super-intellect will that create? With perfect memory and unlimited information capacity, would not even an inferior mind be vastly superior intellectually to any one human being?

As for the singularity, machine sentience, and blurring between human and computer – science fiction has speculated on that quite a bit, including Ghost in the Shell, an anime that I’m a fan of. It’s hard to predict how that will turn out however.

Hmmm… while advances in AI may not allow computers to replace a human, they could seriously reduce the number of humans required. Tag on sufficient life extension, and it’s concievable to have one person “piloting” a “probe” such as Icarus.

More advanced AI will be enormously helpful in all the technical work involved with space exploration and colonization. We can use all the help we can get in working with trajectories, engineering habitats, and so on.

Whether or not you could find a volunteer who is actually suitable for the mission is another matter… to paraphrase Catch-22, we don’t want someone who’s insane – but you’d have to be insane to volunteer (dying alone around another star…?). Then again, mentally unstable and insane aren’t quite the same thing; perhaps a mentally stable individual, who wouldn’t be considered sane by most standards, could do the mission.

I’m sure many people would be willing to go to space, even on a one-way trip. There will be various motivations – pioneering, escaping persecution, a desire for a new start, etc. Humans have a long track record of settling new islands, continents or regions, often under harrowing conditions. Space is of course a greater leap, especially other stars, but the same spirit of exploration will take hold. Naturally we’ll need plenty of life support and arrangements, including accessible nuclear power (especially in the outer solar system), but we won’t be daunted.

Eniac October 10, 2011 at 0:56

I can’t say that Replicants from Blade Runner can’t possibly happen. Our technology could reach that point, but I’m sure that it won’t anytime in the near future.

Replicants were supposed to be indistinguishable from humans both mentally AND physically. This is indeed far out. What I am talking about is much easier: to be indistinguishable ONLY mentally. This would be achieved if a computer program held up a (typed) conversation, wrote a book, painted a painting, solved a mathematical problem, etc. etc. in such a way that competent judges would be unable to accurately tell the machine’s output from that of an average human picked up from the street.

A year ago we might have included Jeopardy! in the above list, but that one is now out, of course. Board games have long since disappeared from it, for obvious reasons. What will be interesting is to see how far the list has to dwindle until the people who say “never” will get uncomfortable. In the end, we will probably settle on “Ok, yes, they are intelligent, and aware, and they think, create, and all that, but they will never be HUMAN”. Which, of course, is true as a matter of definition and thus should be agreeable to (almost) everyone.

bigdan201 October 10, 2011 at 16:09

I’m not going to say never to that. We’ve already made many inroads with computers being able to imitate us mentally, although with the help of programmers working to achieve certain ends and/or a large variety of input. The trend will continue until we have to tackle the sci-fi questions of androids and sentience.

Erik November 7, 2011 at 10:20

Why not travelling at light speed itself?

Send nano factories through a relativistic space canon with just enough speed so they’ll slow down at the target solar system.

Send many of them and some would fall on a planet or an asteroid. Then program them to start building reception stations to receive further orders from earth. Eventually build a robot that would be able to work there and do whatever we need, and send an uploaded mind to that robot. Then real light speed travel would be achieved.

If it’s 100 years from now, it’s doable. We already have the basics for this science.

It’s much simpler and probably less expensive than building a million ton space ship that 99% of it’s mass would be to accelerate it to 10% of the speed of light, needs to tackle the issues of interstellar dust at those speeds, and needs to be reliable for more than a century without any maintenance.

ljk December 4, 2011 at 15:06

A computer that thinks like the universe

If an atomic-scale computer can be built, it won’t just create a faster machine: it will help us think like the universe

By Joshua Rothman

November 26, 2011

What is a computer? Steve Jobs famously described the computer as “a bicycle for the mind” — a tool to help us remember, think, discover, and create. Computers are high-tech, universal tools; they’re so useful, in fact, that some of us spend all day in contact with some sort of digital device.

There’s another way, though, to think about what a computer is: not as a high-tech tool, but as a profound intellectual achievement. In a deep sense, the power of the computer is as much about ideas as it is about circuits.

The incredible, open-ended flexibility that makes computers so powerful — and that lets us use them to figure out everything from climate modeling to “Jeopardy!” — is, in fact, the product of more than two thousand years of painstaking, hard-won intellectual progress in low-tech fields like mathematics, logic, and philosophy.

Like the tide line on a beach, the computer marks the furthest we’ve progressed in a philosophical quest to understand, perfect, and extend the reach of reason.

Full article here:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2011/11/25/computer-that-thinks-like-universe/g1FKng74ydOH2B802BPY3N/story.html?s_campaign=sm_fb

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