We usually picture the far future in terms of the most exotic possibilities. And why not: Getting to the stars with warp drive or wormhole makes the entire galaxy accessible. But while we work toward such goals, a raft of technologies continue to develop that can get us to another star with currently understood physics. Imagine, for example, a starship pushed to ten percent of lightspeed by a powerful laser array, a tiny vessel enabled by nanotechnology to carry a cargo of human genetic material.

I played around with the concept years ago in a story called “Until Anna Changed,” which dealt with a colony around another star whose inhabitants had all been raised upon arrival by their starship’s crew, beings called Adepts who were manifestations of artificial intelligence. The Adepts were to move on to another star when the colony was mature enough to survive, but the story looked at what happened to a particular colonist when his own Adept unexpectedly returned. The dynamics of growth and ‘parenthood’ in such a situation were fascinating to play around with in a society where death was nothing but an option.

Flash Frozen Humanity

Recently reader John Hunt wrote with some ideas that triggered memories of that story. A Canadian study looked at rapid freezing of human eggs, and 200 children who had been conceived in this way. The classic problem with freezing eggs has always been the formation of ice crystals in liquids within the egg, but ‘vitrification’ removes those liquids and replaces them with a kind of ‘antifreeze,’ after which they can be flash frozen in liquid nitrogen. Remarkably, 95 percent of eggs seem to survive this process, which is now available in the UK. This BBC story looks at the Canadian work and notes why people might use it today:

Aside from the wish to delay motherhood beyond their 30s and 40s, some women may use this technique for medical reasons, perhaps if they are facing cancer treatment which will render them infertile, or a premature menopause.

The researchers, from McGill university in Montreal found that the rate of birth defects among the 200 children conceived using vitrified eggs as 2.5%, roughly the same as in natural pregnancies and IVF.

Frozen eggs last how long, exactly? I suppose we don’t know, but both sperm and actual embryos have been frozen and successfully thawed as well. So if we could develop a technology to push something to a significant percentage of lightspeed — not unthinkable given our current understanding of physics — then a small craft, as Hunt suggests, could theoretically carry a human cargo. An interstellar transit of several hundred years should be workable in terms of survival, the trick being child-rearing at the destination. Here we make the leap to artificial intelligence and advanced robotics for a solution.

A ‘Coke Can’ to the Stars

It wasn’t so long ago that former NASA administrator Dan Goldin was raising eyebrows by talking about entirely new concepts for interstellar missions. Speaking to the 100th anniversary meeting of the American Astronomical Society in 1999, Goldin brought together lightsail technologies, genetic algorithms that ‘learn’ and adapt as they process code, and hyrbid systems that fuse biology with silicon. Throw in advances in neural nets and you wind up with an interstellar probe the size of a Coke can that builds itself into a full-sized probe when it mines carbon, iron and other materials in its destination star system.

“This reconfigurable hybrid system can adapt form and function to deal with changes and unanticipated problems,” said Goldin. “Eventually it will leave its host carrier and travel at a good fraction of the speed of light out to the stars and other solar systems… Such a spacecraft sounds like an ambitious dream, but it could be possible if we effectively utilize hybridized technologies.”

No one would argue that planting a human colony via frozen genetic materials and robotic childrearing is the optimal way to go. We’d all rather see fast transport via warp drive or other methods, and here’s hoping we find a way to achieve it. But as a hedge against species extinction, the possibility that we could create a human colony around another star without making any breakthroughs in the laws of physics is a notable prospect to consider. It firms up the belief that one way or another, we will see a human presence around nearby stars.

An Emerging Interstellar Ethic

While our goal should be to consider as many different ways of making an interstellar journey happen as possible, whether we would proceed with a mission like this may one day depend upon our understanding of the ethical issues involved. Do we have the right to subject human beings to these conditions, raised without true parents in a potentially hostile enviroment? The same question is posed by so-called ‘generation’ ships, in which crewmembers live entire lives on the vessel on a journey of thousands of years. We have yet to develop guidelines for what might be called a code of interstellar ethics, but one day we may have to do so. After all, we’re talking about what we owe to our descendants

While I know of no papers on rearing children via robots, Edward Regis Jr. has written a fascinating study of the multi-generational starship question. Regis concludes that there is no fundamental ethical distinction between raising children aboard such a ship and raising them aboard our own planet. He goes on to say this:

It is true that in the designing, outfitting, and launching of a space ark, planners will be committing others to conditions not of their own choosing. But this… is just what happens, and necessarily happens, on Earth… A multigenerational interstellar expedition is no more and no less than a microcosm of human life on our own planet. Launching one is like beginning Genesis anew: It is to place human beings on another heavenly body for its inhabitants to make of what they will. To do this, to put humans on a microplanet upon which they can live, procreate, dispose of their affairs under their own governance, and die, is to bestow upon them conditions quite analogous to those on our own planet, conditions they may use for good or for ill, just as we use the planet Earth.

There is much to mull over in Regis’ paper. It’s “The Moral Status of Multigenerational Interstellar Exploration,” in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 248-259. And it strikes me as just the opening wedge of what will one day be a major and contentious debate. A code of interstellar ethics is waiting to be written as we confront issues our technology will one day make possible. Science fiction is the only current venue for their study.

Further Reading

A wider consideration of interstellar ethics has been begun by Robert Freitas. See his “The Legal Rights of Extraterrestrials,” in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (April 1977), pp. 54–67 (available online). Freitas also discusses the issues in “Metalaw and Interstellar Relations,” Mercury 6 (March/April 1977), pp. 15–17 (available here) — thanks to Dave Weeden for the links! Compelling questions continue to surface: If we send a nano-assembler probe to another star system, do we have the right to mine local resources in the presence of a potential intelligent species within that system?

Addendum: Tibor Pacher passes along this interesting reference: C. Cockell, “Essay on Extraterrestrial Liberty,” in the July Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. I haven’t had the chance to look at it yet. but an abstract is here.