≡ Menu

EGR: A ‘Hail Mary’ Pass to the Stars

EGR, standing for Embryo/Gestation/Rearing, is the name of a mission presented by John Hunt on Tibor Pacher’s PI Club site, where Tibor encourages the development of what he calls ‘crazy ideas.’ Crazy, that is, in terms of brainstorming, getting concepts out there for comment and growth. Hunt’s is likely to be controversial on several levels, although its goal — an insurance policy for the species — is one this site can endorse.

Why an insurance policy? As we’ve discussed recently, the number of existential threats facing our species makes the Fermi question pointed. Self-destruction would be an ignominious end for any culture, but one not inconsistent with factors as diverse as incoming asteroids, nuclear war or biological weaponry run amok. Hunt prefers to focus on a specific threat:

Advances in the area of biotech, nanotech, and artificial intelligence are accelerating. Molecular manufacturing will also bring us the ability to produce chemicals which are entirely novel and possibly self-replicating. Exponential progress will place incredible power in the hands of individuals. All of these areas of technology are accelerating such that credible people anticipate that we will reach a technologic singularity within this century.

That singularity, of course, could produce runaway scenarios in which self-replication destroys life-forms or environments in ways that cannot be foreseen. Thus an interstellar probe, in Hunt’s view, should not be about science, but survival. Getting humans to another star, given the short-term framework forced upon us by this oncoming singularity, would involve sending frozen embryos that would be raised by android ‘parents’ aided by virtual reality once the destination has been reached. Hunt believes that many of the technologies for doing this are being developed today.

First thoughts: The 2060 time-frame for launch Hunt mentions seems overly optimistic to me. We’re talking, remember, about an interstellar craft that not only gets to destination (within anywhere from 200 to 10,000 years) but also decelerates into the new star system to eventually orbit the planet previously identified for this purpose. That puts huge propellant requirements on a system based on ion propulsion, although I’ll buy the idea that magsail deceleration may be a feasible choice. I hedge this only because Hunt’s concerns about self-replication force a quick solution.

The discussion on the ethics of sending frozen embryos to produce children raised by androids is presented in an appendix, from which this:

Some incorrectly presume that parenting requires true artificial general intelligence including conscious, sentience, sapience and self-awareness. Developing such AI will probably take many decades if ever and places the mission at the risk of independent developments beyond the control of mission designers. Artificial general intelligence is not only unnecessary but potentially dangerous.

A quick objection might be that Hunt is presuming a singularity of some sort in terms of nanotechnology but not in terms of artificial intelligence. Yet can a colony raised from birth under alien skies really be nurtured successfully without some form of AI? It’s an open question, and one that Hunt answers by saying that programmed scenarios for gestation and child-rearing can serve the purpose, avoiding the need for true machine intelligence. As a parent of three, I find the idea of programming all the contingencies of childhood and maturation to be a dubious prospect. Flexible, powerful AI seems essential, and even so, these are going to be strange kids.

Plenty of chewy ideas here, and I recommend Hunt’s essay to you. “Developing these highly efficient propulsion methods can be consistent with the Vision for Space Exploration in that it would reduce travel time to Mars and the outer solar system,” writes the author, and although I can hear members of Congress choking over the prospect (particularly those who now endorse the VSE), the overall scenario of incremental growth toward star-spanning technologies is solid over the long term.

Just how long a ‘term’ that might be is unknown, and our growth toward the technology that can muster such a mission relies upon numerous variables in engineering, politics, and economics. I do doubt seriously that the EGR mission would “…cost much less than the International Space Station due to the limited number of launches necessary” –launches are a small part of the overall cost of development and support demanded by deep space missions. EGR looks like quite a pricey package to me. Better, perhaps, to say that survival of the species is worth the massive outlay.

Interstellar flight, of course, depends on more than money. It also depends on whether we muster the will to develop the deep space infrastructure that even the outer system will demand, much less the humanity-saving ‘hail Mary’ pass Hunt hopes to throw. The future being hidden from us, it seems wise to push species-saving discussions into all possible scenarios. Hunt’s is lively, pointed and worthy of comment.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • kurt9 May 6, 2009, 14:43

    It sounds like Hunt has been reading “Voyage from Yesteryear” (James P. Hogan).

  • ad May 6, 2009, 15:07

    I’d be very surprised if interstellar colonisation occurs before the end of the century. If he wants to beat the Singularity, he might be wiser to concentrate on interplanetary colonisation.

  • bigdan201 May 6, 2009, 18:18

    an insurance policy for our species is highly important, and a big motivating factor to colonize space. however, i predict that colonization of the solar system will happen long before there are colonies around other stars. wel probably send interstellar probes relatively soon, at the same time were expanding into the solar system, but colonizing around other stars is far off, barring breakthrough physics discoveries.

    I also have serious doubts about EGR, or creating and raising humans with AI. common sense tells me that this would have pretty serious affects on their development.. they may be physically human, but mentally, such people could be aliens to us.

    naturally, if youre using a fast propulsion system that still takes 50-150 years to get to a promising exoplanet, you have to take human limits into consideration. the solution im leaning towards is hibernation or suspended animation – a state in which people barely age, and years can go by without the person experiencing the intervening time.

  • Ron S May 6, 2009, 18:51

    Paul: “…these are going to be strange kids.”

    Brings to mind the character “Wan” in Frederik Pohl’s “Gateway” series who was raised by a sort of AI: imperfectly stored human personalities.

  • Adam May 6, 2009, 18:58

    John makes an impassioned plea for us to consider a reboot of humanity if a self-made planetary catastrophe takes us out and that idea is always worth pondering. Whatever form it takes, it will require self-reproductive capabilities, which is useful to research even if we’re not designing a reboot. Closing the manufacturing system that is required will be tricky – the issues facing the RepRap project are illustrative of what I mean. But I think manufacturing machines that can make ALL their own components aren’t far off. Self-assembling systems will be harder to achieve and perhaps undesireable if John’s fears are realised by such – a plague of self-replicating machines is an old end-of-the-world scenario in SF and nanotech speculations.

    The real puzzle is if parenting and teaching can be achieved by unconscious machines with no sense of self. Can a human form a self without a model?

  • Administrator May 6, 2009, 20:14

    Adam writes:

    The real puzzle is if parenting and teaching can be achieved by unconscious machines with no sense of self. Can a human form a self without a model?

    As ever, Adam goes to the heart of the issue. How do we teach a sense of self without something that can be emulated?

  • J. R. May 6, 2009, 20:40

    I do like John Hunt’s imagination. We all need to have the courage to present ideas no matter how crazy they seem. In the business world it’s called brainstorming, which has been found to be a highly effective problem solving.

    However, it’s highly unlikely for AI to be developed that far this century – maybe in a few hundred years. But hopefully, we will already be colonizing our solar system by then. Even if it was possible, there are significant ethical issues of sending “kids” out on their own with only AI to raise them and teach them. I don’t think AI could ever be developed to make the kids feel “loved”, a critical necessity that everyone, especially children have for a healthy well-being.

    I give Mr. Hunt credit. He made me stop and think. I think we could go far if we take time to consider his ideas and well as all the other “wild” ideas people are willing to share.

  • James M. Essig May 6, 2009, 21:26

    Hi Folks;

    I can imagine that micropods with diameters of fractions of a millimeter carrying human embryos could be sent out in droves with an accelerator infrastructure wherein the probes could find their ways to or be directed toward rapidly rotating blackholes with a mass of 1,000 solar masses to 100,000 solar masses. The embryonic pods might then be directed through the central rotating blackhole ring, through a wormhole, and out to a remote location in our universe or into other universe. Perhaps we could then begin seeding the multiverse with human life.

    If such can infact be accomplished, I wonder if Church authorities especially the Catholic Church would advocate for such. While no attempt is being made to promote religion here, I personally feel that the creative genius of the human race and the perpetuation of our species throughout our neck of the multiverse, if such exist, would be a profoundly worthy cause.

    Note that if the blackholes used are large enough and rapidly enough rotating, perhaps such an endeavor can be made to work. Perhaps encasing the embryos in some sort of high strain material that is as hard as diamond might work. The closest candidate material that I can think of would be carbon nanotubes or perhaps some sort of diamond thread woven cloth.

    Either way, I like the idea of sending self assembly embryonic pods all over the Milky Way, and if possible beyond. What a cool way to spread the gift of life and the dignity of the human person.

  • John Hunt May 6, 2009, 22:03

    The real puzzle is if parenting and teaching can be achieved by unconscious machines with no sense of self. Can a human form a self without a model?

    I agree that the emotional well-being of children raised by androids is probably the leading hurdle for most people looking at the EGR concept. However, whether a child in such a setting can form a self, is a question which is not hard to address.

A child forms a sense of self when it starts expressing independence from its caregiver during their twos. Yet a child at age two will have no conception whatsoever that their parents are androids because:
    
 – they are larger and stronger than it,
    
 – they appear exactly like their biologic parents appear,
    
 – they physically interact with them with them as superior parents act,
    
 – and they would verbally communicate with the child in a way that the child would be unaware that they aren’t real people.

    Indeed, I think that children raised by well-developed android parents would probably reach the age of 6-8 before they would at all begin to become aware that their parent’s dialogue with them was largely reflective. But even then the children would have exceptionally good modeling in the form of their android parents acting out dialogue and physical interaction with each other from recordings of their biologic parents.

The modeling done by the android parents would be so normal (especially the recorded material) that it is unfair to say that such parenting would result in truly “alien” children.
    ———-
    Adam raises a valid issue which I didn’t adequately address in the EGR paper. Since the EGR craft needs to be low mass, there will have to be a great deal of automated construction at destination. J. Powell’s proposed Martian Robotic Nuclear Powered Factory could produce 20 tons of plastics from the atmosphere. I would propose a similar approach thereby providing plastics, metals, food, water, and habitat for the new colony.

Whereas a lot of manufacturing would need to be done, I don’t believe it necessary to produce self-replicating RepRaps. There only needs to be a one-time manufacturing process for the first colonies. As those families grow and are taught manufacturing, maintenance, and repair, they will be able to grow their colony themselves.

  • kurt9 May 6, 2009, 22:19

    I also have serious doubts about EGR, or creating and raising humans with AI. common sense tells me that this would have pretty serious affects on their development.. they may be physically human, but mentally, such people could be aliens to us.

    Perhaps they would grow up to be Chironians (Voyage from Yesteryear).

  • John Hunt May 7, 2009, 0:45

    A couple of people point out a fairly obvious alternative to an EGR mission by stating, “Why not just establish colonies within the solar system”? Certainly it would cost less, could probably be done sooner, and be more likely to successfully establish another branch of humanity.

    Granted, there are many potential explanations for Fermi’s paradox. But universal self-extinction of intelligent civilizations remains a real possibility especially considering the multiple paths we are traveling towards self-replicating technology.

    However, had we just continued the Apollo program, we would likely be close to having a self-sustaining lunar base by now. If our technology were to destroy life on Earth, our lunar base would have a chance of perpetuating our species and eventually we would spread to the stars. But we have no evidence that an alien civilization survived via their equivalent to an Apollo lunar base.

    So IF universal self-extinction is the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox then that extinction must extend beyond an Earth-moon system. What could do that? Certainly a physics experiment gone bad or perhaps contamination with a self-replicating chemical. I doubt it would be a Terminator that could traverse space lest it continue on throughout the galaxy.

    Whatever could destroy an Earth-moon system would also have to happen early enough to prevent intelligent civilizations from making it to their Mars. Since we are not advancing particularly fast towards a martian base it seems as though we won’t make it to Mars before the hypothesized extinction occurs. In short, colonization of a solar system will not beat a self-extinction explanation for Fermi’s Paradox. So what could?

    I propose that it would have to be a hurdle sufficient large that practically no intelligent civilization would achieve it in time. It would also have to spread civilization beyond their Mars if not their solar system. I would suggest that interstellar distances are sufficiently far to be safe from any solar-system based extinction event.

    So an EGR mission using near-term technology launched by mid-century might be the improbable “Hail Mary” solution to universal self-extinction.

  • Blade O'Grass May 7, 2009, 7:22

    I would still like to see the human race colonize our solar system with rotating tin cans first. The simple luxury of having multiple gravities avaliable, will do more for the evolution humans than some mere gravity-well.

    Ya can’t build an aircraft carrier without first knowing how to build a rowboat.

  • ljk May 7, 2009, 8:33

    When I see how many children are bred and raised by “regular” humans
    with terrible parenting skills, I think being raised by androids designed
    for the best nurturing of children possible is a major step up.

    Again, by the time we are exploring the stars, human crews may be
    very archaic.

  • Adam May 7, 2009, 8:59

    Hi John

    Rapid prototyping of an advanced grade will be needed for manufacturing at a sufficiently high level for a colony to survive on a non-Earth-like planet and to close the manufacturing loop, especially while human labour supply is very limited. To avoid failure you can take spares of the system, but eventually the system used will have to produce them. That humans are needed for assembly means the machines aren’t self-replicating, thus avoiding that possible mode of self-annihilation.

    Personally I’m not convinced by your argument that such an effort is worth it. How will it avoid the potential catastrophe if self-annihilation has been so efficient at wiping out Intelligence in this Galaxy – or even the nearer Galaxies – such that no trace remains of previous Intelligences?

  • John Hunt May 7, 2009, 11:15

    How will it avoid the potential catastrophe if self-annihilation has been so efficient at wiping out Intelligence in this Galaxy – or even the nearer Galaxies – such that no trace remains of previous Intelligences?

    First, if technologic civilizations go extinct at about the same time we would (e.g. 2050? +/-) then they will leave no evidence that is detectable from our distance and with our current technology. Rusted technology may exist on their planets but we are unable to detect that. Also, I don’t believe that by 2050 we will have developed technology which will spread through the Milky Way without our having survived as well.

    Now, you may be asking this question, “If we are so close to causing our own extinction, what would prevent the new civilization from quickly developing its own extinction given that their technical knowledge would be not far behind ours. I think that there is a straightforward answer.

    They will have one overwhelming bit of knowledge which we don’t have. They will know with an absolute certainty that they came from a civilization that went extinct probably due to self-replicating technology. That one fact would likely cause them to behave far differently than we. They would likely reproduce the ability for another EGR mission before they would advance their knowledge of nanotech, biotech, chemtech, AI, etc. Also, the fact that they wouldn’t have billions of people means that they would probably have a more unified and controllable governance structure.

    But you may also be asking the question, “Why should we expect an EGR mission to work if it hasn’t apparently worked for any other civilization”. Forgive me for being sly here…My argument is that interstellar colonization is necessary to spread through the Galaxy but that it is sufficiently hard to do (in the limited time that we have) that no other civilization were able to accomplish it before they went extinct. But my argument is also that the various components of an EGR mission are currently at a level of development that makes such a mission conceivable within a 50 or so year timeframe.

  • Christopher L. Bennett May 7, 2009, 13:11

    Human children need human contact to be raised properly. Babies deprived of human touch and interaction suffer physical brain damage, atrophy from the lack of stimulation. Depending on the severity of the deprivation, this can result in antisocial tendencies, sociopathy, or even physical deterioration and death, as discovered by Dr. Rene Spitz in his work with infants in foundling homes in the 1940s.

    Could an android be built to simulate human contact sufficiently? Maybe, but I’d be reluctant to trust in that. There’s more than just physical touch and intellectual and social stimulation to be considered. There are probably all sorts of subliminal cues, pheromones, and the like that come into play. I wouldn’t be willing to chance it until we have AIs that are indistinguishable from humans on every level. But in that case, they might as well be human, and might require just as many resources to send across space as a human crew would. So you might as well just send humans.

  • Tibor May 7, 2009, 14:10

    …the overall scenario of incremental growth toward star-spanning technologies is solid over the long term.

    Just how long a ‘term’ that might be is unknown…

    Musing on this brings me once more to our Interstellar Bet.

    To satisfy its conditions for a Centauri target we have to reach 600-650 km/s. There are potential propulsion candidates for this: e.g. as Paul discussed recently here, the Beryllium hollow-body sail might reach 400 km/s – Matloff et al speculate on a possible start of such a mission in th 2040ies.

    Now, there is a quickly developing story: Janhunen’s electric sail. Here estonian students are already working on a demonstrator mission to measure the electric sail force: (http://www.estcube.eu/mission2). The entry point for electric sail is http://www.electric-sailing.com/, with numerous further links and infos.

    I am wondering if a similar student project for solar sails (or ion engines,…) would fasten the pace of development.

  • John Hunt May 7, 2009, 14:36

    I give Mr. Hunt credit. He made me stop and think. I think we could go far if we take time to consider his ideas and well as all the other “wild” ideas people are willing to share.

    J.R., Thanks for your kind remarks. A thoughtful, open mind is all that I ask. I hope that the supporting evidence that I present for each facet of the mission will help the move the concept beyond the “wild” category.

    However, it’s highly unlikely for AI to be developed that far this century

    I have never advocated the need for full AI. If you research on one of the leading contender for the Turing Test (A.L.I.C.E.) you will find that it is making good progress.

    Approximating Life

    Over the next year, Wallace quadrupled Alice’s knowledge base, teaching it 30,000 new responses, and last October, Alice won the Loebner competition for the second time in a row; this time one judge actually ranked Alice more realistic than a human.

    I think it reasonable to believe that 50 more years of development will produce a program which will pass the Turing Test which does NOT mean that it has true artificial intelligence, only that it cannot be distinguished from an intelligent human. If a child cannot tell the difference between a real human and one that is indistinguishable from a real human then what difference will it make?

    In regards to whether androids can love the children, androids can certainly care for children as a loving parents do. I believe that with 50 years of development, androids can be able to do things like praise (when appropriate) and recognize misbehavior and provide discipline. Also, since the androids can play back recorded behaviors from the children’s biologic parents then the android’s expressions of love will be an accurate representation of the feelings of the children’s biologic parents. It would be like a parent writing a loving letter to their child only it would be acted out through a highly accurate copy.

  • bigdan201 May 8, 2009, 6:25

    I still dont believe that androids will pass for humans anytime soon. im pretty sure a child with android parents would see the difference and be affected by it at even an early age.

    androids that could take the place of a human seem further off than even interstellar travel.

    and im pretty sure that colonizing other planets would be enough insurance, although colonies around other stars would be even better and more certain.

  • Adam May 8, 2009, 8:19

    Nice reply to my conundrums John. Thanks for working and thinking on this problem to such depth.

    Another question – power-source? And its expected lifetime performance. How will you determine the system will remain viable over centuries to millennia in a less than 50 year time frame?

  • John Hunt May 8, 2009, 12:28

    It seems that the main (or initial) sticking point for an EGR mission is whether children can be raised by android parents to independence with a healthy psychology.

    So…what would it take to convince people that, with development, this can be achieved? May I suggest an android Turing Test? Of course, the Turing Test is where judges interact with hidden humans and computers through text. If the judges are not able to tell which is human then the program passes the Turing Test. Likewise, if one is unable, by appearance and interaction, that an android is not a real person then it would pass the android Turing Test. And, isn’t this the goal for androids…to accutately mimic humans?

    But modern Turing Tests have levels (bronze, silver, & gold). So programs can be recognized as making progress without having achieved the ultimate goal. Likewise, there should be levels for the android Turing Test. For the purposes of an EGR mission what we care about is the effect that it has upon growing children. I think it obvious that that it is easier for the very young to believe that an android is actually human and to respond to it accordingly. So, with development, androids could progressively pass levels until the gold award was won where an adult is unable to perceive a difference even with extended interaction. But how can you tell if a child accepts an android as it does a human? Any ideas?

  • ljk May 8, 2009, 14:05

    Why have androids? Why not immerse them in a virtual reality and
    gradually let them know as they grow up where they really are and
    what is going on?

    Machines can tend to their basic bodily needs while their minds are
    nurtured via the VR.

    Sending starships with AI keeps sounding easier all the time, though
    if we want to colonize and FTL drives are not available, multigenerational
    vessels may not be the nightmares that most SF would have us believe.

  • John Hunt May 8, 2009, 20:24

    Another question – power-source? And its expected lifetime performance. How will you determine the system will remain viable over centuries to millennia in a less than 50 year time frame?

    Adam, I think that you are talking about the power-source on the craft. When one gets beyond Jupiter or so the ambient temperatures get down to what our highest superconductors operate at. So maintaining a very strong magnetic field would require no coolant and so only a small ongoing power source would be needed there. Biologic material will remain frozen throughout the trip or perhaps occasional heating of tissue samples if we are trying to reproduce our way past galactic cosmic ray damage. The power requirements to do this would be pretty small. As many course corrections as possible would be made on the way out of the solar system so, whatever propulsion method used for acceleration would use its power in a fairly short period. So I don’t see any particular issue with the reliability of the initial power or in transit.

    Since deceleration would use loops which are naturally superconducting at deep space temps one need power up the loops only once. Given that you have to decelerate over thousands? of AUs from the star it seems to me that this would have to be done via fission. Power from fission is very predictable. I know that there are elements with a variety of half-lives. For example, Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years (meaning that 90% of it should be remaining at destination) and yet it can be used in a nuclear reactor meaning that it can deliver its remaining power in a relatively short period of time. At least that’s how I understand it. Its critical mass is 10kg. Can we get a 5 or 10 kg payload accelerated to 700 km/sec by 2050? Hopefully yes. I don’t believe that straight RTGs will work because of the inverse relationship between half-life and power production. Perhaps a Timberwind pebble bed reactor approach could be used as a relatively easy way to preserve power by keeping the pebbles apart in transit and then bring them together to produce a great deal of power at destination.

    Fission would also be very helpful for powering construction of habitat, air, water, plastics, and food (like the proposed Mars ALPH craft). Can a reactor be build which will function after as long as 2,000 years or so? Well, we can submit the reactor (and all other equipment and materials) to the same quantity of thermal and radiation that it will experience throughout the entire trip. Physicists who work on long-term reliability should be able to estimate probability of viability. I believe there’s a developed field of science there so that we can confidently extrapolate out many years.

    The colony itself can be powered via fission or, if necessary, solar panels can be opened or if necessary constructed at destination to power the colony until the colonists are able to oversee the manufacture of more solar panels.

    I’m really not an expert on these things so I am only doing the best with what I know. Those with better technical understand may be able to improve on these ideas.

  • John Hunt May 11, 2009, 19:17

    > Kurt9 – It sounds like Hunt has been reading “Voyage from Yesteryear” (James P. Hogan).
    Actually, I wasn’t aware of the book but the frozen embryo part is very much like an EGR mission. Thanks for the tip.

    > ljk – …“regular” humans with terrible parenting skills, I think being raised by androids designed for the best nurturing of children possible is a major step up.
    R&D could include placing an android in a dysfunctional home to see if very young children would benefit in a manner similar to having a big brother/big sister mentor. If the psychology of children is helped then later R&D could involve greater android role.

    > ljk – Why have androids? Why not immerse them in a virtual reality…
    That’s a great question. IMHO, virtual reality should be supplemental to androids. Wouldn’t VR require a permanent headset installed on the child, and wouldn’t physical stimuli have to match the VR? VR wouldn’t provide any advantage re: simulated intelligence dialogue. However, a spherical VR room could provide a large “outdoor” experience.

  • ljk May 12, 2009, 11:19

    The kind of VR I am thinking of is akin to The Matrix, since I assume it
    would be easier to “store” the human crew in some kind of suspended
    animation environment and pipe in the virtual environment directly
    into their brains that way, rather than have them awake and need to
    build some kind of external environment. Otherwise we might as well
    just use a multigenerational ship for the job.

    The more we go into this, the more I think that unless we have some
    means of FTL speeds to attain the stars, either a multigenerational
    starship or just sending AI seems the most likely way to go. Or perhaps
    a really big space telescope in our Sol system or to the solar focus point.

  • Neil Craig May 13, 2009, 7:13

    The problem here that technology can’t solve is of technological progress. If at any time during the 1st half of the 200 year voyage it becomes possible to produce a craft twice as fast this will be a toourist ship that can’t go home rather than an exploration. I would say that at anything less than 10% lightspeed (40 years to Centauri) it would be better investing the resources in technological progress.

    Unless we knew there was a high possibility we were going to wipe out ourselves.

  • ljk May 13, 2009, 9:25

    Neil, that point has been brought up many times and while it
    definitely has merit, I also worry that it will cause us to sit around
    and wait for that superior technology to show up.

    I would rather see us try to reach the stars using the technology
    we have now and in the near future rather than wait and hope
    someone will produce something better.

    We certainly have better technology than they did in the 1960s
    when Apollo put men on the Moon, but if we waited for things
    to get more advanced, we probably would still be waiting for the
    day humans put their footprints on the lunar surface. Look at
    where we are now in that regard with our superior technology –
    we don’t even know if people will be on the Moon in the next
    20 years.

    That is why I want to see us working on interstellar travel NOW
    so it will happen at all. I am not waiting for unnamed and
    unknown someones in the vaguely defined future to hopefully
    come up with something better and faster.

  • Tibor May 13, 2009, 11:25

    I would rather see us try to reach the stars using the technology we have now and in the near future rather than wait and hope
    someone will produce something better…..
    ….Look at where we are now in that regard with our superior technology –
    we don’t even know if people will be on the Moon in the next
    20 years.

    That is why I want to see us working on interstellar travel NOW
    so it will happen at all.

    I fully agree with Larry on this – and the argument is actually one of the driving forces behind my Interstellar Bet with Paul. Setting hard but achievable targets will hopefully inspire more work on near-term technologies like solar or electric sails, etc.

    You may take a look at our facebook cause Support Long Bet 395 where I have started to collect some “entry points” on promising near-term technologies for those who want to dig deeper.

  • Pat Galea May 13, 2009, 13:46

    This is where the interstellar precursor missions show great promise. For example, Maccone’s gravitational lensing missions would require development of the same kind of tech required for travel to the stars, but would show solid results in a much shorter period of time.

    Without these “stepping stone” missions, we are (or at least appear to be) taking a huge leap from inter-planet to inter-stellar voyages.

    Beyond the precursor missions, we can also build genuine interstellar probes which are designed specifically to achieve important objectives along the way; for example, looking at the Oort cloud, measuring interstellar particle density, the heliopause etc. More speculatively, perhaps experiments to do with dark matter will become possible.

    With missions designed this way, even if a faster probe is launched 50 years later, the original mission has still provided value itself.

    And as one of the speakers at the Interstellar Session of the UKSC said, even if an old probe arrives at a star later than a newer probe, we’d still want to get all the information from it that we could. It’s still data, and you never know, it might happen to have picked up something that the newer probe has missed.

    I believe that it’s possible to keep all these points in mind and structure our missions so that they will be productive even if (a) they fail at some point before reaching the destination, or (b) they are overtaken by newer probes.

    The only time I think the “overtaking” problem would have real emotional impact is if I’m on the pioneering mission to Gliese, and when I arrive I discover that there’s already a 50 year old colony descended from my kids thriving there!

  • John Hunt May 13, 2009, 14:11

    Neil, the later/faster argument essentially doesn’t apply to an EGR mission. The insurance policy is purchased the moment an EGR craft exits our solar system not upon arrival at the target system. The only significant argument I see for a faster mission is that it would reduce the exposure time to galactic cosmic radiation but I think that the exposure can be reduced or overcome in other ways.

    The decision to launch an EGR mission is much like that of purchasing catastrophic health insurance. Yes, one could wait to purchase while one’s income increases or the price of said policy goes down. But every year that you wait to purchase it is a year that you go without coverage. And that can be pretty dangerous.

    Yes, the amount that we should be willing to spend is related to the cost of a “manned” interstellar mission and the risk of an existential event. If the cost is modest and there is a significant risk then we should proceed with all haste. But I would disagree that the probability of an existential event needs high.

    I would like to direct you to a video on the subject of the probability of existential risks. It is a good primer on the topic. 43:30 in the video is where the probability estimates (for an existential event in the next century) of prominent scientists is listed.

    Because the risk of extinction is not minimal and because I believe that an EGR mission is within near-term technology I would therefore agree with ljk that we need to be working on interstellar travel NOW and not wait.