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.