Stephen Ashworth’s April essay at Astronautical Evolution deals with a question of considerable scientific interest: When will Voyager 1 leave the Solar System? But writer, researcher and jazz saxophonist Ashworth also has a philosophical streak, writing articles so far this year on the prospects for a technological singularity, the role of space in a society threatened with ecological disruption, and the business model best suited for manned spaceflight. In this essay, Stephen brings us a report from a recent seminar that mixes philosophy and starships, with consequential questions about autonomous technology, the role of discovery in combating intellectual stagnation, and the geopolitics of deep space exploration.

by Stephen Ashworth


The Institute for Interstellar Studies plans to run a symposium annually at the British Interplanetary Society‘s headquarters in London. The first of these events took place on 29 May, dedicated to the philosophy of the starship, and was organized by Kelvin Long and Rob Swinney. It follows several interstellar meetings at the BIS in the past few years, including one on warp drive concepts, one in which the Icarus project was formally launched, and in 2011 a reopening of the case for worldships [see Colonizing the Galaxy Using World Ships].

The title of Wednesday’s meeting, the “philosophy” of the starship, was left as broad as possible, I think deliberately, in order to encourage a variety of different angles, which worked well. Long’s own talk focused on Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance polymath and artist (1452-1519). Not normally regarded as an astronautical pioneer, his significance was that he developed ideas which were centuries ahead of their time, including designs for flying machines. We now find ourselves facing a similar leap into the future of imagination-driven technology, and Long sketched out possible technology roadmaps towards that future.


Image: Underway at the BIS. This and the other images in this essay courtesy of Stephen Ashworth and Kelvin Long.

Keith Cooper discussed how self-replicating Von Neumann probes spreading through the Galaxy might fit into a philosophy for interstellar exploration [see Robotic Replicators for more of Keith’s ideas on the subject] . He pointed out that autonomous probes, based on nanotechnology, 3D printing and artificial intelligence, would be very useful for creating industrial infrastructure in space. But their autonomy could lead to unpredictable evolutionary changes in their behaviour, and could also sour a first contact scenario with extraterrestrials if those probes trespassed on the aliens’ own resources.

Cooper linked this topic with Fermi’s infamous question, or paradox, about which everybody has strong views but minimal supporting observational evidence. The Fermi question inevitably captured the resulting debate. I quietly suggested that future symposia ought to have a ground rule that the words “Fermi” and “paradox” should not be allowed to appear in the same sentence, in order to avoid these fruitless arguments which have been going on for half a century now, but this did not strike the organisers as a very good idea.

Bob Parkinson, one of the original Daedalus team, revisited several of his papers from the 1974-1975 period. He described how social and technological conditions had changed in the four decades since Daedalus. One person was now able to do the work which then had required a large team, thanks to the power of the Internet, and to the calculating power of specialised software.


Image: Daedalus designer Bob Parkinson speaks, looking back on an earlier paper in which he examined starships as part of a continuum that began with Renaissance voyages of discovery.

While this may seem to be all to the good, I had a discussion with Richard Osborne about the prospects for the further global application of increasingly capable machines to routine work currently performed by people. Driving road vehicles is a case in point: a massive source of employment at present, yet crying out for automation, with cars, buses and trucks already increasingly computerised. The danger is of large-scale unemployment leading to social unrest. This problem has of course been seen before, but is set to become increasingly acute as computers running expert systems become able to take over intellectual work, such as that performed by the medical profession.

This question ought to be of increasing interest in interstellar research. One is prone to forget that the very technologies which we assume will be available for interstellar spaceflight imply massive social and economic changes, and these will need to be managed successfully if society is to continue to be able to advance further out into space.


Image: A break for lunch and discussion at the BIS.

After lunch, Ian Crawford discussed interstellar discovery as an antidote to intellectual stagnation, drawing on an article of his published in a special issue of JBIS entitled “The Impact of Space on Culture” (Nov. 1993). He was in fact responding to Francis Fukuyama’s notorious “end of history” thesis, in which the end of ideological conflict also entails an end to human creativity and achievement.

Crawford referred also to John Locke, who in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding argued that we cannot imagine genuinely new things, but must discover them. In order to avoid the fate which Fukuyama predicted, we therefore need to keep pressing outwards and discovering new things. But this was disputed by Martin Ciupa, who rejected Locke’s view. Quite a debate resulted on the relation between physical reality and the human mind.

In his own presentation, Martin Ciupa focused on science fictional representations of contact between humans and intelligent aliens. A selection of posters from 1950s movies demonstrated the obsession at the time with aliens carrying off our womenfolk. The theme of using interstellar travel to illustrate our unconscious fears in the present was continued in Forbidden Planet. Ciupa then considered the Star Trek Prime Directive, representing what some would now regard as an ethical approach to managing our relations with aliens, and contrasted it with the interventionism shown by the Monolith in 2001, and by Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

This ethical choice is no theoretical abstraction, but a future version of a choice which is with us today: should the developed countries of the world intervene in cases such as the civil war in Syria?

Frederik Ceyssens offered his thoughts on geopolitical scenarios relevant to deep space exploration. Three broad futures were sketched out: one in which world governments tended to integrate into a unified global governing institution, one in which the current situation of several major power blocs continued, and one where political institutions were eclipsed by non-state actors such as multinational corporations, and the implications of these alternative scenarios were discussed.

As it would entail less short term competition and conflict, the former scenario was seen as more beneficial for government backing of long-term visionary projects such as launching an interstellar probe, but could also entail stagnation and complacency. The other scenarios would entail a more dynamic world, in which there could be actors sponsoring such projects albeit with a lower amount of resources. In any case, advocacy of a scientifically credible project was seen as important.


Image: Stephen Ashworth, standing at right, addresses the symposium.

My own contribution during the morning session took a broader philosophical approach: what are the key features of a social philosophy conducive to large-scale civil space engineering up to and including starships? I demonstrated that in every case, a philosophical stance which the interstellar community regards as true or virtuous is regarded by other groups in society as false or damaging. Even within the sphere of interstellar thought, there are several points of fundamental disagreement (the answer to Fermi’s question being a case in point).

Three years ago the BIS was in fact treated to a debate with two Marxist academic sociologists who rejected the propositions that space exploration as currently practised was beneficial or that it ought to be accelerated. I believe that we need to keep in mind views that contrast strongly with our own, and engage with them where possible.

The day wound up with a discussion, led by Kelvin Long, of possible ways to demonstrate laser-sail propulsion in space on a low budget. It is planned to pursue this further under the title Project Dragonfly, intended to complement the existing work (Project Forward) being led by James Benford into microwave beam-sail propulsion.

In the best BIS tradition, many of the 30 participants afterwards adjourned to a local pub to continue discussions over a pint or two.