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Starting Up an Interstellar Civilization

Broadening the interstellar community through public engagement is something Centauri Dreams is all about, so I try to keep my eyes on emerging tools that support that effort. On that score, the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Dallas was provocative. John Carter McKnight (Arizona State University) was chair for the track “Becoming An Interstellar Civilization: Governance, Culture & Ethics,” and although I only had the chance to talk to him briefly, I learned about something called MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses. These interactive teaching forums support readings and video with intense interactions among students and teachers.

Serendipity always works its magic, and the very day I was starting to look into MOOCs, Tau Zero social media wizard Larry Klaes sent me news of a MOOC being offered at the University of Leicester. It’s not interstellar in nature, but Larry knows of my interest in the medieval world and knew I would be interested in a six-week interactive (and free) study of Richard III and his era, taught by the university’s Deirdre O’Sullivan, who specializes in medieval archaeology. For those similarly inclined, England in the Time of Richard III begins on November 25.


My concern about interactive courses has always been that they can be so easily degraded by spammers or trolls, but evidently the community is learning how to shut down such activities. Dr. McKnight described one course with over 16,000 participants that had successfully brought a number of graphic artists into contact with their fans, fellow artists and students. Obviously, if we can refine MOOCs into serious learning experiences, we can think about using them to reach broad audiences with courses in physics, astronomy and all aspects of interstellar flight.

Image: Social media specialist John Carter McKnight, a master of technologically-mediated spaces ranging from the gaming community to educational venues for spaceflight.

From Blue to Black Sky

Switching between tracks had me constantly changing rooms, but I stayed in McKnight’s track to hear Erika Ilves discuss how to go about starting up an interstellar civilization. Ilves is an innovation strategist and author interested in what she describes as ‘hyper-visionary ventures,’ about as apt a description as I can think of for organizations like the 100 Year Starship. Her multi-media book The Human Project (co-authored with Anna Stillwell) examines existential challenges and evolutionary opportunities for our species, a three-year project that puts forth an agenda leading to what she hopes will become a multi-planetary civilization.


One of the issues Ilves explores is how to accelerate the transition to this kind of civilization, one that ultimately becomes interstellar. On this site I’ve often spoken about the long-range challenges that should take us off-planet, from protecting the Earth from future impacts to investigating astrobiology in ever-widening spheres of exploration. But Ilves argues that engaging the public must also involve solutions to problems closer to home, such as advances in energy production and sustainable ecologies. Her definition of civilization is broad: “A cultural infrastructure designed for continued survival and evolution of Earth-originating minds in the universe.” Our ultimate goals should include seeding life and searching for it elsewhere.

Image: Erika Ilves, whose determinedly optimistic outlook on the human future draws inspiration from David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity.

On the near-term front, technological imperatives include human life extension, a deepened human presence in the Solar System, and a fully built-out global Internet, all of this building the basis for what we need to move outward: Fusion, engineered habitats in deep space and major advances in closed-loop ecologies. Her work examines the various fora for global public initiatives and entrepreneurs that can help lead to this result. Catalyzing the transition involves refocusing human attention out of inward-focused trivialities and into the kind of ventures that advance our civilization, and that means making the turn from ‘blue sky’ to ‘black sky’ thinking.

An Evolutionary Leap

Much of what Ilves said found resonance in Michael Paul Ziolo’s following talk, which focused on the evolutionary ‘long jump’ our species will take as it moves into permanent habitation in space, a jump that Ziolo believes is far greater than that taken by our distant ancestors when they moved from sea to land. Ziolo (University of Liverpool) is as compelling a speaker as I have ever encountered, a tall, rangy man who speaks with palpable enthusiasm and deep engagement with his subject. He sees our challenge as to develop a secure foothold in the Solar System before resource depletion and other constraints make it impossible for us to take this step.

I hadn’t been aware of the Rockwell Corporation’s Integrated Space Plan, which Ziolo displayed on-screen, but it was developed in 1989 to offer a long-term strategy for cooperative research that would lead to a permanent human presence in space (you can download a copy here). Ziolo sees it as a useful forerunner, a prototype that can be reworked through a networked, distributed computing model (think SETI@home), which would become a design tool as we move into a space society. Dr. Ziolo’s sense of urgency is palpable. In the lobby on the last day of the conference, I spoke to him about the imperative to get key technologies into place before what he describes as ‘constraint and error catastrophes’ set us back and make future progress unlikely.

I probably connect as well as I do with Dr. Ziolo because of his own background, which includes extensive work in medieval studies along with an interest in ‘psychohistory’ I can only describe as Asimovian — I was not the first to bring up the name of Hari Seldon from Asimov’s Foundation series, though I don’t recall Ziolo himself using it. In any case, a love of the medieval world rotates around the crisis of civilizational collapse following the loss of the Roman influence and the long era of recovery that follows. Medieval man, fortunately, was blessed with the kind of natural resources that a future society, experiencing the same order of setback, may not have at its disposal, making a return to space that much more unlikely.

Gaming Deep Space

So getting to work while the resources are still available is important. So is reaching the public with the message, and to cycle back to where this essay began, I want to mention Casey Hudson’s presentation at the Saturday lunch session in the ballroom. Hudson is doubtless known to many of you since he is executive producer for a gaming franchise called Mass Effect that a number of readers have told me about. I have no experience with gaming, probably because I spend the day in front of a computer screen and by the time the day ends, the last thing I am ready to do is park myself in front of another screen, whether game or TV. Give me a good book and I am happy, but the last computer game I played was a World War II submarine simulation called GATO that goes all the way back to the mid-1980s and was, I’ll admit, a lot of fun.


Image: Casey Hudson, whose talk on gaming effectively explored the technology’s potential for taking the interstellar message to the general public. Credit: GameInformer.

Hudson’s talk, illustrated with numerous clips from the Mass Effect games, was revelatory to someone who hasn’t been following the technology. With gaming getting ever more realistic in terms of graphics and interactive dialogue, it’s easy to see why a large population is hooked on Hudson’s product, and also heartening to think that such an interest could lead to motivating people into careers in the space sciences. And as Hudson noted, as we move closer to genuine artificial intelligence, games will become far more realistic, with characters interacting not through previously scripted responses but through original and unpredictable paths. An immersive 3-D environment coupled with such characterization would be a potent learning tool indeed as well as a font of popular entertainment.


Image: The Hyatt-Regency ballroom, where plenary talks took place, in the early morning Saturday before sessions began.

Tomorrow I want to get into Eric Davis’ track “Factors in Time and Distance Solutions” and Joe Ritter’s track on “Destinations,” along with notes on a variety of pleasant encounters with old friends as the symposium continued. As you would expect, Houston has some excellent Mexican restaurants, and the hotel-top restaurant proved superb, as Eric, Marc Millis and my son Miles and I discovered. More on all this and a wine reminiscence tomorrow.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Reverend Richard Prichard September 25, 2013, 12:35

    Packs of wild dogs are roaming the streets of Detroit. Animal control is short one individual who was recently mauled. The youth unemployment rate around the world is skyrocketing. Wages have stagnated in the United States over the last 30 years. If these increasingly bad events become associated with technology – robots – and globalization, this world is going to crash. Someone on the 100 Year Starship Association better begin working on solutions for dealing with real world problems of social and financial inequity. Why aren’t some of these voices being presented and highlighted?

  • Paul Gilster September 25, 2013, 16:59

    Such issues are indeed addressed at the various interstellar conferences and were again in Houston. But with numerous talks over multiple tracks, I can only report on the talks I attended.

  • Gerry September 25, 2013, 18:29

    The comment above brought to mind a question which was sort of addressed in the recent film “Elysium”: could a new kind of two-tiered “first-world” vs. “third-world” humanity develop with regard to the colonization of space? It’s a very hypothetical question at this point, but it does seem to be one possible scenario which could be extrapolated from current-day trends.

    One could imagine a scenario in which a wealthy and technologically advanced “one percent” moves out into the Solar System, perhaps enhanced through various biological and cybernetic means to allow them to avoid the dangers of low gravity, radiation, etc., while the bulk of humanity is left behind on a climate-stressed, economically depressed and basically unpleasant Earth to scrabble in the dirt.

    An advanced space-based society might be supported largely through the use of robots of all shapes and sizes, and other kinds of “smart” systems, therefore needing relatively few humans in supporting roles. Not so much need for human farmers, miners or construction workers, not to mention butlers or bar-tenders, thus no need for big cities with many thousands or millions of inhabitants making a living in these sorts of roles. Instead there might be a relatively small number of wealthy families living in gated communities a bit like the habitat in “Elysium”, managed largely by mechanical servitors of various kinds.

    I seem to remember that Isaac Asimov envisioned something a bit like this in some of his novels; a society of long-lived, high-tech Spacers waited on by legions of robot servants while most of humanity remained behind on Earth in less privileged circumstances.

  • Astronist September 25, 2013, 19:42

    How many speakers were there from SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic, Reaction Engines, and other such companies and their clients? They’re the ones doing the actual work of laying the foundations of growth in space right now.

    When are private flights to the ISS going to resume (currently suffering a four-year hiatus)? Without growth in the commercial passenger market, nobody but official government astronauts will ever fly, and we can kiss goodbye to any chance of starting up an interplanetary, let alone interstellar, civilisation!


  • David Cummings September 25, 2013, 20:11

    So nobody is allowed to think or talk about anything but the problems of Detroit?

    What a dreary world THAT would be!

  • Heath Rezabek September 25, 2013, 20:31

    I’m eager to learn more about Erika Ilves work, as her interests seem to intersect closely with my own.

    @Gerry – I think that for anyone to take a broadly optimistic view of the transformative potential of ideas and technology, it’s ‘low hanging fruit’ to start right here on Earth with working to solve some of the problems you mention using all the interconnected means at our disposal. If nothing else, advanced technologies and resilient habitats need to be prototyped and tested; where better to test than in mission-critical real-world situations of relief and crisis mitigation?

    If such efforts bear fruit, the boon could be a renewed view of what pro-space efforts could mean for the betterment of Earth’s life along the way. Such efforts are not low hanging fruit because they are easy, but rather because the potential for uplifting life on Earth is so great, and the solutions needed (sustainable and abundant energy generation, resilient habitats, etc) are so pivotal.

    Trying our very best sure beats not bothering to try at all.

  • Alex Tolley September 25, 2013, 22:01

    I bought the Kindle version of “The Human project” and skimmed it today. Some interesting visions, but it left me thinking it was too utopian and vague. Maybe that was the point, but it didn’t have much “beef” for my taste.

    @Paul. MOOCS are rapidly evolving and may possibly transform the educational landscape. Institutions are either fighting back or trying to absorb the model, but I expect to see employment in the education sector severely reduced over the next decade. Educators will definitely have to adapt to the new teaching models.

    @Gerry – I doubt the future will look like Elysium. More likely the wealthy will try to “gate” more sections of the world and keep the plebs out. Asimov’s spacers had whole worlds to live in, while Earth’s inhabitants lived in their “caves of steel”. I suspect if the wealthy were put in an orbiting colony there might just be a sigh of “good riddance” from the ground :)

  • Securis September 26, 2013, 5:27

    @Paul: If you ever want to play another WWII submarine simulation check out Silent Hunter 3 (not the more recent Silent Hunter 4 or 5). It is old but simply the best there is.

    And while we are talking about motivating people into careers in space sciences through games I can only recommend (the yet to be released but already great) Kerbal Space Program. The guys at JPL love it too.



  • Astronist September 26, 2013, 6:14

    An interesting scenario by Gerry above. But by no means inevitable. For a long time to come (centuries), people living in space will be dependent upon the industrial power of a dynamic, prosperous metropolitan society on Earth. Intelligent robots are so far a fantasy: while Moore’s law still holds with respect to growth of memory and flops, a Moore’s law of genuine machine intelligence has not yet even begun. And the development of industrial processes based on the raw resources found off Earth will surely be a slow and difficult process. Robots will be enormously useful, but it will be us biological humans who’ll have to figure out how to set them to work.

    In The Case for Mars, Zubrin emphasises that a growing Mars colony would have high wages because of a labour shortage (labour of intelligent humans, that is). Space and planetary colonies will of course be highly innovative, but those innovations will benefit Earth as well, and in fact the movie Elysium ended by portraying just this. Many (such as Zubrin) believe that the innovative power of space settlements is exactly what is needed to prevent Earth falling into the decline your scenario fears.


  • Michael Turner September 26, 2013, 7:57

    “In any case, a love of the medieval world rotates around the crisis of civilizational collapse following the loss of the Roman influence and the long era of recovery that follows.”

    Lewis Mumford (in his Technics and Civilization, IIRC) was at pains to point out that much of the medieval period was marked by considerable technological innovation. The Romans didn’t really need to invent much. And they didn’t. Empires are like that — they don’t like disruption. They are built on suppressing it, and technology can be disruptive. The Romans took forever to conquer the last Greek stronghold (Rhodes) because they couldn’t match Greek ballistics expertise, nor (without Rhodian night-time navigation devices, the Antikythera most famous among them) could they cut Rhodian trade routes with North Africa. They just kept throwing naval power at Rhodes – and kept losing. Perhaps most important: they couldn’t match the commitment to democracy of the Rhodians. As Machiavelli pointed out, a free city used to being free will worm out from under any conquerors, short of total destruction; a liberated city that’s used to being dominated is soon dominated again. Democracies are much better at preserving technological information.

    “Medieval man, fortunately, was blessed with the kind of natural resources that a future society, experiencing the same order of setback, may not have at its disposal, making a return to space that much more unlikely.”

    A nice premise for a novel, but not, I think, a very good one from an economic point of view. Renewable energy technology might be inherently more expensive, but it wouldn’t be a bottleneck in the return to a higher level of technological development from some calamity, so long as information was preserved. The material and energy requirements of our current space programs are minuscule compared to the demand in the global economy; with a global economy 1% the size of today’s, a space program 10 times more expensive than NASA’s would still represent minuscule resource demand.

  • David Cummings September 26, 2013, 9:26
  • Reverend Richard Prichard September 26, 2013, 10:44

    Yes, talking about Detroit and other escalating economic problems would be dreary. However, I believe that the same scientific problem solving and economic investment could change our increasingly bleak future. If malaria can be tackled in Africa, why can not similar projects be aimed at our economic inequity. Is it really wise to cut food stamps and abort health care? One’s shrug of the shoulder’ attitude reminds me of the famous quote: “Let them eat cake.” We all know how well that went. Unfortunately, the next heads on the chopping block could very well be the scientific projects we all hope to see. Science does not exist in its own microcosm.

  • Peter September 26, 2013, 12:38

    Just stumbled on this jaw-dropping, semi-relevant website:


    Perhaps not particularly relevant to the discussion, but Wow!

  • Abelard Lindsey September 26, 2013, 15:38

    Someone on the 100 Year Starship Association better begin working on solutions for dealing with real world problems of social and financial inequity. Why aren’t some of these voices being presented and highlighted?

    Such concerns are not the focus of this blog, nor of this interstellar space conference. The conference organizers and attendees can spend their time discussing anything they choose. After all, they’re are the ones paying for this conference. The purpose of the conference is to discuss technologies related to interstellar travel. If this is not of interest to you, I recommend you not waste any more your time on this blog and, instead, spend your time and efforts networking and associating with those who share your interests.

  • railmeat September 26, 2013, 16:37

    @Reverend Richard Prichard

    The reason Detroit’s fiscal and governance problems are not discussed at the 100YSS is because they are already well understood. Detroit’s problems were anticipated for a long time and could have been addressed at any point along they way. Many people noticed that Detroit was spending more than it took in, and that they were making promises they could not keep. These problems are not unique to Detroit, other places have dealt with these issues in the past and more will in the future. The fact that they are solvable is attested to by the many governments which have avoided these kinds of problems or resolved them.

    In addition Detroit’s problems are not on the time scale at which the 100YSS works. Detroit’s issues will be resolved on a time scale of years, too short term for 100YSS.

    Competent government fiscal management will obviously be needed for any long term project like 100YSS, but they are not mysterious. They are well understood, though they are very difficult.

  • Gagarin M. September 26, 2013, 23:07

    @Reverend Richard Prichard
    The 100 Year Starship Symposium is the solution in the long term on the real world problems.

    I think You would be very welcome to present and highlight your thoughts at the soming Symposium’s! Please get in touch with Symposium’s administration.

  • xcalibur September 28, 2013, 8:20

    I believe space colonization is the only long-term solution for the world’s problems. At best, it will give us a productive direction of growth and stave off decay (if you’ve read Toynbee, space colonization presents a challenge-and-response). In the worst case, it will help insure our survival against anything that could happen.

    Personally, I’ve been into video games my whole life. They’re a very popular hobby, and you can’t underestimate the cultural impact they’ve made. Whether through that or other avenues, it’s worthwhile to seed the idea of space colonization in culture. As it becomes more embedded in cultural consciousness, there will eventually be greater funding, involvement and support for space efforts.
    After all, it’s hard to disagree with the concept, as most people already see it as an advance. The key is to spread awareness that space colonization is feasible, provides economic/social/scientific returns, and is worth the investment (an important point: wars are far more expensive than space)

  • Wojciech J October 1, 2013, 19:18

    If somebody is interested in video games and inspiration for space enthusiasm, I once again recommend this fascinating program:Space Engine.

  • zatopek October 4, 2013, 10:21

    For the game lovers:

    Please pay attention to the board game called “High Frontier”
    It is a complex simulation of the exploration of the Solar System, definitely not for kids. You can play several scenarios, in groups of 1 to 5 players, or online via Vassal server. Have fun!

  • Mundus Gubernavi October 8, 2013, 9:59

    This is all incredibly fascinating and everyone has valid points. The ‘Elysium’ scenario Gerry brought up is a very real possibility when observing the economical infrastructures of our current world; however, I think the biggest challenges faced by civilization are made apparent via culture and religion. Both of these things act as a sort of snaring entrapment to people who have been psychologically (and possibly anthropologically) seeded with world views based entirely on the exact opposite (sometimes antithesis) of what the basis of interstellar culture and civilization are aiming to be founded upon–the scientific method (if we are serious about intergalactic survival, of course).

    It might be hard to believe for the scientific community, but there are still a vast (might I say majority?) of people who will genuinely become offended, argumentative, and/or simply unresponsive to any attempt at explaining to them the benefits of cultivating our universe beyond Earth. I recently watched Erika Ilves’ TEDx presentation ‘Make a dent in the universe’ [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K89nP7GhWgU%5D where she talks about frequently coming across people calling her (as well as other hyper-visionaries) crazy for their desire to conceptualize and materialize solutions for the impending realities of our cosmic existence. She takes the ‘ignore them’ approach. Understandable, but there are some obvious problems with that–

    We must create the right kind of dialogue… But I can barely have a meaningful dialogue, even amongst some of my own family members, peers and students (whom I care for, dearly), about basic things like evolution, let alone interstellar colonization and entropy. A lot of people really believe that magical extraterrestrials are going to save them from extinction or will punish them if they deviate from moral and cultural codes dictated to them via persons who supposedly had contact with these magical extraterrestrial beings. I can respect their beliefs, but what do we do when the conditions in our solar sytem become bleek for us and we start feeling the ‘moral and cultural code’ of physics punishing us for being a tiny and possibly frivilous spec in probable infinity?

    Centuries ago, people had accepted personal physical extinction for faith in things that centuries later seem incomprehensible (a more blunt word would be ignorant). This is still occuring. It just saddens me sometimes to know that that power of faith we as a species hold, if directed towards the empowerment of our species on testable, indiscriminate terms, will probably enable us to manipulate and completely overcome (or become the masters of) the laws of physics altogether–even shaping and bending the cosmos to our imagination (which, in essence is the core and canvas of all cultural and religious reality in the first place!) At least that’s my opinion.

    I still have lots to learn and what motivates me is the fact that through our minds we can fathom unending life in the universe; having reached such a point where we now know for sure that we can finally start to apply it. Wow!

    I sometimes feel like creating fruitful dialogue with someone who has closed themselves off from learning through testable evidence is comparable to trying to make friends with a wild lion–its whole life it was raised to act and respond to its environment a certain way (plus the fact that it is encoded with this information from previous generations to further instill its actions) and you just want to tell it how much you admire it for being such a beautiful and extraordinary creature; you want to learn from its amazing library of information passed down from the moments of each mutation and adaption as told by the lion itself–to the very moment it emerged as its own species (and I’d love to maybe run my fingers through your mane ^^). But all you get is a growl with an intent to kill. Should I secretly indoctrinate the lion’s offspring and teach them how to be my friend, wait for them to realize the giant shiny dot in the sky doesn’t care about them, or respect their right to remain ignorant of their impending doom? Or is that a bad analogy? lol

  • Carson October 11, 2013, 18:31

    @Reverend Richard Prichard Not everyone single person and dollar on the planet should be concentrated on “real world problems.” Humans dream, imagine , create and inspire. We never have stopped and we never will.

    There are so many organizations and billions of dollars a year spent on “real world problems”. I think it’s alright a few lone organizations and an extremely small percent of the world population work on the bigger issues like interstellar civilizations, space colonization, A.I., ending aging & death, search for ETI & exoplanets, and existential risks. I contend they are doing the more noble work (even though they all do talk about the boring everyday real problems) and the stuff that is more esoteric actually gets to the stem of society problems instead of putting a band aid on them. Sorry for the vent, but your comments and arguments flow constantly like they are original. I hear them every time I’m online or in conversations with people in the “real” non-internet world. The present day or down on earth arguments are not original, we have heard of them, are aware of them and do think and talk about them. HOWEVER, someone needs to also talk and care about the big and important issues for our species I listed above or we might has well just curse ourselves to hominids running around living and dying without transcending and doing something truly extraordinary. Someone has to and the small percent that does should not be berated. Also, they really are not mutually exclusive, if anything they are mutually beneficial. We are also well aware that science does not operate in a microcosm. That is we are concerned with terroist and the everyday government chaos, etc. Disclaimer: I’m not obviously speaking for every person in these communities when I say we. Also not ranting directly at you but the ideas and arguments I hear so often.

  • Carson October 11, 2013, 18:36

    David Cummings- thanks for the link. That pdf space plan is sweet.