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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

Ripley

Mobilis in Mobile: Ellen Ripley/Alien Queen hybrid
in starship Auriga (Alien Resurrection)

Views of space travel have grown increasingly pessimistic in the last decade. This is not surprising: SETI still has received no unambiguous requests for more Chuck Berry from its listening posts, NASA is busy re-inventing flywheels and citizens even of first-world countries feel beleaguered in a world that seems increasingly hostile to any but the extraordinarily privileged. Always a weathervane of the present, speculative fiction has been gazing more and more inwardly — either to a hazy gold-tinted past (fantasy, both literally and metaphorically) or to a smoggy rust-colored earthbound future (cyberpunk).

The philosophically inclined are slightly more optimistic. Transhumanists, the new utopians, extol the pleasures of a future when our bodies, particularly our brains/minds, will be optimized (or at least not mind that they’re not optimized) by a combination of bioengineering, neurocognitive manipulation, nanotech and AI. Most transhumanists, especially those with a socially progressive agenda, are as decisively earthbound as cyberpunk authors. They consider space exploration a misguided waste of resources, a potentially dangerous distraction from here-and-now problems — ecological collapse, inequality and poverty, incurable diseases among which transhumanists routinely count aging, not to mention variants of gray goo.

And yet, despite the uncoolness of space exploration, despite NASA’s disastrous holding pattern, there are those of us who still stubbornly dream of going to the stars. We are not starry-eyed romantics. We recognize that the problems associated with spacefaring are formidable (as examined briefly in Making Aliens 1, 2 and 3). But I, at least, think that improving circumstances on earth and exploring space are not mutually exclusive, either philosophically or — perhaps just as importantly — financially. In fact, I consider this a false dilemma. I believe that both sides have a much greater likelihood to implement their plans if they coordinate their efforts, for a very simple reason: the attributes required for successful space exploration are also primary goals of transhumanism.

Consider the ingredients that would make an ideal crewmember of a space expedition: robust physical and mental health, biological and psychological adaptability, longevity, ability to interphase directly with components of the ship. In short, enhancements and augmentations eventually resulting in self-repairing quasi-immortals with extended senses and capabilities — the loose working definition of transhuman.

Coordination of the two movements would give a real, concrete purpose to transhumanism beyond the uncompelling objective of giving everyone a semi-infinite life of leisure (without guarantees that either terrestrial resources or the human mental and social framework could accommodate such a shift). It would also turn the journey to the stars into a more hopeful proposition, since it might make it possible that those who started the journey could live to see planetfall.

Whereas spacefaring enthusiasts acknowledge the enormity of the undertaking they propose, most transhumanists take it as an article of faith that their ideas will be realized soon, though the goalposts keep receding into the future. As more soundbite than proof they invoke Moore’s exponential law, equating stodgy silicon with complex, contrary carbon. However, despite such confident optimism, enhancements will be hellishly difficult to implement. This stems from a fundamental that cannot be short-circuited or evaded: no matter how many experiments are performed on mice or even primates, humans have enough unique characteristics that optimization will require people.

Contrary to the usual supposition that the rich will be the first to cross the transhuman threshold, it is virtually certain that the frontline will consist of the desperate and the disenfranchised: the terminally ill, the poor, prisoners and soldiers — the same people who now try new chemotherapy or immunosuppression drugs, donate ova, become surrogate mothers, “agree” to undergo chemical castration or sleep deprivation. Yet another pool of early starfarers will be those whose beliefs require isolation to practice, whether they be Raëlians or fundamentalist monotheists — just as the Puritans had to brave the wilderness and brutal winters of Massachusetts to set up their Shining (though inevitably tarnished) City on the Hill.

So the first generation of humans adjusted to starship living are far likelier to resemble Peter Watts’ marginalized Rifters or Jay Lake’s rabid Armoricans, rather than the universe-striding, empowered citizens of Iain Banks’ Culture. Such methods and outcomes will not reassure anyone, regardless of her/his position on the political spectrum, who considers augmentation hubristic, dehumanizing, or a threat to human identity, equality or morality. The slightly less fraught idea of uploading individuals into (ostensibly) more durable non-carbon frames is not achievable, because minds are inseparable from the neurons that create them. Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies.

Yet no matter how palatable the methods and outcomes are, it seems to me that changes to humans will be inevitable if we ever want to go beyond the orbit of Pluto within one lifetime. Successful implementation of transhumanist techniques will help overcome the immense distances and inhospitable conditions of the journey. The undertaking will also bring about something that transhumanists — not to mention naysayers — tend to dread as a danger: speciation. Any significant changes to human physiology (whether genetic or epigenetic) will change the thought/emotion processes of those altered, which will in turn modify their cultural responses, including mating preferences and kinship patterns. Furthermore, long space journeys will recreate isolated breeding pools with divergent technology and social mores (as discussed in Making Aliens 4, 5 and 6).

On earth, all “separate but equal” doctrines have wrought untold misery and injustice, whether those segregated are genders in countries practicing sharia, races in the American or African South, or the underprivileged in any nation that lacks decent health policies, adequate wages and humane laws. Speciation of humanity on earth bids fair to replicate this pattern, with the ancestral species (us) becoming slaves, food, zoo specimens or practice targets to our evolved progeny, Neanderthals to their Cro-Magnons, Eloi to their Morlocks. On the other hand, speciation in space may well be a requirement for success. Generation of variants makes it likelier that at least one of our many future permutations will pass the stringent tests of space travel and alight on another habitable planet.

Despite their honorable intentions and progressive outlook, if the transhumanists insist on first establishing a utopia on earth before approving spacefaring, they will achieve either nothing or a dystopia as bleak as that depicted in Paolo Bacigalupi’s unsparing stories. If they join forces with the space enthusiasts, they stand a chance to bring humanity through the Singularity some of them so fervently predict and expect — except it may be a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds instead.

walk-the-sky

Note: This post also appeared in George Dvorsky’s Sentient Developments during my guest-blogging stint in May 2009.

29 Responses to “Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!”

  1. Caliban says:

    Excellent essay, as always. I was particularly struck by the speculation that

    ..it is virtually certain that the frontline will consist of the desperate and the disenfranchised.

    I think that’s very true and very interesting.

  2. Athena says:

    Yes, a way to come out of dead ends or at least try.

  3. Transhumanists dread speciation? Are you kidding me?

    You are right that the goals of space travel enthusiasts and transhumanists are interconnected.

    Speciation would still take place, even if we never left the Earth.

    I think space travel is interesting, but you somewhat overweight its importance here. I don’t necessarily think it’s a waste of resources, but without molecular manufacturing, it is extremely expensive, as well as dangerous.

    Most of all I’d like to at least see a space station with 500+ permanent residents to serve as a “backup” to Earth.

  4. Athena says:

    Michael,

    without molecular manufacturing, transhumanism will also be extremely expensive and dangerous to implement.

    I’m with you, even a permanent self-sufficient space station will be an enormous step forward.

  5. Roko says:

    In fact it seems to me that the arguments you have presented actually support the opposite of your conclusion. You said:

    “Consider the ingredients that would make an ideal crewmember of a space expedition: robust physical and mental health, biological and psychological adaptability, longevity, ability to interphase directly with components of the ship. In short, enhancements and augmentations eventually resulting in self-repairing quasi-immortals with extended senses and capabilities – the loose working definition of transhuman.”

    This supports the following conclusion:

    We should work on trying to get the advanced “transhumanist” technologies working before we try to send a space mission off to a distant star

    which is the reverse of what you said in your concluding paragraph.

  6. Roko says:

    I think Michael has a fairly good post up about why “spacefaring” will be a somewhat dull prospect in the future.

    “If our mind operates a million times human speed, suddenly the Moon is 2/3 light years away. It takes an eight month journey to get there, even if I’m traveling at the speed of light the whole way. If I’m being beamed there in the form of photons, I’m dead for eight months.” etc…

    I suspect that some people will still go visit the stars, just because different things appeal to different people. What I don’t see is any support for your final paragraph:

    “Despite their honorable intentions and progressive outlook, if the transhumanists insist on first establishing a utopia on earth before approving spacefaring, they will achieve either nothing or a dystopia as bleak as that depicted in Paolo Bacigalupi’s unsparing stories”

    Can you explain in detail why sending a mission off to a star that’s light-years away is going to help things here on earth? I can see that certain advanced technologies [for example nanotechnology] would make it easier to send a mission to a distant star, but I can’t see how sending such a mission would help turn dystopia into utopia back on earth.

  7. Athena says:

    Roko,

    Michael’s article is based on the premise of mind uploading, which I consider an impossibility for reasons I explained in detail in my book, To Seek Out New Life

    Regarding the final paragraph, it made the point that if we abandon space efforts and concentrate exclusively on bettering our condition on earth, we may lose the capability permanently. Sending space missions won’t turn a dystopia into a utopia, but confining ourselves to earth and contemplating our (physical or virtual) navels will most certainly doom our species and possibly our planet as well. In this connection, the example of China dismantling its fleet in order to focus on solving its internal problems is very instructive.

  8. Athena says:

    I haven’t yet read Lilith’s Brood, though I plan to. I did read Butler’s short story collection, Bloodchild, which makes for very thought-provoking reading, to the point of discomfort. That comes from the fact that most of her work tackles the fundamental issue of what makes a human, including instinctive responses and the capacity for language. She is truly unique in her thinking, and reaches disturbing conclusions in her writing.

  9. rocketscientist says:

    Many, many excellent points made here.

    It bears keeping in mind that the human body is a system who’s functions must be considered in minute detail if the concept of transhumanism is to ever be anything more than a fantasy. A place where science and the imagination must work hand in hand. At this point in time, with all the good will in the world the human mind is a biological phenomenon of that accident of carbon. (insert smile)

    In my opinion the most telling observation here is this:
    “Contrary to the usual supposition that the rich will be the first to cross the transhuman threshold, it is virtually certain that the frontline will consist of the desperate and the disenfranchised: the terminally ill, the poor, prisoners and soldiers — “ the same people who now try new chemotherapy or immunosuppression drugs, donate ova, become surrogate mothers, “agree” to undergo chemical castration or sleep deprivation.”

    Examining the human condition as it plays out in this scenario will give speculative fiction writers plenty to work with, I think. But then I am one of those inward lookers (one who still likes the idea of space travel – lots of time for introspection- which I know isn’t too fashionable right now).

    At the turn of the year I began Octavia Butler’s wonderful series, Lillith’s Brood.” I assume you’ve read it. What did you think?

  10. [...] I have a visceral, non-digital sense that a “singularity”, if it occurs, will not include pushing minds evolved over eons to cope with a physical biosphere into digital frameworks. I doubt seriously that a human consciousness could make the adaptation — madness is the likely result. Hardly an expert on any of the relevant disciplines, I could well be wrong, but I noted Athena Andreadis’ thoughts on this issue in a recent entry on her Starship Reckless site.[...]

  11. Athena says:

    Roko,

    I will respond to your latest briefly and then we should take this off-site, since we are clearly going into details.

    I’m very aware of all the arguments for and against both transhumanism and space exploration, as you will find out if you read my other essays (on this site’s blog and collection of writings or on the site of my book). The point of this post, as announced by its title, was that the two worthwhile goals — making things better for humans on earth while retaining the dream of space exploration — are not mutually exclusive. Each can help the other remain grounded in reality and achieve its objectives faster and more optimally.

    As a working biologist, I can tell you that each of the goals of transhumanism will take as much time, money and effort to implement as launching long-range crewed space expeditions.

    Despite all caveats, I remain hopeful that we will go to the stars, with biological/cultural changes that make it possible to bridge the mind-boggling distances and hazards. We are explorers at heart. Keeping that alive may be essential for us to thrive.

  12. Roko says:

    Athena: “Regarding the final paragraph, it made the point that if we abandon space efforts and concentrate exclusively on bettering our condition on earth, we may lose the capability permanently. Sending space missions won’t turn a dystopia into a utopia

    Athena’s Final paragraph: “Despite their honorable intentions and progressive outlook, if the transhumanists insist on first establishing a utopia on earth before approving spacefaring, they will achieve either nothing or a dystopia as bleak as that depicted in Paolo Bacigalupi’s unsparing stories. If they join forces with the space enthusiasts, they stand a chance to bring humanity through the Singularity some of them so fervently predict and expect — except it may be a Plurality of sapiens species and inhabited worlds instead.”

    You seem to be changing your tune there!

    I mean I’m not opposed to sending space missions, but I think I would justify sending them on other grounds – for example on the grounds that a universe with two inhabited systems is better than a universe with one because there will be twice as many people, or the grounds that you shouldn’t put all of your eggs in one basket. I like the idea of setting up a self-sustaining lunar, Martian or space-station colony just in case something bad happens here on earth, but I think that anything further than that is (at the moment) a bit of a waste of time and effort.

    I can see where you’re coming from in terms of the exploratory urge, of finding exciting new places and exploring them, but unfortunately the stars are a very, very long way away. Reality has spoken, and the answer is “no”. When the Chinese sent their fleets out to the coast of africa in the 13th century, they could get there and back in less than a year. Using current technology, we can’t even get to the closest star and back in a thousand years. If you want to go to the stars, you need to stay on earth for a while longer and work on improving our level of technological mastery so that we can build usefully fast ships.

    I strongly disagree with you on the following point: you seem to think that sending a space mission to another system will somehow help the next 50 years or so of technological change go more smoothly or safely than it otherwise would – but you haven’t said how or why; I think that it would ultimately make little difference.

  13. [...] 4 – Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite! “the first generation of humans adjusted to starship living are far likelier to resemble Peter Watts’ marginalized Rifters or Jay Lake’s rabid Armoricans, rather than the universe-striding, empowered citizens of Iain Banks’ Culture.” Interesting [...]

  14. Roko says:

    “I will respond to your latest briefly and then we should take this off-site, since we are clearly going into details.”

    - Indeed, well thanks for your responses Athena! I wholeheartedly agree that the space movement and the transhumanists are natural allies, and I think that we should work together to realize the innate human exploratory urge. I definitely like to think of myself as an explorer, even though I don’t think that outer space is the first place on my list of places to explore!

    All the best, come check out my blog if you’re interested in transhumanism.

    Roko ;-0

    http://transhumangoodness.blogspot.com/

  15. Athena says:

    Thank you for the invitation, Roko! I have actually visited your blog. You will find that we agree on more points than we disagree — and I am part of the transhuman movement (broadly defined), as an IEET fellow and member of a couple of Lifeboat boards. If I appear as more of a gadfly, it is precisely because I want these worthy goals to succeed.

  16. Excellent post, making your website a great find! Definitely bookmarked now. I entirely agree with your reservations about what I would call naive transhumanism, because they come from a more nuanced position than the naive proponents.

    There are still many ways to imagine a starfaring future. There will be more.

  17. Athena says:

    Thank you, Karl. And you’re right — with anything connected to biology, the devil’s in the details.

    P. S. Nice site at your end, too!

  18. Actually, there are transhumanists who favor space exploration although I don’t think George is one of them! I have offered arguments for space at two places: one of them Better Humans, where I used to write a column called Red Hour Orgy and the other at Tech Central Station.

    I think the left in general should embrace the openness of space. Feel free to add my ideas to yours if they are in any way helpful.

    http://www.threerivertechreview.com/leftspace.htm

    and here:

    http://www.threerivertechreview.com/redhour7.htm

    Philip Shropshire
    http://www.threeriversonline.com

  19. Athena says:

    Philip, your political arguments in favor of space exploration make sense. It’s interesting that very few major SF writers make these issues central to their speculations (Ursula LeGuin and Stan Robinson are prominent exceptions).

  20. Intrigued_scribe says:

    This is an excellent essay, with numerous valid points.

    “On earth, all “separate but equal” doctrines have wrought untold misery and injustice, whether those segregated are genders in countries practicing Sharia, races in the American or African South, or the underprivileged in any nation that lacks decent health policies, adequate wages and humane laws.”

    Alongside the observation that the most privileged would actually be the last to submit themselves to transhumanism, this in particular stood out to me. Highly thought provoking, as always.

  21. Some time after reading this, it led me down a train of thought where I imagined rich transhumanist hopefuls taking advantage of other less fortunate people as test subjects for gene therapy experiments. Some major breakthroughs in genetics driving people to abandon ethics and fine tune enhancement therapies on whomever will take a fist full of cash to do so.

    I don’t know how likely that is, but your point really makes me think, how is that going to work? If we need to modify ourselves to survive on some other worlds, someone will have to be a guinea pig. I guess we’ll have to hope our ability doesn’t too quickly outgrow our responsibility.

    Fascinating, well written stuff, here’s to focusing the transhumanism effort to enable us to diversify our location in the universe.

  22. Athena says:

    You’re right, Odin, our technology has always outstripped our ethics. And what you describe has already happened — a prominent example is surrogate motherhood. But I can only join you in hoping that we can push past that hurdle and build those starships!

  23. TransAlchemy says:

    OK you won me over.. Great read…

    “Even if technological advances eventually enable synapse-by synapse reconstructions, the results will be not transfers but copies.”

    That statement reminds me of Dr. Susan Schneider talk ” Does enhancement kill you” http://tinyurl.com/mtkrzx

    Great point, it will be more like resurrection of the dead… Ahhh Zombies…

    Now considering that all available data suggest that exponential growth alone will lead to a singularity, and even after reading the arguments put forth in an article of a possible future without a singularity.

    What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen? http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0696.html?printable=1

    I still believe we should find a way to reconcile transhumanism beliefs with current “human” values, for the same reasons you state here.

    “ancestral species (us) becoming slaves, food, zoo specimens or practice targets to our evolved progeny”

    It also appears that the only plausible way to reduce global catastophic risk would be to create a back up of our civilization on other worlds and or planetoids.

    The Moon as backup drive for civilization: http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0696.html?printable=1

    If the Singularity is unavoidable it should be a priority that we find a truce.

    “Coordination of the two movements would give a real, concrete purpose to transhumanism”

    I can’t agree more. Nice!!

  24. Athena says:

    Glad you enjoyed the essay, Carlos! Vinge’s article is interesting, thanks for the link. In the end, detailed views of the future aside, every careful thinker seems to reach the same conclusion: if we want to survive in the long term, we must take to space.

  25. Walden2 says:

    Very thought-provoking article on thirty years of Ellen Ripley in the Alien series:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/oct/13/ridley-scott-alien-ripley

  26. Athena says:

    I agree! Thought-provoking indeed and a pleasure to read. I found these statements particularly interesting:

    “Alien is a rape movie with male victims. And it also shows the consequences of that rape: the pregnancy and birth. It is a film that plays, very deliberately, with male fears of female reproduction.”

    “With those first three movies you have the sense that they are playing, probably unintentionally, with the three classic female archetypes from folklore. Ripley goes from being maiden [in Alien], to mother [Aliens], to crone [Alien 3].”

  27. Sue Lange says:

    “Speciation of humanity on earth bids fair to replicate this pattern, with the ancestral species (us) becoming slaves, food, zoo specimens or practice targets to our evolved progeny, Neanderthals to their Cro-Magnons, Eloi to their Morlocks.”

    Not sure this is a foregone conclusion. “Superior” is in the eye of the beholder. We assume transhumanism results in a “better” human being. What it results in is a different human being. Maybe it results in something that makes it weaker in some way so that it can no longer be said to be “superior”. (Whatever that means). More importantly, though, what if it results in something tolerant or able to learn the lessons of history or, even better, more able to “figure it all out,” i.e. able to organize the planet in a superior (whatever that means) governable body so that wars and subjugation are eradicated.

    And who’s to say we are not all going to be enhanced? Maybe we can’t make assumptions from historical models because the history we need to follow has not been written yet. Globalization is erasing differences. Why won’t that be the model?

  28. Athena says:

    Sue, welcome!

    You may have noticed that I deliberately did not use the word “superior”, because I agree with you. The word “evolve” does not automatically denote improvement, it just means change. Lifeforms are jury-rigged and not necessarily optimized, because fitness depends on the specific context. Changing an organism toward a theoretical optimum may actually make it evolve into a dead end by making it totally suboptimal for all but one narrow set of circumstances.

    As for universality of enhancements — even if they become cheap, stark inequalities will persist as they are doing now in spite (or, some critics argue, partly because) of globalization.

  29. CA says:

    It must also be said that Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle is a very interesting way to develop philosophical and political reflections on the potential role of “intelligent” machines in an advanced society (a sort of “computer-aided” anarchy): http://yannickrumpala.wordpress.com/2010/01/14/anarchy_in_a_world_of_machines/