Alternate Futures

Humanity’s Endgame

On Crossing the Event Horizon

Having crossed the event horizon of the technological singularity we’re beginning to see many social and technological effects of this convergence – some predictable, some not. Increasingly, we see stories of robotics and artificial intelligence as the former becomes more generally practical and the latter increasingly exceeds humans in endeavours from war games to art and writing to biomedical research. If the Turing test hasn’t been passed yet, it’s only a very short amount of time until that fateful day. These examples are on the predictable, or, ‘I told you so’ front. Less predictable have been the social changes that have come with the 2nd and 3rd level combination of technology. Of course, I’m referring primarily to the Internet, social media, and pocket-sized computing devices of great power and utility.

The Technological Singularity – a period in human history when technological development is so rapid that the developments arising from it alter society in ways we cannot predict beforehand.

While few will dare suggest which technological advancements will remake our world next (cheap space-based internet, neural-link interfaces, driverless cars, AI, quantum computing, moon bases…), fewer still would argue against us being in the midst of species-changing events. This has also meant no shortage of doomsayers. These days, pick any topic from climate change to gender identity to the political far left or far right and you’ll find someone who will suggest it will bring about the end of the world. With this global pessimism, it’s not a large stretch to begin contemplating the actual paths of humanity’s endgame. After all, even the dinosaurs, who existed for several hundred million years, all but disappeared – and they didn’t have nukes or other world/species-altering tech.

Note: While it’s true some species that existed at the time of the dinosaurs – such as crocodiles, turtles, and sharks, still exist, and birds are now known to have evolved from certain species of dinosaurs, the vast majority of the dinosaur species are now extinct. In the case of birds, it can also reasonably be argued that their ancestors are extinct as the forces of evolution have turned birds into a genetically distinct species.

The 3 possible futures of humanity: Extinction

One certainty of the universe is death. Plants die, animals die, people die, civilizations die, species die, planets die, stars and solar systems die, galaxies die, and even universes might die (the jury is still out on that one). Everything dies (sorry for the downer). But on an up note, it’s all part of a cyclical process of renewal. Without the death of the parts, the whole cannot be renewed and the entire natural system would fail. So, the human species is doomed to die also. The only questions are ‘how?’ and ‘what legacy will we leave?’

In nature, there is only ever one endpoint for life and that is death. However, there are two fundamentally different legacies to that death and, as the only self-aware, technological species we know of, we are unique in being at the stage of development where we can choose our legacy.

Legacy 1: Progenitor

Humans have gone boldly and bodily into space and have stepped foot on another celestial body, albeit very briefly in regards to the long span of time (we’ve used automated vehicles for most of the other visitations). Finally, after forty-five years, it does seem that corporate (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and others), political (the China / India space race is pushing the US), and social interests (Planetary Society, British Interplanetary Society) are again moving us toward a presence in space on extraterrestrial worlds. In my personal opinion, there are many reasons why this is crucially important and I’ll detail some in future posts. However, what’s important for the sake of this discussion is the long-term consequences.

By leaving our planetary nest and taking our first steps into the greater universe we take the first steps toward our own maturation as a species. Just as a child will leave the home, find a partner, and produce offspring, so too will the version of humanity that leaves Earth. While the humans of Earth are the parents, the various colonies will be as our offspring until they too mature, which will be increasingly easy after the first effort of the Terrans. So why does this lead to extinction?

Earth is a very hospitable environment. Space and other worlds are not. Even the few that might be will have different environmental conditions to Earth. Regardless of how similar they seem while viewing them from here at the very least, their biosphere will be strikingly different (if it isn’t, that will begin an entirely new existential crisis in humanity and especially the sciences). What this means is that a new strand of human evolution will begin from the first generation born on that colony. On every colony.

Given the distances of space and the time it takes to move between colonies, interstellar isolation would mean those new strands of evolution would diverge from the parental strand (humans) until they are no longer genetically close enough to breed productively. As humans, as we currently define them, become a smaller and smaller proportion of the galactic population, they may eventually give way entirely to the newer species or, at the very least, be effectively consigned to their Earthly domain.

Legacy 2: Dead End

Simply put, humanity, for any number of reasons, may either choose not to leave the planet or may wait too long to leave the planet and have the decision removed from us. If this happens, our species will either stagnate before ‘giving up’ and dying (something that appears to be a natural in-built mechanism of renewal and possibly overcrowding as suggested by the Mouse Utopia Experiment) or we will turn on ourselves, imploding in an orgy of horror and destruction. My bet is actually on the first one since there is already some evidence we are headed that way and that, even if it doesn’t lead to our physical extinction, remaining forever locked to the planet will lead to a kind of psychological extinction.

Legacy 3: Vastly Increased Human Diversity

The final possibility, lying between the other two extremes but still extreme in itself, is that humanity incorporates the divergent evolutionary strands from different colonies into itself to evolve, with uniform possibility, into something more than we are now.

This would seem to be the least likely possibility at the moment, given our current understanding of the universe. It would require the development of propulsion techniques that could shorten the immense travel time between stars from generations to days or weeks allowing humanity could travel between worlds and interbreed before interstellar isolationism resulted in new species.

Given that our galaxy is 100,000 light-years across our current most optimistic estimate of being able to travel at 10% the speed of light would still mean it would require one million years to cross our galaxy. Even travelling to the nearest star would require forty years or at least one generation (and the birth of humans on generation ships brings entirely new issues, discussed fictionally by Kim Stanely Robinson in his book Aurora).

So, with our current understanding of the universe, the chance that humanity could naturally evolve, incorporating all the disparate new evolutionary colonial strands within one genetically-consistent framework is incredibly unlikely (even if it would be great). Of course, increases in biomedical and genetic knowledge may allow technology to take over where natural evolution falls short, so this still may be a viable hope.

Conclusion

As with an individual’s life, so too the life of a species by which I mean, it’s not the duration of the life that matters as much as the quality and the legacy left behind. The odds are that humanity will go extinct eventually and probably much faster than the dinosaurs did (to be fair, the term ‘dinosaurs’ encompasses and wide range of species, and ‘human’ just one). What is most important will be the legacy we leave behind.

We are the first species we know of that actually has the possibility of consciously spreading our descendants to the far reaches of the galaxy. It would be an amazing legacy to leave the universe that spawned us. Or, we could let our fear and self-loathing confine us to the Earth where we will eventually die out, forgotten by all as another failed experiment. The choice is ours.

Fact

Mars, the Moon, Lasers, Oh My!

The space race continues to develop in interesting ways, all of which have been considered in science fiction, but not together, as appears to be happening now. We seem to have three strategies being employed by the main players (China, U.S.A., Space X, Virgin Galactic) each concentrating on a different aspect of space development. It could also be considered that several are developing their niches as a way to counter the others. Here’s how it appears to be playing out so far.

Corporate Interests

Virgin Galactic

Low Earth Orbit Space Tourism Prototype

Virgin Galactic has always been the most money-oriented of the players with, arguably, the shortest-term view of their space plan. Intent purely on making money from space tourism, they appear to have the view that colonization to any serious degree will require centuries and thus will be out of reach for the majority of the planet for that time. So, instead, they’ve chosen to concentrate their efforts on space tourism which, in the present form (and that of the foreseeable future, as I’ll explain) would mean trips to near-Earth orbit with the eventual possibility of an orbital restaurant or hotel.

SpaceX

SpaceX prototype ‘hopper’ rocket.

Instead, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has always had long-term goals. Once they demonstrated that a corporation could develop rockets to travel into space, they began earning their keep by renting said rockets to national interests (at an estimated $12 billion annually) while turning their sights on Elon’s dream of space colonization. Wisely, SpaceX has set their target as the colonization of Mars.

The foresight in Destination Mars has become apparent in the closing days of 2018 and the opening of 2019. Earth orbit and the moon are about to get very political. By choosing a target well outside the current scope of political influence, SpaceX buys themselves time to develop their Mars colony relatively free from influence, as the Earth-based powers begin their fight for the moon. That being said, they will have to hurry, as China has announced an interest in developing Mars once their moon base is up. That probably gives SpaceX a few decades head-start.

The weakness of SpaceX will be their supply chain, which could be interfered with by political interests either from the main space players, or the U.N. itself. They would probably be wise to secure launch sites in areas of the world where this could be minimized.

National Interests

China

Due to immense news coverage, it’s impossible not to have seen the news of China’s landing on the far side of the moon with their Chang’e-4 lander. Not only have they put a satellite in orbit of the moon to allow communications with their lander (which will be out of radio contact with Earth otherwise) they have recently demonstrated the ability to grow plants while on the moon.

Chang’e communication system. Image from The Planetary Society.

While a base on the moon’s far side does offer wonderous scientific opportunities and being free from light and atmospheric pollution half it’s rotation means an unparalleled opportunity to view deep space, other possible motives can’t help but enter consideration. The most obvious of which is that Chinese moon development is now hidden from Earth-based observation. This means China now has an almost completely unchallenged opportunity to develop their base on the moon for whatever purposes they desire — whether as a research station, a colonial expansion, a stepping stone to colonization of the solar system, or a military base to secure the Earth. At the moment, the only possible challenger, it appears, might be India, a rapidly developing country that appears to have an interest in the moon. However, India is not known as a country that rocks the boat and it’s unlikely they would challenge any claim China makes to the moon.

Interestingly, while the name Chang’e is a Chinese goddess of the moon, it can hardly escape one’s attention to realize there could be a dig at the U.S. with the Anglicized pronunciation ‘Change’

The United States of America

Finally, we come to the country that, arguably, started the space race (I’m not meaning to belittle Russia’s contribution in any way, but not only are they not currently a contender, but the ‘race’ aspect of ‘space race’ was formally announced by the American president J.F.K.). Once the forerunner, and the only country to have landed humans on another celestial body, the Americans have seemed content to sit back and let the world play catch-up for the last forty years. Instead, they developed and then abandoned reusable vehicles while posturing about colonizing either the moon or Mars several times in the last few decades. For whatever reason (probably a combination of financial + lack of desire by population), the Americans Dream seems firmly fixed, eye’s wide shut, on the Earth. The latest response to the race orchestrated by the new players in the game has been to suggest a return to a Reagan-like satellite defence program.

Artisitic redering of a space-based defense system, straight out of the 1980”s

Even in the 1980’s there were large, fundamental problems with a satellite defence system. Now that foreign and corporate interests have set their sight firmly on space, the flaws in applying such a system are immense. It’s a true lack of vision on the part of the U.S. to consider a satellite defence system to be anything short of a laughable response to the changing nature of space.

What’s Ahead?

All of this leads us with a very interesting time for the space race over the next few decades. Many of us have been saying China was going to be the country to first develop space. Although, I think even we didn’t foresee the rise of corporations as serious contenders. One thing that has been obvious for a long time to anyone interested in seeing it, is that the first group to develop space will have access to untold riches. Not just in the obvious physical resources such as minerals and gases, but they will set themselves up as the gatekeeper to a new, vast, wonderful frontier that large amounts of the human population would love the opportunity to develop with them.

Fiction

The View to a Future

In honour of VE day and the anniversary of the end of WWII combat in Europe, I’m sharing the first page of an alternate future story I started some time ago. The premise that interested me is that the Nazi Germans were as technologically gifted as they were morally abhorrent. So I was curious to explore the idea of what a world might be like in which the Nazis won WWII: the human rights abuses of a violent global police state and an immoral research community combined with the drive and technological ability for extraterrestrial expansion.

The story follows an enslaved African woman on a Welt Reich (World Reich) space station weeks before she gives birth to an experimental child who will be the first human born off of Earth, and how this empowers a quiet revolution. This is only the first page, but I’d love your thoughts on it so far, and the idea behind the story.

The moon glows brightly tonight, a warm beacon leading me home.  I’m sure my Shiminege would like it, will like it.  That’s not the name they’ll call her, of course. They’ve already chosen ‘Exogen-prime’. They are, after all, scientists, and she is, after all, the first of her kind. But even now, as the Welt Reich pushes its boundaries further into space, we have kept the old ways alive, in secret, as we keep our own names, in secret. She will be my Shiminege. A tiny foot kicks me, as if in agreement. I’m still amazed I can feel her through the artificial womb they implanted.

I’ll be grounded after this trip so I slow to appreciate the illuminated sphere in the distance, surface speckled by soft shadows. I want to drink in its every nuance, savour each shade and texture before my coming time under maternity detail. Weeks of experiments, months of cleaning the labs to keep me close for tests—I will miss the vast expanse that now surrounds me, the promise of freedom, of hope. The view to a future.

I steal a few more seconds and watch the distant blue below me. Gaia, cradle of life, birthplace of humanity, our great mother curves away into the distance beneath me and for a moment I’m taken by an odd sensation. Cradled in her gravity well, I feel both stationary and in motion. I’m acutely aware of my perpetual fall, the blue sphere speeding below me as I spiral toward it. Yet I feel strangely stationary, as if the hand of God has clutched me safely in her soft fingers. I savour the feeling a moment more until the crackle of my comm. interrupts.

“EVA-3, you are cleared for bay two.  Confirm orders.”

“Confirm bay two,” I say before a light touch on the thrusters squirts a pulse of compressed nitrogen into the vacuum of space, propelling me toward the station. I’ve overstayed my allotted mission time but it wasn’t by much and for once I don’t fear reprisal. My little Shiminege has assured me safe passage, at least for the next few weeks.

 

That’s all I have for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and I’d love to hear your comments.

Insight and Longevity.

Musings

Can We Colonize Extrasolar Planets?

At the recent Eastercon I had the pleasure of listening to Kim Stanley Robinson speak at a few sessions. While I don’t agree with all his ideas, he is clearly someone who bases his views on well thought-through concepts. I found one of the ideas he discussed particularly interesting, namely, he’s of the view that the technical and social challenges of interstellar colonization are too great for humans to reasonably overcome.

Robinson is an author who’s works acutely detail the human condition under future challenges. For example, he’s best know for his Red Mars trilogy detailing the technical and social challenges of humans terraforming Mars.

He’s also recently been nominated for a HUGO award for his novel New York 2140, in which he describes life in a New York city flooded due to extreme global warming.

In Aurora, Robinson once again presents many of the technical and social challenges to great human endeavours. In this case, the generation ship used to colonize worlds around other stars.

Avalon: Generation ship from movie Passengers

For those unfamiliar, a generation ship is a city-sized space ship that carries a living (as opposed to cryogenically frozen, genetic, or embryonic) population. The idea is that, since the distance to even the nearest stars are so great, it would take generations for humans to travel there. Hence those arriving would be the ancestors, several times removed, of those who started the journey. Immediately several issues become obvious with such a situation and Kim Stanley Robinson deals with the majority of them in Aurora.

Ignoring the technical challenges of protection from the extreme conditions outside the heliosphere, the social challenges that arise on such a vessel come from the differing experiences of each generation and how people are generally adverse to change (at least, once they’re over 30). So, while the initiators of the journey are set on their goal of settling a new planet, their descendants, who have lived their entire life in space, may not be — especially if not educated to the reasons for their journey or their need to land.

Imagine a town the size of where I live now. That’s about 80,000 people. Now imagine that everyone living there has the same viewpoint, the same goals for society, and the same idealistic values. You’re right, it doesn’t happen, as every election in history demonstrates. So it’s naive to think that a population hurtling through space, changing generation after generation, would continue to have the same values as its founders.

At the panel discussions during Eastercon, Robinson stated a few times that he doesn’t’ believe extra-solar colonization is even possible for humans, although it was unclear whether he was speaking from the viewpoint of human social issues, or technical challenges, although definitely there will be many of both.

My own view is that, like most amazing human endeavours, it will depend on the will of the people. If it’s possible to overcome those challenges, then we will. Or we’ll muddle through enough to succeed eventually. Even in Aurora, one segment of the population accepted the mission and stayed to colonize the world, while the remainder returned to Earth. Humans tend to be a remarkable and adaptive species and, if we find the will, we will find a way. The only question will be whether the AIs beat us there first!

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