Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Advancing Humanity Symposium Part 2: Space Colonization & 23 Reasons for Transhumanism

This is Part 2 of a two-post blog series with notes on the recent second-annual Advancing Humanity Symposium, Saturday, March 23, 2013, hosted by the The Stanford Transhumanist Association. Here I provide an overview of the Pioneering Ventures portion of the symposium. Part 1 can be found here.

The Schedule
Pioneering Ventures - 1345

Stuart Armstrong (Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute) "Space Colonization Made Easy"

Alex Lightman (Author of Brave New Unwired World) "Why Every Stanford Student Should be a Transhumanist"

Stuart Armstrong - "Space Colonization Made Easy"

Stuart Armstrong, from the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford, (how cool is this guy's gig!), focuses on "formal decision theory, the risks and possibilities of Artificial Intelligence, the long term potential for intelligent life, and anthropic (self-locating) probability. He is particularly interested in finding decision processes that give the “correct” answer under situations of anthropic ignorance and ignorance of one’s own utility function, ways of mapping humanity’s partially defined values onto an artificial entity, and the interaction between various existential risks. He aims to improve the understanding of the different types and natures of uncertainties surrounding human progress in the mid-to-far future" (Oxford, 2013).

The Institute's stated mission is to be "the leading research centre looking at big-picture questions for human civilization. The last few centuries have seen tremendous change, and this century might transform the human condition in even more fundamental ways. Using the tools of mathematics, philosophy, and science, we explore the risks and opportunities that will arise from technological change, weigh ethical dilemmas, and evaluate global priorities." 
(Oxford, 2013). 

Armstrong provided a succinct overview of options for space colonization, while balancing theory, calculations, and exploratory engineering principles in a focused and witty presentation. The concept that cosmic exploration is imperative (maybe even a moral imperative) to the human experience was a central pin to the discussion - a concept that I strongly endorse.

He began with an overview of the idea of resonance and self sustaining cycles - systems that feed their own growth (e.g. an avalanche).

(Video Source: FHIOxford).

Q - What are the unseen resonance structures in the world and how can we study these structures as models for space colonization?

An overview of the Fermi Paradox was discussed. "The Fermi paradox is a conflict between an argument of scale and probability and a lack of evidence. The apparent size and age of the universe suggest that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it." (Wiki, 2013).

So...where are all the aliens?

Some Answers:

  • Human limitations - human tech is not advanced enough to connect with extraterrestrial lifeforms
  • Alien nature - we are unable to detect alien life due to its unknown forms 
  • They live! - Aliens are already moving amongst and go unobserved 
  • We are the lucky first - humans are the first advanced species in this galaxy and close- known galaxies
  • Intelligent techno-organic life is rare in the universe(s)
  • Current intelligence and technology do not allow for detection, contact, and interaction 
Q - What will we need to colonize the universe?
  • Energy 
  • Materials
  • Probe design
  • Determine destinations
  • Determine how long it will take to travel to these destination points
Armstrong turned to exploratory engineering for plausible solutions.

Guiding Principles 
1. If it is done in nature, we will probably be able to do it ourselves at some point (e.g. AI, replicating cells)
2. Tasks can be automated (including building factories and construction)

(Video Source: Dream Big.)

The Dyson Sphere concept (ring/sphere/shell/swarm/bubble, whichever you prefer:
"A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical mega structure originally described by Freeman Dyson. Such a "sphere" would be a system of orbiting solar-power satellites meant to completely encompass a star and capture most or all of its energy output. Dyson speculated that such structures would be the logical consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization, and proposed that searching for evidence of the existence of such structures might lead to the detection of advanced intelligent extraterrestrial life."

"In Dyson's original paper, he speculated that sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial civilizations would likely follow a similar power consumption pattern as humans, and would eventually build their own sphere of collectors. Constructing such a system would make such a civilization a Type II Kardashev civilization."
"The existence of such a system of collectors would alter the light emitted from the star system. Collectors would absorb and reradiate energy from the star. The wavelength(s) of radiation emitted by the collectors would be determined by the emission spectra of the substances making them up, and the temperature of the collectors. Since it seems most likely that these collectors would be made up of heavy elements not normally found in the emission spectra of their central star–or at least not radiating light at such relatively "low" energies as compared to that which they would be emitting as energetic free nuclei in the stellar atmosphere–there would be atypical wavelengths of light for the star's spectral type in the light spectrum emitted by the star system. If the percentage of the star's output thus filtered or transformed by this absorption and reradiation was significant, it could be detected at interstellar distances." (Dyson, 2013).
Image: Wiki
Q - How will we build/power these monstrosities? We would need conventional materials next to the sun - enter the planet Mercury. To collect the energy needed for space colonization and self-sustaining factory-probes, we can power-mine the planet Mercury. Factory-probes would orbit the planet, deploy solar collectors, then presto, power-up that old boombox in the mess hall and rock some Kraftwerk. 

Conservative Assumptions

  • 5 year process
  • 50% of materials collected would be usable
  • 1/10 efficiency for moving materials off planet
  • 5 years to set-up, after 10 years begin to harvest power
Q - What would we send?
  • von Neumann probes - self-replicating probes
  • engines
  • factories
  • food and water sources
  • people

"In theory, a self-replicating spacecraft could be sent to a neighbouring star-system, where it would seek out raw materials (extracted from asteroids, moons, gas giants, etc.) to create replicas of itself. These replicas would then be sent out to other star systems. The original "parent" probe could then pursue its primary purpose within the star system. This mission varies widely depending on the variant of self-replicating starship proposed." (Self-Sustaining, 2013)
Drawbacks: This starship would be seriously heavy and would take a lot of energy.

  • co-opt structures from nature - find and replicate natural replicators
  • vibrio comma: general environment 
  • e.coli: robust replicator
  • acorn-idea: acorn grows into a tree, drops more acorns, grows more trees, wash and repeat. Essentially, a solar powered system. This idea could be morphed for space colonization.
  • Use nuclear powered systems
Here is the fun bit - rather than the traditional approach - go to one location at a time; Armstrong suggested going everywhere all at once. Multiple deployment destinations across the universe. The galaxy is expanding, targeted areas for colonization might slip out of reach; if we don't get there soon we will lose those coordinates. This means colonizing planets and possibly never seeing the results of those labors. Imagine human outposts across the universe developing in isolation or with "others."

Problem: Space dust might destroy us in route, so send out more probes than are needed, some will arrive at destination, others not so much. This is getting expensive.

Q - Why/Who colonize the universe?

1. Space Subcultural Groups (Utilitarians, British Interplanetary Society, Mormons) - these folks want to go, now!
2. Oppressed groups escaping from the dominant faction (hegemony)
3. To prevent subgroup expansion - the "Man" gets there first - sets-up apparatus of control
4. Safety from internal civilizations
5. Prisoner's dilemma: grab the universe to prevent "others" from using the universe against us.

This starts turning into a Phillip K. Dick meets Isaac Asimov sci-fi novel very quick.

Conclusion: The sky is not the limit. Aliens might already be out there. If we survive, humans will likely colonize the universe.

I have been practicing Mass Effect a lot, so I am feeling fairly prepared for this endeavour. 

(Video Source: GameSpot).


Alex Lightman, author of Brave New Unwired World, presented, "Why Every (Stanford) Student Should be a Transhumanist: 23 and you and me and what we can be."

In sum, Lightman's presentation was similar to a pre-game coach's speech for a team of transhumanists. And it was awesome.

He suggested that one key to a happy life is having discussions that give you "more life" than what you started with prior to the conversation. That's why I am here mate

"The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease." Thomas Alva Edison 

(Video Source: Carvakan)

23 Reasons to Engage in Transhumanism.
1. Adjacent to Quantified Self - There is a greater likelihood to pay attention to the measures that matter with respect to health, fitness, longevity, and the possibilities for using new techno-health tools.

2. There is a greater likelihood to be healthy and live longer
  • reversing fine linear decay functions
  • telomeres development
  • neuron growth
  • muscle mass maintenance/growth
  • bone mass maintenance/regeneration
  • respiratory function maintenance/increases 
3. Age gracefully - transhumanist peers seem grow old more gracefully than other humans - we approximate our peers.

4. Have more smart friends - transhumanist friends expose you to new ideas. See above. 

5. "It takes a village" - it takes people thinking differently, through new companies and new industries, to design the future. 

6. Transhumanists are potential sources for co-authors of articles on complex multidisciplinary topics. 

7. Allows for joint purchases of new lab equipment; re-purposing of old equipment; DIY labs and workshops. 

8. Transhumanists are traveling companions for adventures in knowledge - make a group - then go see important people who have access/gate-keep to the tools (and $$$$) you need. 

9. Transhumanism provides a great background for citizen-scientists, talking about STEM, and teaching STEM. 

Some examples: seti@home, folding@home, galaxy zoo, birdwatching, & drone protection of wildlife. 

10. Extra minds to overcome two big cognitive limits:

Theory of bounded rationality - we overestimate our ability to detect patterns (witness the madness that is Las Vegas; the house always wins, yet "Let it ride."). "Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision-making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make a decision." (Bounded, 2013). 

Curse of dimensionality: "The common theme of these problems is that when the dimensionality increases, the volume of the space increases so fast that the available data becomes sparse. This sparsity is problematic for any method that requires statistical significance. In order to obtain a statistically sound and reliable result, the amount of data needed to support the result often grows exponentially with the dimensionality. Also organizing and searching data often relies on detecting areas where objects form groups with similar properties; in high dimensional data however all objects appear to be sparse and dissimilar in many ways which prevents common data organization strategies from being efficient." (Curse, 2013). 

11. Be interesting to the builders of tomorrow. There are roughly 1,456 billionaires in the world - be unique. He was directing this to Stanford students after all

12. Sapiosexual advantages - " a person who is sexually attracted to intelligence or the human mind as the most attractive feature." Smart as the new sex(ualism). 

13. Fewer surprises from sudden shifts in economic structures or socio-political policies. Potential expansion of the human senses and memory. He identified 70 plus senses! 

14. Move to the left of the VALS curve - be an innovator.

15. Be an alpha-tester for super powers:
  • calculator brains
  • exo-skeleton strength
  • flight
  • invisibility 
  • sleep reduction
16. 50% or more reduction in wasted time
  • less bored
  • less wrong 
  • less time spent arguing
17. Transhumanism provides a fun way to be an atheist. Hear, hear! (Read this blog on the possible usages of this colloquial. Hilarious.).

18. Get the benefits of MENSA without the baggage and pretenses. Be smart and not an elitist.

19. Futurephilia: Be a part of the most future-friendly subculture = the 0.01% of the human population.

20. Science fiction adjacent - the line between science and science fiction becomes ever-blurry; revel in the possibilities. Science fiction is increasingly operand as blueprint prophecy.

21. Greater likelihood to create a start-up company and take it public; transhumanists will see opportunities and challenges prior to the crowd. Future issues and the related challenges of the future are intertwined with the challenges transhumanists want to solve.

22. Chance at greater happiness - the goal of life is in the "seeking" and the perpetual search for improvement.

23. Chance to be gods or have god-like powers. (Detest the word choice of gods here, maybe rather "the chance to explore the fullest potentials of the transhuman condition").

What is at stake? Nothing less than the chance to explore the fullest potentials of the transhuman condition.

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