As a child of the 60s I spent most of my life regretting that we didn’t build those cities on the Moon and the planets. Now I realize that the Apollo adventure was too far from our supply lines to be sustainable. But we are still doing space, and someday (not soon) we will go back to the Moon, and then to Mars, to the planets, and to the stars.

In the meantime, we can enjoy our little steps in space, admire the view and think that, as crew members of Spaceship Earth, we are part of the wonderful adventures of our descendants among the stars. And perhaps we will be there… (please read until the end).

NASA historians observe that Apollo was a very expensive undertaking for its time and, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested in an essay published during the week of Apollo 11, we had made such a great leap into space during the 60s that we needed a time of “consolidation.” The first lunar landing came only eight years after Gagarin and, because it had all been so expensive, few saw a point in continuing. “We have a great deal to learn and great deal to do,” conclude the NASA historians. “But we have been to the Moon and can put that experience to good use as we prepare, sooner or later, to go back.”

The Master Arthur C. Clarke also said that the first manned missions to the Moon should really have been launched in this century, because last century was much too soon. I don’t find the citation at this moment but I remember reading something similar – I think Sir Arthur would have said something similar, and I certainly agree. Apollo in the 1960s was like buying a new gadget that we couldn’t really afford, and then having to return it. We went to the Moon a handful of times in the 60s and 70s, but then we didn’t have the resources to build a sustainable presence on the Moon.

I was 11 when I watched on TV the first man walking on the Moon, 15 when I watched the last, and it’s very unpleasant to realize that I’ll probably be 75 or older (or not be) when we go back to the Moon. But one should try to keep happiness and sense of wonder. So I have made this resolution: I will have fun following our robotic missions to the planets, without letting the fun be spoiled by the knowledge that probably I won’t see much more than that.

Annalee Newitz, a writer I sometime disagree with, wrote an awesome article titled “Stop pretending we aren’t living in the Space Age.”

“[C]olonizing other worlds is not something that takes ten years, or even a hundred,” she says. “It might take much longer than that before humans are living on Mars, or in orbit around Saturn. But we are undeniably on the path toward a future where humans live in space. Our ancestors, who dared to learn from the planets and stars, led us onto this path. And now we are actually seeing those planets up close, for the first time in the history of our species.” She adds:

“Enjoy this small but incredible slice of time that you get to live through, and remember that Galileo would be weeping with envy and relief to know we made it this far. Just because it takes centuries doesn’t mean we aren’t making progress. We’re riding a slow, powerful wave that will bear future generations to the stars.”

That is, I must concede, the right attitude. Of course a wild card could fall on the table anytime to change the game suddenly – for example the EmDrive could actually work and open a cheaper way to the planets, or those aliens that blink from Ceres could email us the specs for their warp drive and welcome us to the community of galactic civilizations – but I am not really holding my breath. The road to space is long and difficult, and will probably take generations, but we are enjoying the first few miles as crew members of Spaceship Earth.

I have been a transhumanist since I was a child, persuaded that humanity would transcend Earth and all limits. In the 90s I discovered organized transhumanism and became a card-carrying, unrepentant, in-your-face transhumanist. One little caveat though: I never believed that progress would be easy and fast.

20 years later I am still persuaded that 1) we will transcend Earth and all limits, but 2) not anytime soon. I am confident that things like radical life extension, artificial life, sentient Artificial Intelligence (AI) and super-human AI, mind uploading, and interstellar colonization, will happen someday, but probably after my time. I never considered the hyper-optimistic predictions of Ray Kurzweil and others as even remotely plausible, and I don’t see a Singularity in 2045 (or ever – I am a Singularitian who doesn’t believe in the Singularity). I am afraid things will take the time they must take, with all the twists and turns and roadblocks and setbacks that happen in the real world.

Getting things to almost work is much, much easier than getting things to work. Engineers know that even if you do 90 percent of the work in 10 percent of the time, then you will have to spend the remaining 90 percent of the time to do the missing 10 percent of the work. Same, of course, for money. Which means that 90 percent wasn’t really 90 percent, because it left out all the boring details that take 90 percent of the money and the time – boring details like sustainability, operational robustness, error recovery, failsafe operations and all that, without forgetting social acceptance, financial and political aspects.

This rant may give the impression that I have second thoughts about transhumanism, but that is very much not the case. On the contrary, I am totally on board without second thoughts, but I just happen to think that we will have to wait much longer than expected by optimist transhumanists. The impression that real AI seems always 20 years away indicates that perhaps we just don’t know enough to estimate the development timeline for something that is actually 200 years away. A good analogy is Leonardo’s flying machines. Leonardo understood that machines could fly, and produced sketches of flying machines, but the actual development of flying machines took centuries and required different technologies.

“You will not live to be 200 years old,” writes Newitz in another piece. “Life extension like that is not going to happen in our lifetimes because quite simply it takes time to analyze our genomes, then it takes more time to test them, then it takes more time to develop therapies to keep us young, and then there is a lot of government red tape and cultural backlash to deal with too. Maybe our grandchildren will have a chance to take a life-extension pill. But not us.”

In passing, it’s worth noting that Newitz is open-minded about sentient AI, artificial life, mind uploading and all that. “It’s possible that we’ll become cyborgs, beings who are half biological and half machine,” she writes in the last part of her book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. “No matter what scenario you think is most likely – synbio, uploads, or natural selection – our progeny may look nothing like us.” Newitz just thinks (and so do I) that:

“We may be at the start of a long, slow journey whose climactic moment comes thousands of years from now.”

My answer: So what? “The Universe is still young, all these things [space colonization, interstellar travel, immortality, strong AI, mind uploading…] and more will be developed by future generations, and it feels good to be part of a species that will do shit like this. I think our descendants will roam the universe and re-engineer space-time.” [read more…]

That does feel good indeed, but I (and I guess you too) still wish to be there in some way and see all those wonderful things. We want to hope that we will continue to be after our body dies, and we want to hope that we will see again our loved ones who passed away.

I guess everyone must find their way to cope with grief, and the (current) inevitability of physical death. Here is mine: I find joy in contemplating the Cosmist possibility, described by many thinkers including Nikolai Fedorov, Hans Moravec and Frank Tipler, that future generations (or alien civilizations, or whatever) may develop technologies to resurrect the dead. I hope to be copied to the future by “future magic” (in the sense of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law) and find my loved ones there. [read more…]

Slow road

(Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

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