Strategies for Stellar Settlement
Myriad Paths To The StarsEdit
The proposition of interstellar settlement has long been seen as a fairly straightforward -if hugely challenging- one. A parallel to New World colonization where initial modest-sized groups of settlers travel to another star and establish initial infrastructure and habitats to be followed by successive waves of additional settlers. The key questions of strategy have linked to the nature of travel. Would it be generation ships with populations of thousands whose later decedents become the settlers of these new star systems? Or would it be groups of much smaller vessels hosting ‘human cargo’ in some form of suspended animation. Or much faster vessels capable of some large fraction of the speed of light and allowing transit in some modest number of years and thus allowing a modest group of settlers to travel in an active state in a modest on-board habitat without much hardship?
The original TMP illustrated this latter option, Marshal Savage suggesting the possibility of powerful antimatter propulsion that allowed for a settlement mission to be divided between larger slower automated cargo vessels transporting the vast bulk of supplies and equipment packages for initial settlement work followed later -so they could arrive together- by smaller ‘fast clippers’ that would host active human crews. A reasonable concept.
But overlooked in the original TMP was the possibility of nanotechnology coupled to artificial intelligence and their impact on the processes of settlement and even on the nature of the settlers themselves. From the current perspective we can imagine a large variety of possible strategies the Solerian era society might explore in their settlement of the galaxy.
Key among the characteristics we now envision for this future culture is that it is a ‘transhumanist’ one, where the ‘human’ society becomes a spectrum of potentially physically divergent beings ranging from a purely software existence to the conventionally organic existence we know today. The original TMP did touch on transhumanism -though the word had not come into common use in the 80s- in the context of anticipating a biotechnology-assisted adaptation of the human species to suit the varied environments of nearly-habitable planets. A purely functional application. At that time biotechnology was held in much the same regard nanotechnology is today as a kind of ultimate technology. And notions of AI then were still often modeled on the example of Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000; big brains in big boxes.
Today we see transhumanism as a progressive convergence of natural and synthetic intelligence across a similar convergence of organic and inorganic biophysics. And this may not necessarily be driven by practical concerns such as the desire for an indefinite lifespan or the adaption to environments or career pursuits as much as our pursuit of novelty in self-expression and experience and the accelerating sub-cultural cladogenesis common today. Savage imagined a physical divergence of humanity driven by necessary adaptation to our new homes among the stars. But now we can imagine our society becoming quite the motley crew before we ever get to Proxima Centauri!
Consequently, the Solarian society will have myriad lifestyle options offering many ways to inhabit the many environments of space. And this, in turn, presents many options for interstellar settlement that have, so far, not been much considered outside of science fiction. We will be discussing the ramifications of transhuman culture on space development in more depth later. For now, let us speculate on some of the possible scenarios for interstellar settlement that might be explored.
The ‘classic’ settlement model is based on the assumption of a predominately organic human community arriving at a star system with the intent of creating a settlement largely tailored to their needs. They may be assisted by some minority community of artilects (sentient AI beings) -in fact, the starships that conveyed them and the habitats that shelter may ‘be’ these beings- but the mission objective is a predominately organic human habitat and the recreation of terrestrial biomes, complete with a broad spectrum of terrestrial life, where practical. Of course, by the Solarian era most spacefaring humans may not be strictly natural -any more than people even today can be so considered given the extensive medical intervention over our lives. Adaptation to living in the space environment will likely mean most human beings will be augmented from infancy by medical nanotechnology in order to overcome the problems of Space Wasting and impact of radiation exposure. Consequently, many -if not most- may have indefinite lifespans and further augment themselves in many ways -particularly for the purposes of personal digital communications, interaction with the Virtual Habitat, and interaction with the countless machines in their environment. These settlers may be later generations arrived by generation ships or communities that have spent decades in suspended animation of one form or another. Or they may have arrived by faster vessels, spending their journey of some years in ship-board mico-urban habitats planning and designing the habitats and development schemes they hope to realize in their new home as data about it flows to them from preceding spacecraft and settlement seed systems.
A key difference from settlement concepts of the past is that we anticipate our settlers arriving with -and preceded by- spacecraft and habitats based on NanoFoam or similar nanotechnology which carry with them -integral to their structure- the full industrial potential of the parent Sol culture and the full capability to host sophisticated artificial intelligence. Whereas in the past it has been suggested that interstellar settlers may employ huge vessels to carry with them, or send ahead, the supplies and prefab equipment needed to establish their first settlements and a robust industrial infrastructure, with technology like NanoFoam comes the ability to quickly exploit whatever resources are available at the destination to establish initial settlements. Even the most modest of advance probes would carry the ability to seed the infrastructure for an entire new civilization through RhiZome complexes (as described in the Solaria articles) and settlers would arrive to find their initial outposts and interstellar communications systems pre-established and their own starships able to self-transform, with pre-gathered resources, into large orbital EcoSphere habitats even as they continue inhabiting them. Thus the mass-fraction of our anticipated Galactia Starships need not be quite as great and advance vessels may be quite modest and minimalist compared to the later passenger vessels that must host a micro-urban habitat for the journey.
The habitats these settlers create would mirror those common to the Solarian culture, though aesthetically they may be exclusive/particular in architectural design and the type of biomes cultivated. Asteroids and comets would be systematically cataloged and seeded with RhiZome complexes for their orbital management and rapid utilization. Likewise any potentially settled planets which could evolve BioZome complexes or employ their RhiZomes to the effort of wholesale terraforming. This being a predominately organic human community of settlers, they may favor a very terrestrial habitat, which may favor the use of wholesale terraforming where possible and the use of rotating centrifugal gravity EcoSphere habitats in solar or planetary orbits.
Settlement by BroadcastEdit
As discussed in the article on Interstellar Telecommunications, how stellar communities maintain communications with each other over the vast distances between them will be crucial in determining the degree of cultural divergence and cladogenesis across the galactic civilization. If we assume some kind of high quality of communication we can anticipate that, in combination with the possibilities of synthetic intelligence and nanotechnology, a very interesting approach to settlement may be employed; settlement by telecommunications. Instead of traveling by starship, settlers could opt to travel to the stars by digital wireless communications. Advance vessels, operated by AI, would pre-settle a star system and establish the communications systems needed to maintain a continuous link to the parent star system which would then function as a gateway for the digital communication of the minds of people who wish to settle this new place. For artilects, this would be a simple and convenient means of travel already common for them in the parent Solarian environment. Living in their native Virtual Habitats established in vast information systems, their journey to the stars would be as simple as walking through a portal between rooms, the transition seemingly instantaneous from the personal perspective no matter what the ‘latency’ in communication. Indeed, should we ever realize a comprehensive superluminal means of telecommunications, the distinction of being in one star system or another would be moot. By virtue of networked convergence without latency, one could ‘be’ anywhere in the galaxy regardless of where one’s software physically existed -even if one is employing a physical synthetic body at the time. It might take decades or centuries to distribute the communications systems by starship, but once each link is established the communication becomes instantaneous. Little by little, the known universe would become a single place in perceived space and time. Clearly, artilects would have a very great advantage when it comes to casually inhabiting the galaxy.
For those more along the organic end of the future spectrum of life, things would be a little more complicated. One would need their wetware-based minds transferred and packaged as data along with the information necessary to synthesize, via sophisticated nanofabrication, their bodies as they know them using local materials. Depending on the nature of their destination, their bodies may be pre-adapted to the environmental conditions of their new home. This would be a very convenient travel experience -if it could be called ‘travel’ at all. One would go to sleep in one world and wake up in another. But this concept opens up a large can of worms concerning the continuity of consciousness, the ethics of ‘deactivating’ a human body in one place on the assumption of its recreation elsewhere (perhaps after decades or centuries of communications latency), and so on. Of course, by the Solarian era many of these issues may already be well worked out in the society’s exploration of its transhumanist possibilities.
Settlement by SynthesisEdit
The prospect of broadcasting human minds to destinations in the stars presents yet another possibility for settlement by synthesis. If you have the ability to recreate a human body and load into it the packaged data of a conscious mind, would you not also have the option to procedurally -that is to say, by procedural modeling by computer software- wholly new human beings to create an initial population of settlers? They might be synthesized as newborn children raised by artilect parents who were once the personalities of/on the starships that initially established a settlement infrastructure. Or, if sufficient understanding of the natural synthesis of human minds becomes known, they could be created -much as artilects might themselves reproduce- as young adults pre-loaded with a common body of knowledge for taking on their world.
Such notions may seem a little disappointing to us in the present day as our fascination with the prospect of interstellar settlement derives from the personal adventure fantasy of traveling to these distant places ourselves -no matter how unrealistic that may be given how far into the future such things may be. But for the Solarian culture the objective would be more clearly the spread of life itself in the universe by the most efficient means. And so in this context the perspective of such settlement would be little different for those organizing these projects from that of the initial travelers in generation ships who know they must leave the actual arrival and settlement to their progeny. The Solarian society, much more accustomed to a less strictly natural definition of life, might have much less difficulty in cultivating a sense of pride and personal investment in their distant synthetic children.
As we noted earlier, artilects would have great advantages as settlers of space and there is a distinct possibility that they could generally become the galaxy’s predominate sentient inhabitants. In our discussions of the Solaria era we have envisioned a broad transhumanist society working collectively in space. But some Singularity theorists envision a situation where the frailties of the organic human being, the limitation of their intelligence, and the complexities of accommodating their terrestrial adaptation may hamper their advance as a species in general. Organic human beings may become, more-or-less, obsolete and space may become, predominately, the home of transhumans and atilects. Laboring under the baggage of past SciFi impressions of artificial life as we do and finding it difficult to relate to the notion of purely synthetic beings as people like us, we may find such a situation difficult to comprehend. But then, there are no shortage of pundits who suggest the impossibility of inorganic sentience, let alone a human transition to it, as well. Who can say? But we can imagine that there will be many star systems of less interest to organic humans (more choosey as our interstellar reach increases) and which, if they do emerge, will still be of ready use to the society of artilects. How might these beings approach settlement.
We have already considered some aspects of their likely approaches. For them interstellar travel can be both as fast as telecommunications and perceptually instantaneous regardless of latency. And where telecommunications may be more limited, artilects arriving by spacecraft could freely reproduce or procedurally synthesize any number of additional settler personalities -though such beings would generally not have the biological reproductive imperative we do and would be inclined to seek populations as necessary only to their psychological needs for companionship. And their Virtual Habitats will be easily accommodated in many situations. With the most minimalist, and thus potentially fastest, of our imagined NanoFoam starships, they could, on arrival, seed the bodies of the solar system, including very harsh planets, with RhiZome complexes grown from small ‘podcraft’ planting themselves much like seeds of a plant and spreading like the roots into the strata. These complexes would grow into vast deeply buried information system arrays and industrial complexes with scarcely an open space of any sort and powered by tap roots exploiting radioactive elements, geothermal energy, or latent tectonic heat for energy or perhaps sprouting vast arrays of surface solar collectors. Asteroids seeded in this way might be completely subsumed into a NanoFoam matrix, self-transported to a desired optimal solar orbital position, and self-transformed into Sundisc structures; simple but vast structures where arrays of industrial, communications, and information systems are sandwiched between solar collectors and thermal radiators. And since these artilects are likely to be far from a race of Star Trek Vulcans, they might craft any number of small to colossal works of art about their settled worlds -some even in orbit.
Living primarily in their Virtual Habitats, most any environment or biome desired would be synthesized and possibly virtually merged with the natural environments of their new found home even without much of a physical presence of their constructions on the surface. Except where they deliberately defy the apparent laws of physics, these virtual environments would be quite indistinguishable from any natural environment to their inhabitants, and though limited by the spread of their RhiZome complexes, they could, regardless of the environment, casually walk upon the surface of their host planets as freely as we do on Earth even if, in reality, they have no physical presence there. They may also create and use synthetic bodies for traversing the surfaces of their settled planets, but likely only for the purposes of exploration, science, and aesthetic experience. And should we be so lucky as to achieve a superluminal means of telecommunication, these new worlds would be quite directly added to a galactic collective, freely accessible to artilects -and even organic humans with Virtual Habitat access- anywhere else in the collective civilization. We would, in a sense, shrink the universe to a perceptual point as we today have shrunk our planet in many ways.
=Von Neumann Probes=
Neither an uncommon or very well known trope in SciFi, the Von Neuman Probe is a starship intended to largely automate and expand by an exponential growth rate the spread of an interstellar civilization. It is typically described as an automated spacecraft which self-replicates using the resources of each star system it passes through, sending off its progeny to other stars as it goes. Essentially, all space settlement is potentially capable of this kind of spread, each settled star eventually send out more vessels to explore more the galaxy. But here we are talking about a system more akin to the settlement approach of artilects and likely employing artilect-hosting vessels who have made it their personal vocation to pursue a life-long exploration of the stars and their pre-seeding with outposts or possibly full settlements by some of the means we’ve mentioned previously.
Depending on their approach to propulsion, Von Neumann Probes might stay in each stellar destination for some time -perhaps decades- performing settlement development tasks, replicating themselves, and restocking their resources before moving on to the next star system. Or, if using propulsion relying primarily on the gravity assist of stars and larger planetary bodies, may take a more leisurely non-stop transit, spending some years passing through a solar system and deploying small seeder and gatherer vessels to establish outposts and replenish their resources along the way. In either case, the transit between stars would be time consuming and lonely even for traveling bands of artilects across cooperative fleets of ships. (the lifestyle may be completely unsuited to the organic human being even augmented with an indefinite life span) In the absence of some superluminal telecommunications allowing these travelers simultaneous participation in the larger society via the civilization-wide Virtual Habitat, they may choose to alter their perception of time to a dynamic interrupt-driven mode where the time between events requiring their attention is compressed to be less apparent.
Clearly, the proposition of interstellar settlement is interdependent with our evolution as a collective society and species -and how we ultimately come to define that concept of species. We will consider this further in the later articles on Transhumanism and TMP.