28 December 2008

Technology, freedom, and space colonies

The following discussion is adapted from a debate in the comment thread here. Blogger George Dvorsky raised the issue of existential risks to mankind due to the possibility that in the future, rogue states or even small nihilist groups might be able to use advanced technology to develop superweapons capable of threatening the whole world.

My comments are in regular black print, those of my interlocutor Chris (no website given, or I'd link to it here) in blue.

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The only solution to the problem of superweapons getting into the hands of terrorists is for nation-states to keep their own capabili- ties far enough ahead to either prevent this from happening or neutralize the effects of the weapons.

A dozen malcontents with machine guns and a stockpile of ammunition could probably have taken over the Roman Empire. But by the time technology was advanced enough and distributed enough for a dozen malcontents with machine guns to be a realis- tic scenario, states had far more effective weapons of their own.

By the time a few nuts with a basement lab can do what a govern- ment bioweapons lab can do today, the government bioweapons lab should be able to do things which we can't imagine today -- including things like stamping out a new man-made plague in a matter of hours, whatever that might involve. (This is, of course, just one example. The same argument applies with other super-weapons.)

The best way to protect ourselves is to push ahead with techno- logical progress as fast as possible.

Empirical evidence shows that democracies are better at develo- ping and exploiting new technology, and doing so faster, than authoritarian states are. Authoritarian states are too concerned with limiting the flow of information, too suspicious of minds that don't conform ideologically, too unpleasant for independent thinkers to live in (so that they tend to emigrate to democratic states when they can).

This means that (a) the democracies will probably continue to get further and further ahead of the non-democracies technologically, and (b) a democratic system is best able to keep ahead of danger- ous nut groups.

A global authoritarian regime, or a global coalition of such regimes, might well try to suppress the development of dangerous technologies, thus guaranteeing that those government labs would not develop the necessary knowledge base to defend society against high-tech terrorists -- while the terrorists, who don't obey laws anyway, would probably still manage to keep creeping ahead with those technologies.

The most dangerous thing we can possibly do at this point is to panic and yield to a futile impulse to try to slow everything down.

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By definition, an existential risk is a danger to more than just democracy. The first order of business is to list out exactly what those risks are along with all potential solutions. THEN, we can rate those solutions based on basic effectiveness and on the level to which they impact our preferred way of life.

Several people far more knowledgeable than I have suggested that the only way to avoid existential risks of planetary scope (Those that we are now or about to face) is to colonize space. Here are some examples:

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13293390/

On the criteria of effectiveness and preference, space colonization seems ideal. Scattering to multiple, distant colonies would effec- tively prevent human extinction resulting from any planetary- wide nuclear, biological, nano or meteor event. It would also allow us to maintain western societal paradigms that value individual freedom despite any potential increased risk that an unmonitored/controlled individual may take drastic, destructive action.

My question is, why is this solution not being actively pursued? These make sense for the most part:

http://www.singinst.org/upload/cognitive-biases.pdf

I don't think we can expect the majority of humanity to accept space colonization as a top priority. But what can we (Those of us that don't run the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or control congressional funding) do to advance the cause of space colonization, and to do so quickly?

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For space colonization to work as an effective hedge against extinction due to a planet-wide catastrophe, we would need at least one colony capable of surviving indefinitely with no support from Earth whatsoever.

To develop a colony of the necessary size and capabilities would take at least decades (a longer time frame than some of these existential threats can be expected to materialize in), and a diversion of resources in the trillions of dollars.

And if Earth were destroyed, even if the colony survived, it would be a hollow victory indeed -- the bare survival of perhaps a few thousand people in a constrained environment, with almost all the human race dead and essentially all of its cultural achievements and capacity for future progress obliterated.

And, in fact, space colonies would not buy us a guarantee of even this degree of barren, meaningless racial survival. Even when the colonies were capable of living independently, they would presumably maintain some degree of contact with Earth. If some apocalypse-minded nut group were to engineer some sort of epidemic or other disaster capable of wiping out all humans on Earth, they might very well be able to design it to reach the space colonies as well. Similarly, any nation or group with a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out Earthly humanity could certainly figure out how to deploy nuclear bombs against space colonies as well, if such were their goal.

It would be far better to invest those trillions of dollars and all that brainpower in developing measures to protect Earth itself against whatever dangers we anticipate, whether natural or created by malevolent humans armed with high technology.

For example, you mentioned meteors. Technology to detect and divert such bodies (even a large asteroid could be nudged far enough to prevent a collision if it were detected far enough in advance) could be developed faster and at much less cost than a space colony, and would protect all seven billion of us and all our works, not just a tiny handful.

Creating defenses for the world against the dangers of man-made epidemics or rogue nanotechnology would be a tremendous technological challenge. We will be in a better position to meet that challenge if we do not divert trillions of dollars and many of our best minds to the illusory panacea of space colonization.

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For space colonization to work as an effective hedge against extinction due to a planet-wide catastrophe, we would need at least one colony capable of surviving indefinitely with no support from Earth whatsoever.

Agreed.

To develop a colony of the necessary size and capabilities would take at least decades (a longer time frame than some of these existential threats can be expected to materialize in), and a diversion of resources in the trillions of dollars.

Agreed.

Then, if Earth were destroyed, even if the colony survived, it would be a hollow victory indeed -- the bare survival of perhaps a few thousand people in a constrained environment, with almost all the human race dead and essentially all of its cultural achievements and capacity for future progress obliterated.

Disagree. The survival of the human species is a victory when compared to extinction so long as the remaining society:

A) Has sufficient numbers to ensure genetic diversity and continued re-population through standard sexual breeding or some future reproductive technology

B) Can sustain itself indefinitely

C) Can expand economically, technologically, etc., so as to re-capture human achievements lost to a particularly catastrophic event

And, in fact, space colonies would not buy us a guarantee of even this degree of barren, meaningless racial survival. Even when the colonies were capable of living independently, they would presumably maintain some degree of contact with Earth. If some apocalypse-minded nut group were to engineer some sort of epidemic or other disaster capable of wiping out all humans on Earth, they might very well be able to design it to reach the space colonies as well. Similarly, any nation or group with a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out Earthly humanity could certainly figure out how to deploy nuclear bombs against space colonies as well, if such were their goal.

Partial agreement. Certainly, a known colony at a fixed location presents a potential target for a sufficiently funded, equipped and motivated group.

But, do they require contact with Earth? What if we deploy colonies that do not contact Earth and proceed to locations, some of which are known, some of which are unknown? These could be self-sustaining space stations and planetary/lunar colonies. Yes this is even more difficult and expensive, but that is a separate argument. I'm just talking about effectiveness here.

Creating defenses for the world against the dangers of man-made epidemics or rogue nanotechnology would be a tremendous technological challenge. We will be in a better position to meet that challenge if we do not divert trillions of dollars and many of our best minds to the illusory panacea of space colonization.

More questions This is the trillion dollar question isn't it? Is space colonization worth the money? Is it worth the effort? If you believe that we can successfully prevent planetary-scale extinction events through sufficient effort then space colonization certainly isn't worth the time/money - at least if done for the sole purpose of survival. If there is a sufficient chance that we cannot prevent such events, economics aside space colonization is our best hope for species survival.

That being said, I will agree that space colonization IS expensive, and that it undoubtedly WILL draw resources from other defensive measures. My questions for you are:

- Why do you believe that we will be able to prevent a planetary- scale disaster?

- What level of planetary organization, cooperation and effort would be required to ensure this? Has anyone studied this?

And my original question could be generalized, instead of being specific to space colonization. Is there any organization dedicated to assuring human survival, regardless of the specific mechanism? I would really like to know the answer to this question. As a non-expert in this area, I am less concerned with evangelizing one specific solution (space colonization) then I am with advocating the idea that human species survival must be taken seriously as a problem. It must be directly recognized and addressed by an organized effort.

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Chris: The survival of the human species is a victory when compared to extinction [etc.]

To some extent. But my point is that the survival of a tiny remnant of humans would be a far less significant victory than the survival of the entire planet, something with which you presumably agree.

But, do they require contact with Earth? What if we deploy colonies that do not contact Earth and proceed to locations, some of which are known, some of which are unknown? These could be self-sustaining space stations and planetary/lunar colonies. Yes this is even more difficult and expensive, but that is a separate argument. I'm just talking about effectiveness here.

But difficulty and expense are an integral part of evaluating effec- tiveness. Every dollar spent on one project is a dollar we can't spend on something else that might have an equal or greater probability of achieving the same goal.

A space colony totally isolated from Earth (which, remember, will probably continue to exist indefinitely) would be even less appea- ling to most normal humans than one which at least maintained some contact, and is thus even less likely to be built in practice.

Anyway, it's a tangential point. My argument is that it would be a mistake to put significant resources into space colonies, even if they could be guaranteed to survive a planetary catastrophe.

Is space colonization worth the money? Is it worth the effort? If you believe that we can successfully prevent planetary-scale extinction events through sufficient effort then space colonization certainly isn't worth the time/money - at least if done for the sole purpose of survival. If there is a sufficient chance that we cannot prevent such events, economics aside space colonization is our best hope for species survival.

There is no absolute security -- never has been and never will be. Neither space colonies nor a planetary defense system can reduce the probability of extinction to absolutely 0%. My argument can be boiled down to two points:

(1) Protecting the whole Earth from catastrophe is a far more desirable goal than building space colonies which would survive after such a catastrophe, because it preserves far more -- all seven billion humans presently alive, all our cultural achievements, and our capacity for future progress, as opposed to a tiny remnant.

(2) In a world of finite resources, every dollar spent on space colonies is not available for planetary defense (and vice versa). Thus we need to allocate resources based on which of the two offers hope of achieving a more desirable goal (see point 1) and on the relative probability of each strategy actually being able to achieve the goal toward which it is directed.

The probability that planetary defenses could keep Earth safe from the various potential threats (natural and artificial) is hard to assess at this point since as yet we know little of the exact nature of some of those threats, but I believe that if we act prudently, the probability of success is very high (see my first comment above). Whether it is higher than the probability that a space colony could survive such a catastrophe is difficult to say, but as I said, the goal of preserving the whole Earth is far more desirable than the goal of preserving a tiny handful, and I think this should be the decisive factor in allocating the resources.

There's also the question of which solution is more likely to be put into action. Taxpayers and government officials would be much more likely to allocate resources to planetary defenses knowing that they personally would be among those protected, than they would to spend those resources on space colonies which would not make them personally any safer.

Why do you believe that we will be able to prevent a planetary- scale disaster?

Historically the capabilities of large, organized societies have stayed ahead of the capabilities of tiny nihilistic groups which have sought to disrupt or destroy them. We can ensure that this continues to be the case. As for natural disasters, for centuries technological power has been tipping the balance in our favor against the forces (such as famine and epidemics) which used to kill humans in great numbers. I expect that within 20 years our defenses against microorganisms will become so effective that infectious disease will no longer be a problem, for example.

Addressing every possible disaster would take too much space for a blog comment, but you see the general principle.

In any case, I think the probability of most of these disasters is really low. The statistical likelihood of an extinction-level meteor hitting Earth in the next few centuries, or of some terrorist group setting out to design and release an artificial epidemic capable of killing millions and actually succeeding without any government finding out about it and stopping them, or whatever, seems pretty low. We do need to be taking intelligent precautions, but most likely none of these things will happen.

What level of planetary organization, cooperation and effort would be required to ensure this? has anyone studied this?

Global cooperation is probably only an issue where intelligence- gathering is concerned (keeping tabs on those terrorist groups). Things like asteroid monitoring and developing anti-bioweapons technology are probably best handled by individual nation-states, only the most advanced of which would have much to contribute anyway.

Is there any organization dedicated to assuring human survival, regardless of the specific mechanism?

I know of no such organization, but establishing one wouldn't be the most effective strategy anyway. The best way to get something done about any of these issues is to act to influence the decisions of those who control the necessary resources: the governments of the major nation-states.

Along those lines, I think there is already a NASA project to detect asteroids in potentially dangerous orbits, and Ray Kurzweil has testified before Congress about possible dangers of rogue nano- technology and how we might best protect the world against it.

The increase in human capabilities after the Technological Singularity will change all these considerations in ways we can't anticipate now. So our present planning need only (and can only) cover a time frame of a few decades.

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You said: Historically the capabilities of large, organized societies have stayed ahead of the capabilities of tiny nihilistic groups which have sought to disrupt or destroy them.

But:

- Historically the rate of change in technology was much slower. It was easier for larger, organized groups to stay in general control. Now new technologies are evolving before there is legislation or technical control mechanisms in place. You can see this in the IT security arena.

- Historically WMD were not available to small groups. Even now, it is not feasible for nuclear raw materials to become available in sufficient amounts to small groups for them to inflict planetary-scale damage. I am unfamiliar with nanotech, but the ability to construct biological organisms promises to be available to smaller labs, and viruses replicate where nuclear weapons do not.

- Danger does not exist solely from small groups, but also from nation-states that either make a mistake, or come under the control of dangerous individuals or groups.

Also, I agree that the risk for a global catastrophe is much smaller than for non-existential risks. But the weight of the potential impact of an existential risk lends greater weight to the small chance that the risk will be realized.

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Historically the rate of change in technology was much slower. It was easier for larger, organized groups to stay in general control. Now new technologies are evolving before there is legislation or technical control mechanisms in place.

I've never thought legislation or mechanisms of control would be of much use in dealing with this problem. Societies need to keep their defensive technology ahead of the nihilists' destructive technology. I still contend that the societies, due to their greater numbers and resources, have the advantage over the nihilists.

I'm not talking only about government labs. A lot of good soft- ware, including defensive software, has come from independent private individuals. This is able to happen because computer technology has been free to move ahead full speed, not subject to the kind of efforts at totalitarian control that George worried about in his posting. If the government had ever tried to put all software development under centralized control, most likely we would be far less well protected against threats like viruses than we are.

You can see this in the IT security arena.

But the defensive technologies have stayed ahead. We've had the internet for a while now and viruses and hackers are still nuisances and localized dangers, not existential threats.

Historically WMD were not available to small groups.

I am unfamiliar with nanotech, but the ability to construct biological organisms promises to be available to smaller labs, and viruses replicate where nuclear weapons do not.

See my earlier comments. There are still steps we can take to minimize the danger. Not to completely eliminate it, but to keep the probability of a successful attack low.

As noted above, by the time a few nuts with a basement lab can do what a government bioweapons lab can do today, the government lab should be able to do things which we can't imagine today, including things like stamping out a new man-made plague in a matter of hours, whatever that might involve. We just have to resist the impulse to try to slow down progress.

Danger does not exist solely from small groups, but also from nation-states that either make a mistake, or come under the control of dangerous individuals or groups.

Examples of this already exist (Iran, Pakistan, North Korea). But we have the means to contain or eradicate such threats. Only the political will is missing, and that will change after the first nuclear terror attack. Also, there is one non-Western society with similar pre-emptive capabilities and much less psychological inhibition about using them if it feels seriously threatened (Russia).

In any case, terrorist or rogue-state nuclear attacks might destroy some cities or a small country, but they are not a planetary-scale existential threat.

Existential threats are not new. There have been cases in the past of large, organized societies being destroyed by barbarian attack (Harappa, Roman Empire), or by epidemics introduced by human enemies (Aztec & Inca Empires), or by natural disaster (Minoan Greece). Current and near-future threats are more sophisticated, but so are the large societies, to an even greater degree. Overall, the probability of a civilization-killing disaster strikes me as being much lower than it was in pre-modern times.

2 Comments:

Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Greeting's Mr.Infidel...First of all let me just say...Wow! What a piece this post is! Boy oh boy, there is so much one can get into reading this.And it's not science fiction at all...(some may think) as we will find out as we evolve. Mr. Infidel...your "approach" is the appoach that will work, period. I am not saying that Chris has idea's that are not worthy of working on...what I am saying is we will be facing new challenges that we may not see now...as far as an overall economic's transition
and even other problem's that may arrise...sooner than we think. Let me just say that there may be virus and disease problem's coming soon that will come from the change in climate on earth, that could let's just say...kill number's of animal's (human's also I categorize as animal's..at least at this point in our evolution)so the idea of science and technological development is 110% the number#1 important issue here and of coarse...protection from the other part of the species(nut's) will over time resent the new technologies and species,similar I guess to those nut's that resent all this now...rising to create havoc...we will have to unfortunately..take them on. Another point you bring up Mr.Infidel of importance..is the fact of preparing for a meteor hit. One of them thing's that folk's dont think about till it comes knocking,since our current species also never experienced it's threat.The economic's I feel after year's of the new coming global economic's will change as well...meaning that the way we do thing's now...with currency,trade, and how we value the transaction of currencies will also change. So to spend money in the most "workable" places right now is important..and as you said about staying a step ahead in the game. We have much on the earth that need's attention first...then one step at a time (later) we can move with what we have accomplished and learned to other horizon's...also meaning that just living on other natural bodies in space(planet's)may not even be needed to negotiate...we can build our own bodies with what we have learned...or what one in these times would call space station's I reckon. We are not evolved enough YET to move on away from this planet...we still need this planet as it is to have any chance of survival.Intelligence and life are one...and it's "nature" is to survive and grow/evolve. I think I'll just put a lid on it now. But this was really one of my favourite post's of your's Mr.Infidel. Thank you. Also I would like to add that I am not very smart in the subject of science and not really a writer, so it is difficult for me to put in word's what is actually in my head..if that makes any sense.

29 December, 2008 04:49  
Anonymous Blurber said...

1. "A dozen malcontents with machine guns and a stockpile of ammunition could probably have taken over the Roman Empire," is a very interesting way of looking at it.

2. A lot of good stuff in the Carl Sagan link.

3. "Disagree. The survival of the human species is a victory when compared to extinction so long as the remaining society:" I've never been able to convince myself that the human race is important anyway.

29 December, 2008 09:35  

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