The Exploration And Colonization Of Space: By Humans Or By Machines?

The Exploration And Colonization Of Space: By Humans Or By Machines? UFO sceptics would have you believe that interstellar space travel is at best highly improbable, and at worst impossible. Therefore, UFOs cannot represent the technology of a space-faring race of extraterrestrials. Hogwash! Unfortunately for the sceptics, fact number one is that one doesn't need any wormhole or theoretical ‘warp drive' or other ‘Star Trek' type techno-babble to explore the galaxy and boldly go where no alien has gone before.  Sure, space is really BIG! Planet Earth was really BIG to human society many centuries ago, but that didn't stop the planet being explored from pole to pole, even if individual journeys took many years. And bacteria, insects, birds, and other life forms preceded us in exploring and colonizing Planet Earth. Terrestrial analogies aside, what if you have an alien race with life spans way, way surpassing ours?  Then there's a possible likely alternative, a bit of the old genetic engineering to increase life expectancy? Or there's the likelihood of enhanced bioengineering (part flesh; part machine) to accomplish the same goal. What if an exploring race were to adopt those old stand-by sci-fi concepts of suspended animation or a multi-generation interstellar spaceship?

Colonization Of SpaceBut when crunch comes crunch, sure space is really BIG, but it is also very old. There's lots of time available to explore and colonize starting a few light years outward at a time. Consolidate, and then expand some more. Repeat as often as required. The time it would take to explore and colonize the Milky Way Galaxy (that is, via interstellar travel) is but a small fraction of the age of that galaxy even if a race of ET's never travelled at more that say 1% to 10% the speed of light. Such velocities, while pretty fast by our current abilities, shouldn't be beyond the means of a technologically advanced race. Consult any elementary astronomy text for the relevant distances and volumes and ages and do the calculations for yourself if you doubt this.

And once here (within easy reach of, or in our solar system), having a nearby base of operations as it were, one can easily have a whole plethora of UFOs visiting Earth on a regular or routine basis.  It's not a case of one UFO taking ten thousand years to visit, then returning home taking another ten thousand years in the process, and having hundreds or thousands of such alien spacecraft doing the same. If you want to explore the South Pole over the long term, you don't make a daily commute from Sydney or New York – you set up a long-term base camp near or at the South Pole!

If there are no advanced extraterrestrial races out there, and that's a possibility that has to be considered, then eventually we'll reach that hypothetical level of technology that we current assume aliens might have. Now while such significant, but still subluminal velocities are beyond the capacity of the human race today, eventually, perhaps 1000 years from now, maybe more, maybe less, we'll advance towards and attain that level of technological sophistication. And 1000 years (give or take) is but a nanosecond in terms of cosmic and galactic time frames. Recall the level of technological sophistication humanity had 1000 years ago! Leaps and bounds have been made since then, and then some. What will another 1000 years bring?

[Note that intergalactic space travel (one galaxy to another galaxy) is quite another can of worms. The distance from one side of our galaxy to the other is tiny relative to the vast distances to our neighbouring galaxies. Even Star Trek stayed within our own galaxy, and they had warp drive!]

When viewing what exploration of space we've achieved to date, we note that the first pioneers weren't the right stuff, flesh-and-blood human beings, but devices composed of hardier stuff, like metals and plastics. An orbiting metallic Sputnik preceded any journeys by Russian cosmonauts. The unmanned lunar surveyors preceded Project Apollo. Unmanned space probes have landed on Mars, Venus, Titan, boldly going where no human has yet even remotely ventured. And so that will probably be true as well as humanity extends its reach beyond our solar system.

Way back when, human society was mainly a rural one with manual back-breaking existences, not only for man, but animal as well. Then came the industrial revolution and labour got easier and machines took on more and more of the burden. Our mental burdens got easier too. We don't have to read anymore as we have radio, TV, talking books and DVDs. We don't have to add and subtract – calculators do it for us. We don't need to spell as our PCs come equipped with spell checkers. Our technology isn't just making our muscles less necessary, but our brains as well. And while human muscles and the human brain haven't increased much in strength or potential intellectual capacity over the past multi-thousands of years, our technological muscles and brains have. It's been pointed out that the average home PC today has vastly more ‘brain power' than the computers used to guide Apollo to the Moon. And how many of us could beat a computer at chess, or checkers? Silicon chips are becoming ‘intelligent' at a vastly faster rate than the brain stuff we are made out of - CHON (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen & Nitrogen). Silicon's ‘brain cells' or computer chips, and the software to utilize them are becoming ever more sophisticated and at a rapid rate of knots. We've all seen a sci-fi robot, android, whatever. The phrase ‘artificial intelligence' has entered into common usage.  How much longer before science fiction becomes science fact and silicon software replaces carbon wetware?

The question has been posed whether or not artificial intelligence is the next logical evolutional step. And while humans may remain in control (or maybe not), they will be dependant on that technology, of that you can be assured. So, the question arises, why send CHON flesh-and-blood into space when silicon chips and software will do, and do better? It's been argued that artificial intelligence can make the trip to the stars on our behalf. They don't need life support – food, oxygen, a narrow range of temperatures, sleep, gravity, or as much protection from radiation, etc. They can exist on a minimal energy source, nuclear most likely.

It's been postulated that artificial intelligent space probes could explore the cosmos, land on suitable abodes and using the local resources found there (minerals, metals, available energy supplies, etc.), ‘reproduce' themselves from internal programming given before the fact, and thus spread throughout the galaxy. Such probes are called von Neumann probes, after the famous mathematician who advanced the idea.  Meantime, while they do all the dangerous dirty work, we humans just continue to inhabit Terra and live the good life.

Two objections can be raised to a galaxy filled with space travelling artificial intelligences. Firstly, it's going to take a lot to extinguish the human spirit of exploration. We want to experience the cosmos, and exploring via a surrogate isn't going to cut the mustard in the long term.

Secondly, I find it difficult to visualize a space probe, however artificially intelligent, that can somehow reproduce itself from scratch using the raw resources of another planet. I find that a pretty tall order.  Just visualize the various technological processes that would require. It would have to be able to mine, perform smelting operations, manufacturing, fine detailed precision work, all at various locations etc. I won't say it can't happen, but I somehow doubt it will happen.

All up, while silicone and steel might be the pathfinders, CHON, even if it's alien CHON, will ultimately explore, colonize and rule the galaxy. Again, for the purposes of explaining the Fermi Paradox, there exists no extraterrestrial CHON, only terrestrial CHON, so that explains the ‘where is everybody?' question.

Artificial intelligence apart, human beings have taken control of their own evolution, it's no longer just natural selection, but artificial enhancement. For quite some considerable time now, we've augmented our flesh-and-blood with artificial materials and devices, cosmetic and life enhancing – plastic heart valves, hearing aids, artificial joints, wigs, dentures, etc. And while not quite artificial in terms of non-organic materials and devices, we now have artificial selection in the sense of genetic engineering, the era of the designer baby.

So, sooner or later, humanity's flesh-and-blood, assuming we're still flesh-and-blood and not composed mainly of sturdier materials (CHON plus iron and silicon and plastics and ceramics, etc.), we will desire to get away from it all (Earth and our solar system). That's true even if we have evolved into something more akin to a hybrid of the biological and the artificial, and/or evolved ourself into a race of quasi-supermen (and women).

But desire is one thing. Might there be something even stronger forcing us to ‘boldly go'?

So what's that other more seriously driving incentive to ‘boldly go…'? I mean scientific curiosity is all well and good, but it's going to be expensive to satisfy that curiosity. Wanting to vacation on some idyllic planet around another star system is fine, but extra-solar tourism is a luxury, not a necessity. There is another incentive, a far more powerful one, and that is survival. No star lasts forever. Sooner or later, our star is going to make our existence a misery. In fact, sooner or later, our sun will be the death of us all. If humans are still around when that peril makes itself apparent, we'll need to escape to another star system. Finding a suitable one is going to call for us to be ‘boldly going…'! Of course other earlier disaster scenarios could force us to flee sooner – the threat of a swarm of killer comets dislodged from either the Oort Cloud and/or the Kuiper Belt heading our way or the likelihood of a nearby star going supernova would give us incentive to get the hell out of here!

Further readings:

Gilster, Paul; Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration; Copernicus Books, New York; 2004:

Macvey, John W.; Interstellar Travel: Past, Present, and Future; Stein and Day, New York; 1977:

Science librarian; retired.

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