In my article “Uploaded e-crews for interstellar missions” on KurzweilAI, republished by io9 as “Why we should send uploaded astronauts on interstellar missions,” I make a modest proposal for cost-effective interstellar missions: to do without the wetware bodies of the crew, and send only their minds to the stars, their software, uploaded to advanced “computronium” circuitry, just like in Charlie Stross’ fictional Field Circus miniature starship.
The awesome 100 Year Starship (100YS) initiative, supported by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, plans to send people to the stars in this century. Of course, thinking of today’s crisis economy and the political situation, it is difficult to imagine an interstellar mission in this century. But it would have been as difficult in 1929, at the time of the great depression, to imagine a mission to the Moon in 40 years. Yet we went to the Moon in 1969.
At the same time, a crewed mission to the stars would be several orders of magnitude more expensive than the Apollo program, and achieving it within realistic costs will require really radical and visionary breakthroughs. I believe the development of mind uploading technology for software e-crews may make the difference between wishful thinking and practical planning.
By an interesting serendipity, the 100YS project has been launched at the same time of interesting findings in our interstellar neighborhood. A few weeks ago astronomers discovered a planet with about the mass of the Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system — the star system nearest Earth. The planet is too hot to be hospitable to life as we know it, but the fact that it exists at all raises hopes of finding another, more human-friendly planet within the same star system. io9 reviews possible ways to get there someday. The recent discovery of a possible habitable world in the HD 40307 system, at 42 light years from Earth, is another powerful call from space.
There are a few “slow” (in the sense of slower than light) ways to get to Alpha Centauri and nearby stars. We could get there with generation ships, much slower than light, which would take centuries (many generations). To achieve a respectable fraction of light speed, and get there in only a few decades, we would have to develop new and much more efficient propulsion methods. The challenge is huge, but not so huge to make it impossible. If we really want to, we could launch a mission to the stars well before the end of the century.
Going to the stars before the end of the century? But we have not even been back to the Moon since 1972! Without denying the scientific importance of the space missions of the last few decades, Space with capital S has not advanced at all since Apollo 17. If anything, it has become too boring to bother.
But other scientific and technical advances have been developed here on Earth, which suggest that we may develop super technologies before the end of the century, much more advanced than the wildest dreams of the Apollo engineers, able to take us to the stars.
Weird physical theories, which could permit future faster-than-light space travel, have been proposed by top physicists and discussed at the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium. See Frontiers of Propulsion Science (summary here) for a description of advances in propulsion and candidate research steps that will lead to discovering if, or how, radical propulsion breakthroughs might finally be achieved.
But since the main point that I want to make is not related to FTL space travel, I will conservatively assume that the speed of light is a fundamental limit, and no FTL travel will ever be possible. However, this is an assumption, and perhaps future advances will surprise us.
Combined advances in neuroscience and computer science suggest that mind uploading technology may be developed in this century. Mind uploading means that you get to transfer your memories, thoughts, feelings, personality, “self,” to an alternative processing substrate, for example a robotic brain. The new brain can be much more resistant and long-lived than your old biological brain (and you can keep a backup in a safe place in case something happens), and it can be housed in a similarly resistant and long-lived robotic body.
The very high cost of a crewed space mission comes from the need to ensure the survival and safety of the humans on-board, but robots powered by human uploads can be rugged, resistant to the vacuum and the harsh space environment, easily rechargeable, and much smaller and lighter than wetware human bodies — eventually, human uploads augmented by AI subsystems can be implemented in the solid-state circuitry of the starship’s processing system itself.
“When discussing deep-space exploration, the use of advanced computers to digitally recreate a complete (or essentially complete) human neural network comes up with increasing frequency,” writes Aaron Cardon on the Icarus Interstellar blog. “As our computers become progressively faster, more intricate, and compact, it becomes easier and easier to envision such a ‘digital crew’ and the benefits it might offer to mission design.”
Promoting mind uploading as a technology for future interstellar missions may make it more popular and help to obtain funding for extreme neuro/computer science studies for mind uploading. This is an established research area with very exciting preliminary results, published in top peer-reviewed scientific journals (see the recent Special Issue on Mind Uploading of the International Journal of Machine Consciousness). Yet, this discipline is politically incorrect: it is tainted by association with transhumanists — those fringe lunatics of the Rapture of the Nerds — and difficult to sell to mainstream funding bodies.
Instead of the Rapture of the Nerds, we can promote mind uploading as a technology with a huge potential to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of future crewed interstellar missions. An e-crew — a crew of human uploads implemented in solid-state electronic circuitry — will not require air, water, food, medical care, or radiation shielding. The size and weight of the starship will be dramatically reduced (think of a small car, or even a coke can), and the e-crew’s ability to withstand extreme acceleration will permit achieving substantial fractions of the speed of light. In summary, the time to go to the stars will be reduced from centuries to decades or even years, and the cost will be reduced by orders of magnitude.
Mind uploading can make interstellar missions at least 100 times cheaper, and probably 1000 times cheaper. If we really want to launch an interstellar mission in this century, this is the way to go.
Boredom and isolation will not be a problem for e-crew members, because the electronic boards of a miniaturized starship will be able to accommodate hundreds of human uploads. E-crewed interstellar missions have been described by science fiction writers Greg Egan in Diaspora, and Charlie Stross in Accelerando, where the spacecraft Field Circus, a coke-can-sized mass of “computronium” (a generic name for an optimized computational substrate), propelled by a Jupiter-based laser and a lightsail, visits a nearby star system with an e-crew of 63 uploaded persons who, according to Stross, have a hell of a lot of fun on the way:
“Here we are, sixty something human minds. We’ve been migrated — while still awake — right out of our own heads using an amazing combination of nanotechnology and electron spin resonance mapping, and we’re now running as software in an operating system designed to virtualize multiple physics models and provide a simulation of reality that doesn’t let us go mad from sensory deprivation!
“And this whole package is about the size of a fingertip, crammed into a starship the size of your grandmother’s old Walkman, in orbit around a brown dwarf just over three light-years from home.”
Of course a light sail powered by lasers back home can only push a starship on an one-way trip, but the uploaded astronauts will be beamed home as data.
After Accelerando, Stross wrote a a blunt and pessimistic analysis of the possibility of “conventional” interstellar flight, and then a more optimistic analysis of interstellar “starwisps.” He says: “We can probably make it mechanically simple, rugged, and lightweight if we can do mature machine-phase diamond-substrate nanotechnology, and if we can figure out how to do one of mind uploading or artificial general intelligence.”
It is an interesting coincidence that all the technologies needed for e-crewed interstellar missions — propulsion systems able to accelerate a light spacecraft up to relativistic speeds; molecular nanotechnology; “computronium”-like data processing substrates; A.I.; and mind uploading — can be expected to be operationally available in the second half of the century. Writing on H+ Magazine, Keith Wiley suggests that interstellar propulsion systems for large starships crewed by wetware human bodies will be developed much later than artificial intelligence and mind uploading, and concludes that e-crewed missions will be much easier and cheaper than sending flesh-and-blood humans to the stars.
More and more scientists are persuaded of the feasibility of mind uploading, but the field is plagued by frequent metaphysical discussions about the continuity of personal identity (see for example the comments on KurzweilAI and io9). There are three “camps”: the “vitalists” who think that some (yet unknown) factors will make mind uploading impossible; the “true believers” who are persuaded that mind uploading will preserve personal identity, and the “yes, but it is only a copy” who, while conceding the feasibility of mind uploading, think that it will produce a biologically-inspired AI similar, but unrelated to, the original. I have the impression that many computer scientists are in the second camp, and many neuroscientists are in the third camp.
But even if “it is only a copy,” this specific application of mind uploading — sending uploaded e-crews to the stars — remains useful and appealing. Even if I were persuaded that uploads will be only copies, I would be not only happy, but also grateful and honored if my upload copy could participate in the first interstellar mission. Since it appears that brain preservation may save the information contained in a biological brain until mind uploading is developed, I wish to donate my brain to the first e-crewed mission to the stars. Signed by Giulio Prisco, in Budapest, on December 15, 2012, and witnessed by the readers.
Even coarse and preliminary uploading technologies may be sufficient. “Sideloading,” proposed by Greg Egan in Zendegi, consists of tweaking, fine-tuning and training a generic mindware “me-program” produced by human connectome studies, until it behaves (and perhaps feels) like a specific person. I am confident that at least this limited form of uploading will be available by mid-century and, again, I would be happy to volunteer.