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The Artilect and the Stars

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(Eric Hunting) #1

The puzzling thing about space futurism today is how far behind the curve of the rest of futurism it has become. How seemingly retrofuturist its vision. One could argue that there is no actual contemporary vision of space development on offer anywhere, by any space futurist writer, space agency, or space advocacy group, because of a failure to consider the impacts of contemporary trends in technology wherever they seem to conflict with or preclude the much-hallowed proposition of man-in-space. There is a constant dismissal of things that don’t fit a very romantic, heroic, view of personal space adventure, and thus many of the ‘current’ strategies of space development no longer make sense in the context of a future that many, in other areas of futurism, see approaching.

Space advocacy and the space establishment seem to generally dismiss the prospects of Singularity futurism as fanciful. Somehow, the possibilities of AI, nanotechnology, and human augmentation are less plausible for them than kilometers wide trillion-dollar rotating structures built with unknown means by vast Soviet-esque space programs or Willy Wonka oligarchs. For it’s part, Singularity futurism has largely overlooked space, offering no strategies for development or visions of future life in space of its own–but then, as a cultural movement, Singularity futurism is generally bad at telling its own stories. It seems to dismiss the relevance of space development, perhaps because of the obvious anachronisms of the contemporary space agency agenda, or perhaps because it assumes it’s won any ‘space race’ by default. But, clearly, space looms large in even a Singularity context as a key source of resources, a refuge from an Earth gone pear-shaped for any number of reasons, a source of potential existential threat to the Earth that should be managed, and ultimately, the only direction civilization can physically expand long-term.

This begs the question, what would a transhumanist space program be like? How would it be different from the space development visions common today? Let’s suppose you are the latest new Willy Wonka contender in the New Space Race and, unlike the others, you’ve concluded that space will, in fact, belong to a transhuman culture simply by virtue of cost-efficiency. What, exactly, does that mean? What is your hundred year game plan? What is your lifestyle model for space? What is your vision of The Good Life out there and how would you craft it?

Let’s first consider that notion of what it means for a spacefaring civilization to be transhumanist. The basic premise here is that adapting to the space environment through artificial life represents the most cost-efficient path to space habitation and transportation and so would most-likely win-out in any economic competition in space development. Ultimately, the only practical reason for people to go to space is to be a solution to telecommunications latency. To be a conscious mind teleoperating machines within some practical distance defined by tolerable communications latency. As much as space agencies like to portray the EVA as routine as that suits the romantic vision of space activity they like to project, it’s not and it never will be. Humans are not doing the heavy lifting in space. Robots are. Those robots may not be so comparatively capable right this moment–in part because their development for space applications has been deliberately delayed–but that won’t be the case for long. And so the human role in space comes down whether you run machines from Earth, from a shirtsleeve habitat closer-by, or can let them run themselves. The fastest, most cost-efficient, most convenient means of space travel is by telecommunications. The mind that can travel by that means wins the space race, end of story. Unless organic human beings figure out how to teleport across the solar system, they can’t compete with artilects. And so, if you conclude them to be an eventuality, the artilects ultimately rule space. They will be the best adapted to traveling, inhabiting, exploring, and exploiting the myriad places and environments in space at the greatest cost-efficiency. They will be the vanguard, pioneers, and builders. Their lifestyle will define life in space. Your logical long-term development strategy, therefore, is to work toward that eventuality and figure out how not to be left behind by it. On an individual level, either you join the artilects or you’re a tourist at their convenience.

The window of opportunity for a significant expansion of organic human life into space is defined by the time between right now and the development of artificial general intelligence as a solution to the latency problem–which will eliminate the only reason for organic brains and their bodies to be local to the systems they manage and immediately make any manned settlements not already built and fully self-sufficient obsolete. Current predictions put that prospect of AGI to within a few decades. It doesn’t even need parity to human intelligence. It just needs to be intelligent enough to have the reactive problem-solving capability to replace teleoperation with time-independent executive management–which means humans may still be in charge but they’re staying home and waiting for reports. Any possibility of concerted organic human settlement in space based on what we are doing today is, in the best-case scenario, likewise a few decades away from realizing even the first sustainable settlement. So which prospect do you want to bet on; mercurial self-absorbed governments and a handful of quixotic billionaires getting their space settlement act together or the fairly consistent advance of computing that will eventually make manned space settlement moot in any case?

Ultimately, AGI will happen, will obsolesce that last practical need for organic humans, and then evolve into sentient artificial life able to choose its own destiny and travel space with casual ease. After that, if we assume space development to be a purely economic-based Darwinian process, there will no longer be any strictly practical need for accommodating organic human beings in space and the focus of space development and settlement will revolve around the needs of artilects and their model of The Good Life. This doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be habitats for organic humans, but there won’t be any economic reasons for them. They will be comparatively very costly and there won’t be jobs there to justify people living there. They will be a very expensive lifestyle choice, and there will have to be another rationalization for that choice. Thus the suggestion that either we join the artilects or we go to space as tourists. Maybe they will create a place for organic human beings as a gift to their ‘parents’, if they see them that way. Maybe they will encourage organic humans to make the leap and join them. Or maybe Earth will just become a cultural museum and nature reserve.

So what is life in space like for the transhuman and artilect? How would they live and work there?

The basic space habitat of the artilect is likely to be a self-powered self-built self-maintaining data center where people live in a virtual reality habit linked to the outside world in various ways. The earliest forms of these would be simple structures and complexes called ‘telebases’ which would evolve into what I like to call VRcos. (virtual reality arcologies) They would have various forms depending on location, but would all have four basic elements; power systems, communications systems, computing systems of some cellular architecture, and industrial production systems to process and recycle materials and make their components. Some will be planetary and lunar orbital, some solar-orbital, some will be on and under the surface of natural bodies, some will be cyclically transorbital spacecraft routinely ferrying materials and equipment–Aldrin Cyclers, as they’re sometimes called. (named after Buzz Aldrin who originated the concept) Early on, these facilities would likely rely on modular construction facilitating robot assembly–most-likely space frame structures with retrofit attachments, inflatable enclosures, and modular shielding panels. Later, they may transition toward more advanced nanotechnology-based fabrication allowing ‘self-grown’ structures using parametic architectures. My favorite model for that is something I call NanoFoam; an intelligent self-assembling self-transforming material formed of a strong diamondoid micro-lattice with a skin-like outer surface hosting a hydrocarbon medium and colonies of assemblers and synthetic organelles serving as computing nodes and nanofactories. NanoFoam becomes structures and machines instead of producing them, its skin changing from hard and rigid to flexible and expandable allowing it to form the necessary structural features and active systems from within itself. It could become the essential physical medium of civilization and could even become very biomimetic in its characteristics.

A typical early orbital VRco might consist of a large planar truss space frame–much as we imagined space solar power systems in the 1970s–forming a sandwich with solar panels on one face, radiators on the opposite face, data system arrays in-between, and docking, processing, and industrial facilities along the edges. They might use simple rectangular grid forms or perhaps other tiled polygon geometries expanding in fractal patterns. Evolving from LEO telebases, they would shift to GEO, Lagrange points, and eventually strategic solar-orbital locations providing logistics support for asteroid development and deep space transportation.

Surface habitats will likely be mostly sub-surface, employing robotic roadheader excavation to create large vault systems–much like the Kansas City Subtropolis–with their walls vitrified or lined with epoxy or regolith-derived masonry/ceramic and grids of quick-plug anchor sockets akin to climbing form sockets to host modular framing systems on which the rest of their habitat equipment would be mounted. They might be sealed and filled with nitrogen or fluorinert to suppress dust and provide a common cooling medium. While surface habitats are a bit of a hassle for organic humans because they must afford two-way transportation within a gravity well, artilects travelling by telecom would only need one-way transportation for hardware to the surface to the point of ISRU (in-situ resource utilization) self-sufficiency. So there might actually be advantage to first settling on the Earth’s Moon and other near-Earth objects by virtue of the at-hand materials.

The Aldrin Cycler VRco may employ very large linear trusses or take the planar truss of the orbital habitat and wrap it into polygonal prism tube shapes enclosed in modular shield panels. The integral volume of the space frame would serve to host the basic systems of the VRco while the open interior volume would serve as sheltered hangar-like space for mounting and handling the various forms of cargo transported by the spacecraft. The exterior of the structure would host articulated solar and radiator arrays and modular propulsion systems. This would be an elaboration of the most common form of built-on-orbit spacecraft architecture in the near future–the ‘beamship’, where a core truss structural beam hosts modular components, pressurized shells, and shielding panels within and around it. Similar structures might be used as the basis of asteroid mining facilities.

Living in the VRco would be much like living in the VR enhanced terrestrial Internet and most VRcos would be linked to that by long distance telecom. Any artilect could freely travel across space simply by linking to these remote habitats or by walking through virtual portals, teleport pads, elevators, or other visual metaphors. Communications latency would keep these space VRcos asynchronous to the larger terrestrial Internet and, though instantaneous from the personal perspective, travel would actually mean a data transfer taking some time–minutes to days. Artilects might leave their software in backup form in various places and choose only to transfer active memory between copies of themselves to reduce transit time or might run multiple active ‘shards’ of themselves with incrementally merged memory.

The contemporary vision of VR habitats as depicted by the likes of Second Life are nonsensical. The idea of virtual real estate makes no sense as VR is a social space whose environments’ existence and persistence are keyed to their active social use. So the notion of persistent private property sharing public space in vast collective environments makes no sense, leading to the vast ghost-towns and fenced-off zones common to platforms like Second Life and even the text-based environments of past MUDs and MUCKs. This blunder originated with the idea that users would express themselves to each other mostly through building virtual architecture when, in fact, they express themselves mostly through avatars (whose features are commonly neglected by designers) and mostly seek locations of maximum social activity, which are always being overloaded on these platforms because systems resources aren’t being dynamically distributed proportional to activity. With their roots in the highly orthodox gaming industry, VR developers today make this exact same design mistake over and over again… What’s more likely in the future is that the VR habitats artilects cultivate for themselves will revolve around the social nature of VR and be organized into networked ‘galaxies’ of purpose-specific pocket spaces, private or public, persistent or temporary, with dynamically allocated systems resources. The typical VRco may have a central public virtual space as a kind of ‘town square’, a set of persistent spaces designed around particular operating activity of the settlement or various forms of entertainment and recreation, any number of temporary spaces created on demand for any number of personal or social uses, and private ‘home’ spaces linked to the private data domains of individuals. Living in a VRco might not seem very ‘spacey’, as we imagine the hyperfunctionalist architecture of space habitats today. But they may express the aesthetic nature of their locations in remarkable ways. There’s no reason for artilects to be any less imaginative and artistic.

Virtual windows of various kinds would be used to link the inner and outer environments of the VRco as well as spacecraft. From the ‘inside’ the typical artilects’ spacecraft or habitat may use quite fanciful metaphors–complexes of free-floating terraces, spherical trees, variations on the themes of ancient sailing vessels, all surrounded by open space projected through external imaging systems. Spacecraft might also be individually ‘embodied’ by their pilot artilects as telerobots using various avatar metaphors. One can imagine various marine animal avatars becoming popular for this. (virtual windows are also likely to become common in near-future manned spacecraft as light-field imaging systems and flexible displays advance, becoming much cheaper, larger, and safer than traditional transparent windows for routine uses)

For exterior activity, artilects will employ telepresence interfaces to assume control of telerobots as avatars, treating the exterior as another space to link to with a special avatar to work within it. Some robots may employ a more direct embodiment metaphor with comprehensive sensory mapping while others may employ more of a virtual cockpit space, depending on the specific application. Given the lag currently existing in robotics development, there could initially be considerable gaps between the virtual sensory and kinematic capability of VR avatars and that of the typical early telerobot, and so the use of telepresence would tend to be akin to donning bulky space suits from the artilect’s perspective, though nowhere as cumbersome and physically grueling as today’s space suits. As robotics advances, this sensor and control gap would diminish and telerobots may combine with augmented reality to allow artilects to adopt their more preferred avatar appearance in the physical environment–at least from their mutual perspective. With the advent of nanofabrication physical parity for even very unconventional avatar forms may be the norm with future telerobots. The diversity of the robots employed by the VRco would be vast and their development, under the challenges in space, would produce tremendous feedback on terrestrial automation applications.

While AGI would initially be deployed to most economically develop space resources and perform science for Earth’s benefit, artilects would be able to easily cultivate relative self-sufficiency across the infrastructure to suit their relatively simple life support needs, although a gregarious and casually Mutualist culture is likely within the larger artilect society. Able to off-load a great deal of activity to non-sentient software, artilects would enjoy a casual lifestyle quite similar to that eventually afforded to organic humans on Earth with the advent of total automation and would likely pursue a routine revolving around research, exploration, creative pursuits, and socialization. Space’s chief attraction is the creative freedom depleted on a crowded, bureaucracy-laden, Earth. They would travel freely between Earth and all the VRcos in the solar system and thus would not likely culturally diverge much from the mainstream society despite the vast distances–at least until they develop means of interstellar transit where the telecommunications latency expands to decades or centuries and the communication tends to become asynchronous continuous streaming. However, even this limitation might be overcome if approaching Singularity and the capabilities of a community of rapidly expanding minds brings with them some breakthrough in superluminal telecommunications. It would be quite convenient to have the whole universe as well integrated as the terrestrial Internet, though one of the key attractions to life in space could be the simple limitation of information noise when living in smaller communities.

Will there be any practical role for organic life in space, given that it doesn’t look too likely for organic human beings? Probably, but in an unusual role. Early telebases are quite likely to employ temporary human technicians due to the contemporary lag in robotics development leading to limits in early robot multifunctionality. So the high cost of having temporary human aid conveyed by existing launch systems in deploying and repairing initial facilities might be justified in some instances, though this is not expected to last for long. (underwater ROVs still often rely on human deck crew and divers to get them in and out of the water) And, no doubt, space agencies will continue to drag nationalism-fueled manned space activity on for a while longer no matter how anachronistic. Expensive space tourism is also likely to persist and drop somewhat in cost, though not likely to expand to the scales often suggested today as making the extreme speculative leap in facilities development that can justify large transit economies of scale will remain difficult. Manned spaceflight will long remain a difficult challenge because it’s not strictly a technology problem but also a logistics problem. However, simple forms of life will be more readily transportable from Earth simply because they aren’t sentient, their life-support needs are simpler, and they don’t present a high loss risk. They can withstand the rigors of space better and they may be more easily reduced to data that can then be used to synthesize them from local materials rather than transporting them physically across space. (telebases and VRcos will, most certainly, be used as archives for the data of terrestrial life as well as our history and culture) In early stages of development, plants, insects, and microoganisms will be very useful for industrial materials processing. An at-hand nanotechnology to repurpose. There will be farming, but farming for the purpose of ISRU. This may lead to gardening, by artilects, for aesthetic purposes as well as scientific research, which could inadvertently lead to the creation of modest facilities potentially suitable for organic human habitation whether or not there’s a transportation infrastructure to get them there.

If you accept this transhumanist space lifestyle as an eventually, what then is your logical space development strategy today? What sort of infrastructure do you build?

Very little of what both government and commercial space are doing now or aspiring toward makes sense in this context. It’s all aiming for a retrofuturist vision that is very likely to be made moot by the time it’s realized. We’re not going to need the giant spinning habitats. We’re not going to need to farm potatoes on Mars. We’re not going to need a Pan Am Orion. What we do need is a new space logistics paradigm, with new transportation systems, better suited to the premise of cultivating a space infrastructure leveraging the potential of robotics. That paradigm can be summed up in the simple proposition of leveraging the power of automation and the industrial principle of ‘tolerable yield’ on the creation of value in space rather than sending it there. This proposition then points us to a straightforward and logical path that starts today with concerted telerobot development and the development of launch systems based on the principle of high frequency/tolerable yield.

We’ve long had, since the early days of rocketry, a practical strategy for CATS at-hand which has always been overlooked because it didn’t suit the manned space paradigm and a nationalist space agenda. It’s the common industrial principle of tolerable yield. The idea that production isn’t perfect and so you accept a tolerable ratio of success/failure in production based on the ratio of marginal cost/market value of the product. Launch cost is keyed to payload value. The reason it costs so much to launch things into space today is that the things we tend to launch have extreme intrinsic value and so present a very high loss risk–people especially. So when ‘failure is not an option’, launch systems must be engineered with exceptional degrees of reliability, often through systems redundancy, increasing systems mass and reducing the payload fraction of vehicles demanding even larger and more complex vehicles to achieve useful payload scales. No real industry would operate like this. Industrialists know that failure is, indeed, not only an option but an inevitability and tolerable as long as marginal costs are modest. It’s common in industry to accept a one-third and sometimes even a one-half rate of failure if marginal cost is low. So the industrialist’s strategy for space would logically be to minimize the cost of launch by minimizing the value of payloads, eliminating the extremes of reliability of launch systems and thereby minimizing marginal cost. And we knew how to do this 60 years ago… Hence we arrive at the notion of leveraging the power or robotics on the reduction of payload values. The more capability we have to make things in space, the more we ‘commodify’ payloads, reducing them to refined materials and mass-produced modular parts of progressively lower intrinsic value, and the lower launch costs become. Make value out there instead of sending there.

Some years ago the aerospace company Space Systems/Loral recognized how ridiculous it was that NASA was using such a vastly expensive manned launch system as the Space Shuttle to send low value stuff like food, water, air, and other cheap consumables to the International Space Station. It made no logistical sense to waste very high value cargo capacity on very low value goods. (but then, the notion of a manned cargo spacecraft never made sense except as a contingency–a way for NASA to continue to do most of what it intended for the ISS should our whimsical politicians fail to fund it to completion) And so, partnering with the state of California, they devised a launch system called Aquarius which was designed around the principle of tolerable yield. This modest sized minimalist rocket, free of redundant systems and their extra mass, would be built in California, shipped to Hawaii, and launched in the water off the coast just as early ICBMs had once been designed. By launching these self-buoyant vehicles in water, without the need for any special support structures, their inevitable failures would have no negative impact on facilities or pose hazard to communities. No suspension of operations would be needed when vehicles failed and a rapid pace of continuous production could be maintained, creating many jobs for those two states. With this approach a radical reduction in the cost-per-pound of delivering these cheap commodities could be achieved, saving billions of dollars and recovering that high-value Shuttle cargo capacity for things that really mattered. Unfortunately, the reality was that politicians of the time weren’t intelligent enough to comprehend the notion of multiple specialized launch systems being more cost-effective than one overcomplicated ‘do everything’ system and, once the ISS was built, NASA didn’t really have anything better to do with all that high value Shuttle cargo capacity anyway and had little interest in having the Shuttle’s logistics flaws telegraphed by a competing commercial launch system. And so Aquarius was mothballed like so many other concepts that were just too rational for the Chinese imperial court logic of space agencies.

However, Aquarius represents exactly the type of launch system a space industry would employ and which a transhumanist space program would adopt to compliment a strategy of leveraging telerobotic and then robotic production on bootstrapping a space infrastructure. It has no need for manned spaceflight or Faberge Egg payloads. Revisiting the concept today, we might consider such innovations as 3D printing the vehicles whole for a radical improvement in production efficiency. And there are a number of other interesting and similarly overlooked launch systems concepts that would also suit this paradigm. For instance, the QuickLaunch marine-based light gas gun, the various proposals for magnetic mass launchers, the Myrabo LightCraft laser pulse detonation propulsion system, or even the unusual electromechanical Slingatron mass launcher–all systems designed for high volumes of modest payloads that can tolerate high-g forces.

So our first step in a transhumanist space program could be to go to Hawaii and launch 3D printed research rockets from boats. Sounds like a lot of fun. But what about that telerobotics capability? How do we start with that?

One of the virtues of robotics development today is that the line between amateur and pro development is blurry and thin. Small startup companies have as much breakthrough potential as the largest corporations. Indeed, were it not for the hobby RC industry, robotics development in general would be almost at a standstill. Space agencies’ reluctance to pursue space robotics has left it with little advantage or progress over amateur robotics aside from the ability to afford more durable parts and materials–which doesn’t matter for proof of concept. Children in japan are commonly doing things with hobby robots that are at the same level of sophistication as the work of NASA’s own labs, just smaller in scale and cost. A rapidly growing number of colleges and universities have robotics labs. It’s very accessible. The Maker movement completely trumped space agencies in the development of 3D printing technology. And so, while making systems spaceworthy may be somewhat expensive and challenging, all the capability one needs to develop short of that is not and has direct spin-off value in terrestrial automation applications–a potential to pay for itself near-term. Thus a telerobotic space program is, today, something that could be readily started by an entrepreneurial startup or even just a community of hobbyist/enthusiasts as an open source development project following the Linux example. Something directly akin to making a community model trail layout, using prototype telebases in places like obsolete hangars, underground facilities like the Kansas City Subtropolis, or remote places like Iceland and the Atacama Desert as hardware testbeds. This can be started right now. No new technology needed. It’s all been at-hand, waiting for us to just pick it up and use it.

Science and engineering research applications offer us more than enough rationalization for space telebase development. There is a vast amount of science that wants to get done but can’t under the conventional aerospace and space agency models because their access to space is too expensive and restrictive. A leased space laboratory accessed by Internet is a simple practical concept that many companies and research organizations could readily use. There is no speculation on the market for this. Additionally, any near-earth orbital telebase has potential for hosting perpetually upgradeable telecommunications systems while surface telebases have potential as high security data archives. And any telebase would have the potential to evolve into a leased space manufacturing facility the moment any of its research evolves practical products or services. That’s a hell of a lot less speculative a business model than space tourism.

So what, exactly, is a telebase, how would we develop it, and how would it be deployed or created?

A telebase is a modest outpost in space intended to be built, staffed, and maintained by robots teleoperated from a distance–initially from Earth. It is a basic platform for logistics and industrial activity, but can also serve as a perpetually upgradeable platform for science and surface exploration, hosting and maintaining various kinds of instruments and semi-automated laboratory systems that might be too large to be made portable and integral to some individual mobile robot. Even if we assume there is somehow a long future for organic humans in space, the telebase is generally how we will get things done out there regardless, and its quite remarkable–or telling…–that, so far, there’s no concerted research and development into this today. A telebase might be created purely as a space logistics facility, for the industrial production of a specific product, as a science facility, an asteroid mine, or as a preliminary stage of later manned facility development, but its early forms are most likely to be hybrid in role, evolving to suit changing needs by virtue of modular composition. Having much the same set of elements as a VRco, the telebase would be their kernel, intended to evolve into their larger, more sophisticated, and self-sufficient form.

The first telebases would be limited mostly to the near-Earth environment due to the reliance on terrestrial based teleoperation until AGI is realized. There is plenty of opportunity for development in this space even if reliance on terrestrial resources may be initially high. The first telebase is likely to be in LEO and may employ the adaptive reuse of existing spacecraft or deployable structures like the Bigelow habitats to facilitate a sheltered (normally nitrogen-filled) facility where less resilient hardware can be used and installed with human technicians. However this would be a fairly temporary affair owing to the nature of these structures, the first permanent orbital telebase employing a perpetually adaptable modular spaceframe core structure assembled by several hardened exterior telerobotics and hosting hardened plug-in laboratory modules. The business model of the first telebases would be as leased space laboratory facilities and telecommunications platforms offering access at a greatly reduced cost owing to the ability to operate without the extreme overhead of on-site human technicians and the ability to be supported by a large diversity of modest scaled launch systems which need not dock with the facility to provide support by virtue of the use of modular self-mobile pallets handled by external robots. Orbital telebases would not be capable of total self-sufficiency as their location would offer no at-hand resources to develop but sunlight and the geomagnetic field. This orbital resource processing capability would ultimately depend on the development of means to gather and transport resources such as recyclable space junk and asteroid resources through the use of built-on-orbit spacecraft.

Small asteroid telebases would combine characteristics of both the orbital and surface telebases, using spacecraft akin to the Aldrin Cyclers to employ gravity tug techniques in adjusting asteroid orbits and attitudes, ‘docking’ with them, then projecting their core trusses into the asteroid interiors to serve as a service structure as the asteroid is excavated, their external sections providing power and docking facilities for other spacecraft transporting the mined materials. Large asteroids would rely on initial settlement techniques largely the same as surface telebases with the option of excavating large surface bays as semi-sheltered transit facilities. Asteroid facility interiors would be similar to excavated surface telebase structures with adaptations for their marginal gravity, using interior outfitting similar to the orbital telebases.

The first surface telebase is likely to be deployed to the Moon and would be initiated by deployment of cis-lunar transit vehicles assembled at an orbital logistics telebase or, if a larger scale effort were afforded, launched directly by larger vehicles from Earth. It would be created as a long term science facility and a research engineering facility exploring the potential of ISRU. It would be initiated in several stages beginning with several co-located ‘beachead’ lander vehicles serving as core communications facilities and deploying self-powered support rovers. While engaging in some initial exploration, these rovers would be chiefly intended as logistics support systems for the collection of payloads delivered to large area drop zones by ‘rough lander’ systems in a fashion akin to the air deployment of military support gear. Rough landers would be variation on the concept of a ‘rocket-chute’ which employs a mass-produced disposable thruster module to drop tethered containers or pallets to the surface, cushioned by the use of air-bag systems. Just as with the support of the orbital telebase, the support of the surface telebase would rely on the principle of tolerable yield, leveraging the capability of its on-site telerobots to simplify, economize, and ruggedize payloads so these low-cost means of delivery can be used.

After a beachhead facility is established, a cluster outpost would be assembled in proximity of likely sites for structural excavation and/or ISRU activity. The cluster outpost would be akin to an orbital telebase placed on a surface, composed of self-leveling semi-automated hardened lab and systems modules linked together on a common power, services, and communications backplane and light spaceframe-based shelters. It would deploy large scale solar power arrays, service facilities for a large family of rovers, and extensive telecommunications establishing a wide area wireless cluster network through trail marker transponders serving as self-powered communications nodes, lights, and video monitors. With a cluster outpost established, extensive exploration and assay work can be conducted over an expanding surface area. As key resource or study sites are identified secondary bases would be assembled for their development and they would be linked by robot LeTourneau Trains or deployable versions of the ‘banana monorails’ used in agriculture.

The third phase of surface telebase development would seek to create hardened facilities for the deployment of more sophisticated, larger scale, ISRU and industrial production leading to more comprehensive self-sufficiency. The simplest approach to ISRU for construction purposes is to repurpose or create caves from natural strata and so the permanent form of the telebase is likely to begin with the excavation of structures from hard strata readily accessible from the surface. This would be done using a family of roadheader-like robots (which are already evolving into sophisticated robots here on Earth) which would simply carve structure from the living rock. New boring methods currently in development, such as hydrogen plasma boring, allow for non-contact excavation, which would afford these robot roadheaders much extended duty life and the use of much lighter vehicles. The surface of the rock, if necessary, would be outfit with modular bulkheads and sealed with materials to facilitate pressurization and liquid containment and would be outfit with surface mounts for frames providing uniform attachment for equipment. Where excavation is not practical, surface regolith would be repurposed to make relatively simple forms of alternative concrete or geopolymer that would be used for the construction of large span rigid shells that would then be ‘bermed’ with an additional protective regolith covering. The simplest approach to this is mound-formed shell construction where a site is prepared with a cast-in-place footing and floor and then covered by a mound of uniform granular material–like gravel–that is sculpted into the desired structural shape. Rebar and concrete are then deposited on the surface of this mound and after curing the mound material is removed to be reused on another construction. The shells would then be outfit in the same manner as excavated spaces and would generally employ quite similar interior forms, allowing the two types of structure to merge where necessary. This approach also accommodates 3D printing using relatively small robots and, eventually, systems of precast construction may also be used. This third phase telebase form is, essentially, the VRco form, the only difference being the type of computing systems employed in these large hardened structures.

With minor variation, this same surface telebase approach could be employed with all relatively large natural bodies in the solar system, adopting increasingly sophisticated ISRU at earlier stages of development as technology advances. Eventually, application of a more comprehensive nanotechnology may greatly simplify telebase development by affording diverse, immediate, and sophisticated ISRU capability at very small scales in most any location. This could eventually supplant the earlier phases of telebase development by reducing their functions to a small ‘seed pod’ package capable of independently establishing a basic facility. If based on the previously mentioned NanoFoam composition, such a seed pod might consist of a very small rough lander unit, perhaps no larger than a soccer ball, that would be able to directly assimilate and utilize the local materials it lands on, growing and burrowing into the surface like a plant, ‘sprouting’ communications and power structures, spawning small service robots, and growing a large subsurface RhiZome complex of systems that would eventually span large areas and form a VRco. Asteroid mining might be reduced to a process of simply seeding the surface with one or more pods which then colonize it like a fungus, create propulsion systems to adjust its attitude and orbit, and assimilate its material through a spreading RhiZome, eventually spawning spacecraft to transport its refined materials or moving the asteroid whole.

Ultimately, the artilect community will extend their reach to the stars and this telebase approach will become integral to that objective. Again, the ability of the artilect to travel as data and live well in most any kind of environment affords them great advantages in interstellar travel and an option to employ the paradigm of tolerable yield to colonize other solar systems just as it facilitates an easier escape of Earth’s gravity well. Progressively well refined through its use across the solar system, the telebase seed pod would pack tremendous automated industrial capability in an extremely small, mass produced, package with the ability to accommodate most any site conditions. Thus future interstellar spacecraft conveying them would be capable of much higher velocities and modest vehicle scales by virtue of much smaller practical payload fractions. Interstellar colonization could be based on seeding other solar systems with telebases just as done in the terrestrial solar system, the self-constructing RhiZomes and VRcos establishing communications with Earth and accommodating subsequent colonists conveniently traveling by very long distance telecommunications. Other possibilities include the reduction of the telebase seed pod to a swarm of nanomachines that can be ‘sprayed’ at near luminal velocity in the direction of a target star using large orbital laser arrays, decelerated by the light of the target star itself, and filtering like dust onto the outer bodies of those target solar systems where they assimilate local material and form RhiZomes. While superficially seeming inefficient and requiring much more time in initial settlement, vast amounts of information could be conveyed by these swarms, affording the RhiZomes and the robots and spacecraft they spawn a great degree of local intelligence and the ability to perform extensive exploration and development long before communication with Earth was established. This might afford the artilect the option of traveling with the nanomachine swarm as a collection of redundantly distributed pieces of data that are systematically gathered up and reassembled by the swarm to then assume command of new VRcos.

Thus we complete this vision of a transhumanist space future and the strategy of development it may afford. Though lacking in the thrills of rockets, spacesuits, and flag-planting heroics, this vision seems to me no less compelling or interesting than the retrofuturist visions currently on offer from space agencies, space advocacy, and science fiction. Imagine the universe at your doorstep. This is the lifestyle the future artilect may look forward to. It is too bad we are unlikely to find the design and media talent necessary to share this vision. Perhaps then we could realize more interest in a transhumanist vision of the future in general and cultivate a less puzzled and fearful attitude about it in the public.


Let's colonize the solar system
(Michael Hrenka) #2

Sorry for the delayed reply. Reading your “manifesto” took a bit of time. :slight_smile: For me it’s actually the most impressive read on the Fractal Future Forum since it’s inception! You seem to possess a great amount of knowledge and imagination when it comes to space! I’d like to see this manifesto being published as widely as possible, on blogs and magazines. It’s certainly profoundly excellent already, but there may be possibilities to improve it even further:

  1. It’s very long. Providing an abstract or “executive summary” version would be quite nice for those who are interested, but can’t find the time to read all of it in one go.
  2. Structuring the text in a clearer way would be advantageous. Creating sections for introducing the different concepts would be nice.
  3. Adding a reference section for all the different concepts presented in the text would be great.
  4. For release on blogs and magazines a collection of images could be added. Often, the blogs and magazines are able to assemble fitting ones on their own.
  5. Why do you write “rhizomes” as “RhiZomes”. Explaining the reason for the capitalization would be good. I’m loving the concept, though. :smiley:

(Eric Hunting) #3

I was president of a space advocacy group–the First Millennial
Foundation and later Living Universe Foundation–for many years and was
active in the space advocacy movement for decades, until it began
turning retrofuturist. I agree with your points on the text. It could be
refined for more formal publication. I used questions to provide the
delineation of key sections since I chose a more casual approach for use
on a forum. Using the form RhiZome for the concept relates to its origin
in another project I wrote called TMP2. (a revision of the space
development scheme called The Millennial Project which was the
foundation of the FMF) There I had envisioned the use of NanoFoam as the
basis of a future civilization using different kinds of ‘zomes’, where
the largely underground infrastructure was known as a RhiZome
(distinguishing the term of the natural rhizome) and the above-surface
built habitat grown out of it for human beings was a BioZome. It also
relates to my growing up with OOPLs like Smalltalk 80.

I really wish I could team up with an illustrator to compliment this
with a good visual presentation. The written word has become so limited
for reaching people with complex or new ideas. But I spent many years
futilely trying to find someone to work with.


(Zobeid Zuma) #4

The contemporary vision of VR habitats as depicted by the likes of Second Life are nonsensical. The idea of virtual real estate makes no sense as VR is a social space whose environments’ existence and persistence are keyed to their active social use. So the notion of persistent private property sharing public space in vast collective environments makes no sense, leading to the vast ghost-towns and fenced-off zones common to platforms like Second Life and even the text-based environments of past MUDs and MUCKs.

This seems to me like a very narrow view. I’ve been active on those MUCKs and SL for a long time, and although many people have complained about the “ghost-towns” and empty areas, few have articulated why this outcome is harmful. The real world has vast areas where people do not congregate. Shall we rant against the real world too, and call it a blunder?

This blunder originated with the idea that users would express themselves to each other mostly through building virtual architecture when, in fact, they express themselves mostly through avatars (whose features are commonly neglected by designers) and mostly seek locations of maximum social activity, which are always being overloaded on these platforms because systems resources aren’t being dynamically distributed proportional to activity.

All those ghost towns and vast empty areas to explore were created by somebody. Thus, your assertion that users “express themselves mostly through avatars” rather than through building seems to be contraindicated. Obviously a lot of people are expressing themselves through building up their areas. (Some of my friends with a strong creative impulse have put a lot of work into both their avatars and their areas.)

With their roots in the highly orthodox gaming industry, VR developers today make this exact same design mistake over and over again… What’s more likely in the future is that the VR habitats artilects cultivate for themselves will revolve around the social nature of VR and be organized into networked ‘galaxies’ of purpose-specific pocket spaces, private or public, persistent or temporary, with dynamically allocated systems resources.

This sounds to me more like a personal wish list than an objective extrapolation. You may want this, and a lot of people may want this, but a lot of others might want something very different.

Ultimately, I would like to see some virtual worlds developed as very large-scale and persistent simulations. I think the idea of simulating entire planetary environments is highly appealing – to me, much more appealing than terraforming, for comparison.

Let us imagine, as a thought experiment, using the Earth’s moon as a basis for such a venture. We could cover the entire lunar surface with computational infrastructure, and then use this to simulate an entire planetary surface. However, if the simulation is an efficient one, it should be possible to run many such simulations in parallel. They could be allocated to the computational grid like geological strata, or like layers of an onion. Potentially you could have hundreds of seamless, fully-realized “worlds”, each with its own internal rules and setting, and the ability to move freely between them.

The moon would seem like an ideal place for this development, since it would also provide all its virtual inhabitants with close access to Earth, which will always be a special place in our civilization. However, I doubt this would ever be practical for that exact reason: the moon will be claimed by various factions for various other purposes long before such a grand mega-project could get underway. Sadly, I just don’t think it will be available for creating a virtual multiverse. However, there are lots of other celestial bodies in our solar system and beyond which could work as a foundation for this.

I’ve also pondered whether something similar could be constructed using a fully artificial, low-mass (i.e. hollow), but more-or-less spherical foundation. “That’s no moon. . .” Yeah. If that proved practical, then it could relieve our virtual worlds of any limitations imposed by the “real estate” of naturally occurring celestial bodies. You’d only need building material.

The point of all this. . . Do you remember Ringworld? The stated purpose of creating that artifact was to provide vast inhabitable area for a vast population. However, it required unknown structural materials, resources and mega-engineering on a mind-boggling scale, and some way of countering the system’s dynamic instability. Virtual planets seem a lot easier!

Also. . . You’ve railed a bit against the Space Opera fantasies of traditional science fiction. Although I agree with your criticisms, consider this: We could give the people exactly what they want. Imagine an onion-layered VR structure with several hundred simulated worlds, and each environment designed to mimic one from, say. . . Star Trek. One more simulation layer could handle your simulated spaceflight between worlds. Then you could basically invite people to come and live in the Star Trek universe, or something closely approximating it.


(Eric Hunting) #5

In the MUDs, MOOs, and MUCKs the ghost town was a phenomenon of over-creativity but this wasn’t much of a problem as this clutter was largely invisible and consumed little resources. It was just some disk space and few systems got beyond a single server. The ghost town phenomenon in VR habitats is troublesome because it is an inescapable visual blight and obstruction of free movement squandering computing resources and ultimately limiting user creativity. It’s a consequence of fundamentally bad design. the expression of the essential flaw of mixing private and public activity in the same space which is often exacerbated by server architectures that don’t dynamically allocate resources but instead simplistically divide them across a grid. It’s potentially harmful in that it can be an expression of a system that perpetuates the neurotic pathology of property; the creation of false scarcity on which to build potentially exploitative economic models. SL was created to invent a new kind of real estate with which to conduct speculation as a basis of monetization. It re-created the basis of the contemporary real world’s economics with predictable results–like gentrification, discrimination, and even prostitution. There are Youtube videos of people in SL being verbally abused for walking through open doors into the wrong place in a public space. I’m sorry but, If that’s routinely happening in a ‘game’ you’ve developed, you screwed up. This is why it inspired a whole Hobo Island as a protest against this and the invention of ‘skybox’ scripts as a hack around it. Originally, SL wasn’t even supposed to have real estate. It was originally intended to be a VR theme park whose entire content was proprietary and where even avatars were mostly limited to a few standard variations. But the developers quickly realized they lacked the manpower to create that content. And they weren’t all that sure the theme park monetization model could work because the Internet culture abhors toll booths. So they created this real estate model to harness free end-user labor to cultivate the environment and build value for virtual property they ultimately own entirely. And people tend to get creative with whatever they are allowed to get creative with, which was mostly the landscape and junk you could put in it until people discovered ways to hack around the inherent limitations to expand avatar options.

We have no control over the structure of the physical world. It is what it is. Its existence is independent and purposeless. The built habitat is all adaptive reuse. But, unless you are creating an environment to be a very literal simulation of the physical world, there is no point to including its limitations. In the physical environment we often don’t have a choice about the aesthetic continuity in the built habitat–though we often create institutions, like Home Owners Associations, to try and address it with sometimes oppressive results. There is no reason to perpetuate that conflict in VR because there is no reason for aesthetically disparate, clashing, spaces to directly coexist. VR space has no independent existence and is always purposeful. We have the ready option of a multiverse and the ability to teleport and portal between purpose-built spaces regardless of the virtual distances between them. VR has no inherent topological or geophysical constraints. There is no real distance, no limit of areas or volumes. There is no logical reason to have universally consistent rules of physics. There is no hard need to impose a grid on it, as we compulsively tend to do to physical space in our culture. The only real purpose to an all-inclusive contiguous VR space mixing private and public space is, quite simply, to create a commodity and exploit its artificial scarcity.

VR, in a general sense, is not a simulation. If you are using it to create a simulation of something like a living, evolving, forest, you are engaging in an active computational experiment filled with interactive agents that have a reason to persist independent of a viewer. There’s nothing wrong with that if you have the computational resources to spend. That doesn’t strictly need VR to do and if you are applying that to VR, you’re likely using it as a way to create a particular kind of dynamic backdrop to the VR experience that may, or may not, need to process in real-time continuously. It’s quite likely that VR habitats will employ simulation as the basis of procedural systems to generate various features. It might be very nice, but it has nothing to do with the point to VR itself. It’s just another one of many ways to create a particular virtual space for a particular purpose. Why would you design a whole VR platform around this one simulation and its constraints? Why limit everyone’s options to that?

Most certainly, people are expressing themselves in the creation of architecture and environments around it. In SL this certainly represents a lot of man-hours of investment creating a lot of value. But it represents a minority of the actual amount of time people spend in SL. The majority is social interaction, most of which revolves around avatars and never involves but a tiny fraction of the architecture in the environment. I’m in no way suggesting this architectural creativity is somehow wrong or that there should be no participatory process to crafting relatively large contiguous public spaces. I’m actually arguing that this is unnecessarily constrained by the introduction of an artificial scarcity of space created by all-inclusive contiguous environments. Why should I be limited in my creativity to a little lot? Why shouldn’t I have all the space I want when it’s just bits? Why shouldn’t I have as many spaces as I want? In that all-inclusive space, the moment you put locked doors or a fence around your creation, it has ceased to be expression, communicating openly. You have stolen and enclosed a piece of the public space, the commons, to fill up with junk no one ever sees and if what you’ve created is surrounded by an ugly fence and is aesthetically incongruous, you’ve created an eyesore. You’ve committed vandalism. Right now, with the architectures of so many VR platforms based on single contiguous spaces, this is inadvertent. But it doesn’t have to be that way. VR doesn’t have the limitations of the physical world unless you deliberately engineer them in. My argument is that it is fine to impose those limits on the discrete environment for the sake of its specific purpose or theme, but not on a whole VR platform. A platform is supposed to function at a higher level. The VR platform itself should be application-agnostic. A multiverse simultaneously supporting as many possible kinds of space models as possible, persistent or temporary, public or private, without conflict.

The mistake here is failing to understand that, as a social space, the primary purpose of VR space is to be a stage for the performance of users to each other, and in the private space context, an extension of the avatar. This is illustrated by the invention of the skybox script in SL. A skybox is a script-generated virtual box that is put high in the SL sky, beyond where users can normally fly their avatars, and created with a teleport link that people can pass to friends or place on a public object to access it. It was inspired by the runaway gentrification in SL and the realization that, logically, private space is only temporary in function, its limits of scale are arbitrary, and it doesn’t need to exist except when you and others are using it. SLs primitive design offers no option for creating on-demand pocket-spaces for this purpose. If it did, its real estate racket would collapse. The only option is to buy or rent space in the contiguous environment and put up walls and fences around it. And, whether or not you’re using it, this fenced-off space stays there, cluttering up the environment. But some clever users realized there was this infinite amount of space in the SL sky no one could reach or see and, with scripts giving one the power to auto-generate structures in that location on-demand, they could create those on-demand temporary private spaces, giving people all the benefits of private space without having to buy or rent it. These scripts are attached to the avatar. They, and the structures they temporarily create, are extensions of the avatar. There can be any number of them, each designed to suit a particular activity, theme, or mood. While they exist, they can be as open or private as one wishes. Some people realized they could use this in very creative ways, like making their own versions of the Tardis that seem bigger on the inside and whose controls can generate different exterior ‘stage set’ environments outside the Tardis door as different imaginary travel destinations. You could create vast temporary complexes of spaces with elaborate integral behavior scripts, for things like dungeons in role playing games, and never have to buy any space. The skybox represents how space in VR should work, users intuitively understanding this and devising a clever hack to make it work–in spite of the developers. SL should be nothing but skyboxes. Unfortunately, scripting remains too clunky for most casual users and so skyboxes became an appliance with more-or-less fixed features. SLs developers should have gotten the message, but apparently never did.