12. The ATOM’s Effect on the Final Frontier


Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.

– Plato


(Video).  Ultimately, the endgame of any treatise on future visions invariably marches toward one particular topic.  We earlier examined how the ATOM was creating commercial activity in space for the first time, such as private spaceflight, asteroid mining, and zero-gravity 3D Printing.  As sophisticated as this may seem, these are still just stepping stones to how the ATOM links our civilization to space.

When the space race was underway in the 1957-77 period and mankind made seemingly giant leaps, many enthusiasts extrapolated that rate of progress forward and predicted a substantial human presence in space by 2015.  That has not happened, for there are presently only an exiguous number of people in space (on average about one human out of every billion, at any given time).  No humans have been more than a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface in decades.

Unfortunately, assessments now veer towards the opposite extreme, with proclamations such as “Human civilization peaked in 1969-72 because we haven’t been on the Moon since then!” dominating the discourse.   Quite to the contrary, the ATOM has enabled great strides in space exploration.  This becomes apparent once one realizes that humans setting foot on an extraterrestrial surface is far from the only measure of progress.  This is even despite the fact that landing a man on the Moon would cost far less, as a percentage of US GDP, than it did in 1969-72.  The following content is a continuation from by 2009 article, SETI and the Singularity.


Space is For the Robots :  For all the popular culture imagery around humans in space, such missions will never be as economical or efficient as sending advanced AI into the heavens.  The overwhelming difference in space suitability between humans and AI can scarcely be exaggerated.

An AI does not require air or water, and can survive across a much wider range of temperatures, pressures, gravity, and radiation than a fragile human.  An AI can load into a body or bodies (becoming a robot) as needed, or be stored in a tiny volume that is orders of magnitude smaller than what a human crew would require during space travel.  The cost divergence begins at the time of launch itself, as it consumes far less fuel to launch a 100 kilogram piece of AI-installed hardware into space than a human-suitable spacecraft that may be 1 million times more massive.  This hardware itself continues to shrink for each generation of Moore’s Law, while a ship designed to transport humans does not.  Furthermore, if the spacecraft is destroyed in an accident, only the hardware has to be replaced, with the AI software loaded onto it.  The tragic deaths and resultant delays associated with failed human missions become a non-issue.

The chasm widens further when one sees how few celestial destinations can host human life.  In the entire Solar System there is no world aside from Earth where a human can remotely survive without an elaborate spacesuit, that too for just a short time.  By contrast, every single solid world other than Mercury and Venus can host a suitable robotic lander or rover for years.  Probes have even landed on comets despite their low gravity.  Even with Mercury and Venus, orbital probes with sophisticated AI can operate for decades, and never have to be brought back to Earth.  The AI can be endlessly upgraded from Earth via wireless transmission of software updates.  Add all of these factors up, and the indisputable advantages in cost, durability, and versatility ensure that most scientific exploration of space will be done with AI housed in relatively small hardware.  Each such probe or rover can transmit data back to Earth as well as to other AIs in other locations in space, creating an interplanetary network effect.  A few humans may be sent up by their governments for political purposes, and brief recreational space trips for the ultra-wealthy may become a viable business, but that is about the extent of human space travel to occur over the medium term.  The uncanny suitability of AI for space leads one to contemplate whether this is some pre-ordained grand design of which we are merely facilitators.

Instead, for the rest of the human population, the celestial will become the virtual.  Images and videos beamed back to Earth by the AI will be incorporated into VR experiences, enabling humans to ‘walk’ on the surfaces of Mars, Europa, Callisto, and Titan from their own homes, or even ‘fly’ between worlds faster than the speed of light.  More people will be able to experience space with considerable realism, even as real exploration advances without human presence in space.


Exponential Exploration and Discovery :  If humans are to be Earthbound for a long time to come, that does not mean we miss the chance to revel in the growing wave of discoveries.  Space exploration, particularly telescope power and data crunching, is being pulled into the ATOM, with the expected rate of exponential progress that entails.

No matter what, the greatest question of all is whether we are alone in the universe, and if we are not, what form has that other life taken.  As our technology has advanced, some of the assumptions around this question have begun to shift.  This is a vast subject and cannot be done full justice here, but one trend that stands out is the rising power and precision of telescopic methods and their merger with big data and supercomputing.  This has, among other discoveries, resulted in the detection of planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets.

Most stars are too inherently dim to be seen from Earth, unless they are very near (indeed, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is still far below the brightness threshold where it can be seen with the naked eye).  Since many of the dimmer, cooler stars have planets, and planets only reflect some miniscule fraction of the light they receive from their primary star, a planet within a star system several light years away is vanishingly faint when viewed from Earth.  Such planets were impossible to detect until new methods independent of luminosity emerged, such as observing radial velocity and transits of the planet in front of its primary star.  Astronomers have continued to refine these methods, and with the technological improvement of their instruments both on the ground and in space, the rate of exoplanet discovery is rising exponentially.

UntitledAs recently as 1995, there were hardly any exoplanets identified, but as the chart of annual discoveries shows us, we are now discovering an increasing number of them, in a curve that fits the familiar parabolic trajectory.  There are now over 2000 planets confirmed, and the next 2000 will naturally take far less time than the first 2000.  Note that newer methods are now generating the most detections (chart from Wikipedia).

The majority of early detections were larger, Jupiter-sized planets, and the discovery of Earth-sized planets has only begun more recently.  Whether other forms of life require conditions similar to ours remains to be seen, but it is likely that any biological life forms may be just as unsuitable for space as we are.  Nonetheless, if a small fraction of worlds with life have reached the threshold of creating their own artificial intelligence, their intelligence is similarly freed of conditional restrictions as ours would be, and then they might be easier to detect or even meet.  However, this means that under the accelerating rate of change, it is very hard for a civilization even slightly more advanced than us to avoid detection, due to the much greater presence and detectability it would have.  This may explain the Fermi Paradox, and increase the chances that we are one of very few advanced civilizations, or at least one of the earliest, and at least in our own galaxy.  Over time, the exponentially rising rate of discovery will enable us to narrow down the range of probabilities of extra-terrestrial life and intelligence, and there will be orders of magnitude more candidate planets as soon as the 2020s.

As we can see, the majority of future space activity does not involve manned space missions.  In contrast, with the ATOM converging discovery technologies into a rapid rate of improvement, astronomical research has become an information technology.  This dichotomy does not fit into old assumptions about how space might be explored, but there has never been a better time to be a space enthusiast, whether scientific, industrial, or philosophical.  This is a statement that can only become increasingly true each passing year.

Continue to : 13. Conclusion


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