Thursday, November 09, 2006

Stretching The Imagination

"The king is dead. Long live the king." Doesn't that time-honored phrase seem a bit oxymoronic? At least it did to me as a child when I would see old movies about the turbulent times surrounding monarchical transitions of power (even before I knew what the words oxymoronic and monarchical meant.) In those films, the assemblage of nobles crowded into the royal bedchamber to watch the royal demise would all speak the solemn words in unison. The loyal and stunningly lovely ward of the king would weep beautifully, while the evil viceroy would pledge false allegiance to the dashing but conflicted Prince. It took me a while to grasp that the mourning subjects in those period dramas were wishing long life to the new king, however perfidiously, not suggesting the old king could make a comeback. (There's only one King I know who died and yet is still living--and no, I don't mean Elvis.) As I learned from those movies, even the most beloved monarch must pass into history, and there must always be a backup ruler waiting in the wings to assume the position of power. Order must be kept. The nation must survive intact. Sometimes, of course, the conflict in those movies rested in the fact there were a few too many backup monarchs waiting to don the royal robes.

That scenario is mostly from the past, though. What about the future? As it turns out, this kind of passing of the torch ritual could, by some people's reckoning, be needed on a much grander scale in years to come. Would it surprise you to know that there are a whole host of people preparing for the eventual demise of Earth, with backup home-worlds-in-waiting and lots of planning into what other celestial bodies might serve as a lifeboat in the event of a planet-destroying asteroid, a nuclear holocaust, or even nanoweapons? (Stargate SG-1 fans will be interested to know there are actually people planning for the day Replicators start eating everything in sight, and designing nanoshields to fend them off. The above link has an abundance of information.) Order must be kept. The human race must survive intact. The Lifeboat Foundation is hard at work envisioning both future problems and their solutions, so that humanity can live outside of the shadow of impending disaster. Here's their mission statement:

The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, as we move towards a technological singularity.

Lifeboat Foundation is pursuing a variety of options, including helping to accelerate the development of technologies to defend humanity, including new methods to combat viruses (such as RNA interference and new vaccine methods), effective nanotechnological defensive strategies, and even self-sustaining space colonies in case the other defensive strategies fail.

We believe that, in some situations, it might be feasible to relinquish technological capacity in the public interest (for example, we are against the U.S. government posting the recipe for the 1918 flu virus on the internet). We have some of the best minds on the planet working on programs to enable our survival.

Wild, huh? Clearly the Lifeboat Foundation is looking for technological solutions right here on Earth and isn't solely focused on the idea of having an alternative planet to serve as a fallback position, but having an off-world escape hatch is a major part of many futurists' and scientists' plans for the survival of humanity. The Moon's close proximity makes it the lifeboat of choice for William E. Burrows, author of "The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth," and he's not alone in his thinking. Amara D. Angelica has a look at the idea of "The Moon as backup drive for civilization" for She examines some of the ideas for how to use the Moon, including colonization, and some of these concepts get really "out there," as is this one from Dr. Martine Rothblatt:

The moon as digital archive could also play an important future role in the CyBeRev program being developed by satellite communications pioneer Dr. Martine Rothblatt. She visualizes storing one's life history—"digital reflections of their mannerisms, personality, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values—with as great a fidelity as is possible."

Future developments in mind-uploading technology and regenerative medicine would then "enable the recovered cyberconscious CyBeRev person to transfer their mind into a synthetic body (including brain), such as one made out of nanotechnological materials."

Eventually these would be instantiated into "a flesh body (including brain) grown from totipotent stem cells in which genetic engineering techniques have suppressed the development of a separate mind."

Wow, if this flies there won't ever be a need for one of those standing-around-the-bed-of-the-dying-king moments again. They can just download his identity and grow him a new body. You know, I am constantly amazed at the way science fiction becomes science fact these days, but this is straining even my willing suspension of disbelief. I can grasp the notion of how colonies in space could help humanity survive, at least temporarily, in case of some planet-wide calamity. I can get my head around the notion that we are creating some of the risks from which we must plan to defend ourselves, but using the Moon as a library for people—"digital reflections of their mannerisms, personality, recollections, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values" for later transfer to lab grown bodies? Tilt. Try again. It's fun for a mental diversion on some sci fi show, or in the pages of Asimov or Heinlein, but the notion that scientists are actually spending their time trying to make it happen is beyond my ability to comprehend. Maybe it's because I believe in that King that died and yet is alive, and thus have my own Lifeboat (which also is beyond belief for some people), but I can't imagine going to such lengths trying to tie oneself to this existence, devoting one's life to trying to escape physical death.

Anyway, there's an awful lot of reading here, if you choose to follow through with any of it. Every once in a while I feel the need to check in and see what the really imaginative people of the world are coming up with. It seems right now a group of them are coming up with doomsday scenarios and solutions. I suspect many of these schemes won't be remotely useful. I also suspect a few of the technologies developed from them will be fantastically useful. Any of us reading this stuff now probably won't live to see the day when a fraction of these visions come to pass, and many of us definitely don't want to see that day. I, for one, hope the Moon never becomes necessary as a lifeboat (although I would love to vacation there), and am pretty certain it won't become an "identity library," but it is an interesting foray into the realms of imagination to envision the day when humanity may say, "The Earth is dead. Long live the Earth."