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Space exploration, technology, and the possible futures of humanity (Part One)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted January 5, 2009

As the current economic crisis engulfs the planet, it may be less clear that it is possible that this is only a small detour on an ongoing path of humanity's technological development.  Space exploration is often criticized as a waste of money that could better be spent on Earth-bound concerns. However, space exploration may be seen as a very long-term strategy for human survival.

In the more immediate present, there is clearly a need for some kind of "space shield/asteroid watch." What is termed a "major asteroid event" could be enormously devastating to all of humankind. It is possible that the proposed U.S. National Ballistic Missile Defense initiative would also be capable of intercepting any especially large incoming asteroids. Indeed, that would be a superb argument for its quick implementation.

In the more remote future, it would be helpful if there were a human presence established on other planets and asteroids of the Solar System.

Astronomers know that in about a billion years or so, the Sun is likely to "go nova" (i.e., explode and expand to consume most of the Inner Solar System) – which would probably destroy whatever human (or post-human) life existed on Earth at that time. It would then collapse into a burnt out cinder.

So – if one takes the long view of things -- human beings should – at the very least – try to eventually establish a significant presence in the Outer Solar System that could survive the death of the Sun – or, for that matter, have some kind of presence on the Moon or Mars, or in underground shelters or the deep oceans, that could offer the chance of human survival beyond some kind of massive catastrophe on Earth, which could, of course, occur much, much, much earlier.

In many science fiction works, there has been some discussion of whether "the stars are not for man" – whether, given the unbelievably huge distances between different star systems, interstellar travel will ever be possible. The portrayals of such travel in most science fiction films and television shows today are clearly unscientific "fantasy."

The achievement of interstellar travel is also linked to the question of ultimate human survival, in reference to the so-called heat-death of the physical universe which is postulated by most mainstream physics theories to occur in several billion years. Some science fiction writers have postulated that those hyper-technologically advanced species (or perhaps machine intelligences) that are in existence at that time, will ensure their survival by creating a "pocket universe" of several galaxies, that will avoid the destruction of the old universe, and "pop-into" the newly emerging universe.
The question of what form humans or descendants of humans will survive in, has also been asked. It has been suggested that the future of humanity will consist, in the main, of the transfer of individual human consciousness into electronic and cybernetic form – or into a specially prepared artificially-grown human body.  One idea is that a human being, after living out his or her natural life, would have his or her consciousness transferred into some kind of discrete electro-cybernetic construct – or artificially-grown human body. An electro-cybernetic construct, or a purely biological android maniform, would presumably retain interactivity with the physical world. The situation of the insertion of an individual human consciousness into some kind of virtual reality realm (presumably shortly before the person was expected to physically die), would obviously minimize links to the physical world. A virtual reality realm would, nevertheless, presumably require maintenance and upkeep by physical humans, and there could perhaps arise problems if certain aberrant personalities within the electronic realm would try to impose themselves on others. The reliability of the physical humans to safeguard the virtual reality machinery would also have to be counted on.

Some science fiction authors have suggested that humans could achieve very long and flourishing lifespans in their more-or-less original human biological form, by various forms of genetic manipulation and improved medicine. In regard to various biological manipulations, the question has been raised if there could be bizarre new human "genders" or subspecies created – which would tend to make the conception of human nature – which is already comparatively tenuous and under constant attack today – even more problematic.

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner
Rutger Hauer as the replicant Roy Batty in Blade Runner

Enormous issues would be raised if there were to be robot servants with some form of artificial intelligence created (as seen in the writings of Isaac Asimov, such as I, Robot),  or "vat-grown" biological androids that were "more human than human" (in the words of that classic dark-future movie, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner – loosely based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) It has also been suggested that subspecies of human slaves for more unpleasant physical labor, could be created by genetically dumbing down a certain percentage of human embryos in their "decanting"  – the "Epsilon Semi-Morons" of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

While the future typically posited in works of the so-called cyberpunk subgenre such as William Gibson's Neuromancer (or Blade Runner) might appear in some ways as exciting, the social and cultural ambience of this extremely heterogeneous milieu – which could be termed as "hyper-urban" – would likely be intensely subversive of any earlier norms of tradition and social and cultural stability. Both human nature and physical nature would tend to become a highly attenuated, residual presence in what has sometimes been described as an "air-conditioned nightmare".

The import of a world such as that posited in Blade Runner for traditions of nation, religion, and family, is dire indeed. It may also be remembered that one of the main points of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was the abolition of family, history, and traditional religion in that posited society.

It's an interesting question whether a "gritty future" on Earth such as that of cyberpunk,  or one of a sterile supposed "utopia" like that of Brave New World, would be undertaking space exploration at all. The chance of escaping to the "offworld colonies" seen in Blade Runner, does not seem to be a very likely possibility in combination with a world apparently in the throes of massive resource scarcity. An earlier movie, Outland, posited the moving out of a "gritty future" to, for example, a mining colony near Saturn.

Whether the leaders of the society seen in Brave New World would wish to carry out space exploration is also doubtful. They believed they had achieved the near-permanent stability of their society. It's obvious, though, to the typical reader of the book, that this is a highly sterile stability. The world-settings posited in Blade Runner as well as Brave New World are both in many ways at war with human and physical nature. Whether there could be such a thing as a sense of continuing human history and a desire for space exploration on some kind of idealistic grounds of desire for human achievement,  or national endeavor, in either society, seems doubtful. Also, since space exploration would probably appear highly economically wasteful to both a cyberpunk world, and to the Brave New World society, it probably would not get undertaken under those scenarios of the future.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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