Encyclopedia Galactica

If you’ve followed this blog since the beginning, we have covered just about everything we intended to. From ways to better increase, preserve and share our knowledge; to leaving planet Earth and settling elsewhere in the Universe. Imagining all these things happening is mind-boggling, and I hope it’ll inspire people to take action and actually try to make all of these happen. There’s one last thing we should now consider, and that is perhaps the ultimate question. Are we alone? And, as it’s widely believed that we are not, where’s everyone?

That’s the Fermi Paradox. If you’re not familiar with it and aren’t satisfied with the following summary, I recommend you read this article. Basically, people studying the Fermi Paradox are trying to explain why, if as we believe the Universe could be teeming with life, we haven’t found other civilizations yet. Maybe we don’t know how to search – perhaps listening to the cosmos with radio telescopes isn’t the right way -. Maybe extraterrestrial civilizations don’t want us to notice them and they’re doing their best to live unnoticed.
Or we haven’t found any other civilization because there is none. Perhaps there are millions of planets out there harboring complex life, but just a single one with intelligent life, ours. Perhaps we’re alone. An article cited in my previous essay described this possibility: “Life’s early emergence on Earth, only half a billion years after the planet coalesced and cooled, suggests that microbes will arise wherever Earthlike conditions obtain. But even if every rocky planet were slick with unicellular slime, it wouldn’t follow that intelligent life is ubiquitous. Evolution is endlessly inventive, but it seems to feel its way toward certain features, like wings and eyes, which evolved independently on several branches of life’s tree. So far, technological intelligence has sprouted only from one twig. It’s possible that we are merely the first in a great wave of species that will take up tool-making and language. But it’s also possible that intelligence just isn’t one of natural selection’s preferred modules. We might think of ourselves as nature’s pinnacle, the inevitable endpoint of evolution, but beings like us could be too rare to ever encounter one another. Or we could be the ultimate cosmic outliers, lone minds in a Universe that stretches to infinity.”
Quite a depressing thought right? Thankfully, this is just one hypothesis amongst many others, and the probability that we’ll one day encounter intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe is pretty great considering how little we know about our cosmic surroundings.
I think the most probable cause for us not to have find intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe yet is that we just haven’t looked well and/or long enough. We’ve only been searching with radio-telescopes targeting very narrow regions of the visible Universe for the last 50 years or so! The SETI program, which has been running this search, is now considering looking for light messages too; laser pulses for example, signaling some kind of extraterrestrial Morse code. But until we have really done a thorougher search, we can set the Fermi Paradox aside and assume there might be intelligent life elsewhere.

So let’s just do that. Now, if we detect another civilization, how could we establish contact? It’s terribly difficult to imagine how alien our ways of communicating could be to another species which has evolved in a totally different environment; so the biological means of communication will have to be determined in order to be able to “talk” with them. A civilization more advanced than ours would probably figure this out for us, but we might one day have to figure this too if we encounter a technologically inferior civilization.
There’s also one important thing to consider: our safety. Could we survive contact with another civilization? That’s a terrible philosophical question, but unfortunately, I’m not sure we can answer it before finding out for ourselves. So we’re probably better off observing, listening, and keeping our mouths shut so that we don’t attract too much attention. I want to believe we are hopefully the only species capable of “inventing” slavery and genocide, but who knows…
Anyway, if there are other civilizations out there, contact will one day occur. This will either be the end of us (which would be quite sad), or the start of a very complicated interspecies chat. Let’s focus on the latter outcome, since we can’t really do anything about the former.

Right now we base our search on radio signals. There aren’t many other technologies (except light beams) to communicate through the emptiness of space. So we assume that in order to become an advanced civilization capable of interstellar communication, you have to master radio waves. That’s pretty reasonable. We assume that at least some civilizations use radio waves to communicate and that we could listen to these communications if they are “loud enough”. That’s a much wilder assumption, but it seems pretty logical – there aren’t a lot of ways for individuals to communicate over long distances to the best of our knowledge – especially if the civilizations in question are multiplanetary.
Based on these hypotheses, we could communicate with some civilizations provided we find a common language after our initial contact. But what would such a language look like? There are two different approaches to this: you either create a “neutral” language, based on universals such as basic maths; or you use existing languages but you provide an enormous corpus of texts and figures so that the recipient might find sense in it.
A NASA publication looked at the first approach recently: “One way out of this dilemma of deciphering absolutely alien languages that is commonly suggested in the SETI literature revolves around two assumptions: first, that advanced intelligent beings capable of communicating by radio must share with us the same basic logical processes and employ numbers and understand physics at least as well as we do; and, second, that those extraterrestrials anxious to establish interstellar radio contact would deliberately avoid natural languages and develop artificial ones based on presumably shared reasoning processes and scientific knowledge. In 1960 Hans Freudenthal composed a Lingua Cosmica (Lincos) that was, he said, based solely on pure logic and was therefore decipherable by other intelligent beings. Mathematician C. L. DeVito and linguist R. T. Oehrle subsequently proposed that beings from different star systems who have developed radio telescopes, and who therefore must share a basic understanding of mathematics and science, could begin to communicate in an artificial language built on such fundamental scientific facts as the nature of chemical elements, the melting and boiling points of pure substances, and the properties of gases. They asserted that these putative interstellar interlocutors could then progress to such basic physical units as grams, calories, kelvins, and so on, after which, as DeVito and Oehrle put it, “more interesting information can be exchanged.” ”
Carl Sagan, for example, argued that “there is a common language that all technical civilizations, no matter how different, must have. That common language is science and mathematics. The laws of Nature are the same everywhere.”
Indeed, scientific universals such as these would be the only knowledge we have in common with alien civilizations when we first contact them, making those basic facts a good starting point for further communications.

Using natural language, on the other hand, could also be a viable option, as researchers such as Seth Shostak of SETI and Nick Bostrom, head of the Institute for the Future of Humanity at Oxford, have argued. Bostrom said he believes “practically any record that we could create that we could also read would be intelligible to an advanced future civilization provided only that we preserve a sufficient amount of text”.
The two options will probably have to be tested to see what works best, but the “scientific universals” method could be the best one to begin a conversation with an extraterrestrial civilization, before eventually moving on to more complex “natural” language.

So let’s recap: we made contact, survived, and established some kind of communication with another civilization. No small feat.
A mutual interest in discussion could lead to the creation of an Encyclopedia Galactica, a compendium of all knowledge available to our two (or more, if we make contact with other civilizations) species. Coined by Asimov, the term has been used extensively by Sagan, who imagined a network of civilizations compiling all the accumulated knowledge from each species and putting it at the disposal of emerging civilizations as well as to themselves.
Our part of the Encyclopedia Galactica would be the Universal Library I described here. That’s the ultimate philosophical goal of creating a Universal Library: being able to share it with other intelligent species.

Objective knowledge would take a whole new meaning with the Encyclopedia Galactica, since we would have multiple species “fact-checking” for us – and we would be fact-checking for them – by processing our knowledge with entirely different sensory and mind apparatus.

Of course the creation of such a work of art implies the adoption of a common language, or the creation of a translation device to navigate from one civilization’s language(s) to another.

The amount of knowledge stored in the Encyclopedia Galactica would obviously depend on the number of civilizations contributing to it, but would be enormous from the start, even when composed of “just” our knowledge and another civilization’s. Indeed, Steven J. Dick stated that after extraterrestrial contact, “a major task over the next millennium will be to synthesize the knowledge of many worlds.”
And trying to imagine the Encyclopedia Galactica’s sheer size is a profound thought experiment. A character from Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee’s novel Rama II, delivers this awe inspiring quote: “Just think, the sum of everything all human beings know or have ever known might be nothing more than an infinitesimal fraction of the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Crucially, shared knowledge and communication with other civilizations would allow a new level of scientific cooperation.
We humans can discuss and meet very easily. Regular air travel allows us to go anywhere on Earth for a rather small amount of money in less than 24 hours, and the internet makes possible instantaneous discussions with basically any other human being. But these are recent revolutions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, you had to wait weeks or even months to get a letter to its recipient and back if he was unfortunate enough not to live in Western Europe. Travel used to be slow and expensive. But as railway networks spread across Europe and transatlantic travel became cheaper, international correspondence and gatherings were made easy and quick, spurring the creation of less geographically limited communities of scientists.
In short each major innovation in communication and transport allowed the scientific community to become larger and thus to make and share discoveries faster. We went from local scientific “hotspots”, like Western Europe during the Renaissance, to a global scientific community today, which any human being can theoretically join. And it’s pretty amazing when you think about it. I’m working on a paper right now with a Japanese colleague; we’re able to chat for free with messaging apps and we can meet anytime we want for relatively little money. We take all of this for granted, but it’s a rather recent and remarquable development.
The same could happen with regular space travel and communications with other civilizations. If we work on building the Encyclopedia Galactica together, why not do research too? It would be the advent of an interspecies and interstellar scientific community, of which the Encyclopedia Galactica would be the embodiment.

The Encyclopedia’s impact would be huge. Knowledge flowing both ways, from us to them and from them to us, would surely make it beneficial for both of our species. Again that’s a topic Sagan’s works explored in some detail. Guillermo Lemarchand from the Universidad de Buenos Aires wrote a great paper which looked into Sagan and his colleague Iosif Shklovsky’s hopes for an Encyclopedia Galactica’s impact: “[Sagan & Shklovsky] speculated about all sorts of scientific and technological results, ranging from a valid picture of the past and future of the universe through theories of fundamental particles to whole new biologies. They also made conjectures that we might learn from the views of distant and venerable thinkers of the deepest values of conscious beings and their societies.”
The arts and science lovers know what it’s like to be awed by the small part of the Universe we live in or by some of Man’s realizations. But it’s hard to imagine how soul-shaking contact and later communications with another civilization, leading among other things to the creation of an Encyclopedia Galactica, could be. We’re talking about a profound change in how we see ourselves and our place in the Universe – a change for the better, I think.

The SETI program is the only one we have in place right now to look for other civilizations. Expanding it seems sound, and isn’t difficult, since it’s a fairly limited approach. Anyway, we have to search harder.
We could also send probes with copies of our Universal Library onboard to interstellar space. Like Voyager’s Golden Records, but on a much larger scale: an up-to-date (via communications with Earth) Universal Library, by definition containing all our knowledge. We could build a kind of ultra-durable (radiation hardened, etc…) iPad for potential extraterrestrials to interact with our Universal Library if they are to encounter one of our emissary probes. They would be great ambassadors for our civilization.

In any case, we’ll have to wait. We’ll likely become a multiplanetary, or even a multistellar species before we detect another civilization.
It’s worth the wait. The possibilities for science after that, not to mention everything else, are endless. It is high time to look for our Encyclopedia Galactica’s coauthors.
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Private unmanned space missions

I described in my previous essay how affordable launches would allow humanity to become a multi-planetary species, and I mentioned how this routinization of space travel would make private scientific missions possible.

Just like Red Bull sponsored the jump of Felix Baumgartner from the stratosphere, or Rolex sponsored expeditions to the Mariana Trench and the top of Mount Everest (amongst others…), relatively cheap space missions could be sponsored by corporations.

For instance, Europa. Probably our biggest chance of finding life in the Solar System. Its ocean, hidden beneath a few miles of ice, is enormous, and likely contains all the basic ingredients for life.
There are a lot of opportunities to raise money for such a mission, from disinterested donors to corporations. I’m not suggesting something like Mars One, which is a project so expensive that it’s impossible to raise so much money from corporations willing to sponsor the endeavor. An unmanned scientific mission is a rather niche market, but when we’re talking about alien oceanic exploration and possibly life, even complex, multicellular life, the fame associated with such a mission could be durable for sponsors.
There is actually a company designing a mission like this with NASA, Stone Aerospace. Its founder, Bill Stone, is a well-known explorer, and he and his team along with the other aerospace companies that would be involved in such a mission, would be great as “heroes” of a TV show about the mission for example.
The preparation of the mission could be a great source for in depth journalism and frequent TV shows. National Geographic or Discovery could finance a part of the mission in exchange for access to the team of scientists and engineers designing the spacecraft. This would also give the mission great visibility, meaning that placing products would be more attractive. Apparel companies could outfit the team; Nike for example, or another major technical apparel manufacturer (The North Face, etc) whose ethos is about pushing personal and global limits.
The team could be equipped with Rolex watches, and the probe sent to Europa’s ocean could carry Rolex watches on its arms to demonstrate their reliability.
Given Rolex’s appetite for oceanic exploration, as a way to demonstrate their watches’ durability and reliability (their latest feat was sending one of their Deep Sea watch to the bottom of the Mariana Trench with James Cameron’s submarine), this could be a great challenge for them, both from an engineering and marketing perspective.
RED, the manufacturer of cinema cameras and lenses, could provide cameras both for filming the TV show and to be placed on the probe to film Europa’s surface and oceans in 4, or even 6K.
Gigantic corporations like Coca-Cola or Acer for example, which are big sponsors of sport events, could also sponsor the mission in exchange for advertisement or product placement.
And let’s not forget that the rocket fairing provides a gigantic canvas for logos to be printed upon!

It’s a very “business minded” approach to financing a scientific mission, but it makes possible missions that cannot be funded right now, given the constraints placed on NASA and other space agencies.

Even cheaper missions could be designed by individuals, NGOs, or Universities, thanks to CubeSats. If they are still limited and a bit expensive, demand will drive down prices and spur innovation, allowing the tiny CubeSats to accomplish interplanetary missions. A lot of small companies and University teams are currently designing deep space components for CubeSats, like communication systems or plasma engines.
In the near future I expect services to develop to help people develop their own missions. For example, a simple website could allow you to virtually design your CubeSat based on where you intend to go and what you intend to do. You would select your destination, budget, science objectives, and the website would guide you, advising you and suggesting components that might suit your needs.
Once you have selected all the components needed to build your CubeSat and achieve your mission, the website would propose to sell them to you, or sell and assemble them for you. It could also provide wholesale prices for the launch of the CubeSat. Easy to use software would make guiding the small probe really simple. The companies developing such services would also need to invest in ground radars to allow users to communicate with their CubeSats once they are in space.

Exciting times indeed. I can’t wait to see the launch prices plumet.

Humanity’s future

We are an amazing species. The fact that we are the most conscious beings that we know of is pretty stunning when you think about it. The problem is, when we look at the “near” future, perhaps one or two hundred years from now, the sustainability of our species is not guaranteed. Apart from global warming which threatens the biosphere’s fragile equilibrium and could create massive upheavals around the world,  there’s also the threat of giant asteroids, nuclear war, which, even if rather unlikely, shouldn’t be dismissed as impossible… If we disappear now, all our knowledge will be gone. The very fact that we, a conscious species, existed, will be destroyed. We are hopefully more and more aware of these risks and I’m rather confident that we could avoid such disasters. But even if we manage to survive the next one or two hundred years on Earth, our planet isn’t eternal. In the very far future, five hundred million years from now, the Sun will have evolved into a much more agressive star, expanding and pouring a lot more radiations into the atmosphere. The Earth will be unlivable, and will ultimately become a new Venus a billion years from now. A planet where normal temperatures are high enough to melt lead.

We can definitively argue that, a billion years from now, we’ll be sufficiently advanced to live in floating habitats in Earth’s fresher, more livable upper atmosphere. But that’s assuming the human species can survive by residing on a single planet. If that’s definitively a possibility, it’s rather risky to safeguard all our civilization and knowledge in a single place. A place full of nuclear warheads (just a little reminder). For our civilization to endure, we can’t stay confined to our home planet. Lots of people argue that it is extremely presumptuous to consider ourselves this special, to spend ressources on leaving planet Earth when it is plagued with so many problems and suffering. It is perfectly understandable, but that is not my opinion. The human species is exceptional. I believe our duty as conscious beings is to ensure the light of consciousness survives for as long as possible. There may be other conscious beings out there. We should at least survive until we meet them. It would be extremely disappointing to go extinct without having met other kinds of conscious species. I won’t live to see it, neither will you, but we can’t think with lifetime like timescales here. We also have to ensure we preserve our knowledge. In previous essays I have highlighted ways to preserve it here on Earth. But just like we store copies of sensitive files in different places, our knowledge can’t be stored just on Earth. This is why we should be a multi-planetary species. And the first other planet we should settle on is Mars.

That’s the plan of a hero of mine, Elon Musk, who’s the founder and CEO, among other things, of an incredibly innovative aerospace company, Space Exploration Technologies – SpaceX for short – (more on SpaceX in a minute). The reasons for settling on Mars are numerous: it’s our closest “habitable” neighbor. Venus, our other neighbor, would require settling in floating habitats, which for now seems a bit tough; plus it’s closer to the Sun, so not a very good insurance plan. Apart from Mars, only satellites of Jupiter, Saturn, or even of Neptune and Uranus could host space colonies. But these moons are very, very far, and we know far too little about them. So the obvious first step in becoming a multi-planetary species is Mars. How do we get there? How do we get  from a single to a multi-planetary species? By having a fully autonomous, self-sustaining colony on Mars.

To achieve this, apart from developing the life-support systems and technologies needed to live on Mars and exploit its ressources, we need to dramatically lower the cost of access to space. Today, launching anything in space is crazy expensive. We’re talking thousands, at best, or tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram sent to orbit. When you consider sending thousands of people and all the equipment they’ll need on Mars (you can’t build a colony with three persons…), the costs are simply unbearable. In order to make space accessible, we need to start reusing rockets. Right now, rockets are dumped after each flight; for a few reasons: the enormous complexity of rocket science, the laziness of the conservative space industry which doesn’t want to change its business model… The common comparison with the airline industry, frequently used by Elon Musk, gives an idea of why reusability is so important: if aircrafts were single use, very few people and goods could be transported that way. Imagine throwing away a Boeing 777 after one flight. It would cost a lot more to fly, right? Since it’s not a very sustainable approach, airliners are built to last for thousands of flights with minimal maintenance (just like your car is built to last thousands of miles without a lot of repairs). Building a reusable rocket that could fly like a long-haul airliner (we’re talking hundreds, if not thousands of flights in the rocket’s lifetime, with just a couple of hours between each flight on average) is very, very tough. Flying all the way to orbit is much tougher on the craft than cruising at 35,000 feet. Also, consider that rocket engines are the theater of enormous explosions, burning thousands of pounds of fuel in seconds at extremely high temperatures. Compared to this, jet engines are harmless toys.

No one has built a reusable rocket yet. Not a lot of companies have tried though. McDonnell Douglas experimented a bit with its DC-X Rocket, a single stage to orbit (SSTO) rocket which demonstrated the basics of reusability through multiple test flights, but never flew all the way to orbit. The project was abandoned in 1997. Apart from the DC-X, there’s the Skylon concept, a British space-plane, which is still a work in progress. I’m very skeptical about its capabilities and final cost. I don’t think it will lower the price of access to space, though test flights aren’t expected until at least 2020, so time will tell. But it is refreshing to see entrepreneurs like Alan Bond (Skylon’s father) try different approaches to achieve reusability.
Arianespace, the giant european satellite launch provider, hints that its next rocket, Ariane 6, could be reusable (at least partially). United Launch Alliance (ULA), the american equivalent of Arianespace, which is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, also plans to design their next rockets to be partially reusable. I’m rather pessimistic about ULA and Arianespace’s chances though. Ariane 6 isn’t scheduled to fly before the late 2020s, and ULA is a gigantic conglomerate; reforming it, facilitating innovation and flexibility will likely be a huge challenge. Their move towards reusability also comes as a “surprise”, since just a year ago they both dismissed reusability as silly.

But then came SpaceX. SpaceX plans to make its current lineup of rockets almost entirely reusable: the first stage (the priciest part of the rocket) would fly back to the launch pad, a new second stage with a new payload would be put on top of it, the rocket would be refueled, and off it goes. If until recently this sounded like science-fiction, lately SpaceX has demonstrated that it can do it. By landing a first stage successfully on a barge, it will prove that it can almost certainly be done (for now, first stages will land on a barge until SpaceX gets clearance from the FAA & Air Force to land on the ground, which could happen as soon as this July). That’s why ULA and Arianespace are taking note. And that’s great. I hope they are finally going to wake up and innovate. But back to SpaceX. Started by Elon Musk, its stated goal is to make space accessible so that it can build a self-sustaining martian colony. The road to Mars is rather long, so let me guide you through it. Currently, SpaceX flies one rocket, the Falcon 9. It is a rather big rocket, but it isn’t capable of sending big payloads to Mars. The larger version of the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy, uses three Falcon 9 first stages (instead of one for the standard Falcon 9), enabling it to launch about thirteen tons of payload to Mars (that is however an optimistic estimate).
Both rockets will soon have reusable first stages (the Falcon 9 first stage SpaceX will soon land on a barge will be a historic milestone; it will take perhaps a couple of years before first stages are fully reusable and frequently flown), making them even cheaper (they are already the cheapest rockets on the market). Through numerous testings in the last 24 months, SpaceX has demonstrated that this is very likely to happen. When it does, prices per pound-to-orbit are expected to drop (maybe well) below the “magical” 1,000$ mark.

It’s not enough to send people to Mars, but enough to spur a Cambrian explosion of space companies, little startups that can suddenly afford to send things to orbit. This will create more demand for launches, benefiting SpaceX but also its current and future competitors, which will have to innovate to survive. We cannot overestimate the impact of affordable space launches. Suddenly, private companies would be capable of sending inflatable space hotels into Low Earth Orbit, or build bases on the Moon. For someone like me who sees emigrating to Mars as a little bit scary, these would be great ways to “test the water”: a week of vacations on the Lunar surface sounds great. Private scientific missions would also become possible. We can imagine Canon, Nikon or RED sending their cameras to deep space to capture staggering images of Saturn’s rings for instance. Or perhaps a watch maker fond of marine exploration, like Rolex or Omega, would sponsor a mission to explore Europa’s ocean?

In a way, space transport is at the same stage air travel was at the beginning of the 1900s… Just a few people have been able to fly, and flying is prohibitively expensive. If you consider how quickly air travel evolved, we are at a crossroad here, just a few years away from a major disruption in prices and frequency of space flights.

While the current SpaceX line up is great, it isn’t capable of providing the transport for a Martian colony. So SpaceX is planning a bigger vehicle. A much bigger vehicle (see link). Nicknamed “BFR” (for Big Freaking/Fucking Rocket), it would be capable of sending a much larger payload to Mars. Both its first and second stage would be fully reusable. The BFR would make a lot of launches to send the required infrastructure to Mars. It would also launch the spacecraft used to ferry people from low earth orbit (LEO) to Mars orbit, the MCT (Mars Colonial Transporter), which would be capable of transporting 100 passengers or 100 tonnes of cargo per voyage.

Musk envisions a price of 500,000$ per person to fly to Mars. That’s in the prospect of emigrating to Mars, meaning that you would sell your possessions on Earth to afford the voyage, much like people who emigrated to America did. With such a “low” price point, quite a few people will be willing to go. If there is a means to go, some of us will. How many? Musk would like to see 80,000 persons on Mars by 2040 (let’s round that to 2050), and a million a century from now (2115-2150). That’s a lot of BFR/MCT flights, which is why it is critically important for these vehicles to be reusable. Whether or not SpaceX will succeed remains to be seen. Having followed SpaceX for a few years now, I’m very optimistic. It clearly is our best shot at becoming a multi-planetary species. And even if SpaceX didn’t make it, the disruption it caused to the industry, and the countless innovations it came up with would allow other companies to pick up where SpaceX left off. But I think SpaceX will succeed. It’s just a matter of time. They are a profitable company, and the cheapest launch provider on the market; they have a strong footing if they need more time than previously thought to develop their plans to colonize Mars.

Stewart Money, in his amazing book Here be Dragons, which is a precise, thorough account of SpaceX’s history, summed up SpaceX’s plan really nicely: “It is for certain a terrifying idea, the prospect of leaving, in most cases forever, the warm, wet planet which has given rise to human civilization, only to travel to a frigid and arid wasteland which makes the worst desert on Earth appear to be an oasis, but it is also a compulsion that some find overwhelming, even if still inexplicable. In the end, it does not matter if it is 80,000, or 800,000; presented with the opportunity, a measurable fraction will go. Embarking on its second decade, SpaceX is in the process of creating just that opportunity. When it arrives, potentially as soon as the beginning of its third decade, a few irrepressible souls will inevitably answer the call humanity has always answered and pave the way for those who follow. It is for this reason that despite all the cries to the contrary, and all the carefully reasoned arguments regarding the political underpinnings of the space program, we do not need a motivating national rationale or an enduring value proposition on which it must depend. We merely need the means to buy the ticket and book the passage. Human nature will take care of the rest. The moment it is introduced, as improbable as it may sound, Elon Musk’s Mars Colonial Transporter becomes simply a matter of scale, and humanity becomes a two planet species.”

Mars is where we need to go. And it seems increasingly likely that we’ll get there in the near future. But it’s just the first step in our collective future. Mars will probably sustain us for a rather long time (hundreds, or perhaps a few thousand years?), and commerce between the Earth and Mars will create a lot of innovation. There’s also the question of a martian colony’s governance. Like seasteading, martian colonies could perhaps provide a fertile ground for experimentation. It would certainly be nice to not be under the rule of the current Earth governments which are terrible. On the theme of commerce and politics in a multi-planetary civilization, there’s one highly libertarian little essay I’d recommend, written by a mysterious user of the internet drug market Silk Road. It imagines space transport freeing us from government oversight, allowing commerce to flourish without interference. The story depicts a year 2450 where drugs are still prohibited though, which I hope won’t be the case. Perhaps martian colonies will be able to declare independence once fully self-sustaining, allowing them to become the kind of “knowledge” society I described in a previous essay.

Anyway, having two independent “bases” for civilization, one on Earth and one on Mars, is a pretty good insurance policy for the time being, so that our very existence and our knowledge remain relatively safe. The time Earth and Mars will sustain us should be sufficient to allow development of better space transportation, too (perhaps interstellar travel, with generation spaceships?), allowing us to explore and settle in other star systems. First we’d settle on the moons of the gas giants, going further and further away from the Sun, ultimately leaving our Solar System. As the Elon Musk interview I referred to earlier lyrically described: “We’d start with Mars and then shoot through the asteroid belt to Jupiter and its ocean-harboring moons. We’d drink in Saturn’s sublimity, its slanted rings and golden hue, and then head for the outer giants, and the icy rubble at the Solar System’s edge. The Sun would look small out there, and the stars beckoning. We would spread through the Milky Way’s safe zone, the doughnut of gas and fire, billions of stars strong, that surrounds our galaxy’s violent core, and then we’d press out into intergalactic space. We’d use wormholes or warp drives, or some other vaguely sketched physics, to pretend away the millions of light years that separate us from Andromeda and the glittering web beyond it, whose glimpsable regions alone contain hundreds of billions of galaxies.” This is the very deep future though, which is nearly impossible to predict since we are evolving really, really quickly. (Just imagine someone from the 1500s being brought back to life right now. He would be totally overwhelmed by what we have become). If we survive that long, we’ll likely have wonderful technologies at our disposal. Our knowledge of the Universe will be amazing. We’ll have found complex life forms on other planets for sure. Maybe even intelligent life.

So it’s all speculations here, and predicting what our civilization will look like so far in the future is tough. But I’m pretty confident we can assume we’ll follow this path of making little hops from planet to planet, going farther and farther away from Earth every time. Mars is the first next step. As Musk said, “If we can establish a Mars colony, we can almost certainly colonise the whole Solar System, because we’ll have created a strong economic forcing function for the improvement of space travel. We’ll go to the moons of Jupiter, at least some of the outer ones for sure, and probably Titan on Saturn, and the asteroids. Once we have that forcing function, and an Earth-to-Mars economy, we’ll cover the whole Solar System. But the key is that we have to make the Mars thing work. If we’re going to have any chance of sending stuff to other star systems, we need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilisation. That’s the next step.”

Again I believe our duty as a conscious species is to make sure our tedious work to understand the Universe and ourselves doesn’t disappear. That it is safe for centuries to come, if by chance we are not the only conscious beings there is out there.

Reading 1984 in 2015

I recently re-opened George Orwell’s 1984, which I hadn’t read since I became a supporter of libertarian ideals in high school.

My first impression was to think that we are lucky to have Obama as president of the United States. Because he’s not a tyrant. I don’t like him, or rather, I like the man but not his policies; he’s authoritarian, but he’s not a tyrant. However, if one day the american people elect someone who turns out to have tyrannical goals, we are fucked.

The omnipresent telescreens in 1984 are a good metaphor for our phones, tablets and computers. Sure, they are not operated by the government, nor are they broadcasting propaganda against our will. But in light of the Snowden revelations, we know that basically everything we say or do on the internet can be stored and retrieved by government agencies such as the NSA or the FBI. As all our devices have microphones and cameras, it’s not impossible for the NSA to actually look at what we are doing (although you’d have to be directly targeted by the agency; it’s unlikely that the NSA would like/be able to watch everyone…).
Now, as Obama isn’t a tyrant, there are few cases where this surveillance could become nefarious. Unless you’re a journalist, or a whistleblower, of course.

A lot of people who support the NSA (which very existence has never been proved to have been useful to protect american citizens) will say that they have nothing to hide and thus aren’t afraid of surveillance. Right. But that’s not the point.
Merely giving the government the ability to spy on everyone of us is scary enough. If we wait for someone more authoritarian than Obama to become president, it’ll be too late.
If the next US president decides to crush any opposition, either from citizens or journalists, he’ll have the ability to do so. I’m hopeful some people would get in the way – so this scenario is hopefully unlikely to happen – but still. The only difference between 2015 and Orwell’s 1984 is that we don’t have Big Brother as our president.
The gigantic surveillance apparatus is there. We’re just lucky not to be ruled by a tyrant. If we elected one (yes, Google “Hitler” to see that this is possible), he would have tremendous powers, similar to the ones Big Brother had.

A lot of quotes from the book are eerily similar to the present situation:

“WAR IS PEACE.”
The US has always been at war since World War II. Islamic terrorism (and previously, the Soviet Union), has been a very good excuse to justify legislation and actions by the government restraining freedom. The Patriot Act and McCarthyism are two good examples of that.

I’d argue our education system is now abiding by the “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” motto, by rewarding mediocrity and trying to cast everyone into the same mold (see my post on Education for more criticism of the education system).

“Many of the disappearances were actually suicides. But it needed desperate courage to kill yourself in a world where firearms, or any quick and certain poison, were completely unprocurable”  – So this quote will certainly please fans of the 2nd Amendment. It’s important to understand that suicide here is meant in the context of escape from torture or oppression – and not “just” from mental illness such as depression. (Suicide is respectable when it is done by someone who is capable of reason. Someone afflicted by depression isn’t: his brain is rigged by the disease.)
Apart from the prohibition of firearm possession, this quote also adresses the problem of drug prohibition. The recent trial of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator of the Silk Road market, shows how tyrannical the government can be when it doesn’t want you to be able to use the chemicals you want, when you want.

“For distances of less than 100 kilometres it was not necessary to get your passport endorsed” – though realistically, abolishing borders today would be crazy, the notion of borders and passport checks is inherently tyrannical, since its goal is to restrain freedom of movement and privacy. Pushed at its extreme, border control and the absence of privacy (embodied by constant ID checks) get us to 1984. Controlling who enters your country can be desirable, but is dangerous: refusing entry to an Islamic State fighter is probably a sound decision, but who decides who can enter and who cannot? What if suddenly people critical of the government, or journalists, are on the list? Border control is a mess, and it must at least be much more transparent than it is right now. Remember that journalists and their relatives are routinely intimidated, illegally searched and interrogated by government agents when they land in the US.

“tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning. ” – Oh, that looks a lot like the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Program” and the prison system’s use of solitary confinement…

“Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built.” – Detailing how the Department of Defense wastes trillions of dollars would take multiple books. Just knowing that the US’s defense budget is more than the ten other largest spenders’ budgets combined should be enough. Or we can look at the F-35 fighter jet program, the latest example of outrageous spending on useless war machines.

“In past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat.” […] “But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded.” – Another quote on the state of perpetual war we are in. A great justification for increased military spending, human rights abuses and liberticide legislation.

“[…] practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years—imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations—not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.” – Imprisonment without trial is happening in the US (at least in Guantanamo Bay). Torture did happen too (and could still take place, who knows what the CIA has been up to lately). As for the “enlightened and progressive” people defending these techniques, well… I’m not sure the political leaders who have actively endorsed these atrocious acts can be referred to as enlightened or progressive.

“[…] in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. […] With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police […]” – Orwell somehow saw the surveillance apparatus coming. Our “telescreens” are called computers and smartphones. They do not yell propaganda at us, but are capable of constantly monitoring us if the government wants to. There are still probably ways (like powerful encryption and the Tor Browser) to avoid NSA surveillance, but the agency is busy trying to weaken and ultimately break them.

“‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'” – This is a terrifying quote. Using your worst fear as a form of torture (which is the whole concept of Room 101) is every tyrant’s dream. I recently read this article from Motherboard about torture using virtual reality (with devices like the Oculus Rift for example), which would effectively make possible the Room 101 scenario. It is truly horrifying, and considering how widely used torture is around the globe, it should at least make us a little bit uncomfortable…

Finally, and this greatly illustrates the need for economic and social experiments, such as the defunct Silk Road or the independent nation I described here, I’ll leave you with this quote, which I regard as an encouragement to expose abuses on our individual rights: “The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

Where’s the XXIst century?

News are bleak right now. Hatred, ignorance and stupidity seem rampant everywhere we look. From brilliant, kind journalists being assassinated in my country to journalists and aid workers (probably equally kind and brilliant) being beheaded in the Middle East, or imprisoned for what they stand for, it seems like the Dark Ages aren’t that far.
Sure, we live in the safest era of mankind, and the one that most respects human rights. But looking back, it’s not very difficult to have a better track record than previous generations.

Stupid people are everywhere, and it’s always been the case. The problem is they’re oppressing “our” people. By “our people” I mean people who have passions, who care about freedom, human rights, knowledge, reason, stuff like that. It is difficult to define, but I would say there are two good criteria to judge on which side you are: you 1)Read a lot and 2)Are interested in a lot of things, including “deep subjects” (philosophy, geopolitics, astrophysics, you name it). Otherwise, chances are you’re in the “stupid” camp. “Our people” is still a minority, despite the fact that we imagined the XXIst century as being the century of reason, where people would be freed from tedious labor and could spend their time pursuing the pleasures of the mind.
And as most minorities, it is, or rather, we are, being oppressed.

Two examples of this: how science is treated; and in a broader context, how human rights are attacked basically everywhere on Earth.
Scientific research’s independence and funding are perpetually targeted by the morons who govern us. There is so much short-term thinking that doing research as a paid professional is becoming harder and harder. To have freedom, and soon, funding, you’ll have to become an amateur researcher, a researcher who isn’t tied to an institution where bureaucracy is everywhere and funding absent. In some disciplines, this is already the case.
Scientific progress is being slowed by conservative, short-term thinking, as an article in The Baffler brilliantly observed. This is nothing new, as Bacon observed 400 years ago: “For the rewarding of scientific achievement and the performing of it are not in the same hands. The growth of the sciences comes from high intelligence, while the prizes and rewards of them are in the hands of the common people, or of ‘great’ persons who are nearly all quite ignorant.” But we could expect a better situation four centuries after Bacon’s Novum Organum (from which this quote was taken) was published…
Do we want researchers to be relegated to the margins of society? To be hobos, like in Fahrenheit 451?

If we look at human rights, it ain’t pretty either. I can’t think of any country that really, really respects human rights. So called “free countries” of which the US and France are supposed to be a part of, are suffocating liberty with regulations, mass surveillance, intimidation… A few examples? The drug war, the NSA/GCHQ and DGSE surveillance states, the CIA, etc… And as more and more of our lives “move” online, governments have way too much power over them with their massive, criminal surveillance apparatus. And we in the West are lucky compared to the rest of the world. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Mexico, (the list could go on with most of the countries of the world) where your basic human rights are regularly denied by state or criminal entities.
Settling this broader context of human rights violations would allow us to finally act as a species rather than as religious or nationalist sects.
A quote from Zoltan Istvan’s book The Transhumanist Wager sums up both the human rights and scientific research issues quite nicely: “Why any nation would spend 500 times the money on its military over its science was not only asinine, it was also tyrannical.”

We should fight to improve this situation. Heck, to radically change it.

The basic prerequisite to be able to live in a “knowledge society” is universal and total respect for human rights. This implies global peace and education. Peace is achievable only when people have access to a secular, neutral education. Thus we need to fight for education to be accessible, but more importantly, unbiased and not manipulated by governments or churches to create nationalist or religious youths. Russia is an example of an affordable education system where endoctrinement is rampant. Education needs to be humanist and secular.
A knowledge society, where, as a species, we’re focusing on pushing the human race forward, obviously requires peace.

It may also benefit from having a kind of World Government (an efficient and minimal one, more Star Trek than the United Nations…), which is only possible if we fight nationalisms and ethnic and religious sectarianism. A World Government would only be useful under certain conditions though:
First, it would need to be a minimal, secular government, focused on science and exploration (as well as the usual things; like environmental protection and human rights). In other words, instead of wasting trillions of dollars on the DoD, most of this money would be poured into NASA, or rather, IASA (for International instead of National), and on other scientific institutions. We have lots of ressources, but we keep spending them on the corrupt militaro industrial complex, surveillance industrial complex, etc… while we could also be absolutely safe and redirect this money toward interesting things, like science and exploration… (Many people don’t consider these “interesting things”, but as I’ve said above, you know, essentially, fuck them).
Second, the World Government should be a kind of libertarian-ish gov, not getting involved in the economy, (many libertarians will argue government shouldn’t get involved in environmental protection or science; I disagree with that) and not restricting individual rights. Free trade and human rights should be the basis of the World Government.

It’s a pretty simple vision but a terribly difficult one to achieve. Mass education is necessary and we’re very, very far from getting there. But that’s the kind of world I think we should fight for if we want peace, justice, and thus have a lot more freedom and ressources to be able to push the human race forward, to explore the universe, etc…
The problem is… people are generally not very interested in that. Either for a lack of interest or education, or just because they disagree with this vision. Just look at what’s happening in the world right now and it’s not difficult to see that people who share this vision are a minority.
So sure, we should keep fighting for peace, justice and education, as well as for more science budget and independence (and against bureaucracy). But the truth is, it’ll take an enormous amount of time before our voices are heard and acted upon.

OR, people who care about freedom, reason, innovation, progress, science, could unite and tell governments and the rest of the world to fuck off.

Scientists, but also human rights campaigners, educated people, – basically, “our people” – have always felt like citizens of the world. Scientists since the Renaissance and the advent of international correspondance have disregarded national boundaries and considered themselves part of the “Scientific Community”, an international community of like minded individuals: philosophers, naturalists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians…
The Internet has made it even easier to feel like a citizen of the world. We can communicate in real-time with like-minded people from around the globe and form virtual communities with them.
However, as we’re all living in heavily regulated environments, if not in dictatorships, “virtual” communities aren’t enough anymore. Scientists used to enjoy, even under authoritarian governments, a certain amount of freedom inside their institutions, but these institutions are now infiltrated by bureaucrats who restrict academic freedom tremendously.
So we’re maybe the biggest community on Earth without a country?

As some Silicon Valley CEOs have suggested, setting aside a part of the world where like minded people could gather and experiment freely would be nice. Google CEO Larry Page compared such a place to Burning Man, where you are free to join and leave when you want. Balaji Srinivasan of Y Combinator (the startup incubator) described it as an “inverse Amish” community, where people are technophiles rather than technophobes, and where they are free from the regulations imposed by the US government.
Add to these idealized communities scientists (not just computer scientists), freedom lovers, etc… and you get the kind of place I’d like to live in.
There is no such community on Earth. The closest places we have to this kind of utopia are Silicon Valley and scientific institutions, where innovation and open-mindedness are encouraged, where the focus is on pushing the human race forward. (Okay, there are also a lot of stupid startups in Silicon Valley as well as a significant number of assholes, but overall it’s pretty great).

How can we create this utopian place? By definition, it’ll be pretty hard – utopias are naturally unachievable -, but it’s worth trying.
Buying an island, as some have suggested (or even tried), isn’t a very good idea, since every piece of land is claimed by one or multiple states. You can set up shop there, but it won’t be pretty when they SWAT you because you’re infringing one of their stupid laws (like, say, drug prohibition).
There’s seasteading, too. Building floating city-states looks kinda cool, but again, not being harassed by other states would be tough (what keeps the US from raiding your floating city?). However it seems like the only possibility (apart from space colonies, but these are a bit more into the future) we have to secede from states and governments we do not recognize.
The founder of the Seasteading Institute, which researches the technological and legal implications of seasteading, Patri Friedman, described the concept in an interview with Reason Magazine as follows: “We just want to create a laboratory for experimenting with social contracts, and a world in which people are free to create societies with groups of like-minded compatriots. The details of those societies are up to you.” It sounds really nice to me. That’s freedom. And if seasteads are possible, maybe some people will be willing to start a community like the one I describe in this essay?
In the same article, the business side of seasteads was also addressed: “seasteading isn’t just based in libertarian theorizing and hopes. Friedman knows that seasteds will need to have some business hook, and he’s busy working those angles. There’s SurgiCruise, a nascent floating medical tourism company that is seeking venture funding. If americans will fly to Mexico, India, or Thailand for cheaper medical care free of US regulatory costs, the idea goes, why wouldn’t they sail 12 miles [into International waters] for it? Among the other first-tier business ideas being bruited about with varying levels of intensity are vacation resorts, sin industries, aquaculture, deep sea marina services, and universal data libraries free of national copyright laws [a personal favorite].” Being recognized as sovereign by the international community will be tough! However, seasteads offer us the opportunity to create physical communities, or even states, defined by an “ideology” (a gathering of like-minded people), rather than by a territory, and that is worth a try.

Our seastead would have an anti-religion, secular state, governed by reason. Everyone would be provided with a Basic Income so that they are free to follow their passions rather than try to survive doing jobs they don’t like.
Our government would be libertarian-ish. Not absent, but kept to a minimum, and involved in science as a backer, but not as a bureaucratic manager.
It would be responsible for our security (heavily controlled and kept to a minimum army and police forces) and justice (protecting individuals from each other, enforcing contracts).
Regarding the economy, our government would be very discreet, since without overregulation, monopolies and other issues shouldn’t be a problem.
Our government would fund science without being a bureaucratic burden.
It would protect the environment. That’s a point where I disagree with most libertarians, who think environmental issues are a private matter the state has no reason to get involved in. I think it misses the point. Constructing and operating a coal plant on your private property is not a private matter, since it’s not only affecting yourself!
If you pollute the air, or a river, it’s not a private matter. People are going to be affected by your actions. That’s why I think environmental protection is definitely something that should fall into the “justice” category of things our government would do.
Just to clarify, animal rights: not a private matter. Animals aren’t objects. They need some kind of statute so you can’t harm sentient creatures (mammals, mostly, but that’s for science to decide). Saying you can torture a cat because it’s yours is just dumb. The cat can’t hire a lawyer, sure, but it has feelings and some intelligence, so you should consider it as some kind of individual. But I digress.

A minimal government, a truly free society which focuses on innovation and science, on pushing the human race forward. Basically, a XXIst century state. A physical incarnation of the Cyberspace for which Barlow drafted a Declaration of Independence?

It’s either that, or we keep tolerating tyrants making Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, Ross Ulbricht-style examples out of us, we keep tolerating our tax money being wasted on corrupt companies to buy things we objectively don’t need, we keep tolerating our governments ignoring human rights and oppressing us.

Fuck them, let’s build this thing.