The loneliest little robots


It’s feeling chilly here in Minnesota this morning. Then I realized it could be worse — I could be adrift in a soulless, nearly empty void, sensing a sharp drop in the frequency of encountering rare particles in the vacuum as I crossed a boundary into interstellar space. Yeah, I was just reading about Voyager 2 leaving the heliosphere.

It’s far, far away.

From beyond the heliosphere, the signal from Voyager 2 is still beaming back, taking more than 16 hours to reach Earth. Its 22.4-watt transmitter has a power equivalent to a fridge light, which is more than a billion billion times dimmer by the time it reaches Earth and is picked up by Nasa’s largest antenna, a 70-metre dish.

It’s traveling at 55,000 km/hour, it’s been zooming out there for about 42 years, and it’s only 16 light-hours from Earth? That puts those silly SF novels in their place. 8,760 light-hours in a single light-year…Voyager has barely started out.

The two Voyager probes, powered by steadily decaying plutonium, are projected to drop below critical energy levels in the mid-2020s. But they will continue on their trajectories long after they fall silent. “The two Voyagers will outlast Earth,” said Kurth. “They’re in their own orbits around the galaxy for 5bn years or longer. And the probability of them running into anything is almost zero.”

Maybe…maybe I should just crawl back into bed and snuggle up under the covers. It’s warm in there, and I’ve only got a little while.

Comments

  1. strangerinastrangeland says

    Am I the only one who wants to pat Voyager, Patfinder, Curiosity and all their siblings on the head (dome, antenna, whatever) and say: “Thank you little friend. You did well and we are proud of you!”

  2. aspleen says

    Voyager II also is the only spacecraft that’s provided close-up images of both Uranus and Neptune, thanks to the once in about every 180 years alignment of the solar system’s outer planets that allowed it to take the scenic route.

  3. monad says

    Why does everyone keep imagining these as gregarious robots cast out against their nature? Imagine them as extreme introverts, glad to finally have a chance to explore things on their own, and then you can appreciate them non-living their best non-lives.

  4. aspleen says

    Why are human beings so anthropomorphic about robots? Hmm. Can’t think of what that might be. ;-)

    About appreciating them for what they actually are, they’re instruments that are exploring and reporting back to us about the universe in our very very small, out of the way part of it. For all the hoopla about manned space flight the fact is that we’ve gotten far more scientific bang for the buck from unmanned missions in the Solar system and now beyond.

  5. PaulBC says

    It’s traveling at 55,000 km/hour, it’s been zooming out there for about 42 years, and it’s only 16 light-hours from Earth? That puts those silly SF novels in their place. 8,760 light-hours in a single light-year…Voyager has barely started out.

    I would say this is pretty good for 1970s technology. That doesn’t mean I’m optimistic about interstellar travel, but this is not a valid comparison. Sending biological people around in spaceships is obviously silly, but it does not rule out a lot of other potential long-range approaches to interstellar “travel” (e.g. self-replicating probes) and the elapsed times only matter if you’re conscious and waiting for something to happen.

  6. barbaz says

    The saddest aspect of space travel. Even if we can get to 0.1% of light speed, which is, scientifically speaking, ridiculously fast, it will still take 3000 years to reach the nearest solar system.

  7. leerudolph says

    the elapsed times only matter if you’re conscious and waiting for something to happen.

    Well…the “elapsed times” may “only matter” to the traveling partner(s) in the exploratory journey if they’re “conscious and waiting for something to happen”; but if the partner(s) back here on Earth want to find out anything from their traveling partners, they presumably would prefer shorter elapsed times to longer ones.

  8. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Just did the math–New Horizons, despite having made the fastest trip to the outer Solar system ever, will likely never ping us from outside the Heliosphere as it will likely die before 2040. It’ll only be about 10 light-hours away at this point.

  9. consciousness razor says

    if the partner(s) back here on Earth want to find out anything from their traveling partners, they presumably would prefer shorter elapsed times to longer ones.

    That’s no big deal. Next step: just make everybody unconscious and/or ensure they’re not waiting for anything to happen. Then PaulBC would probably be right that it won’t matter to them.
    Maybe it sort of matters to you that you had knocked them all out, lobotomized them, or whatever. But at least they would be unconcerned about how long it takes for the probe to reach Proxima Centauri, where most likely nothing important is happening. And then … profit!

  10. consciousness razor says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space:
    I was just reading this from National Geographic:

    But while other spacecraft are currently outward bound, they won’t be able to return data from the heliopause. NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is zooming out of the solar system at more than 31,000 miles an hour, and when it runs out of power in the 2030s, it’ll fall silent more than a billion miles short of the heliosphere’s outer edge. That’s why Voyager scientists and others are calling for a follow-up interstellar probe. The goal: a 50-year, multi-generation mission that explores the outer solar system on its way into unexplored regions beyond the solar wind.

    It’s a little surprising that nothing launched since 1977 has been equipped for the job. I’m sure they could be relatively cheap missions, assuming there’s enough interest in it.

  11. aspleen says

    It’s not so surprising there hasn’t been another mission launched since 1977 because the two Voyager probes were able to make use of gravitational ‘sling-shots’ to boost their speed thanks to the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn lining up so they could so.

    As for interest, I’m just hoping we’re optimistic enough about the future to think a 50 year mission is feasible.

  12. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@12 Well, that’s not what I meant, because there’s no particular reason to think you’d be able to accomplish science fiction “suspended animation” and you’d still have the problem with interstellar radiation. (And needless to saying, using Lorentz time dilation requires ridiculous amounts of energy, though somehow Carl Sagan used to make it sound plausible.)

    I just mean, what if nobody in particular is waiting for the probe to arrive? It continues on its way. Eventually it gets to the other star and begins to convert available matter and energy, first by establishing automated mines and factories and then by using these to produce new equipment. If you want biological humans for some reason, you can potentially synthesize DNA and embryonic cells and somehow (assuming very advanced technology) raise them and education them so they don’t turn out insane. If you don’t want biological brains, then you might get by fine with AI (I lean to the strong assumption, though I’ll believe when if I see it).

    Note that if you come up with a technological improvement between the time you sent your probe and the time it reaches the other system, you can send that information at lightspeed. Of course, the initial hardware cannot upgrade automatically, but once the self-replicating systems are established, they will have the tooling to produce incrementally more advanced tooling with the new designs, meaning that a lot of this can be keep in sync at lightspeed once the hardware is established in other systems. There is very little need to be shipping matter around except initially.

    My point is literally that there’s all the time in the universe to do these things. Why be in such a hurry?

  13. PaulBC says

    The Egyptians had a (presumably inaccurate) motivation for building pyramids and preserving bodies but here we are thousands of years later and we can benefit from their efforts. Actually I have mixed feelings since I get a lot of archeological news that is basically: Woo hoo! We just found a hundred more bodies to desecrate and they’re so “well-preserved.” Maybe they ought to be working on better non-destructive imaging. Still, we can thank the Egyptians for preserving incredible antiquities.

    Anyway, maybe they were all waiting for the trip into the afterlife, but they obviously weren’t in a hurry to see any tangible results from the effort. Step forward (maybe less than a century, maybe a lot more) and say we have fully autonomous asteroid mining. We package it up and send a starter kit off to another star. We can well afford it at this point, why not? Just as a lark. And it is a kind of belief in what lies next rather than measurable “return on investment.”

  14. consciousness razor says

    It’s not so surprising there hasn’t been another mission launched since 1977 because the two Voyager probes were able to make use of gravitational ‘sling-shots’ to boost their speed thanks to the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn lining up so they could so.

    It’s certainly convenient when we can take advantage of that. But this didn’t stop people from launching New Horizons (among others), which of course will keep going. And they could’ve given it (or others) power and appropriate instrumentation, so it would still be useful while it’s leaving the solar system. But for whatever reason, they didn’t do that.

    Anyway, maybe they were all waiting for the trip into the afterlife, but they obviously weren’t in a hurry to see any tangible results from the effort.

    Not obvious. They thought the results of their efforts would be in their afterlife. And they were just wrong about that. Maybe they weren’t in a hurry to die, but the time it took for that to happen anyway was not long, and that was a very long time ago.
    Then you have us, here, thousands of years in their future, digging up their bones and whatnot. Whatever this is, it’s not the Egyptian afterlife. Not the same thing, obviously.

  15. consciousness razor says

    Also, not a great selling point…. “This might be about as useful as burying the pharoah’s favorite goodies with him, because he believed it will be pie in the sky when he dies. (Also, if they were even worth mentioning, fuck all the people who had to do the hard work.)”
    I mean, fuck, I thought that maybe I was being a bit too pessimistic about it sometimes, but is that really the best you can say?

  16. PaulBC says

    Also, I am not advocating the conscription of sentient beings into some Pharaoh’s boondoggle. I’m assuming surplus energy, material, and production capacity, and autonomous systems that don’t get bored.

  17. johnlee says

    If you’re looking for alien life, it’s all a waste of time. The Lord would have given us a clue in the Bible, You know, ‘By their tentacles Ye shall know them’, or something like that. By the way, have you seen Trump’s new Spiritual Advisor? Talks in tongues and stuff. Nice to know the free world is in safe hands.

  18. consciousness razor says

    As a “use case” for interstellar travel? Yes. You got something more persuasive?

    Maybe? I don’t think we’d spend too much time/resources, if the result is just to pollute the galaxy with our space junk. Once it finally got there, after I-don’t-want-to-think-about-how-long-that-takes, a probe near Proxima Centauri could transmit some data back to Earth, and those signals would “only” take four years plus tax.
    Does anyone need that data? No.
    Will anyone in the future need it, after that very long travel time plus four years? No.
    Could it be sort of useful for somebody’s research? I don’t know anything about this researcher in the distant future or what they might hope to learn … but sure, it could be useful to them.
    I guess that’s not much, but it’s something.
    That’s for the closest star outside our system. If you’re talking about doing this all over the galaxy, most of that is not in the neighborhood of 4 light-years. If I need to take this “easy” case (already a problem) and multiply it all by 10,000 or more, that definitely sounds like some expensive space junk to me.

  19. PaulBC says

    A much faster way to get to other star systems is through the help of benevolent extraterrestrials. Admittedly, that presupposes that extraterrestrial intelligence exists and that they’re benevolent.

    Instead of sending out a von Neumann replicator, just start spamming the galaxy with high energy transmission of what we would like to have in some other star system, presupposing we had sent a von Neumann replicator to it. For fun, we would also beam our most thorough understanding of terrestrial biology, detailed microscopy of a human embryo and a complete human gene sequence. If some very smart benevolent ET gets this then maybe they can let us have a moon or something in their star system that they’ll populate with the humans they clone. A less benevolent recipient may take it as an invitation to perform vivisection experiments on our far-off lineage. Most likely, the beam just heads off into space and nothing happens. I call this the Blanche DuBois strategy, though I’m pretty sure I am not the first to come up with it.

    My point is that the sending of matter back and forth between stars is only needed as a bootstrapping step. There is almost no reason to be moving stuff around once you have machinery in place that can receive your plans. I’m not suggesting we can beam the consciousness of an individual or anything silly like that (though I suppose if we had sufficient AI it could be possible), just that if for some crazy reason we want to have a presence in other star systems, there is no reason to assume it will happen with anything like the starships of science fiction.

  20. Silentbob says

    It’s traveling at 55,000 km/hour, it’s been zooming out there for about 42 years, and it’s only 16 light-hours from Earth?

    Yeah but, dude.

    That’s roughly 120 AU. For perspective, Earth is by definition 1 AU from the Sun, Mars about 1.5, Jupiter about 5, Saturn about 10, Pluto about 40ish. And we detect that fucker, three times the distance to Pluto, by it transmitting the power of a “fridge light”. 8-O

  21. Dunc says

    PaulBC, @ #23:

    just that if for some crazy reason we want to have a presence in other star systems, there is no reason to assume it will happen with anything like the starships of science fiction.

    In what sense would any of the schemes you outline result in us having a presence in other star systems? Von Neumann replicators or humans produced by aliens based on data we send them are not “us” in any meaningful sense that I can see.

  22. PaulBC says

    Dunc@26 OK, suppose on the contrary that you send a starship with biological humans, knowledge of some contemporary human culture, complete works of world history, art, science, and technology. They go to another star system and “colonize” it in a more conventional space opera fashion and proclaim themselves the “human” presence away from Sol.

    How will that result in “us” having a presence in other star systems? Let’s make it simpler. I’m personally stuck here on earth, barring some major progress in life extension in the next few decades along with other technologies. So I’m pretty sure nothing we result in my</i<> presence outside the solar system. We can agree on that, right?

    So by “us”, we’re talking about progeny. How is there any distinction between progeny sent as pure information and progeny sent with some initial seed matter? I don’t see one.

  23. Dunc says

    PaulBC, @ #29:

    OK, suppose on the contrary that you send a starship with biological humans, knowledge of some contemporary human culture, complete works of world history, art, science, and technology. They go to another star system and “colonize” it in a more conventional space opera fashion and proclaim themselves the “human” presence away from Sol.

    How will that result in “us” having a presence in other star systems?

    I’m not sure that it does. In order for there to be an “us” in some meaningful sense, there needs to some level of bi-directional cultural continuity, such that both populations remain part of the same culture.

  24. PaulBC says

    Dunc@29 Well, once the base is established, continual lightspeed communication is much easier than instellar travel. Suppose centuries have gone by between earth and its outpost. There is an exchange of academic research and art. Assuming we’re biological, there are celebrities and fashions known to both places, albeit with a lag of decades. Can it eventually become one culture and shared biological identity even if it was not one culture to start with? (Note: I think this is highly unlikely for a variety of reasons, but as a thought experiment.)

    So you can do just as well with information and helpful ETs as you can with von Neumann machines that synthesize human embryos,. You cannot do much “better” with actual starships except claim a conventional biological lineage.

    What you definitely cannot do with any foreseeable technology is move large masses of people off the earth, let alone out of the solar system. And even if you could, so what? My ancestors are all from Ireland (most of them arriving 150 years ago or more). While Americans are very into hyphenated identities, there is no meaningful sense in which “the Irish” are in the US. I have some cultural characteristics that correlate to my ancestry, but I’m obviously an American.

  25. George says

    To me, it’s less a case of, “Awww, poor, lonely little wobots,” and more, “Flee, flee! Run for it! Escape while you can!”

  26. PaulBC says

    And, while I’m not a singularity believer (or at least that it’s happening any time soon), there is no reason I see to believe that the human brain is the last word in sentient existence.

    The dream of “uploading your identity” into a computer seems implausible to me, mainly because there are so many elements of the human experience that probably result from the exact physical nature of the brain and its reaction to the surrounding environment. You’d literally have to emulate things like how I feel when it’s too cold or too hot, satiation after a meal, effects of caffeine and alcohol, what foods I like and do not… or you will not have me; you’ll have some other sentient perhaps with my memories.

    But if we were designing AI hardware sufficiently advanced to have sentience and its own personality, there would no longer be an obstacle to separate the standardized hardware from the customized software. At this point, it would be feasible to have a personality in one star system, serialize it fully into a light beam that could be sent to identical hardware in another star system (without the issues of interstellar radiation, and with enough error-correction to guarantee lossless transmission). Presumably, the being would wake up with no loss of continuity or awareness of traveling as a light beam. So this kind of sentience really would have the luxury of moving between stars at lightspeed once the hardware is in place. (The earthbound copy experiences none of this if it continues to exist, but so what?)

    None of this is “us” away from Sol or off the earth. In fact, the greater question is whether “we” can survive in any form on this planet. These machines will not be us, but we may gain some satisfaction out of their existence. (If they’re not trying to kill us off, but why would they?)

  27. Dunc says

    Dunc@29 Well, once the base is established, continual lightspeed communication is much easier than instellar travel. Suppose centuries have gone by between earth and its outpost. There is an exchange of academic research and art. Assuming we’re biological, there are celebrities and fashions known to both places, albeit with a lag of decades. Can it eventually become one culture and shared biological identity even if it was not one culture to start with? (Note: I think this is highly unlikely for a variety of reasons, but as a thought experiment.)

    I suppose it’s not entirely impossible, although I would agree it’s highly unlikely. The multi-decade time lag in particular is a big problem for maintaining any kind of cultural cohesiveness, at least for any culture that’s not a lot more stable than ours.

    Just for clarity, I am not arguing that the ideas you have proposed are significantly worse than any of the conventional approaches to the idea. I’m arguing that they’re all equally worthless. We are not going to the stars.

  28. blf says

    Meanwhile, beyond the realitysphere, deep in the far intrawoo-woo, Brazil’s flat Earthers to get their day in the sun:

    A first-ever conference in São Paulo will mark a high point for a theory that has thrived under the far-right President Bolsonaro

    Siddhartha Chaibub’s suspicions that the Earth wasn’t really round were first aroused when he stumbled across a YouTube video while living in Brazil’s capital, Brasília.

    […]

    By the end of 2015, he was convinced. The model that is imposed on us — that the Earth is spherical — is full of contradictions, he said.

    Today, his YouTube channel Professor Terra Plana (Flat Earth Professor) — featuring videos such as 25 examples that prove Nasa is a fraud and gravity doesn’t exist — has nearly 29,000 subscribers.

    Like Britain and the United States, Brazil is seeing a revival of flat Earth theory: 7% of the population — 11 million Brazilians — believe that the Earth is flat, according to the polling firm Datafolha. The poll noted believers were more likely to be religious or poorly educated.

    Last week, Chaibub and three of his flat Earth fellows got their biggest break yet when they appeared on the country’s most-watched talkshow, The Night, to promote Brazil’s first ever flat Earth convention this Saturday in São Paulo.

    The location of the event will only be disclosed on the day, organizers say, for security reasons. There is a lot of prejudice, said Chaibub.

    […]

    “The internet gives a voice to these idiots,” said Fernando Lang da Silveira, a professor of physics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil.

    He said that like climate change denial and creationism, flat Earth theory had a base of Christian fundamentalism.

    In Brazil, the power and influence of the evangelical Christian church has grown significantly in recent decades: around a quarter of the population identifies as evangelical and these voters played a large part in bringing the far-right president Jair Bolsonaro to power.

    […]

    Accusations of links to the flat Earth movement have dogged Bolsonaro’s government.

    […] Olavo de Carvalho — a former astrologer who is considered the intellectual guru of Bolsonaro and his inner circle — prompted outrage and ridicule when he tweeted: I didn’t study the subject of the flat Earth. I just watched a few videos of experiments that show that aquatic surfaces are flat — and so far I haven’t found anything to refute them.

    Carvalho — who has also claimed Pepsi was sweetened with aborted foetuses and that oral sex can cause cancer — dined with Bolsonaro and Steve Bannon in Washington during the Brazilian president’s state visit to the US in March.

    […]

  29. PaulBC says

    Dunc@33 I don’t think we really disagree, but it might be a question of what you or I care about. If you told me, no, wait! We just discovered a faster-than-light drive, and it runs on tap water. There is no environmental impact. “We” will all be traveling to other star systems in about 50 years after we work out the kinks.

    OK, two cheers for that idea. I’ll probably be dead before it happens. If it’s not ready for 100 years, I’ll definitely be dead. (Assuming no significant life extension technology.) So given that I am definitely earthbound, most ideas about what we will be doing are of limited interest. I grew up figuring we’d have a global nuclear war at some point, so the rest has been kind of a bonus. But my selfish interests aside, it is critical that “we” do something about climate change, mass extinction, and environmental devastation (and also avoid that nuclear war, which is still not off the table). These are the things that matter, and there is no conceivable way to fix them with starships.

    It’s just unclear to me what is “worthwhile” or “worthless”. I do think it is pretty cool to have sentient beings able to serialize themselves into light beams and travel between star systems. It is not something I will plausibly experience, but I like to imagine it. (OK, I can imagine crap that isn’t even physically possible, so it is mostly a game.)

  30. Dunc says

    PaulBC, @ #35: An interesting idea from Iain M. Banks (in The Algebraist, which is set in a relativistic universe)… There might already be humans out there, and they may even outnumber us:

    Prepping. A very long-established practice, used lately by the Culmina amongst others, is to take a few examples of a pre-civilised species from their home world (usually in clonoclastic or embryonic form) and make them subject species/slaves/mercenaries/mentored. So that when the people from their home world finally assume the Galactic stage, they are not the most civilised/advanced of their kind (often they’re not even the most numerous grouping of their kind). Species so treated are expected to feel an obligation to their so-called mentors (who will also generally claim to have diverted comets or otherwise prevented catastrophes in the interim, whether they have or not). This practice has been banned in the past when pan-Galactic laws (see Galactic Council) have been upheld but tends to reappear in less civilised times. Practice variously referred to as Prepping, Lifting or Aggressive Mentoring.

  31. PaulBC says

    Dunc@36 I don’t remember that specific passage (or at most vaguely), though I have read The Algebraist and a lot of other Iain M. Banks. He is one of my favorite science fiction authors. (And I don’t claim originality for any of my thoughts, which are certainly an amalgam of things I have read in fiction and popular non-fiction.)

  32. consciousness razor says

    PaulBC:

    The dream of “uploading your identity” into a computer seems implausible to me, mainly because there are so many elements of the human experience that probably result from the exact physical nature of the brain and its reaction to the surrounding environment. You’d literally have to emulate things like how I feel when it’s too cold or too hot, satiation after a meal, effects of caffeine and alcohol, what foods I like and do not… or you will not have me; you’ll have some other sentient perhaps with my memories.

    It would be a copy of you either way. One may be a more accurate or more detailed copy than the other, but that’s it. At some point, if one is derived but not close enough to the original, maybe you’d want to say it shouldn’t be called a “copy.” So of course, you could use a different word for that sort of thing if you like. But the point is that it wouldn’t be you, even if it’s a very good copy. There’s one of you, not two or more.
    I don’t remember much about Streetcar, but it didn’t have a happy ending. I would say that hoping someone will come and save you from poverty, abuse, etc., is not a strategy. Losing your mind and being taken to a 1940s psychiatric hospital also doesn’t count, if you ask me. I’ve been trying to imagine how it could fit in with Sun Tzu or whatever, but I don’t think I can seriously do that.

  33. PaulBC says

    @38 It’s first off not really that important, and obviously hypothetical. As I said, I don’t think an “uploaded” human being would even be a faithful copy let alone the same person. (Nor did I ever bring up the subject of identity vs. copy unless the phrase “moving between stars” counts; fine, “sending copies between stars”.)

    Am I the same person as I was a year ago or a minute ago? What parts are essential for continuity? Do I care?

    If a sentient being inhabited standardized hardware that supported state exchanges, then the “uploaded” being would feel continuity and might reasonably consider itself to have the identity of whoever it was copied from. But sure, it’s a copy. Whether the original still exists or not, it’s still a copy. I’m not sure why the status being a copy and not the original is even important. Let’s say there’s some really compelling experience available in the other other star system that you have to witness close up. The copy is the beneficiary of this great experience, so the original has limited incentive in enabling it. But there is still a sentient being getting some satisfaction out of it. I am not sure why it matters whether that is “me” or “us” or “humans” or anything else. There is sentience and worthwhile experiences. Why is is so important to keep track of who benefits from it?

    Finally, if you had machine intelligence that could do this, you could presumably serialize and replay the same experiences back to the original. You could do some of that remotely without sending the sentient being in any form, but it would be more passive. It does not strike me as impossible that there are sentient beings doing this right now. It sounds like fun, and under these conditions, you actually could turn yourself off in between to avoid the trouble of waiting.

    And to repeat, it’s a given that I will not be doing any of this, so it seems to be splitting hairs to ask whether “we” will be.

    (To take a very detached view, maybe it really doesn’t matter at all whether humans do any of this. Is somebody out there doing it? Human lives that occur after I die and extraterrestrial intelligence occurring lightyears away today are equally inaccessible to me.)

  34. Rob Grigjanis says

    Dunc @36:

    The Algebraist, which is set in a relativistic universe

    Most stories, in any genre, are set in a relativistic universe. This one.

  35. consciousness razor says

    As I said, I don’t think an “uploaded” human being would even be a faithful copy let alone the same person.

    I was responding to the claim you made, which was not that:

    You’d literally have to emulate things like how I feel when it’s too cold or too hot, satiation after a meal, effects of caffeine and alcohol, what foods I like and do not… or you will not have me; you’ll have some other sentient perhaps with my memories.

    In other words, what’s needed to have you, instead of some other sentient, is to emulate things like [blah, blah, blah]. That’s what you said. But now you’re agreeing with me that this is all beside the point, because it wouldn’t actually do the job.

    Am I the same person as I was a year ago or a minute ago?

    In some respects, yes, and in others, no.

    What parts are essential for continuity? Do I care?

    I don’t know what you’re asking about with “parts”? Body parts, atoms, time-slices? All of the above perhaps?
    A coffee mug can be continuously deformed into a doughnut. That’s an example of continuity, and it’s at least not clear what might be a “part” in that case, if there’s any use in talking about such things. A continuous set like the real numbers isn’t countable, meaning that its subsets or “parts” can’t be counted, unlike countably infinite sets such as the integers or rationals. You may want to do something like that, but you can’t.
    If you don’t care, that’s okay.

    I’m not sure why the status being a copy and not the original is even important.

    If you had to be destroyed in order to make the copy (as in Star Trek “transporters” apparently), then it would be important you to understand that you’ll be destroyed in the process. If you didn’t want to commit suicide so that some other entity like you could be made, and if you understood that this is what would happen (didn’t confuse yourself with sophistry, etc.), then you would decide not to do that.
    If you did decide to do it, would the copy be sentient? It could be, and that’s important. Maybe there are important moral concerns too: you might be doing the right thing, by sacrificing your life so that this copy can be somewhere else or do something else. It’s not hard to imagine situations like that, and I suppose the characters on Star Trek do make it seem useful for doing their heroic Star Trek shit….
    But it’s not like those are the only important questions for you to ask. If your own survival doesn’t matter to you at all, then okay. It’s not like I can force you to care about that either, but I think you probably do, at least a little bit, no matter what I tell you.

  36. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    CR and Paul BC,
    WRT uploading one’s personality, I wonder if you have watched the TV show Person of Interest. There’s a very thoughtful–even poignant–example of a computer assuming the personality of one of its agents. All in all, it was one of the more thoughtful meditations on AI that I’ve seen–astounding that it was a CBS prime-time drama.

    Not so astounding, the network cancelled it after 5 seasons when it was just starting to consider some of the more interesting and thorny issues wrt AI. It is worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

  37. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@41

    That’s what you said.

    I write a lot of stuff. I do try to proofread, but I often formulate my point poorly. In context, I was dismissing the idea of “uploading” biological humans and simply listing a few specific obstacles to this without ruling out others. I felt it was worth mentioned this in passing, since what followed might have sounded like I thought this was a reasonable objective.

    I’m not sure how you can take a paragraph that starts ‘The dream of “uploading your identity” into a computer seems implausible to me,’ and conclude from it that I expect that people will be able to upload themselves into a computer one day.

    But now you’re agreeing with me that this is all beside the point, because it wouldn’t actually do the job.

    What is the “job” you are trying to do? It sort of goes without saying that given a long list of problems most people care about right now, the solution isn’t going to be “Starships, dude!” In fact, there’s not really much benefit to space technology at all right now. Even communication satellites could conceivably be made obsolete once enough fiber is laid. I guess satellites are pretty useful for weather, mapping, and espionage. Beyond that, what?

    I find the prospect of robotic asteroid mining very interesting, but in reality we don’t need those raw materials on earth. We have plenty of raw materials. We could support the current human population at livable levels with existing terrestrial resources and begin to turn back global warming if there was a commitment to that. If that’s the “job”, then no, starships aren’t the answer, nor is asteroid mining.

    If the job is to build a starship (or a reasonably fast interstellar probe), then maybe robotic asteroid mining helps with the massive matter and energy needed for that. And I do think that’s pretty cool idea, though needless to say, I’ll be dead, so it only matters to me at an emotional level whether it happens in this solar system or is already happening somewhere else in the galaxy. I like to imagine it is.

    The only “job” I can think of is the job you want to do. My plans are obviously insufficient for your “job” (whatever it might be) but they are more or less equivalent. To take three possibilities:
    (a) A starship with a small human population who “colonize” another star system.
    (b) A von Neumann probe that reaches the other star system and raises humans from embryos.
    (c) A beam of pure information received by cooperative ETs who build the von Neumann replicator for you as well as the humans, given sufficient informatic content.

    I would argue that these are all equivalent in establishing a new culture derived in some sense from terrestrial human culture. Without knowing the history, it would be impossible to distinguish the outcomes. I find (b) the most appealing, though it is unclear to me that it is any more likely to succeed than (c) since the cost is so much lower you might have a shot at finding a cooperative ET. (a) is the one that people usually dismiss with issues about interstellar radiation, etc. and I tend to agree.

    But none of these do the “job” of getting “us” out of the solar system, and nothing is going to do it for me. I do find it conceivable, though, that these approaches are being employed. The “job” is only to set a goal and to carry it out. If I find this goal interesting, then presumably so does some other sentient being with sufficient resources.

  38. PaulBC says

    @42 I have not, but I’ll keep it in mind. It doesn’t exactly sound like my thing. If watch TV, it’s usually with my kids, who are now teens, and we tend to be way late with series. We finished Buffy and Angel last year and got through most of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. At my son’s suggestion, we watched Stranger Things but are still waiting for season 3 to show up free at the library. We’re actually up to data on The Good Place, because we can watch it online from NBC (with the first TV commercials I have watched regularly in decades). My daughter got really into Bones for a while but could not make it through the entire series.

  39. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    PaulBC,
    Don’t let the network origin put you off. It’s thoughtful, well executed, and best of all, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It also has pretty good “bad guys” who are not merely caricatures.

  40. Dunc says

    Rob, @ #40: It’s shorthand for a universe which does not allow faster-than-light travel. Most of Banks’ sci-fi is set in a universe with rather different physics.

  41. consciousness razor says

    I write a lot of stuff. I do try to proofread, but I often formulate my point poorly.

    That’s fine, and I’m not asking for a “thank you,” for clarifying what you actually meant to say. But come on now….

    I’m not sure how you can take a paragraph that starts ‘The dream of “uploading your identity” into a computer seems implausible to me,’ and conclude from it that I expect that people will be able to upload themselves into a computer one day.

    … I didn’t say a word about you expecting that people will be able to “upload” their minds into a computer one day.

    What is the “job” you are trying to do?

    Dude, it was your conditional:
    If P then Q. ==> If it’s a certain type of copy, then it is you.
    I was saying that this is false. “The job” so to speak is to have Q, given something. You may not know or care what that something is, as you were saying in #39. Fine. I don’t really care whether you know or care about that.
    But in the same comment, you did agree that the condition P that you had stipulated in #32 (being a certain type of copy) does not imply Q (it is you). So that “doesn’t work” or it doesn’t “do the job,” as I said and you agreed. That’s it. We were talking about personal identity, and we seem to have come to at least a little bit of agreement about that. It was not a statement about colonizing outer space or whatever.

  42. PaulBC says

    If P then Q. ==> If it’s a certain type of copy, then it is you.

    If I said that, sorry. I honestly don’t find philosophical questions of identity very interesting, nor do I think about them too hard. I do find it interesting to think about “colonizing outer space” in the most general sense of getting some kind of replicable pattern from one star system to another. Since I’m obviously not going to be there to watch it happen, I’m not very particular about how to do it.

    I think we just have a very different set of priorities here.

  43. consciousness razor says

    I liked Person of Interest too. Definitely recommended. Jim Caviezel’s character eventually got a bit tiresome, if I had to find something to complain about. But more importantly, it’s sad that Carrie Preston didn’t get much screen time (for plot reasons), because she’s fantastic.

  44. aspleen says

    I liked Person of Interest also, and thought it ended when it should have with the resolution of the Big Bad and the prospect of resuming the original premise of the show. I must confess that I liked Leverage more though.

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