Exploring Mars the smart way


Let’s get my usual negativity out of the way: I don’t think humans will ever be capable of sustained living in space. We’re too fragile and to highly adapted to those little things, like, oh, gravity and air pressure and specific proportions of oxygen and CO2. Short term, maybe, but I see the toll it takes on astronauts living in orbit for a few months, and I have to wonder why we’re even trying to build space stations. Elon Musk is never going to colonize Mars, he’s just recruiting victims for the most expensive death trap ever.

Here’s what I do like, though: robots. More robots! Robots can be designed to function in all those environments that we’d be nuts to try and live in. NASA has been fantastic at building robots, and space robots really ought to be what NASA does.

So hooray for Perseverance!

I also appreciate that they’re using this robot to search for evidence of ancient life on Mars.

Scientists believe that, around 3.5 billion years ago the Jezero crater – where Perseverance was sent – was home to a river that flowed into a lake and deposited sediment in a fan-shaped delta. They hoped it could harbour fossilised microorganisms the rover could find evidence of.

However, before the landing, there were some nerves about Jezero crater as a destination. Mr Chen said: “It’s full of the stuff that scientists want to see but stuff that I don’t want to land on.”

I’m a little disappointed that, near as I can tell, they’re relying on visual analysis with a suite of fancy cameras — you’re not going to find out much about bacteria with that. They’re caching the samples and are going to have another lander fetch and return with them? I want to see that.

Of course, if they find the Martian version of a trilobite, I guess high-quality images will be enough (they won’t, but it would be cool.)

Comments

  1. brucegee1962 says

    I used to be a big fan of the space program — sent money to the Planetary Society, the works. My enthusiasm has cooled somewhat in recent years, though, as I’ve learned more about climate change. Extremely Smart People are a limited resource, and I want to funnel as many of them as possible towards solving the problem that is likely to wipe us out as a species (and possibly take out a fair chunk of the other species as well).

  2. says

    C’mon, PZ, there are other instruments on the thing than the just optical and audio ones. It also has two spectrometers which are, sure, a type of camera, as well as ground penetrating radar.

  3. says

    I don’t think humans will ever be capable of sustained living in space.

    While I’m mostly in agreement with you, I think “ever” is a very, very long time. Some day, post-practical fusion power, spinning two large asteroids around their center of mass using kilometer long cables to anchor them together could produce a reasonable enough artificial gravity for people to live in tunnels hollowed out of those asteroids.

    I am quite clear it’s not happening in the foreseeable future. A lot of unforeseeable things will have to happen before that kind of thing does, but I nonetheless think it’s possible.

    For the foreseeable future, though, I’m 100% with you on robot supremacy.

    And Martian trilobites. Martian trilobites would be the bomb.

  4. remyporter says

    @brucegee1962 – it’s important to note, however, that the space program really helps us a) understand the consequences of climate change, b) monitor the impacts of climate change, and also c) no, Extremely Smart People are not a limited resource, they’re an incredibly misallocated resource. Our society doesn’t prize extremely smart people and our social systems have been built to gatekeep people out of the ranks of “Extremely Smart People”, whether it’s on standards of class, race, gender, etc., there are lots of Extremely Smart People who end up being funneled into social roles where their smarts don’t deliver the most social benefits, whether it’s because they’re trapped making ends meet with 80 hours of minimum wage work, or suckered into flipping stocks working finance- they make millions, and are a net drain on society.

    Like a lot of discussions about social priorities, the space program is such a small sink of resources that pointing fingers at it really doesn’t accomplish much. What they’re able to accomplish with the extremely constrained resources under the most adverse imaginable conditions, they work with should be a model for ANY organization.

  5. cope says

    I think one visible indicator of life they hope to see would be something resembling stromatolites.

    Also, one instrument on board, the lamely named SuperCam, is a new and improved version of the ChemCam on Curiosity. It can vaporize small areas of rock and analyze their chemistry.

  6. DanDare says

    We don’t need extremely smart people to deal with climate change. We need the extremely dopey people to get a clue and behave differently.

  7. unclefrogy says

    @4
    absolutely, it has nothing to do with smart people and everything to do with greed, resentment and bigotry. it is also as the latest example playing out in Texas very short sighted in meeting the desired goals of maintaining prosperity. maybe I’m mistaken here that the goal is just keeping what I have and not really understanding how any of this works mayby it’s just the “mine, mine, mine!”of the two year old.
    when we ever get to living in space permanently or make those very long voyages it will be in structures that are on a scale we have never done before maybe akin to the transcontinental railroad compared any other machines of it’s time.
    it wont look much like Buck Rogers
    until then we will have to settle for smart semi-autonomous machines to do the work we want to do.
    The next part of the perseverance mission of retrieving the samples sounds even more difficult they have to get another device to in essence nearly the same place I wait in anticipation for that one.
    uncle frogy

  8. drken says

    The reason we’re not going to colonize Mars is that there’s nothing there but science and adventure. I’m not sure how Elon Musk plans to fund interplanetary travel with tourists, but the “occupy Mars” crowd seems to think you can found a colony on good intentions and high minded aspirations. Show me a huge, Martian vein of some crystal we use in cell phone screens, or Palladium for fuel cells, and then maybe some form of private, interplanetary travel becomes feasible. And then, it’ll probably just be robotic as humans just make space travel more difficult, dangerous, and expensive, three things investors try to avoid. Otherwise, it’s just going to be government funded “footprints, flags, and rocks” like we did on the Moon.

  9. zetopan says

    PZ says: “Of course, if they find the Martian version of a trilobite, I guess high-quality images will be enough (they won’t, but it would be cool.)”

    You are obviously way out of touch with the “scientific” community; various animal fossils were found on Mars some time ago:
    https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/637895/Mind-blowing-discovery-Fossils-of-prehistoric-sea-creature-found-on-Mars
    https://scitechdaily.com/photos-show-evidence-of-life-on-mars-insect-and-reptile-like-fossils-living-creatures/
    https://www.the-sun.com/lifestyle/tech/75088/life-exists-on-mars-as-expert-claims-nasa-photos-reveal-insect-fossils-and-snakes/
    https://uproxx.com/technology/is-nasa-ignoring-alien-evidence-fossils-mars/
    https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/608767/Forget-water-on-Mars-Fossilised-dinosaur-found-on-the-Red-Planet
    https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/939469/Nasa-images-alien-herd-of-animals-Mars

    etc…

    There was also a software programmer who claimed to have discovered evidence of advanced sea life fossils in NASA Mars photographs (as well as claiming to have written software that showed the back side of rocks based on the front side view) and who was “knighted” by some rich Chinese person. Sadly, I am unable to find his glorious pictures and articles on the internet anymore since he removed all of his “evidence” to sell it in a book. /s (for the terminally credulous)

  10. PaulBC says

    The Mars rovers are exciting. I wish they’d get a lot more publicity than they do. I agree there is not much point to be sending humans there, definitely not now. I am not as certain in saying never.

    The key missing technology is autonomous self-manufacturing robots. As long as we’re shipping a rover from earth, the fuel cost is enormous. While I think the idea of “settling” other planets is far-fetched, I can see a long term future with autonomous asteroid mining (again, definitely not sending people out there Outlander-fashion). The sheer scale of raw materials and available solar energy would open up possibilities that do not exist on earth, and would cause severe ecological impact if we even tried.

    Of course, the next question is what would you do with all this if you had it? I once had a fantasy of manufactured widgets being shipped on a low-energy trajectory to earth and parachuting to a soft landing (with parachutes manufactured by robots in space, naturally). But seriously, that is probably a terrible idea, since it’s not like we need more junk to fill up our gravity well here at home where we’d never get rid of it so easily. So in short, I am pretty sure we could eventually have the robots out there, but it’s unclear what they’d be doing. I guess if information is more valuable than bulk material, they could be constructing a massive data center (great for batch jobs, but with that unfortunate interactivity lag).

    Mars itself would be a lot more interesting if they did find signs of life. I agree that it is pretty unlikely to be worth the effort to make habitable. There is a lot of wasteland on earth already, and we don’t try to live there either.

    Given autonomous robots and massive off-world resources, it might be reasonable to talk about terraforming livable spaces in the solar system, not necessarily Mars. But the R&D to develop critical technologies can be done on earth for now. The key is automation, not space travel.

    If you want to go transhumanist, it’s not clear why we’d ever be interested in shipping around biological bodies. While I do not believe with 100% certainty that the full experience of being human could be captured in a machine, I do think that if we’re around long enough, the most likely migration from earth will consist of our machines, potentially of comparable or greater than human intelligence. This would not necessarily be a material migration, since a lot of it could be bootstrapped. I.e., once you have autonomous manufacturing at a certain level, you can send it enhanced designs and continued this process.

    BTW, this rover apparently has a “helicopter” or small drone anyway, that can fly a short distance and take pictures from above. That’s pretty cool. I hope it works.

  11. PaulBC says

    zetopan@9 All I remember was the fossilized rotini pasta. I spend months looking at pictures for corkscrew patterns and just certain they’d find more. But that was over 15 years ago and I am no longer optimistic.

  12. chrislawson says

    I’m not nearly as pessimistic as you, PZ, but I agree that sustainable human societies off planet is currently in the “not for the foreseeable future” basket. Meanwhile, robotic exploration is in the “being done right now by many different groups” basket and is clearly where our scientific efforts should be concentrated.

  13. Silentbob says

    PZ, biologist:

    More robots! Robots can be designed to function in all those environments that we’d be nuts to try and live in. NASA has been fantastic at building robots, and space robots really ought to be what NASA does.

    Steve Squyers, PI (principal investigator aka head honcho) of the Mars Exploration Rover mission (Spirit & Opportunity):

    I”m a robot guy. I’ve devoted my career to robotic exploration of the planets and Mars in particular, but human exploration in Mars can’t happen soon enough for me. I’m a huge fan of human exploration and there are a couple reasons for that. One is that despite what our amazing robots can accomplish, a human on the ground would be far, far, far more capable. I’ve told a story many times and I won’t relate it in detail now but I did sort of a quasi experiment once where I compared what our rovers could do in a day to what a capable human geologist could do and it turns out that what the rovers can do in a day, Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity, take your pick, a human might be able to do, you and me, Miles, if we went to Mars, you and I would be able to do in 30, 45 seconds, something like that. So, humans are far, far more capable. Humans are much better at improvising. The human hand, eye, brain, combination is incredibly powerful, it’s been honed over millions of years of evolution to offer this p werful capability for sort of testing ideas right on the spot, evaluating them, trying something new. Trying to do that with a robot, especially when you’ve got one-way light time, time it takes for the radio signal to travel, that’s 10, 15, 20 minutes, it’s really slow and painful and tedious. Humans are always going to be far better explorers than robots.

  14. John Morales says

    Silentbob, humans would possibly be better explorers, if (a) they could be safely taken there and (b) kept alive for any length of time once there.

    Point being, that robots can do it right now, humans can’t, pesky needy fragile biologicals that we are. So humans certainly aren’t better at it.

  15. says

    The objection that humans can’t explore Mars in person, or colonize space, because they are fragile is ludicrous. We know what human beings need to survive, and we know how to produce it. You can break down the CO2 atmosphere to get oxygen, you can build some kind of greenhouse architecture to generate it more passively and grow food, blah blah blah etc. There is no physical reason that machinery and personnel cannot be transported to the surface of Mars to do such things. It is only a question of whether some sufficiently wealthy organization exists and is willing to sink hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure on another planet. So far, nada. But in the future? Human hubris knows no bounds, and the rich keep getting richer.

    I don’t think Musk will ever get to Mars, but unless he suddenly runs out of cash (or drops dead) he will definitely make it to the moon. We are virtually guaranteed to get rich yuppies taking lunar joyrides by 2030, his stunt with launching his car demonstrated that thoroughly. So he can definitely get large payloads into space, once his little Starship matures there will be a huge market for risk-seeking millionaires. That will lead to demand for new fuel sources, and Google’s space project will have a market for their asteroid-mining venture, and once that matures going to Mars will become a footnote, achieved by someone who wants the vainglory of being the first to land there.

    Note that I am not calling any of this a proper allocation of resources, I just think declaring that humans will never live in space when we have basically ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD to do it, is a little nuts.

  16. John Morales says

    loosenoodlepoodledoodle:

    The objection that humans can’t explore Mars in person, or colonize space, because they are fragile is ludicrous.

    Obviously, I mean as of right now, where we actually are in the world that actually exists. Point being, it would be being done were it doable — and if it’s unaffordable, it’s not doable.

    Put it this way: Perseverance gets dropped, does stuff, will keep doing stuff for quite a while.

    A human would need food, drink, breathable atmosphere, temperature control, and waste disposal off the top of my head. Also sleeping, resting, and, well, persevering under conditions of serious privation. Though I suppose some sort of radiation-hardened, pressurised dome or something would help with the sleeping and so forth — I mean, wearing a suit for weeks on end would be… uncomfortable. But I’m sure whoever would persevere.

    Oh yes, and, presumably, a vehicle for returning to Earth before all the consumables ran out.

    It is only a question of whether some sufficiently wealthy organization exists and is willing to sink hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure on another planet. So far, nada.

    Well, yes. If they could, they would. But they don’t.

    I just think declaring that humans will never live in space when we have basically ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD to do it, is a little nuts.

    Very aspirational.

    Alas, right now a more important thing to bear in mind that humans have been and are currently fucking up Earth’s ecosystem and climate.

    This: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction

    (Mind you, we muddled through the cold war and the ozone layer event, so that’s good, no?)

    PS Have you read Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future?

  17. consciousness razor says

    I just think declaring that humans will never live in space when we have basically ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD to do it, is a little nuts.

    Uh, right … about that….

    Over the next 1.1 billion years, solar luminosity will increase by 10%, and over the next 3.5 billion years by 40%.[79] Earth’s increasing surface temperature will accelerate the inorganic carbon cycle, reducing CO2 concentration to levels lethally low for plants (10 ppm for C4 photosynthesis) in approximately 100–900 million years.[80][81] The lack of vegetation will result in the loss of oxygen in the atmosphere, making animal life impossible.[82] Due to the increased luminosity, Earth’s mean temperature may reach 100 °C (212 °F) in 1.5 billion years, and all ocean water will evaporate and be lost to space within an estimated 1.6 to 3 billion years.

    Also, there won’t be humans still milling about that far into the future anyway. Something else that descended from us, maybe. But how much time do humans actually have? Hard to say.

  18. PaulBC says

    loosenoodlepoodledoodle@15

    The objection that humans can’t explore Mars in person, or colonize space, because they are fragile is ludicrous.

    It’s a question of cost and benefit. Yes, obviously humans can survive in space because they have already done it in space suits, but every minute of time surviving these conditions requires orders of magnitude more resources than living on earth, where human beings, barring medical problems, can basically live as cheaply as their dogs, though few would choose to.

    Oh and the benefit? Remind me, what was that? Yeah, I think it’s cool too, and inspiring. But how many billions of dollars of inspiring is it? Who’s going to pay? Right, there’s Dennis Tito, world’s first space tourist, and Elon Musk of course. Some of this can happen on a small scale, but it’s not sustainable, and there is no clear focus. It stops as soon as individuals lose interest and depends on the caprice of the wealthy or geopolitical ambitions.

    Note that I am not calling any of this a proper allocation of resources, I just think declaring that humans will never live in space when we have basically ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD to do it, is a little nuts.

    Even barring catastrophe, I think human existence as we know it has a limited shelf-life.ight now, there is no lack of land on earth that is way more hospitable than Mars (polar regions and deserts). It’s hard to imagine the economic conditions that make Mars more attractive, and by the time that happens (again barring catastrophe) we will be far advanced in other technologies.

    Will we “upload ourselves into computers”? Eh, maybe that’s a silly idea (I know PZ thinks so), but we will have some capabilities that we can scarcely imagine today. We’ll have a deeper understanding of the biology that drives our present existence and the nature of our intelligence. The idea that we would spend enormous amounts of energy to move our unaltered biological forms to other places seems ridiculous to me. There is all the time in the world to explore the solar system, but moving ourselves out there in a form that is optimized for conditions on earth makes very little sense. As I said previously, I think we will be able to build systems to exploit offworld resources autonomously. Indeed, the only puzzle to me is what we would need all that for (but economics assumes arbitrarily increasing appetites, and the cost could be zero from our perspective on earth).

    So in a sense, I think Mars is in our future if we have a future, but the domed city scenario strikes me as preposterous. The human presence is more likely to be a telepresence until the point when the original notions (analogies to human migration on earth) have become largely irrelevant.

  19. tacitus says

    absolutely, it has nothing to do with smart people and everything to do with greed, resentment and bigotry. it is also as the latest example playing out in Texas very short sighted in meeting the desired goals of maintaining prosperity. maybe I’m mistaken here that the goal is just keeping what I have and not really understanding how any of this works mayby it’s just the “mine, mine, mine!”of the two year old.

    Texas has been a study of contrasts this past week. On the one hand, the power companies have just profited hugely from failure and the misery of millions (good luck getting them to forego their ill-gotten gains), and the politicians will no doubt paper over the cracks once the hue and cry has died down and nothing has changed, but I have been greatly encouraged by the kindness and generosity of many of those millions who have been suffering this past week.

    Just on my street alone, I’ve heard of neighbors arranging to have an elderly woman stay with their parents while her power was out, and a group of neighbors with vehicles that could manage the icy roads and made sure those in need were well supplied. Local people have been distributing thousands of gallons of fresh water today, and in another neighborhood, someone discovered a residential care home had been without power and water for days yet was being neglected by their corporate management team, so they banded together, organized, and brought in badly needed supplies and comfort (until, unbelievably, the management team called the police on them for trespassing).

    And personally, after 36 hours without heat, someone I had just met on a Meetup Zoom call offered me use of a self-contained single-room AirBnB apartment they had on their property since they had power, right out of the blue. I declined, but I was immensely touched by the offer.

    I know you can find examples of such kindnesses whenever disaster strikes, but this is the first natural disaster that’s directly affected me, and seeing so many people pulling together in adversity first hand has helped restore at least some of my faith in humanity. For every Ted Cruz, there’s dozens of people out there doing small acts of kindness, and they add up.

  20. brucegee1962 says

    @6DanDare

    We don’t need extremely smart people to deal with climate change. We need the extremely dopey people to get a clue and behave differently.

    If our only hope is for dopey people to stop being dopey, then we are doomed. Look at who they keep voting for. Look at QAnon, which a ridiculously large percentage of Americans believe.
    There are a number of possible technological fixes in the works, in terms of carbon renewal, alternative energy sources, climate engineering, etc. Yes, I know all of these are extremely long shots, but hoping that people will voluntarily stop being idiots seems like an even longer shot to me. I think our best hope is to pour resources into solving the climate problem the same way we poured resources into Apollo in the sixties. We are nowhere close to that now.

  21. tacitus says

    But how much time do humans actually have? Hard to say.

    Once you get beyond a 100k years, you can stop counting. If we haven’t developed the technology to colonize space by a 100k years from now, then it’s not happening.

    The main reason for sending people to the Moon or Mars, in the short term at least, is that you can do science and exploration far more quickly than with robots. A human being can collect more samples in a single EVA than a robot can collect in a month, and while the management teams for the Mars missions have been remarkably innovative when faced with unexpected circumstances — their study of Martian dust devils springs to mind — they often have to wait for a brand new mission to be designed, built, and launched years later before the research can continue. With people present, the mission can adapt on the fly to new discoveries.

    Obviously, the gains from the speed and flexibility of manned missions to Mars isn’t worth the extra cost and risks involved over robotic missions right now, and may never be, but there’s one target that I do find more intriguing and perhaps worth the effort at some point — creating an observatory in one of the Moon’s polar craters.

    The viewing conditions would be unparalleled in the inner Solar System — permanent and frigid darkness, sheltered from EM interference from Earth, yet just yards away from neverending sunshine providing unlimited solar power. Whether we just send missions to build and conduct maintenance on this Moon Observatory or we put a permanent base there, I don’t really care, but I can’t think of another plausible off-planet pursuit that’s likely to yield more scientific discoveries about the universe we live it.

  22. bassmanpete says

    In the ’50s I saw a film (yes, I’m that old!) titled Tobor. This was in the UK, elsewhere it was titled Tobor the Great. The main message I took from the film was that it would be safer to send robots on space exploration rather than humans, presaging PZ’s feelings by 60+ years.

  23. consciousness razor says

    Once you get beyond a 100k years, you can stop counting. If we haven’t developed the technology to colonize space by a 100k years from now, then it’s not happening.

    Sure. That sounds a lot more reasonable than “all the time in the world,” however much that’s supposed to be.

    The main reason for sending people to the Moon or Mars, in the short term at least, is that you can do science and exploration far more quickly than with robots.

    That sounds like a decent reason to design better robots, which we’re already doing. (No, not “uploading,” which is pure nonsense. Just robots.) So in the relatively short term, let’s say roughly a century, this statement may not be true anymore. Then what?

    Of course, if we’re only talking about a few years from now, maybe the length of time capitalists consider when “investing” in such things (assuming we allow it), then sure, that’s another story. But we could just raise NASA’s budget a bit, to send out more robots….

    An observatory on the Moon like you described would be interesting. I doubt it would need a permanent crew. Maybe just send some maintenance/repair missions there for a short trip, whenever necessary.

    Anyway, I’m still not going (not that it matters). But it would be a step above life in an underground MuskCorp™ bunker, spending all day working in the mines and eating gruel out of a pouch, in order to do … uhhh, step 2, whatever that is. (Step 3 is definitely “profit,” that much is certain.) I’m not sure how many would willingly sign up for that sort of “adventure.”

  24. PaulBC says

    CR@23

    That sounds like a decent reason to design better robots, which we’re already doing. (No, not “uploading,” which is pure nonsense. Just robots.) So in the relatively short term, let’s say roughly a century, this statement may not be true anymore. Then what?

    (You may not believe me when I say I was trying hard to hold off, but…)

    When you call them “better robots” that is technically true, but dismissive in my opinion.

    I agree that the idea of “uploading” a consciousness into a machine is iffy and may be complete nonsense. If hypothetically, there is a machine capable of self-awareness and I could transmit as much of my memory and experience into it (modulo things that probably just don’t map very well, and things I might not want to map like the feeling of wet socks on a winter’s day when the heater is broken), there would still be me (if the process is non-destructive) and there would be another conscious entity that had a lot of ersatz memories I had just imposed on it.

    If the process were destructive, I’d be dead, not “uploaded.” Agreed. If the entity were in the outer solar system and I sent it a snapshot of myself by laser signal (a few terabytes to approximate my personality), then it would go on its merry (I hope) way experiencing stuff that sadly I would still never experience.

    It’s also unclear that it would even be possible to provide enough information for this entity to act as a reasonable simulacrum of myself or any human being. But it would still, in my view, be a conscious being originating from earth, more capable than I am of exploring distant space (e.g. being able to go entirely dormant during trips of thousands of years at potentially very far below light speed). These beings would have their own ambitions and may very well be space-faring.

    So I agree that humans will never be space-faring (at least I don’t see a likely* path). That does not mean there will never be a space-faring civilization that originates from earth. It’s dismissive to call them “better robots”, particularly in the RUR sense of universal workers. They will almost certainly originate as universal workers, but with sufficient capabilities, they’ll outgrow us. Conceivably, they may reach such a level of wisdom to conclude unlike us that it’s just not worth “going out there.” I have no idea, though I would bet that they’d find the idea at least a little bit interesting, and would have the resources and means to do it.

    *There’s an unlikely one where our robot progeny choose to terraform planets seeded with clones of biological humans. It’s unclear why they would want to do that, and the prospect frightens more more than it interests me. And they still won’t be making interstellar flights as fully-grown humans, so “space-faring” is not really a good description.

  25. consciousness razor says

    KG:

    You never heard of a sunshade?

    I have. A planet-sized one is definitely a big ask, but not out of the question. So, that could buy us some time. However, ultimately, it’s the same story. As the Sun gradually expands to the size of Earth’s orbit (give or take), possibly swallowing up the whole thing, that will not be sufficient.

    In any case, it looks like our cozy situation here will come to an end. So, our descendants wouldn’t have “all of the time” to escape from Earth (or the solar system) to find another home, just a fairly large amount of time. Since we’re not actually saying something about an infinite stretch of time or anything of the sort, we’re at least in more familiar territory when we make some predictions about that.

    PaulBC:

    I agree that the idea of “uploading” a consciousness into a machine is iffy and may be complete nonsense.
    […]
    If the process were destructive, I’d be dead, not “uploaded.” Agreed.

    I suppose this means you think it “may” be non-destructive.

    I want to make a distinction: (1) you think it’s conceivable or that you can imagine it happening in some possible world, and (2) it is physically possible in this world. The question here is about the latter.

  26. consciousness razor says

    As the Sun gradually expands to the size of Earth’s orbit (give or take), possibly swallowing up the whole thing, that will not be sufficient.

    You could entertain ideas about flinging Earth farther away from the Sun, perhaps even out of the solar system. Also very fanciful and way beyond the scope of anything that we’ve ever done. To me, it doesn’t seem likely that people would survive that for long either — the planet would freeze, which is not such a great option — but I guess it could at least buy a little more time, if at that point they’re still trying to figure out something better.

  27. KG says

    So, that [a sunshade] could buy us some time. – consciousness razor@27

    Yes, about 4-5 billion years – @17 you were quoting an article claiming temperature increase would kill all plants in 100-900 million years.. Of course it’s not for ever; as far as we know, nothing is for ever.

    consciousness razor, PaulBC,

    Suppose an auxiliary memory and computation unit, consisting of an artificial neural net (as much like a natural brain in its structural organization and functioning as you like) could be intimately attached to your actual brain, and that you could “train” iit to act as a backup memory. No-one can tell from outside, and you can’t tell yourself, whether a retrieved memory was stored in your brain, the auxiliary neural net, or both. Then you (or your brain) die, but the auxiliary neural net continues, with many of the memories, beliefs, tastes and preferences you had when your brain was functioning. It is pure dogmatism to insist that it would not in any sense be you.

  28. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@26

    I want to make a distinction: (1) you think it’s conceivable or that you can imagine it happening in some possible world, and (2) it is physically possible in this world. The question here is about the latter.

    I think that in this world it is possible that non-biological artifacts that we (biological humans) would call advanced “machines” could have just as rich an inner life and connection to the world around them as we do, probably a lot more. They’d have to be far advanced beyond current technology. They would also never be exactly like being a human, the same way I could probably never capture the experience of being an octopus. There would just be too many differences.

    It’s unclear to me whether you or for that matter PZ disputes this (though he has said things that sound close). While reproducing biological systems are far more complex than today’s machines, there’s nothing special about biology as opposed to other potential means of developing intricate systems than can self-repair, self-monitor, sense surroundings, and reproduce. We’re not there yet. We won’t be there in my lifetime. In a century? I don’t know. In a thousand years? I think so, barring some terrible catastrophe.

    Now as for non-destructive “uploading” well I think it is highly unlikely that you could get enough information about the state of every neuron non-destructively. I also don’t think you need that much to capture essential parts of a personality. A fiction author can make a recognizable character that readers will ascribe behavior to, and often agree on it. What does it take to get an approximate record of a person. I said a few terabytes above, and I believe that’s far in excess of what you’d need to fool anyone else (a good identity thief can fool all but close acquaintances with just a little research and guesswork).

    Is it “you”? OK, no, it’s not, but it’s something people still might want to do. They might want to capture something of themselves in an avatar that outlasts them. This could be of little interest to themselves (redundant when alive and outside their experience when dead) but could actually be useful to others, even at a practical level.

    Another idea, and I don’t remember who suggested it, is to have the AI work in tandem with you long enough to match behavior rather than trying to do an upload. While it would certainly deviate from you almost immediately after disconnection, as long as these deviations are within range of plausible behavior, it’s still a model of you as well a conscious entity in itself.

    None of this is of exactly the kind of interest to me as it is to hardcore transhumanists. i mean, I honestly don’t even see what the big deal about death is as long as it’s not horrifying when it happens. It will come to me one day, and after that it won’t matter to me, just others who survive me. So it is silly to try to “live forever” this way. At the same time, I can imagine a lot of technologies physically possible in this world that would approximately meet the needs of those who dream of “uploading” into a machine.

  29. PaulBC says

    KG@28 Well, if I identify myself as a biological being who grew from an oocyte, it is not exactly me. (It reminds me a little about the transgender arguments, but this is clearly a far more serious distinction than genitalia.) Would it ever know the feeling of wearing cold, wet socks? It could perhaps, but it seems like an unlikely feature to go to the effort to introduce. But how much is my dislike of cold temperatures and dampness part of me?

    It would be an independent being worthy of the same right to life as anyone, which strikes me as the only one that matters for ethics. Suppose it could be disconnected for a day while it and my biological body experienced separate lives. Would it be “me” on that day? That seems like a strange kind of existence. So I prefer to think of it as a being that experiences continued consciousness as me, but I am not sure it is even a meaningful question to ask if it “is” me.

    This is really just the Ship of Theseus dressed up in science fiction, right? But could Theseus’ ship eventually become a starship? Would it really be the same? What if the process resulted in an entire fleet of Theseus canoes, kayaks, container ships, as well as interstellar craft by some means of dividing up parts during repair and replacing half. Is there a point where it becomes absurd to talk about this as the “same” thing?

  30. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @28:

    Then you (or your brain) die, but the auxiliary neural net continues, with many of the memories, beliefs, tastes and preferences you had when your brain was functioning. It is pure dogmatism to insist that it would not in any sense be you.

    It’s not “pure dogmatism” to point out the obvious asymmetry between the two ‘yous’. One is acquiring experiences and memories, with subtle effects on beliefs, tastes and preferences. The other is merely copying those things, until bio-you dies. If an essential component of ‘you’ is the continuing acquisition (I think it is), that is then lost.

  31. consciousness razor says

    PaulBC:

    I think that in this world it is possible that non-biological artifacts that we (biological humans) would call advanced “machines” could have just as rich an inner life and connection to the world around them as we do, probably a lot more.

    I agree, but that’s an entirely separate question.

    I was talking specifically about a procedure which doesn’t destroy you and makes a copy of your mental state into some kind of AI, not the general idea of making any old AI whatsoever with some mental state that is comparable to a human’s.

    We could use lots of different terms for that, like “copying” or whatever, which don’t carry the same extravagant connotations of a word like “uploading.” I’ll just go with “copying.”

    Even in the best case where you’re not destroyed in the process, I think it’s nonsense to say that this thing is you. It’s simply not the case that you and this copy of you are numerically or physically identical, even if your minds were “functionally” identical. We can count how many there are, we can say where they are and keep track of them separately, and so forth. The functioning of your brain at some time is not the only fact we have at our disposal here, so we’re not forced to only consider that. There are more facts, like the ones I mentioned.

    Even assuming idealism — have at it! I can’t prove you wrong — if you were commuted to radical skepticism about the external world (so that only your mind exists, nothing else), you’d have to say this copy is not you, because it’s not the thing which has thoughts about that copy — you are, while the copy is a figment of your imagination, just like me and everything else that seems to you to exist (but doesn’t).

    I also don’t think you need that much to capture essential parts of a personality.

    Well, of course I can’t stop you from defining that as vaguely as you like. But if this is supposed to demonstrate something important or interesting, then I don’t get it.

    At the same time, I can imagine a lot of technologies physically possible in this world that would approximately meet the needs of those who dream of “uploading” into a machine.

    You mean … other than the fact that they won’t be uploaded into a machine, not even approximately? Okay.

    If they’re happy with that, I could also offer to make them a ham sandwich. It’s probably much easier if they only want to be the meat in the sandwich, but maybe just maybe, with the right futuristic technology, who knows? The bread too.

  32. PaulBC says

    CR@33

    Well, of course I can’t stop you from defining that as vaguely as you like. But if this is supposed to demonstrate something important or interesting, then I don’t get it.

    To put it in context, let me start with some personal preferences.

    I am not that interested in the concept of “immortality through uploading” but I’m not big on immortality to begin with. I don’t want to die in some frightening, violent, painful, or depressingly protracted way, but the prospect of ceasing to exist doesn’t worry me greatly. However, my continued existence has impact on others, notably family who depend on me. At the very least, I am terribly worried at the prospect of dying while my children are still minors, even if it were in some swift and merciful way. Beyond that, there are many things I would still like to experience or learn about in the decades that I hope remain of my life, so I am certainly not eager to die.

    Needless to say, I won’t carry my FOMO to the grave. There will be no one to experience my missing out on experiences. So the current state of affairs is basically fine as far as I’m concerned. It would be nice to have a longer actual life comparable to what I have now, but I’m not a transhumanist looking for loopholes to be able to construct something else and call it my personal immortality. It doesn’t interest me. I can see it does interest some people, though, and I don’t judge them for it.

    It would be “important or interesting” to provide a simulacrum that was significantly close to a given person to be indistinguishable to others. In practical terms, you could use this for organizational continuity, preservation of expertise, or even providing comfort to survivors. Those very close might find it creepy or offensive (but that’s a malleable cultural assumption). Others would be totally fine if the life of the party or the engaging guest lecturer was not Bob but Bob v2.

    The faithfulness of the reproduction is clearly important, though as I said, I doubt you’d need anything near a neuron-level set of measures to be almost indistinguishable. Sometimes after a brain injury, people are said “not to be themselves” and it disturbs their loved ones. A lot of neural information was probably lost. But these people get used to it. In fact, we do consider this to be the same person, just the same person with certain injuries.

    Now consider an AI that is a significantly better reproduction of your healthy brain state. Someone who wanted to believe it was “you in there” could go on believing it more easily than to they would believe it of your injured biological self.

    Thought experiment: Bob had a bad accident, but thankfully he had a backup made first. Who would you rather spend time with, brain-injured Bob or backup Bob? It may matter to you that the former is the “real” one, but some part of you is going to like the one who resembles your friend the most.

    It’s not obvious to me that “I am who I was yesterday” in the first place. Again, you’re back to Ship of Theseus silliness. I often wonder how this applies to legal onus. Suppose someone who had committed the most atrocious atrocities could be completely reformed. Actually, suppose (hypothetically and maybe not realistically) that they suffered an injury resulting in complete amnesia and were also somehow demonstrably no longer a personal capable of committing those crimes. They’re an innocent with someone else’s rap sheet, case of mistaken identity in the truest sense.

    Now, it’s sort of obvious to me that there is no need to lock them up on “punitive” grounds, which I don’t consider a real moral concept. There is an impunity argument that you cannot let people off the hook or others will imitate them. That’s true, but you need the concept of identity to assign blame and call something impunity. How closely connected to the crime does this person have to be to assign blame to them?

    You mean … other than the fact that they won’t be uploaded into a machine, not even approximately? Okay.

    If they’re happy with that, I could also offer to make them a ham sandwich. It’s probably much easier if they only want to be the meat in the sandwich, but maybe just maybe, with the right futuristic technology, who knows? The bread too

    Well, pornography is sex other than the fact that most of the action is in your head, and any physical stimulation is self-supplied. But many people are happy with that, though it is not even sex “approximately” by your standards.

    I would prefer to define something based on the requirement it fulfills for the consumer. (Is a gas-powered fireplace really a fireplace? I hate them, but chacun ses goûts. I like my artificial Christmas tree just fine.) There are plenty of people who want to “upload themselves into computers” and would be quite happy with the sort of technology we both agree is not entirely ruled out by any considerations of technological feasibility. We’re just disagreeing on what to call it.

  33. publicola says

    Y’know, I look at the above picture and, after all these years, I’m still awestruck and spellbound. Man, that’s another planet I’m seeing!
    When I was a kid, you could only imagine what another world looked like; you could only see one in comic books or movies. But there it is right before our eyes: desolate, daunting and wondrous! I recall sitting in front of the tv, watching in awe and joy as the first pix from the Viking lander appeared on the screen.
    It would be a great achievement to send a manned mission to Mars, but honestly, I think it would serve no useful purpose. For now , it’s just too impractical and expensive. Even if we could set up a small colony by the next century, what would be the purpose? We still wouldn’t have the ability for large scale migration off-world. Our money would be much better spent on climate change mitigation. Robot exploration is much cheaper and safer, and as tech know-how increases, robots will most likely be able to answer any question a human could. Better telescopes will be able to see farther and better than we could travel. Until someone invents the Warp Drive, we’re stuck on Terra Firma. We’ll just have to be satisfied with seeing other worlds through the lens of a robot.

  34. publicola says

    As far as “uploading” or copying or AI go, no matter how perfect the transfer of information may be between human and machine, one will never be the other, because as soon as info transfer stops, subsequent separate experiences would make you two separate entities. Like two identical twins with 100% matching DNA, as soon as they have experiences, or even thoughts , they are two different individuals, because each mind perceives existence differently. I could record every single thought and feeling from birth on magnetic tape or in a book, but that record is not me.

  35. says

    But no one actually wants an upload that just creates a copy. They’re looking for the tech equivalent of the soul migrating to Heaven, or being reincarnated. They want their existing them to continue uninterrupted.

  36. consciousness razor says

    I would prefer to define something based on the requirement it fulfills for the consumer. (Is a gas-powered fireplace really a fireplace? I hate them, but chacun ses goûts. I like my artificial Christmas tree just fine.)

    I guess you didn’t get the joke.* Do I really need to explain it? One is making a person be a ham sandwich, while the other is making such a thing for the person. Those are fulfilling entirely different desires, not the same one through different means, so those analogies are garbage.

    *Another one:
    What did the Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor?
    “Make me one with everything.”

  37. PaulBC says

    timgueguen@37 I would say it is as authentic as their actual soul being migrated to Heaven. If you want something that can’t possibly exist, you had better be willing to accept a close substitute.

    They want their existing them to continue uninterrupted.

    And so their copy will imagine it, at least if the technology works at all.

    It’s clear to me that I am not conscious all the time, and my most “productive” moments may happen without a hint of self-awareness. Am I same person I was the last time I asked myself that question? By convention, yes, but it’s unclear to me that it’s an important question at all.

    Another thing I was thinking about, prompted by KG@28. (And not new, none of this is clearly.) Think how distressing it is to most people to experience the loss of a limb. Even hair loss is disturbing. (Do I care that my “red” hair has gone gray or even Mike-Pence-white in some lighting? A little. Especially, yech, Mike Pence!) So what is it like to experience the complete loss of your corporal existence? It sounds more like hell than heaven to me. (Though I suppose the cyber-replacement could get used to it, and maybe therapies will be available.)

    A joke that I may be the only once who thinks is funny: I had some plastic CD cases in the 90s that had cracked. When I was living in Zürich, I was pleased to find I could buy new ones cheaply. Sadly, the real thing wasn’t available, only an “ersatz” CD case. Remarkably, I could never tell the difference!

    So, an ersatz is a replacement. If my transhuman existence is ersatz, who will know? Those around me may even like me better, and I won’t be there to object.

  38. PaulBC says

    CR@38

    I guess you didn’t get the joke.

    Oops. Correct, though I know the original one. Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t really matter and I suspect that if this technology could ever exist, there will people who want it at least as much as they want pixelized sunglasses on their Zoom face.

    I agree that the beneficiary will be others not you. But the beneficiary of a vacation I take next year (yeah, right!) will be future me, not present me. I can only dream about future hot dogs. I can’t eat them.

  39. consciousness razor says

    Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t really matter and I suspect that if this technology could ever exist, there will people who want it at least as much as they want pixelized sunglasses on their Zoom face.

    Do you have any idea how much that costs? Basically nothing.

    Will people still want it, if they had to spend billions? Do you think some would want it a bit less?

    But even before we get there…. If they “want” it, what difference does that make?Should we allow billionaires to muck around with creating sentient beings like this? It might be a rather horrific experience, after all, if they can even manage to do it, probably after numerous failures. Anyway, just being wealthy enough to do it doesn’t give something a moral/political justification, as we’ve known from countless other cases. So I think we should start the conversation with that, instead of whether or not some consumerists assholes might want something.

    I agree that the beneficiary will be others not you. But the beneficiary of a vacation I take next year (yeah, right!) will be future me, not present me. I can only dream about future hot dogs. I can’t eat them.

    But future you can’t be uploaded into an AI either. Nobody can. We already went over this.

  40. PaulBC says

    I think the concept of identity is a lot more malleable than “uploading is impossible” would suggest. I think most of it points to identity being a mere convention in the first place, as much as it has worried philosophers at least since the ancient Greeks.

    Suppose some kind of flash-freeze suspended animation could actually be made to work (I know, biology says no, but maybe this is a genetically modified human being and can avoid problems of crystallization etc.) During the suspended phase, there is no thought and no consciousness, indistinguishable from being dead, except not in a degraded state. When you are taken out of this state, you begin to think again. Are you the same person? Most people would say yes, I think. Most science fiction fans anyway.

    Now suppose that during suspension, you replace each atom like the Ship of Theseus. OK, maybe this is impossible, but in that hypothetical scenario do I keep my identity? It seems like I ought to keep it just as well as I would as my atoms are replaced in life.

    Now do the replacement far away, Star Trek transporter style. Is this materially different from doing it in place? (And cue the one-copy, two-copy variants). I mean, Star Trek fans would have to see it as somehow either being the same person or else not really mattering. Maybe there are just a lot of spot executions and rebirths going on all the time, and everyone’s cool with that.

    So my real take is that the reasons that make sense for caring about our continued existence are mostly related to our survivors, and not ourselves. Given a suitable replacement acceptable to survivors, there is no measurable distinction between the original and the “upload” (except the lack of a biological form, and that’s a bigger deal than often supposed).

    The ethics that say it’s wrong for someone to come and kill me right now is that I am a conscious entity and express the will to continue my life. If they said, don’t worry, we’ll construct a perfect substitute who will feel continuity, then I agree this is not a satisfactory consolation for me, so I would fight to preserve my life. But that doesn’t make my self-preservation instinct anything besides a will for things to be a certain way. If I were to accept the substitute instead, that would be my prerogative (but not my killer’s).

    If someone was giving me a choice (a) You will live very long through advanced medical technology and one day travel in a starship to Alpha Centauri or (b) Your brain will be frozen at death and a faithful avatar will make that trip, then (a) is more like saying “I am going to Alpha Centauri.” But in fact, Paul 11:17AM PST February 2021 is stuck here on the couch either way. Is there any meaningful distinction between these choices?

  41. PaulBC says

    CR@41

    Do you have any idea how much that costs? Basically nothing.

    In a post-scarcity society, many things will cost basically nothing. I don’t think anyone is going to make a serious claim of “uploading” in my lifetime, but centuries from now there could be autonomous industries going on elsewhere in the solar system that provide seemingly unlimited computing power among other benefits. I don’t claim there will be, because I have no idea, but there is no scientific or philosophical means of ruling it out. In these circumstances, the idea of creating avatars to continue the experience of living humans will not “cost” any more in the sense of troubling humans with labor or scarce resources then social-network frippery does today. That’s why I see this as potentially happening in the future, no matter how you want to interpret it philosophically. Once there are more avatars than biological humans (avatars being far “cheaper” to maintain) a lot of the discussions about who is identical to to whom become mooted anyway.

  42. consciousness razor says

    Is there any meaningful distinction between these choices?

    Yes:
    (1) you’re dead, or
    (2) you’re not dead

    If you wish to end your life, well … as you said, you could, and that would not be murder. Assisted suicide is illegal in most of the US, but I support it. The problem isn’t that it would be euthanasia (an absurdly elaborate form of it). Lots of other problems with it, but not that one.

    Anyway, it is ending your life, which is meaningfully distinct from not ending your life. It’s hard to believe that you’re actually confused about this.

  43. KG says

    PaulBC@29, 30,

    I think we largely agree. I said “in some sense” deliberately. There may be future developments which mean that questions of personal identity become problematic or ambiguous in ways they seldom are now. Although not altogether: dementia, and some forms of brain damage and psychosis can lead others to say the sufferer is “not the same person” as they were. And one part of my almost-certainly-never-to-be-written SF magnum opus begins something like:
    I’m sorry, the professor died yesterday. Would you like to speak to his ghost?
    (Where “ghost” is the mid-21st-century term for an artificial avatar after its original has has died.)

  44. KG says

    Rob Grigjanis@32;

    The other is merely copying those things, until bio-you dies. If an essential component of ‘you’ is the continuing acquisition (I think it is), that is then lost.

    Not at all. I’m assuming that the artifical neural net does go on having experiences. It might be using the same body (the brain is probably the most difficult part of the body to keep from deteriorating, most of the other bits could probably be grown in tanks from stem cells and surgically substituted for the worn-out originals if they can’t be prevented from aging). Or it might be transferred to a robot body, fashioned to have the senses a human body does. But as I said, it’s dogmatism to say it would not be you in any sense. In some senses it would, in others not.

  45. PaulBC says

    consciousness razor@44

    Anyway, it is ending your life, which is meaningfully distinct from not ending your life. It’s hard to believe that you’re actually confused about this.

    The distinction is meaningful, because you’ve made the distinction and I understand the terms of your distinction. But how is it of any consequence? It’s of no consequence to me if I’m dead, and only of consequence to my survivors if they so choose.

  46. PaulBC says

    And just to repeat for emphasis, part of the reason I am more inclined to accept “uploading” in transhumanist terms is that I doubt the significance of my own identity. Perhaps I am “dead” between conscious thoughts and everything I recall is just an interpretation of the memories in my brain. It’s a matter of definition.

    Forget about space travel, I can remember a meal I once enjoyed, not the best ever, but eating a lobster roll in Maine. I would like to go to Maine again some day and eat a lobster roll. I don’t know if I ever will or not. I do know that I am not right now in Maine eating a lobster roll.

    Does it matter to me at this moment whether I, someone else, or nobody at all will be eating a lobster roll in Maine at some unspecified time in the future?

    Unless I actually had the experience of eating it right now, I don’t see why it’s of any consequence. It is only because of some biological urge that I care at all. Still, some day I might assert the will to have it. Suppose I was in Maine and already paid for it. Then I would even assert a legal right to that lobster roll. Suppose I was just about to take a bite and a sea gull swooped down and took it. This would be of consequence to me at that instant, but right now, it’s purely a hypothetical and in objective terms of no real consequence at all.

    I often think about this when I consider more significant things I’ll never do. I would like to understand more mathematics, more physics. If it were feasible to drop my job and go back to pure computer science, that might have some appeal, but it is not worth the time out of my short life. I make choices.

    I do console myself with the thought that not only do other people experience these things that I’ve missed out on, but I think there are conscious entities elsewhere in the universe that have probably developed a greater understanding of fundamental sciences than any human being, let along me personally. (Though they have probably not been to Maine and eaten lobster rolls.)

    In some sense, none of it really matters, but I think it would be morally reprehensible to behave as if it does not. It matters to me and by extension, I believe some things matter to others.

    But I fail to see a clear material distinction between the lobster roll I may or may not eat in Maine at some unspecified time in the future and the trip to Alpha Centauri my avatar may but almost certainly will never make. Neither are accessible to me right now as I look out into my backyard in the SF Bay Area.

  47. snarkrates says

    Humans could possibly survive on Mars for several years if they managed to build an advanced infrastructure that could sustain them. They wouldn’t be doing much exploring. Radiation levels on Mars are quite high due to 1)the thin atmosphere, and 2) the lack of a planetary magnetic field. Even if humans do go to Mars, most of the exploration they do will be robotic. The humans will live underground.

    Radiation is probably also the limiting factor in robotic exploration–well that and the lack of energy sources that will last long enough and provide enough energy for meaningful activity/communication. Ultimately, space is REALLY BIG and REALLY EMPTY. It will never be our home.

  48. birgerjohansson says

    Any larger outposts on Mars would have to be confined to lava tube caves, until a lot of infrastructure has been created, enough to build both big pressurised buildings and the shielding.
    .
    -Very long term , a couple of millennia, you can bring down volatile-rich “iceteroids” from the scattered disc component of the Kuiper belt, objects like 1996 TL 66 or the recently discovered “Farfarout”.
    They have such elliptic orbits that only a minor velocity change at aphelion is enough to bring them to the inner solar system, and Mars.
    Downside: the time factor for slow-moving, very distant objects will be in the millennia range.
    The absence of a magnetosphere will require mega-structures to create a substitute. I will not even speculate how far into the future that would be.

  49. birgerjohansson says

    Phobos and Deimos are porous “rubble pile” objects, so you could bury big cylinders inside them for shielding, and rotate the insides for simulated gravity. The very weak gravity of Phobos would not offset the direction of “up” or “down” noticeably.

  50. John Morales says

    For those who don’t know, from the internet:

    Who were Phobos and Deimos?
    DEIMOS and PHOBOS were the gods or personified spirits (daimones) of fear. Deimos represented terror and dread, while his brother Phobos was panic, flight and rout. They were sons of the war-god Ares who accompanied their father into battle, driving his chariot and spreading fear in his wake.

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