Re: Space Colony Survival (was: RE: Yudkowsky's AI (again))

den Otter (
Wed, 31 Mar 1999 14:29:56 +0200

> From: Billy Brown <>

> den Otter wrote:
> > > From: Billy Brown <>
> > > What good would that do?
> >
> > Um, how about survival?
> As I understand it, you want a Mars colony as insurance against the
> destruction of the human race via gray goo or other 'dumb' ultratech
> disasters (as opposed to a smart disaster, which would build its own
> spacecraft and come looking for you).


> That would be a really good idea, except that we can't possibly set up a
> colony that could actually survive.

That's a pretty sweeping statement.

The best we can manage is to set up a
> base that would be completely dependant on regular resupply from Earth, and
> would die off within a few years of the disaster.
> Here is my reasoning:
> 1) Simply surviving on any other body in the solar system will require an
> elaborate technological infrastructure.

Actually, it [surviving on Mars] would be easier than surviving in a space station such as MIR, or later the international version; there's natural gravity, a solid base to build your structures in/ on (bunkers-esque structures would be a good idea for various reasons), there's less trouble with radiation and there are plenty of raw materials. Not to mention the positive psychological effect of being able to go outside and take a relatively safe walk in an earth-like environment.

> Any colony that cannot maintain its
> own infrastructure will die off very quickly.

Yes, but I don't see why maintaining the minimal infrastructure for life support would be such a big deal. If you can do it in a much smaller and generally more limited space station, then why not on a planet which even has the components to make water and oxygen readily available. Farming can be done using relatively simple greenhouses, the produce of which can be used in combination with imported "astronaut" foods. With a bit of work, one could farm a broad variety of fruits, vegetables, algae and perhaps even produce some "meat" (certain insects are easy to keep and quite nutricious, for example).

As MIR has shown, improvising can get you a long way when parts break down, and one can imagine that several hundred people, many of whom with technical backgrounds, could come up with solutions to just about any problem if their life depended on it. As in any pioneering situation, everyone's inventiveness and flexibility is pushed to the limit, often with remarkable results. Apart from that, advance (unmanned) missions would drop of as many spare parts etc. as would be financially possible. For this purpose, some kind of electromagnetic launcher could be constructed in space (optional). All of this excludes practical nanotech, which would make the colonization easier still.

> 2) We want the base to be able to produce its own singularity if Earth is
> depopulated. Unless you believe in a magical,
> one-invention-that-solves-all-problems genie machine, that means you need a
> group of researchers big enough to perpetuate a large majority of our
> current scientific knowledge. An individual can introduce one innovation,
> but there are so many different things to be done that you still need a
> large group of people to make progress possible.

I don't believe in genie machines (for now), but I do belief that if technology has advanced far enough to give the earth a goo problem (one of the prime scenarios for an exodus to Mars), the Singularity isn't very far off and can be reached by a relative handful of people with the latest tech, which would in this scenario include fairly advanced nanotech and extremely powerful (though not yet "real" AI) computers with no doubt greatly improved interfaces, among other things.

> That means we need tens of
> thousands of the best minds on Earth, or (more likely) a few hundred
> thousand researchers with a more normal distribution of ability.

Preparations for the colony could begin well in advance, so that over a period of 10-15 years an infrastructure could be built to support a community of perhaps a couple of hundred people for several decades. More importantly, as [a threat related to] nanotech would be the most likely reason for the actual exodus, this would *automatically* mean that the technology has matured enough to become practical. So the question is: would a team of top scientists (a couple of hundred) with several tons of specialized equipment, detailed knowledge of existing nanotech, nanotech samples, powerful "mildly intelligent" computers and life support for at least several decades be able to:
a) create a more sturdy vessel for the human mind (no intelligence amplification necessary, the extra speed alone buys you subjective decades, centuries or more). and/or
b) use the nanotech to create sustainable ("indefinite") life support, possibly in combination with
c) vastly extended biological lifespan (otherwise you must freeze the dead and produce offspring, either in vitro of the old-fashioned way).
d) try to amplify human intelligence (no nanotech needed, but welcome).
e) if, and only if, the above turn out to be too difficult (unlikely), try to create a seed AI and hope for the best. f) if even this fails, the last people left could load their frozen collegues into the main spaceship and set it on a self-correcting course towards an area of space most likely to contain intelligent life, while onboard computers continue to find ways to upload or otherwise "save" the frozen, until all systems fail.

However, it's IMO very unlikely that it would have to come to this. I find it extremely hard to believe that several hundred specialists with functioning nanotech and plenty of lab space couldn't somehow find a way to keep the colony alive almost indefinitely.

> 3) We need a functioning economy that can support the researchers and make
> use of their results.

More precisely: you need "fresh" air, potable water, wholesome food, some entertainment and power, all of which can be provided by (even) current technologies. Also you'd need some way to replace broken parts/build new machines which, given the impressive engineering feats of astronauts and other people in cramped, tech-filled, high-risk places, shouldn't be a terminal problem even now, let alone some 20-30 yrs down the road.

> Right now you would need several hundred thousand
> people just to achieve a minimal level viability, and there would still be
> many different kinds of things that could not be manufactured locally.

But many of those things wouldn't be necessary. All you want are the tools for bare survival, not for an interesting, blooming civilization. Remember, though a Mars outpost would be useful and interesting no matter what happens, the actual migration would only happen if earth would [threaten to] become completely unfit for intelligent life. The choice would be between certain death and a (perhaps) small but real chance on Mars. That choice is easy, IMO.

> To
> get true versatility you probably need millions of top-flight people, or
> tens of millions of average citizens.

Only under inefficient circumstances like we have on earth *today*. In a cutting-edge, dedicated environment (lab space), with death peeping in trough the windows, so to speak, everyone would be pushed to his/her limit and "do the work of millions". Also, a "big" civilization would create problems which a relatively small research compound simply wouldn't have. You need millions to support millions, but you don't need millions to support a couple of hundred/thousand.

> The only way around this requirement is to make such strong
> assumptions about AI that the whole exercise is pointless - if
> human-equivalent AI is cheap and easy, SI will be a problem before gray goo
> is even possible.

True, this is an (almost) worst-case and unfortunately fairly likely scenario. However, that's no excuse for just giving up.

> 4) Right now, a massive worldwide effort might be able to set up a few
> hundred people on Mars, with minimal equipment and no long-term survival
> prospects.

A massive, world-wide effort could do a *lot* better than that (certainly with me in charge ;-) Could you perhaps explain what exactly the problem would be with creating sustainable life support? Anyway, I think it's fairly safe to assume 2-3 decades down the road a still big but feasible (multi-lateral) private effort could achieve a lot more at a fraction of the current cost. If the Singularity comes tomorrow we're all screwed, but the longer it takes the better our chances become.

> If launch costs come down dramatically in the next 20 years we
> might increase the mass we can afford to move by two orders of magnitude,
> which would give us a few thousand people with the ability to handle some
> basic necessities (i.e. local production of air, water and food). This is
> still far short of even the most minimal requirement (by a factor of at
> least 10^2 in people, and 10^4 or worse in mass).

Could you specify this somewhat?

> Now, as an aside, I do think it is a good use for the early products of
> nanotech research. If we get big improvements in industrial automation and
> some moderately advanced nanotech, but sentient AI turns out to be a very
> hard problem, then interplanetary colonies would become feasible.
> Unfortunately, that means we have to solve the gray goo problem first.

A matter of timing (planning ahead, actually -- if you only start to think about Mars colonization when the first "goo level" nanites are ready, you're likely to late. Better have as much as possible already in place, and simply get the nanotech on board, maybe use it to improve your vessel somewhat, and go).