Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress Day 4
18 August 2013
Day 4 – Congress Summary | Sunday August 18th, 2013
Day 4 of the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress began with a presentation by science-fiction artist Stephan Martiniere and, because Monsieur Martiniere is an artist the audience was treated to a wide variety of his work. He told the story of his life in pictures, and linked it throughout to developments of the Space Age, which was an artful touch. …
After this Andreas Hein launched into a sober assessment of technologies necessary to interstellar flight in “Project Hyperion: Disruptive Technologies for Manned Interstellar Travel”. Much of what Mr. Hein presented were ideas that I had independently worked out for myself, describing the S-curve of technological maturity and how technological succession can extend this S-curve upward. Using these analytical tools, Hein assessed which technologies would be necessary to any interstellar mission, and which technologies might prove to be disruptive breakthroughs that rendered other technologies obsolete, ending with the suggestion that investments in technologies must be balanced across a spectrum of low risk/high probability of use and high risk/high gain technologies.
Next came Aaron Cardon, a doctor, with “Ideal Biological Characteristics for Long-Duration Manned Space Travel.” This presentation was much more interesting to me than I expected it to be, and suggested to me that designs of a long term interstellar mission would not be uniformly good or bad for human health, but rather that some starship design parameters may compromise human physiology while others may actually optimize human physiology. For example, Dr. Cardon stated that the circadian rhythm of the human body, if taken out of the context of our 24 hour rotation of the Earth may be closer to 26 or 28 hours, which an artificial environment could easily accommodate. Dr. Cardon also spoke about some of the psychological and sociological consequences of long-term missions — something covered in yesterday’s Odyssey presentation — including the dramatic shift that would need to take place in making the transition from an open frontier to prioritizing social cohesion, and how human intuitive heuristics may pose a risk in artificial environments. This talk gave me much to think about.
Rob Swinney gave an update of Project Icarus, which was the seed from which Icarus Interstellar originally grew, and discussed a number of design parameters of the starship project that is, essentially, the successor to the Daedalus project. This was followed by a presentation that was not on the program, Robert Kennedy on “Dyson Dots: Geoengineering is the Killer App.” Mr. Kennedy demonstrated how the interests of those seeking to mitigate anthropogenic climate change coincide with those seeking space industry, since space-based geoengineering could both address climate change and result in space industry. Specifically, we could construct a “Dyson dot” between the Earth and sun that would cast ever so slight a shadow on the Earth, marginally lowering terrestrial insolation. Moreover, the sun side of this Dyson dot could be covered in photovoltaic cells, which could generate a significant amount of electricity. Mr. Kennedy rightly noted that this approach is both scalable and reversible, which are real virtues in this context.
Jim Benford then presented, “Shouting to the Cosmos: The METI Debate” — METI being Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, in contradistinction to SETI or the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Benford represented that school of thought that feels messaging ought to be discussed before it is undertaken on any great scale, and he contrasted this to the views of some in the field who support vigorous efforts to create a “beacon” and to attempt to send messages out into the cosmos. Benford rightly noted that today a wealthy individual could sponsor such a beacon and engage in METI without anyone to stop such activity. He suggested that international consensus, peer-reviewed publication of messaging details, consultation, and perhaps also an enforcement mechanism were in order.
Benford laid out the case both for and against METI, which was quite interesting to me. There were several stated assumptions and derivations from this assumptions, but each assumed something fundamental that was formative to the given position. Those in favor of METI believe that interstellar travel is impossible, while those opposed to unregulated METI assert that EM leakage cannot be detected. As it happens, I can’t belong to either camp because I disagree with both assumptions. I think that interstellar travel is possible, and I think that it is pretty clear that the EM radiation leakage (unintended signals) of a peer industrial-technological civilization can be detected.
Benford took the trouble to point out contradictions in the position of those advocating unregulated METI, but it seems to me that the glaring contradition in Benford’s position was that he asserted that EM leakage could not be detected, but he openly admitted that an advanced ETI could pretty easily build an antenna large enough and sensitive enough to hear us. The way he gets around this contradiction is something that I have thought about a bit, and I wrote about it last year in The Visibility Presumption. I want to go into this in a little more detail because it is so interesting.
Benford asked the rhetorical question of why ETI would be looking in our direction, in all the vastness of the cosmos. This is a rhetorical question so long as one maintains an unproblematic conception of the cosmological principle, but it becomes a live question and not merely rhetorical once the classical cosmological principle is called into question. Benford’s position perfectly exemplified the cosmological principle, i.e., that we occupy no privileged place in the cosmos, therefore there is no reason for ETI to point their antenna in our direction. I will not here dispute the idea of our not occupying a privileged cosmological position (advocates of the anthropic cosmological principle have spent enough time doing this), but there is a very different way to think about this that undermines the assumption of there being no reason for ETI to look in our direction.
Any peer civilization (i.e., any civilization like us) is going to be looking for peer civilizations because this intrinsic curiosity, at least in part, defines our civilization. In looking for peer civilizations, any advanced ETI will show at least as much ingenuity as we have shown in the search for ETI, since ingenuity of this kind is another quality that, at least in part, defines our civilization. We are now, at the present level of our technology, less than twenty years from the spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres, which could reveal markers of life and civilization. Any advanced peer civilization would have already done this (spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres), and they would have done this for the kind of planets that can host peer civilizations — small, rocky planets in the habitable zones of main sequence stars. In other words, ETI would have already by now done the spectroscopy of Earth’s atmosphere, and in so doing they would have focused in on the Earth as a place of great interest, in the exact same way that we would focus on an “Earth twin.” This would mean that they would focus all their best radio antennas on us, just as we could focus intensively on a planet that would likely host life and civilization.
It would be relatively easy for an advanced ETI of a peer civilization to build a custom antenna for nothing other than the possibility of detecting our EM leakage, since they had already identified us as a promising target for SETI and perhaps also METI.
In the question and answer session following Benford’s talk a new wrinkle in all this appeared. My co-presenter from Day 2, Heath Rezabek, suggested that someone opposed to unregulated METI could broadcast a counter-signal to a METI signal and essentially silence that signal.
The possibility of a counter-signal is an idea that can be scaled up, so that it is possible that what Paul Davies calls the “eerie silence” and David Brin has called the “Great Silence” is not something natural, but could be imposed or generated.
One metaphor that has been used to explain the eerie or great silence is that no one shouts in a jungle. This is plausible. If the universe is a dangerous place filled with predators, you don’t want to call attention to yourself. But it is just as plausible that everyone is “shushed” in a library as that everyone keeps quiet in a jungle, and therefore it is just as plausible to think of our universe as a library as to think of it as a jungle.
And with that discussion I had to leave the 2013 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress at noon in order to catch my flight back to Portland.
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Here is an incomplete schedule for the day’s events (incomplete because Robert Kennedy’s presentation is not mentioned below.
8:45am Introduction to Day 4
9:00am Keynote: Stephan Martiniere, “FarMaker Speed Sketch Awards”
9:45am Presentation 1: Andreas Hein, “Project Hyperion: Disruptive Technologies for Manned Interstellar Travel”
10:10am Presentation 2: Aaron Cardon, “Ideal Biological Characteristics for Long-Duration Manned Space Travel”
10:40am Presentation 3: Rob Swinney, “Project Icarus”
11:25am Presentation 4: Jim Benford, “Shouting to the Galaxy: The METI Debate”
12:00am Session Chair Panel, “Discussion of Tracks”
12:45pm Icarus Project Lead Panel, “Progress Report and Future Objectives”
1:30pm Mike Mongo, “Build a Starship”
1:45pm Richard Obousy, “Building an Interstellar Community”
2:00pm Icarus Starship Congress Ends
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