Deepfakes

This is a short, fictional piece that I wrote for La Revista de la Universidad de Mexico, as part of their “Diario de la pandemia” series. To read the Spanish version please follow this link.

While we were in the midst of the lockdown in London, and I was sheltering in my house for fear of dying alone in an intensive care unit without enough ventilators to go around, a journalist reached out to me via email for an interview. I found this weird, since I am not an expert in epidemics, or viruses, or indeed ventilators. When I told her so, she ignored me and sent me her questions anyway, which were a list of conspiracy theories about Covid-19. Did the Chinese engineer the virus in a secret laboratory? Was there a link between 5G and the pandemic? How come Bill Gates saw this coming years ago? Was he part of a masterplan by the Illuminati to get everyone vaccinated with a nanochip? And what was Soros’ role in all this? I was asked to offer my opinion.

I really did not know what to answer, as I could not possibly see how my opinion mattered, or indeed how an opinion would be at all relevant. I do not generally believe in conspiracy theories, but then again conspiracies have happened, large and small, throughout history, and will certainly continue taking place as long as people exist. The specific theories that circulated during the pandemic seemed to me exceptionally ridiculous, but there were millions of people who believed in them. So, a better question for the journalist to explore ought to have been why that was. But the journalist was not interested to do a heavy piece, she was writing for a fashion website and just wanted a short, funny, highhearted Q&A with a writer to appear next to an advertorial of a sports apparel brand.

By coincidence (like conspiracies, coincidences are also known to happen) I was writing at the time an article for a popular science magazine on a relatively new technology called “deep fakes”. Essentially, you can nowadays use apps on your phone to create short videos of persons that never existed, make celebrities have sex between them, politicians say whatever you want them to say, and generally amuse yourself and your dozen or so followers on social with fun stuff. Or you can trigger World War Three and Armageddon. Just imagine, for example, Trump losing the 2020 election and a deep fake video have him announcing that the election was rigged and that he does not accept the outcome (same scenario could run with Biden). Or a deep fake video of Kim Jong-Un declaring that he has just launched nukes in the direction of Tokyo. But what is particularly interesting about this terrifying technology for nerds like me is how deep fakes are made using an Artificial Intelligence technique called Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs for short.

GANs are made up of two artificial neural networks, working against each other. One network constantly creates fake images, starting with white noise. For illustration let’s call that network “Donald Trump” (I am not being partisan here, just bear with me). The other network – call it “Liberals” – takes two inputs: the fake image input from Donald Trump, and a real image from the real world of true reality. Liberals compare those two inputs and call bullshit every time they discover that Trump is feeding them fake images (ok, “fake news” if you prefer). But – and here’s the genius of the system – Trump takes the output of the Liberals’ judgement and uses it to improve the next fake image. Run this back-and-forth dialogue a few thousand times and the Trump network ends up creating fake images that Liberals cannot tell the difference from the real ones. Fake and real are now indistinguishable.

GANs are the ultimate content machines. They can create text, images, music, or videos. I wanted to tell that journalist that her days were numbered, and that soon a GAN was going to replace her, but no need to be mean, right? GANs are also one of Jonathan Swift’s techno-prophecies that has come true.  In Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver is abandoned by pirates on the continent of Balnibarbi. After a visit to the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver is taken to the Academy of Lagado, where “useless projects” are undertaken. There, he is given a demonstration of a word machine, a giant mechanical computer used for making sentences and books. The wise men of the Academy pride themselves for discovering a machine that renders obsolete any study or expertise; for now, even an absolute idiot can write a masterpiece by virtue of cranking the machine.  Equipped with GANs, twenty first century idiots can earn the Nobel Prize in Literature. Or run the world from their office via their twitter feed. Or make the world disappear. Or make it burn. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, reality is what you can get away with.

As I was thinking all that, the end of civilization, Pandemic Apocalypse, Trump versus Liberals, Kim Jong-Un, and getting increasingly depressed, I started reading reports from scientists who doubted that the virus was as deadly as it was initially made up to be.  Apparently, the initial mathematical models were wrong. Their code was full of bugs. The government experts had overestimated the death toll of the pandemic, thereby spooking the hapless politicians who went hysterical and turned half the planet into a colossal prison camp. Voices were raised against the lockdowns, protesting that the so-called medicine was worse than the disease. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed skyrocketed. Miles-long lines of cars (many of them expensive-looking) started appearing on newsfeeds, their drivers waiting for hours to scrape groceries from foodbanks.  Two opposing realities competing for domination of the public sphere emerged, like a pair of adversarial GANs creating a deep fake by imitating reality. Scientists were not being helpful either. They are used to brainy debates where multiple truths can co-exist until data and experiment prove most, or all, of them false. But the process of scientific falsification is unknown outside the walls of University campuses, those latter-day Academies of Lagado.  Out there in the wild, in the cities and the countryside, to figure out what’s real and what’s false is too much effort, people have other things to do, like lining up for food and toilet paper, and so they’re more willing to go with their political or tribal affiliations. Thus, the pandemic quickly turned political. There were Leavers (get out, save the economy) and Remainers (stay in, save lives).  If you leaned to the Left you probably went with Remain, if you bent to the Right with Leave. Living in the UK through the trauma of Brexit, I had hoped that we were past that.

As the lockdowns eased across Europe and people emerged from their homes, like snails after the rain, a lot of talk has now turned into how the world will change because of the pandemic. We will fly less, work from home more, use bicycles rather than buses, greet each other with a namaste or an elbow touch, wear masks and gloves, have virtual sex, use apps that track us, wash our hands with soap fifteen times a day. It all feels a little unreal to me. So I emailed the journalist who had asked for my opinion on conspiracies and suggested that I should write an article about the epidemic being a simulation – the deepest of deep fakes – and explore the possibility that we are living inside a hyperintelligent computer that is trying to predict how (the real) humanity may react in a real pandemic. I sent her my proposal by email two weeks ago and have left several messages on her WhatsApp. She has yet to come back to me. Which makes me wonder if she was ever real.

Space republics: how to democratise space exploration and accelerate colonisation

I have vivid memories from the hot July night of 1969 when the Eagle landed on the Moon. I was nearly five then. I was woken up[1] and hurried by my parents, still dressed in my pyjamas, to our next-door neighbour who owned one of the very few, black-and-white, television sets in the neighbourhood in downtown Athens. There must have been over a dozen people gathered in that relatively small living room, kids and adults swarming around the tiny screen, watching in amazement at the fuzzy moving images relayed from space. Sometimes it was hard to tell what was going on. The black and white pixels were often too coarse to discern the action, but still everyone’s eyes were glued to the screen, watching speechless as the first men from planet Earth were about to set foot on another world. And then, the television presenter translated Armstrong’s immortal words: “One small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind“. People were moved to tears. These men up there, pitching the Stars and Stripes on the surface of the Moon, were more than just American astronauts; they were representing all of humanity, paving the way for our common destiny and future. Neil Armstrong’s laconic verse had captured the democratic and internationalist zeitgeist that defined the early days of space exploration.

Much has changed since then. The Apollo missions ended in in 1972 and humans have never escaped low Earth orbit since. As budgets for human space exploration started to shrink, dreams of space colonisation were thawed by more pragmatic, scientific projects. True, we know much more today about our solar system and the universe thanks to deep space probes and space telescopes funded by government budgets. But when it comes to sending humans into space the baton is increasingly being passed from governments into private hands. This should be warmly welcomed. The commercialisation of space is opening up new opportunities for innovation, with dozens of companies attracting talent, raising capital and putting it to work in developing space technologies for rockets, satellites and spacecraft. Among those companies there are five that lead the race of putting humans in space, in what is called “space tourism”: Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Space X, Orian Span, and Space Adventures[2].

Space, the final inequity

When commercial operations begin the fees for space tourists with Virgin Atlantic, Blue Origin and Space X will range between $100,000 and $300,000. Orion Span is planning Aurora Station, a luxury space hotel in orbit; a one and a half week stay would cost $9.5 million. Space Adventures has already sent tourists in the International Space Station; businessman Dennis Tito has reportedly paid $20 million for the honour, while the English soprano Sarah Brightman purportedly put down $50 million for a trip to the ISS[3]. It seems logical that commercial space ventures should target high net worth individuals as their first customers. The history of technology demonstrates how many initially costly technologies gradually became democratised. We could perhaps take space entrepreneurs in good faith and trust that, like Neil Armstrong, they think of their business ventures as opening the way to space for the whole of humanity, and not just for the few whose pockets are deep enough to afford it.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk introduces SpaceX's Dragon V2

Space X Dragon capsule. Elon Musk has been a great advocate for space colonisation.

However, space entrepreneurs are not operating outside history. Like the rest of us, they too are children of our times, similarly bound to historical circumstances and contemporary worldviews. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing us all at a tipping point. Technological innovation, particularly in AI and Data, could amplify wealth and knowledge asymmetries, unless radically democratized. In a technofeudalist scenario, whereby political and economic power moves away from the people and towards the hands of a plutocracy, space colonisation will be limited to a small minority of very wealthy individuals and their families. We see such technofeudalist scenarios playing out already with surveillance capitalism becoming the dominant economic model of the AI economy. A similar outcome should be expected in a future technototalitarian scenario whereby a very powerful, highly centralised and authoritarian State uses AI and Data to control citizen behaviour. There, selection for who will travel in space will be limited to a ruling elite and their immediate circle.

Soviet Space colonies

The Soviets had a vision for exporting communism to space.

As these ruling minorities monopolise space exploration, their knowledge will vastly increase, as well as their ability to manipulate matter and life. One could speculate that, by mid next century, the descendants of that spacefaring minority will begin to genetically diverge from the rest of humanity. Space colonisation in a technofeudalist or technototalitarian future could thus evolve into the ultimate dystopia. For those future spacefaring superhumans the rest of humanity will increasingly feel like a nuisance; for little will remain to bond them and those of us still trapped by Earth’s gravity, climate extremities, and economic exclusion. Space would thus become the ultimate inequity. Perhaps, the future alien invaders of Earth could be the descendants of today’s superrich space tourists. To hedge against such a future we need to think of ways to democratise space exploration and, ultimately, colonisation.

Expanse

The TV Series Expanse, based on the books by James S.A. Corey, imagined a future where humanity is split between Earthers, Martians and Belters.

 

Democratising space

Space is the great commons. Like all commons it suffers from the free rider problem. Why should citizens invest money or effort today into something that aims to hedge for the long-distant future of humankind, i.e. for when they will be dead? To answer that question we must first consider what is the utility of space exploration that would make sense for investing today. The philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued[4] that there is an enormous opportunity cost from delaying space colonisation. This is due to the economic goods derived from sustaining very large populations of people living happy lives in accessible regions of our Galaxy. By calculating the number of lives that could exist by advancing technological progress in space he proposes a utilitarian measure for space exploration.

However, there are many other utilitarian considerations for space exploration, at much shorter time scales that those Bostrom proposes. Space tourism, mining asteroids, manufacturing new materials at zero gravity, are examples of potentially profitable space ventures with democratic governance using cryptoeconomics and cryptogovernance. Current experiments with ideas such as Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) illustrate the feasibility of this proposition. By founding “space cooperatives” that can scale using cryptogovernance now we can transform space exploration and colonisation into a social good and a viable goal for humanity. Participants in those organisations may never become colonisers themselves, but their grandchildren or great grandchildren might. Democratising space in this way can drive not only accelerate innovation but distribute ownership of space technology more equitably as well. Importantly, it would forge a bond between present and future generations over longer time scales, and promote a long-term view for the future of humanity. Instead of thinking in terms of two or three generations at most, participating in space colonisation projects will help us think in terms of centuries. This will not be the first time that humans set goals that could be fulfilled only by more than one generation: medieval cathedrals are an example of cross-generational projects. Such long-term view is vital for our survival, not only because it is needed to colonise space but to also protect fragile ecosystems on our home planet.

Small nations in space

Space cooperatives using a DAO can be adopted by smaller nations to fund their space programs. Currently, space exploration and exploitation is restricted to a few big and wealthy nations (US with NASA, EU with ESA, China with CNSA, Russia with ROSCOSMOS, India with ISRO and Japan with JAXA), and a small group of super-rich individuals.  If one is to include other nations who possess some space capability (for example satellites on Earth orbit) the list us still limited. Out of 195 countries in the world today only a handful are reaching out to space (see graph below).

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Using a DAO small countries can tokenize space exploration, apply cryptogovernance to democratically select appropriate goals, strategies and priorities, and raise funds via a cryptocurrency or some other cryptosecurities (e.g. bonds on a blockchain) in order to commission and deploy space missions.

Governing space republics

There has been surprisingly little thinking on political systems that would be appropriate for space colonists. Indicatively, the pioneer James Desmond Bernal, in describing life inside his futuristic “space spheres” writes: “The inhabitants can be divided into the personnel or the crew, and the citizens or the passengers…. There would probably be no more need for government that in a modern hotel: there would be a few restrictions concerned with the safety of the vessel and that would be all.[5]

It is of course naive to think that humans, of any number, would coexist peacefully for any meaningful period of time without the need of a system for collective decision-making and conflict resolution. History can help us identify examples of human colonization that failed because of the wrong political organisation. The Pilgrims’ colony at Plymouth in the 17th century came on the brink of collapse because it had initially adopted a communist-like system of distribution[6]. Space colonists will have to deal with much more than simply running their economy. The challenges of space, the great unknown, require a political system of enormous resilience and agility, a system that enables colonists to quickly discover and increase knowledge by applying rational reasoning; use this knowledge effectively to adapt and survive; and remain motivated to persevere against all odds and overcome unpredictable dangers. They may need to decide on self-modification through genetic engineering in order to adapt in the hostile environment of space, or to live on other planets with different atmosphere or gravity.

Governing a space colony would also benefit from applying design principles from decentralised cooperatives. New human species may evolve in space colonies. Remaining connected to the home planet by treasuring the values and principles of democratic governance could ensure that if, one day, humanity expands across the Galaxy, our distant descendants in the far away stars will still feel that, however different they have become, they are still members of a common human lineage that began on planet Earth.

Why go to space?

Not everyone would agree that humans should colonise space. Norman Mailer, writing about the Apollo 11 moon landing, felt unsure if it was “the noblest expression of the 20th century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental insanity[7]. He saw in space exploration a mix of greatness and hubris, a bright ray of hope for humankind after the horrors of the Second World War, but also a shade of darkness in what he feared may lead humans to think of themselves as “gods”. He was right in detecting a conflict in one of the greatest accomplishments of his age. What drives us into space is what has always driven human to push the boundaries of our possibilities: the interplay of irrational emotions and rational reasoning – or, if you prefer, the tension between Desire and Necessity.

We may have to colonise space in order to survive as a species in the long term. Indeed, space colonisation may provide the only way for preserving world peace. Logic dictates that we should advance space technologies, as well as adopt democratic means of governing space commons and space colonies, so we may achieve an equitable future for future generations in space regardless of race, religion, sex or wealth. But logical Necessity is not enough to make us want to take the enormous risks and strategise across time scales spanning many generations. It is the irrational Desire to explore, learn, and indeed conquer, that inspire – and will keep inspiring – us with a longing for trying our luck at the stars.

 

Endnotes

[1] Eagle landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969 at 15:17 EST. I watched the landing from Athens, Greece, which is EST+7.

[2] Source (2018): https://singularityhub.com/2018/05/10/5-space-companies-zeroing-in-on-first-launch-of-tourists-into-orbit-and-beyond/#sm.000kykq9217xnfrbupe1x10qzc76h

[3] Brightman’s trip was ultimately postponed. See: http://time.com/3857549/sarah-brightman-international-space-station/

[4] Bostrom N (2003), Astronomical Waste: the opportunity cost of delayed technological development, In: Utilitas 15 (3): 308-314, Cambridge University Press.

[5] Bernal J D, (1929), The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An enquiry into the Future of Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, Foyle Publishing.

[6] Rothbard M N (1979), What Really Happened at Plymouth, Mises Institute website, accessed: https://mises.org/library/what-really-happened-plymouth (excerpt from “Conceived in Liberty” book)

[7] Mailer N (1970), Of a Fire on the Moon, Little Brown.

Abandoning the metropolis: space colonisation as the new imperative

The year 2019 began with news of the most distant object ever visited by a spaceship and the landing of a probe on the far side of the Moon. On New Year’s Day[1] New Horizons, a robotic spaceship launched in 2006, was transmitting photographs of a bizarre, snowman-shaped object called “Ultima Thule” orbiting the outer edges of our solar system, the mysterious Kuiper belt. Sending a spacecraft to a destination 46 times the distance of Earth from the Sun, at a staggering speed of 57,936 km/h, have it fly by Pluto, and then redirect it to meet a relatively tiny object millions of miles away, is a truly astonishing feat of planning and engineering.

Two days later China’s Chang’e 4 was landing inside the Von Karman crater in the South Pole-Aitken basin, the largest, oldest, deepest crater on the Moon. The landing was celebrated by the space community: knowing more about the far side of the Moon will help work towards setting up a new generation of radio telescopes there, to explore the Universe without the radio interference produced by the human civilization on the other side. But the landing sent another message message too: that a new space race was on. The Chinese have never hidden their ambition to exploit space in order to meet geopolitical ends. They often use for the Moon the same language they use to describe their sovereign rights in the South Chine Sea. One may safely hazard a guess that, in the 21st century, the word “astropolitics” will become increasingly common in everyday conversations.

cheng-e-4-yutu-2

Cheng’e 4 landing on the Moon.

China plans to land humans on the Moon by 2030 and begin mining Helium-3, a valuable isotope used in nuclear fusion that the Moon has in abundance. For this to happen Chinese taikonauts will have to spend long periods of time in space, and must therefore have adequate resources to survive, including on-board food production capability. Tellingly, the Chang’e 4 carried a small, climate-controlled environment with potato and Arabidopsis[2] seeds and silkworm cocoons. China also plans to militarize space.

Meanwhile, US and Europe are still heavily dependent on vintage Russian technology to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This dependency is soon coming to an end as three private companies are currently developing new spacecraft for human, interplanetary, travel: Boeing is developing the Starliner, SpaceX the Dragon, and Lockheed the Orion. Meanwhile, the “race for the Moon” has NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) collaborating on plans to set up a permanent base there, possibly with an intermediate space station orbiting the Moon and acting as a launch pad for short-stay “Moon-camping” crews. A self-sustained moon station would thus become the fist step towards a permanent human base on Mars, and beyond. Water is the oil of space flight, for it can be broken down to hydrogen and oxygen and used as fuel; and there is quite a lot of iced water on the Moon. Using Helium-3 to power a Moon station and extract oxygen and hydrogen for fuel, as well as developing food producing technologies and methods that can sustain human habitation in space, could lead to a centuries-old dream becoming real: the human colonization of space.

Dreams of space colonization

Space travel has captured our imagination at least since the second century AD, when the Greco-Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata wrote of his fantastical voyage to the Moon[3]. As Lucian, the first fantastical astronaut, sails into outer space he encounters strange alien life forms and takes part in an interplanetary war between the king of the Moon and the king of Sun, who battle over the right to colonise Venus! Many centuries later, at the peak of the first industrial revolution, the French writer Jules Verne pens a more scientific-based, but no less extraordinary, novel about a society of weapons enthusiasts who launch three people to the Moon using a gigantic canon. “From The Earth to the Moon” has been a much-loved book by millions of children, many of whom were inspired to become scientists and engineers. For the real power of Verne’s breakthrough novel lies in making the argument in favour of science and engineering as the means to realise our most outlandish dreams, including space travel.

Since the publication of Verne’s book science fiction has been pushing the boundaries of our collective imagination even further, by taking inspiration from scientific discoveries and asking what if. Millions of people have watched the Star Trek and Star Wars series, where the Galaxy brims with numerous civilizations and where space travel is as quotidian as taking a flight from London to New York. Or have read novels by sci-fi giants such as Arthur Clarke, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein and Ursula Le Guin, to name but a few. Or have enjoyed the television series Expanse, based on the novels by James S. A. Corey, describing a future of humanity as it colonizes the solar system and begins to evolve separate cultures and civilizations.

Space colonization is not only the subject of fiction but of serious science too. The late physicist Stephen Hawking argued that unless colonies were established in space the human race would become extinct. There are several natural phenomena beyond our control that could spell our obliteration. Over a long enough period of time our planet is vulnerable to catastrophic meteorite strikes, or getting exposed to the deadly radiation of a nearby supernova explosion. As our Sun burns its fuel it will start to expand and, in a few million years, will scorch Earth. We can also self-destruct by waging nuclear war, or by tilting our planet’s climate towards a runaway greenhouse effect. Space colonization is therefore the ultimate insurance policy of long-term human survival[4].

Physics and Biology: how to solve the challenges of interstellar travel

But colonizing space is hard. Three are the main problem categories for humans surviving away from Earth over an indefinite period of time. The first, and probably easiest to solve, is finding a place suitable for colonization. Our solar system provides several possible habitats, the most obvious ones being of course the Moon and Mars. The Jovian moons could also be colonization targets. The Artemis Project[5], a private venture to establish a permanent, self-sustainable human base on the Moon, has proposed the Jovian moon Europa as an alternative future habitat, given the possibility of a hot interior and a liquid ocean of water under the icy surface, both of which could provide for a sustainable human base. Colonizing the Solar System could be a stepping-stone for venturing to worlds beyond, of which there are aplenty. In 2009 NASA launched the Kepler space telescope to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars in habitable zones. More than 1,300 planets have been discovered so far, in about 440 star systems; the nearest planet may be “only” 12 light years away. Based on Kepler’s findings scientists estimate that there could be as many as 11 billion rocky, Earth-like planets orbiting habitable zones of Sun-like stars in our Galaxy. The possibilities for expanding humanity’s reach in the cosmos are truly astronomical.

The second problem category is how to get to these other worlds: space travel is a hugely challenging technological problem. After more than six decades of space engineering we are still dependent of heavy rockets that burn chemical fuel to get us out of the Earth’s gravity. Perhaps the greatest innovation so far is the reusable rockets pioneered by Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 and Jeff Bezos’s Charon. Having reusable rockets significantly lowers the cost of space flight. According to Elon Musk it costs $60 million to make the Falcon 9, and $200,000 to refuel it, so theoretically by reusing a rocket multiple times the cost of each flight lowers every time it flies. There are of course additional costs for refurbishment after each flight that must be factored in, but reusing rockets looks like the most practical way to advance space technology today. Alternatively, we could have a space elevator carrying people and equipment on low orbit, an idea envisioned by the pioneering Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky back in 1895. Researchers in Japan’s Shizuoka University are presently advancing the concept by using two mini satellites to test elevator motion in space. Moreover, the Obayashi Corporation, which will build Japan’s largest tower, has put together a space elevator proposal that will take people from Earth to an orbiting space station. However, the solution requires 60,000 miles of cable made of carbon nanotubes or an as-yet undeveloped material.

Space elevator

Space elevator concept, by the Obayashi Corporation.

Owing to developments in quantum computing in the next ten years, we may be able to exponentially advance the production of materials for constructing space elevators, as well as for developing new rocket fuels; and thus dramatically reduce the cost of space flight. By harnessing near-infinite computing power and accessing calculations at quantum level physicists may be able to unlock the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and probe deeper into the fundamental structure the universe.

Understanding how an 11-dimentional universe folds into the perceived four dimensions of space and time could allow us to build engines that fold space – similar to the concept of an Alcubierre warp drive[6] – and achieve superluminal travel. But even if we never reach that advanced level of scientific understanding and spacecraft technology, just by travelling at 0.1% of the speed of light would permit human settlement of the entire Galaxy in around 250 million years, which is less than half of a galactic rotation period. Knowing where to go in order to build sustainable colonies, and building spacecraft that will get us there, are a only matter of time. The real problem for space colonization is therefore not physics, computing, or space engineering, but our fragile biology.

Outer space is an extremely hostile environment for human life. Long-term weightlessness causes loss of calcium in the bones, decreased production of blood cells and muscle atrophy, while high frequency cosmic radiation can penetrate our body cells and cause cancer[7]. That much we know already. However, our knowledge of the effects of space on the human body is still quite limited. The sum of human experience in understanding how our bodies adapt to space is less than 58 solar years, with most data coming from missions of relatively short duration. And although the ISS is used as a test bed to study the effects of space and mitigation of risk, the space environment is still largely unknown. But what if we developed space habitats that simulated Earth?

Bernal Spheres and Interstellar travel

In 1929 the Irish scientist John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) described a type of long term habitat of humans in space that reproduced artificial gravity as well the other conditions of Earth’s familiar habitat. In his book The World, the Flesh and the Devil[8] Bernal was first to describe a self-sustained space colony as a closed ecological system travelling through space. These so-called “Bernal spheres” were then elaborated by American physicist Gerard O’Neill (1927-1992) in the 1970s[9]. O’Neill speculated that, given the vast distances between the stars, human colonists would have to travel over hundreds of years to get there. This would require many generations of colonists surviving inside gigantic spacecraft he called “cylinders”. The 2014 sci-fi movie Interstellar depicted such an O’Neill cylinder of a diameter of 500m rotating round its axis to simulate Earth’s gravity. The inside surface of the cylinder resembled a large valley, a habitat suitable for a population of 10,000 colonists. Such a spacecraft would be shielded by cosmic radiation, safely floating through space over aeons, like an interstellar Noah’s Ark, until the colony reached their final destination. To construct such complex, ecologically self-sustainable, life-support systems would require materials and technologies not yet at our disposal, but not impossible to imagine.

Bernal_sphere

A Bernal Sphere for space colonists.

Long-term space travel may also get forms different from O’Neill’s concept; for example, sending frozen human embryos instead, or genetically modifying human colonists so they can survive exposure to cosmic radiation, hibernate for hundreds of years, and awake equipped with biological adaptations to planetary environments dramatically different from Earth’s. Technology, science and engineering have the potential of solving most of the problems surrounding space colonization, given enough time, funding and focus. Which leaves us with a question of politics, or astropolitics to use the newest term: who gets to go into space, and who stays behind? (This question is addressed in this post on space republics).

 

Endnotes

[1] The first picture of Ultima Thule was taken at 0501GMT on New Year’s Day 2019, from a distance of about 18,000 miles, 30 minutes before New Horizons made its closest pass of the space rock.

[2] Arabidopsis Thaliana is a small flowering plant, and a popular model in plant biology. It was the first plant that had its genome sequenced.

[3] Lucian’s novel was entitled, tongue-in-cheek, “True Story”. In Greek: Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα

[4] NASA’s Griffin: “Humans Will Colonize the Solar System”, Washington Post, September 25, 2005, pp B07.

[5] See: http://www.asi.org/

[6] The Acubierre drive is a speculative idea proposed by Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre, who used Einstein’s field equations in general relativity to demonstrate how a spacecraft could travel faster than light. There are serious doubts about the survival of astronauts during a hypothetical voyage.

[7] NASA’s Efforts to Manage Health and Human Performance Risks for Space Exploration , (2015), IG-16-003. Retrieved from: https://oig.nasa.gov/audits/reports/FY16/IG-16-003.pdf

[8] Bernal J D, (1929), The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An enquiry into the Future of Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, Foyle Publishing.

[9] O’Neill G K, (1977), The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, William Morrow & Co, NY.