Birds and Robots

The goal of AI scientists is to create an intelligent robot but many people feel that goal is impossible.  These people believe that the human mind is beyond nature and contains a soul that transcends our physical world.  If that is true, then the goal of silicon life is probably a fantasy.  However, if men and women are merely the most complex example of intelligent beings and leaves behind a trail of previous experiments by mother nature to fashion biological machines that can think, then there is a good chance we may one day give birth to our evolutionary descendants.

Folks who believe that man is different from the creatures of the Earth do so because they believe that animals lack our kind of intelligence and self-awareness.  Animals studies are showing more and more that our relatives on the tree of life often show cognitive traits that we once defined as the sole providence of human nature.  As intelligence and awareness are explored we’re starting to see that we homo sapiens are not that unique.

What we are learning from both robotics and animal studies is intelligence is a huge collection of tricks.  To be human actually means many things, including a fantastic repertoire of abilities, any one of which standing alone can be faked by machines or revealed in animals.  Robots can be programmed or designed to do one thing we can, and even do it better, like playing chess, but that doesn’t mean the robot is intelligent.  The same can be said of animals and their special traits.

Animals far exceed what any robot can do today, and they too are collections of abilities.  We’re starting to see robots that do more than one thing in a way that makes us see ourselves in their struggle to evolve.

Look at this video of Snowball, a head-banging Cockatoo and ask yourself if this bird is not enjoying himself rocking out to the music, and how is his response to music different from yours.

Snowball keeps better time than I do and I can’t match his dance moves.  Building a robot to dance to the beat probably would be easy for today’s robot engineers, but could we build a machine that enjoys a good downbeat as much?  Snowball stands above anything we’ve done with robots as people tower over ants.  Right now each artificial intelligence experiment struggles to create a single intelligent function that works in the most minimal of fashion.  Most people won’t think that Snowball perceives reality like a person, but if we make a list of all the things this bird can do and compare it with what we can do, there is a huge overlap.

Now look at this violin playing robot.  The robot is not aware of playing music, but it can do something that most humans can’t.

But can we say that Snowball is aware of music?  For all we know, the dance to the beat the bird is doing might be its way of showing pain, and we’re just anthropomorphizing that it’s getting down with the tune.  I don’t think so, though.

Now look at this news story about artificial intelligence to get some idea how complex the challenge of programming abilities into a machine.

Notice how many different projects this news story covers where the robot just does one simple thing.  Snowball and you have subsystems to do thousands if not millions of functions that could be considered an intelligent reaction to reality.  How did evolution program all those functions?

Now look at this video of Alex the talking parrot.  This bird seems to think.  Alex even asks for things it wants.  This is way beyond what robots can do, even though some of Alex’s tricks have been pursued in AI studies.  The question becomes can a robot ever think for itself?  Can a robot be created that learns from interacting with its environment like Alex the parrot?

Here’s a collection of videos that shows off robotic abilities.  None of these robots think for themselves, although some give the illusion they do.  Are we just highly evolved illusions?  There is a difference between perceiving or reacting to reality and being able to think about and understand reality.  Anyone who knows people who have suffered strokes or live with dementia know how fragile our unique abilities are, and how they can be taken away.  We also know how severely the body can be damaged and yet the mind inside can soar to brilliant levels, like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking.  We have no idea what’s going on inside of the mind of an animal.  Dolphins could be just as aware and intelligent as humans.  How will we know when a robot becomes aware?

Robotics is the one area of science fiction prediction that is rushing ahead as fast as science can apply itself.  It’s not costly like manned space exploration and the general public anticipates more benefits of its results, especially in Japan.  Theoretically, an AI intelligence could be created by a high school kid in his bedroom.  How soon will we see an AI robot that has the intelligence of Alex the parrot?

If you’ve studied this concept at all you’ll know it’s not something that will be programmed.  Someone needs to invent an artificial brain that learns, and pattern recognition is the key.  Vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell are all sensory inputs that process patterns.  The brain appears to be general purpose enough to adapt the same kind of physical neural structures to handle each of these sensory pattern types.  Are we, that is our minds or our souls, a byproduct of pattern recognition?  What abilities do Alex the parrot have that scales up to become us?  Alex can hear questions, observe something in his field of view, and reply correct.  Do you see that trait in the robot films?

Spend some time and watch the film of Alex over and over.  Also watch the robot films carefully too.  Do you see patterns of behavior?

JWH 1/21/9

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku

Every science fiction fan should read Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku.  Kaku surveys all the famous concepts of science fiction, often referencing when he first encountered the idea in famous science fiction books, movies and television shows.  With each idea, aliens, starships, light sabers, death rays, robots, and so on, Kaku sets the stage by bringing the reader up to speed with the physics behind the idea.  He carefully explains what we know, what current experiments relate to the concept, and what future science might still discover.

I bought Physics of the Impossible on audio and liked it so much that I bought a hardback copy for reference.  This week, the Science Channel is rerunning the three episodes of Kaku’s Visions of the Future which makes a perfect visual supplement to the book, showing Kaku going around the world visiting labs working on these cutting edge breakthroughs that will lead to our science fictional future.  Many of the experiments Kaku talks about in the book can be seen in these videos.

Michio Kaku divides his book into three areas:

Class I Impossibilities – “These are technologies that are impossible today but that do not violate the known laws of physics.”

  • Force Fields
  • Invisibility
  • Phasers and Death Stars
  • Teleportation
  • Telepathy
  • Psychokinesis
  • Robots
  • Extraterrestrials and UFOs
  • Starships
  • Antimatter and Anti-universes

Class II Impossibilities – “These are technologies that sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world.”

  • Faster than Light
  • Time Travel
  • Parallel Universes

Class III Impossibilities – “These are technologies that violate the known laws of physics.”

  • Perpetual Motion Machines
  • Precognition

Kaku is very generous here in his categorizations.  For example telepathy.  He doesn’t try to make a case for what most people would think of as telepathy, one person reading another person’s mind.  Instead he shows how close we might get with machines that can scan minds and read vague conceptual patterns in the scan.  By chance, 60 Minutes ran a segment on Mind Reading this week. 

Follow the link to see a video that illustrates exactly what Kaku was covering, and presents even newer findings.  They show people in a MRI machine drawings of basic objects like a knife or hammer and scientists can record the brain images and analyze them with a computer.  The 60 Minutes’ producer volunteered to be scanned and was shown ten objects.  The computer program then analyzed her brain scans, correctly identifying 10 out of 10 objects.  This isn’t telepathy, but it’s pretty darn amazing.

The book does this over and over again, referencing dozens of cool contemporary science experiments.  There have been many books like this one, for example, The Physics of Star Trek back in 1995 by Lawrence M. Krauss.  The Kaku book is just the latest, so it has the most current survey of neat science tech.  I love to read such books every two or three years to catch up on the latest discoveries.  These books are sobering for the science fiction fan, and they explain why I give such bleak predictions about science fiction in my recent essay, Science Fiction in My Lifetime.

I gave far better odds on intelligent robots than Kaku.  I based my prediction on models in nature.  For example, before there were airplanes we watched birds, so we knew something could fly.  Consider faster than light travel.  We have never observed any object traveling faster than light, so I consider FTL travel an extreme long shot.  We know biological machines can be intelligence and offer a continuum of examples from the lowest animals to humans.  Airplanes are not like birds, but they fly.  I think we’ll eventually invent a pattern recognizing artificial neo-cortexes that can match and surpass our intelligence.

I highly recommend Physics of the Impossible for people who love science fiction.  It’s very well written and understandable.  You don’t even have to be particularly science minded to enjoy the book.  And if you don’t read science fiction, this book will catch you up on a lifetime of far out ideas.  Physics of the Impossible would make a fantastic eight part documentary for PBS.

JWH 1/6/9

Is Colonizing the Moon Possible?

Despite the huge success of science fiction movies at the box office, despite the fact that most people think humanity is destined for space travel, despite the fact that manned missions into space are considered the high points of human achievement, few people support the space program when it comes to spending money in Congress.  The current recession is about to abort what many people consider our best chance to return to space as explorers since budget cuts killed off the Apollo program in 1972.  Tuesday the NY Times ran “The Fight Over NASA’s Future” that summed up the current situation nicely.

Now, I would like to give my view of the problem.  I just finished reading The Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis, so Apollo 17 details are fresh in my mind.  Cernan was the last astronaut to step off the Moon’s surface and his book also chronicles how the public quickly lost interest in the Moon missions right after Apollo 11.  When going to the Moon was a space race with the Russians the public and Congress cheered.  When it turned to science and geology they snoozed.

If Project Orion is going to duplicate Project Apollo then it is doomed to fail.  And if you do not know what Orion and Ares are, that’s a bad sign in itself – read the NY Times link.  Already NASA’s meager budget is coveted for other uses in these bleak economic times.  If returning to the Moon is seen as a science mission it will lose to bean counters looking for other projects voters want more.  Accountants were dissembling Project Apollo at the peak of it’s success.  The only way to guarantee funding for manned missions to the Moon is to offer evidence that Al Qaeda has a stronghold there.

People who love the idea of humans conquering space are a tiny minority.  Those few believe that mankind is destined to live in space and pursue a future mapped by science fictional dreams.  The public will never pay for that dream if it’s only sold as science.  It needs to be a great challenge, even a patriotic challenge, and in these high unemployment times maybe even a giant WPA program solution. For decades now space enthusiasts have tried sell space as a profitable enterprise, but that’s silly and I think the public can smell that.  Creating a human civilization in space will create a giant off-Earth economy, but there will never be any real profits for Earthlings, not if we do complete cost accounting.

I have thought about this problem for decades, and the only way to start space civilization is by colonizing the Moon.  That one fantastic accomplishment will be the critical mass to set off a space civilization explosion.  The Catch-22 conundrum is the people of the Earth must pay the bill, and it will be enormous.  Now, is there any incentive that will convince citizens of the United States and other countries to convince their leaders to spend that kind of money, year in and year out for decades?

The public and Congress has never wanted to give up on NASA and space exploration completely, so NASA has always had a small budget that it carefully managed to get the most bang for its bucks.  The trouble with big manned exploratory projects is they require huge amounts of money committed across many future budgeting years.  Some space enthusiasts considered the Shuttle a congressional boondoggle that kept us flying in low Earth orbits for far too long, and they cheered when President Bush broke the cycle by suggesting we take the Shuttle money and go back to the Moon.  The idea was helped by the fact that China, India and Japan had turned their national gaze to Luna.

What Does Colonizing Mean?

Explorers are brave women and men who go places no one has gone before – but they go back home when they’re done exploring.  Scientific missions are like our bases in Antarctica.  Scientists go to live and work in distant lands for long periods but they eventually return home.  Colonization is like the people on the Mayflower, they left with no intention of ever going home.

The trouble with colonizing the Moon is it will be very hard.  Harder than anyone can imagine.  Maybe even impossible.  People need air, food, water and shelter just to minimally survive.  A self-sufficient colony means that at some point the colonists can survive on their own without resupply from Earth.  The Moon is essentially airless, but it’s rocks are full of oxygen.  There’s a chance of ice being on the Moon.  That’s more oxygen, and hydrogen.  Something to drink and the basis of creating energy and rocket fuel.  Then we need to look for carbon, nitrogen and all the other elements, and rebuild what we have here on Earth.  No small task, and we have to face the fact that it might be impossible.  It’s a fantastic challenge.

But look around you at everything you see that’s manufactured.  Think of the mining, industry and manufacturing that went into those products.  All those enterprises will have to be built on the Moon for colonization to work.  Some people will point out that all nations trade with other nations and no nation lives completely self-sufficient.  That’s true on Earth, but what if the Earth was hit by a giant comet and was destroyed?  Wouldn’t you, and the future Lunar colonists, want the Moon colony to be able to carry on without Earth?

The most important value of a self-sufficient colony on the Moon and Mars is life insurance for our species.  There might be huge number of intelligent beings in the universe, or we might be the only one.  Either way, it would be a shame for us to go extinct.

How To Start A Colony?

Strangely enough, I wouldn’t start with manned missions returning to the Moon.  I’d cover the Moon with robotic prospectors that would do a complete survey and tell us what minerals are available for use.  Then I’d build mining and manufacturing robots.  The first goal would be to build tunnels and construct safe underground habitats for men and women, plants and animals.

The robots would have to start processing the lunar regolith for oxygen.  But where to store it?  Could manufactured air be stored in underground tanks carved out of the rock by robots?  Do they need to be lined?  What ceramic material would make the best seal.  Do the robots need to mine and build metal tanks?  See what a fascinating challenge this becomes?

How do you make a light-bulb on the Moon?  We can bring seeds from Earth, but they will need light to grow.  Natural light on the Moon is weird, with days and nights lasting for weeks.  Plants won’t like that, nor will they like the radiation.  Colonists will have to build underground greenhouses.  If we can do that we’ll have food and air purifiers.  However, we have no idea if plants can live on the Moon.  The lunar dust is not practical to use for plants as it is, so it must be processed into fertile organic soil.  Everything is a challenge, and any one challenge might be a show-stopper.

This kind of work can be carried out by robots or people, but human labor will cost so much more.  We could combine the two like scientific stations in Antarctica, but working on the Moon is devilishly hard.  The dust is dangerous, and working in a spacesuit is painful.  I think until the robots build safe shirt-sleeve environments for humans, robots should get all the work contracts.

This will serve many purposes.  I think intelligent robots will be our co-colonists.  Designing robots to construct a lunar colony will help evolve the science of robotics and that might lead to intelligent machines and AI.  Now the spin-off affect of developing this technology will create an economic boom on Earth.  It won’t directly pay for colonization, but it will be a nice gift.

The Basics of Lunar Life

Home sweet home on the Moon will be an underground city.  An apartment could have several rooms cut out of rock with artificial lighting, heating and air conditioning, and a few creature comforts.  In the early years it will be logical to have communal kitchens, toilets and washing arrangements for people and clothes.  Everything will be recycled.  Human waste will go into soil and food production.  I expect flowers, plants, shrubs, vines and trees to be planted in the home apartments, along walkways and roadways, in offices and factories and walls everywhere should be covered in vines.  Living on the Moon will be like living in a greenhouse jungle.

It might even be practical to have bees, worms and other insects living with us.  Meat eaters will want rabbits and fish.  Will it be practical to have cows, pigs, sheep and goats on the Moon?  I don’t know.  More research.  What about pets, like dogs and cats?  Can you imagine a rambunctious dog in 1/6th gravity?  Or picture how high a cat could leap?  Also, in such closed environments would be want dog poop and cat boxes?

Every ceiling will have to have artificial light that is maximized for human and plant comfort, and it will probably cycle in intensity to match night and day on Earth.  Can you imagine shipping all these light bulbs from Earth?  And we’d want to use a lighting source that produced the best frequency of light, that was the easiest to make, and that would last for decades.  Even if you filled the Orion capsule plum full of LED lights, how many missions would it take to light even a small community?  See how the problem grows?

If everything must come from Earth, and at a tremendous cost per pound, will scientific style missions ever be practical?  Antarctic stations are practical because we can ship in supplies by the boatload or planeload.  It will be much different re-supplying a lunar outpost by the capsule load.

We can spend billions on shipping light bulbs to the moon that will last so many years, or we can spend billions on how to build light bulbs on the Moon so colonists will always have them.  It’s like the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish.

Beyond the Basics

Once people have a place to stay, air, water and food, they might want more.  Like clothes they didn’t come from Earth.  Computers and televisions.  Washing machines, dishes, brooms, vacuums, and so on.  Or will they?  General purpose robots might be better than many single purpose machines?  But will that be practical?  On the Moon it will be cheaper for a person to do something than a robot.

And what do people do once they move into their new Moon home?  Robots and efficiency and the lack of resources for squandering will limit the need for some kinds of human work.  Do we really want to recreate capitalism with McDonalds and Starbucks?  Jobs and the space economy will be much different from Earth.  The Moon will not want tourists unless they came bearing hundred of pounds of manufactured gifts to pay for their stay.  Colonists will want talented people with great DNA that come to stay, rare elements and machines, and will resent freeloaders who come to gawk, but will accept them if they bring more than they take.

It’s one thing for Virgin Galactic to get people to pay $200,000 for what is essentially a Redstone Mercury flight, or for the Russians to get a handful of rich folk to fork over $20,000,000 for a Soyuz flight, but it’s a whole other thing to expect billionaires to shell out a significant part of their fortunes for what would be equivalent to a Saturn 5 flight.  Tourism won’t be a big business on the Moon.

Robots will be common but limited to working on the most vital of jobs until manufacturing is up to speed to produce lots of robots.  Probably for decades or longer, all robots will come from Earth and be dedicated to the dangerous surface jobs and mining.  People will tend the plants and animals, make the food, clean the toilets, weave cloth, and pretty much do the work of homesteaders everywhere.

There will be industries that will be unique to the Moon that provide jobs for the colonists.  Giant telescopes for all frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum can be built on the Moon.  The Moon will be an astronomer’s paradise until large space habitats are built.  We’ll build such large telescopes in space that we’ll be able to see other planets for light-years around and we might even discover signs of alien civilizations.

Once manufacturing develops on the Moon the next big industry will be to build space ships and develop new rocket propulsion system, including nuclear rockets.  Inhabitants of the Moon will colonize Mars and build space habitats, and launch missions into deep space.  Complex electronics and computer systems will probably still come from Earth.  Rockets built on the Moon might be very simple system.  Living on the Moon will teach simplicity and recycling.  Everything will need to be bullet proof, long lasting and constructed with the least amount of resources.

What’s the Best Way to Start Now?

There are no talks of colonizing the Moon now.  President Bush in 2004 created the idea of returning to the Moon by sacrificing the budget for the Shuttles.  The idea is to send more people and stay longer, but it’s moving from exploring to building a scientific base station.  I don’t know if the public will find that any more exciting than Gene Cernan tooling around the Moon gather rocks with Jack Schmidt.  The fact that China, Japan and India want to do that too might convince voters to allow their Congressmen to throw NASA a bone, but I doubt it.

President elect Obama is trying to keep NASA in the business of flying people in space but so far hasn’t decided what’s the best way to do that.  The Shuttles are destined to be decommissioned in 2010 and the next flight system, Orion won’t be ready until 2015.  To pay for Orion and it’s launcher Ares, NASA had to scrap the Shuttle program.  Obama is considered using other rockets rather than building the new Ares system, or keeping the Shuttles flying longer, meaning we stay in LEO and travel in circles for a few more years.

Personally, I think the money should go into manned and unmanned missions to the Moon and building simple cheap one-use rockets that are the best transportation system for getting us there.  Ultimately, because of costs, only a limited number of rockets will fly to the Moon.  We need to decide whether manned or robotic missions will do the most good towards colonizing the Moon.  We might need some Maytag repairmen to take care of the robots, but I’m thinking we’ll get more done with our metal friends for decades.

Where to go next is space is as fractional as religion.  You have the Reds, those wanting to go to Mars.  The Whites, think the Moon is the next step.  Then you have the Robots, people who believe space is only fit for machines.  And after that you have all kinds of creative splinter groups.  The NASA piece of the American budget pie is small, and travel beyond LEO is expensive, so only one space philosophy will ever get a shot at what they want.  Of course, one splinter group, the Capitalists, want to commercialize space travel and get their own funding.  I don’t think space tourism will fund Moon colonization or even space exploration.

My conclusions from this life-long study is colonizing the Moon is the foundation for mutating the human species into one that can live in space.  If we can adapt to living on the Moon, we can make our science fictional dreams come true.  Yes, I know the Reds claim Mars is the place to start because it has far more resources, but it’s location makes that a silly assertion.  Obvious, I’m one of the Whites.  I believe when we finally go to Mars, the crew will be launched from facilities and rockets that were built and controlled on the Moon.

If we only wanted to go to Mars once, a Zubrin style mission would be cheaper, but it’s really a very impractical long shot.  We just don’t know if people can live three years away from Earth.  The Moon is a far closer, safer and cheaper testing ground for setting up Antarctica style bases to see if humans can become spacemen.  Zubrin had the right idea about living on the land, but we need to start that idea on the Moon and see what we can put together with lunar resources.  I’m pretty sure the public doesn’t want to pay for plant the flag missions, at least not in this country.

We’re back to trying to find a reason the public will fund space exploration.  Would the idea of colonizing the Moon be exciting enough?  And would people want to leave Earth permanently and go live on the Moon?  I’m too influenced by a lifetime of reading science fiction to be able to answer those questions.  A sizeable portion of the public has loved the robotic missions on Mars.  And Americans love the pioneering spirit.  Homesteading the Moon might appeal to them enough to tell their representatives in Congress to vote for such plans.

In my “Science Fiction in My Lifetime” I gave colonizing the Moon by 2050 a 1 in 10 chance.  And by that, I mainly meant committing to trying to colonize the Moon before 2050.  If several nations on Earth started now, forty years would get us a long way towards building a self-sufficient colony on the Moon, but it might be a hundred year project, or longer.  My uneducated hunch would be that we’d have to commit to spending between $10-20 billion a year for all those years.  That’s not a large annual figure, but is it an amount the public will accept?  Is it a goal they will stick with and stay interested in for all those years?

Colonizing the Moon is so much more than picking up rocks on the lunar surface.  It could excite a million kids to create science fair projects and a million PhD dissertations.  Maybe it could generate a million jobs.  It will never pay for itself, but it’s like those Mastercard ads, creating a human civilization in space, priceless.

JWH 1/1/9

Science Fiction in My Lifetime

When I wrote this title I intended it be about science fictional predictions coming true in my lifetime, and especially what might still happen before I die.  Then I realized it could also imply I was writing about the great science fictional books that came out in my lifetime, leaving me room to speculate on what far-out ideas could appear in the near future.  Over at Visions of Paradise, Bob Sabella chronicles seven waves of science fiction since H. G. Wells, and wonders when a new wave will hit.  I’ve lived through three of waves Bob describes, the 1950s transition from pulp mags to book SF, the 1960s New Wave and the most recent Cyberpunk movement, but I think we all live in a reality partly shaped by Herbert and Jules and their literary descendants.

Right now the science fiction scene is dormant.  Most of the new books in the science fiction section at your favorite bookstore are fantasy books, or adventures set in classical science fictional worlds, like Baroque art encouraged by the Catholic Church.  No radically new science fiction concepts have been created since the 1990s with the concepts of mind uploading and the singularity.  What I’d like to do is recap the big SF ideas of the 20th century and then try to predict where science fiction might go in the 21st century.

How many grand ideas imagined in science fiction stories will become real in our lifetimes?  Humans landing on the Moon is the shining example for science fiction stories going back hundreds of years.  Before that, submarines and airplanes were predicted long before they became a reality.  Some concepts are harder to judge.  Many science fiction stories were written about overpopulation, terrorism and running out of natural resources after the year 2000, and some of those dreary predictions are coming true, just read John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.

How likely will the exciting, positive concepts of science fiction, bear fruit in our lifetimes?  Some people are anxiously awaiting flying cars and rocket backpacks.  Other fans are expecting alien visitors, while some folk can’t wait to go where no man has gone before themselves.  How many science fiction readers hope life-extension will keep them reading science fiction until the 22nd or 23rd centuries?  I know, I’d love my own Jeeves the robot.

I keep writing about the science of science fiction over and over again, but what really are the odds of these fantastic things happening before I die?  I had a revelation in the shower this morning.  Science fiction’s popularity has skyrocketed in the last 35 years not because of the validity of it’s ideas, but because the story telling has gotten dramatically better and thus appeals to a wider audience.

I thought my wife and lady friends were getting more and more into the ideas of science fiction when it became obvious they loved SF movies because of the hot actors and thrilling story telling.  Most people have zero expectation from science fiction, it’s just good fun.  They don’t want to homestead Mars, or expect the galactic overloads to come save Earth from ourselves.

I’ve been reading a number of classic science fiction novels from the 1950s this year and I’ve been amazed at the ideas, but disappointed with story telling aspects – it’s no wonder that science fiction had limited appeal back then.  I keep reading for the ideas and predictions, judging the science of science fiction, but the real success of science fiction in the last few decades has been in telling better stories.

I’m happy for that, but I want to focus on the science fiction ideas.  What are the likely odds for many of science fiction’s most popular visions coming true?  Let’s use the year 2050 as a cutoff.  If I could live to be 100, it would be 2051, so that’s close enough to call 2050 the end of my lifetime.  The odds I list are just my best-guess hunches because there is no way for anyone to really calculate them.  As far as I know, there are no bookies taking bets on these future endeavors.

Colonizing the Moon – 1 in 10

It’s been over 40 years since man has walked on the Moon, so this almost seemed a dead dream until China, India and Japan took a interest in the Moon and started up their own space programs.  This is very positive, except that the world-wide recession might slow things down.  Still the Moon is the logical base to start a beachhead on conquering space.  Colonizing the Moon is the cornerstone of all our science fictional dreams about space travel.

I think Robert A. Heinlein owned the Moon fictionally, with classics like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Have Space Suit-Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, The Menace From Earth, The Green Hills of Earth, Rocket Ship Galileo and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.  John Varley and Rudy Rucker are modern writers who have been homesteading the Moon in recent years, giving it a twist with mind uploading, cloning and mad robots.

Some of these books are among my all-time favorite books, but I’ve got to admit, none of them have approach colonizing the Moon in any serious way.  For such an old subject this leaves lots of room for future science fiction writers to work.

Colonizing Mars – 1 in 100

Growing up in the 1960s I really expected to see manned missions to Mars in my lifetime.  It just seemed such an obvious step after the Apollo program  Men like Werner von Braun and Robert Zubrin made it sound so doable.  Well, it’s not.  If you do the research you’ll find just how tough a job going to Mars truly is, not impossible, but well on the edge of the limits of what humans can do now and the near future.

And I think it’s silly to think about Mars until we can conquer to Moon.  If we can send men and women to the Moon for three years, and prove we have the skills to keep them alive, then it will be time to talk about Mars.  However, colonizing Mars is the next step after the Moon, and for many, it’s the main goal.  On the other hand, I believe the road to the stars is paved with airless chunks of rock and we have a convenient one at hand to practice our space survival skills.

Many scientists have said it was amazing luck that some of the twelve men who made it to the Moon weren’t killed.  Most of their luck came from making short journeys lasting less than 2 weeks.  Moon dust would have ruined their suits, landers and machinery if they would have tried to stay much longer.  Is it possible to build self-contained habitats that will last three years, the length of a Mars mission?

Science fiction has always made the near impossible sound easy.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars have set the standard for Mars colony science fiction.  His work is far more realistic than most SF writers, but still way too full of fantasy.  Science fiction writers might be visionaries, but they have trouble seeing the details.  Speculation on how to build a self-sustaining colony on Mars is wide-open.  Terraforming is a great idea, but explaining how to build a computer on Mars without help from Earth would be magical.

Manned Missions Beyond Mars – 1 in 100,000

Theoretically, it’s well within our means technologically to colonize the Moon and Mars within the next 25-40 years.  We could make some amazing breakthroughs in technology that would allow us to go further, but we need to get busy, and I think public opinion will be against it.  To go beyond Mars will require developing nuclear rocket technology on the Moon or out in space.  Mars is about the maximum range for manned missions using chemical rockets, and that mission would be far easier if we could perfect nuclear rocketry before we try.  The people of the Earth will not let scientists develop nuclear rockets anywhere near our home world.  The Moon is a fine place to work with radioactive elements.  The real future of manned space travel will depend on the industrialization of the Moon.

Asteroid miners have been a staple of SF since the days of John W. Campbell took over Astounding, ignoring the fact that it’s much cheaper to find the same resources locally on Earth, the Moon or Mars.  Unless space ships can be built on the Moon, mining asteroids is silly.  Any colony on the Moon will want organic elements, and especially hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon.  Moonies will probably want to mine comets.

Manned Interstellar Flight – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I guess it’s possible we could discover some magical space drive system that will let us zoom off to the stars before 2050, but it’s highly unlikely.  Personally, I think the only way for humans will travel to the stars will be to build giant generational spaceships that can operate for thousands of years, but even that idea is mostly fantasy.  We might have the will and tech to build interstellar spaceships in a few centuries, but for now the idea is almost pure fantasy.  Star Wars like galactic civilizations are absolute pure fantasy.  Even our very best hard science fiction novels are really just thrilling stories, and are rather pointless for our needs of predicting the near future.  Hard core space opera gives us grand hopes, but the chances of colonizing worlds around other stars is about equal to finding biological immortality.

Intelligent Humanoid Robots – 1 in 5

Asimov, Simak and Williamson ruled the robot stories, but robot stories aren’t as popular today.  Robots and robotics seem to be moving full-steam ahead though, with scientists like Ray Kurzweil predicting an artificial intelligence singularity in the near future.  Hobby robotics is probably much more popular than hobby rocketry ever was.  Anybody with some programming ambition can get into robotics.  And after Spirit and Opportunity’s success on Mars, I can even picture an ever evolving series of robots going where no man can afford to go.  That’s a goddamn shame, but that’s the way it is.  I hope NASA at least starts building in real-time high definition video feeds from it’s metal Martian explorers so us biological creatures back on Earth can feel like we’re walking on Mars vicariously.

Many people believe artificial intelligence is impossible.  I figure if nature can accidentally stumble upon the recipe, than scientists should be able to figure it out sooner or later.  The question is how long.  Robots are cheap enough compared to manned space exploration, so we should see a continual increase in robotic intelligence on space missions, and that might evolve into intelligent robots.  The military is also pushing robots to do more.  The more we ask of robots the more intelligence they acquire.

What’s surprising is I don’t think science fiction has ever done any really good realistic robot stories, either they are people-like and cute, or they are like Gort, all-powerful and scary.  Commander Data was among the best, but not very realistic.  Before 2050 I think we’ll see some pretty amazing robots, and just maybe science fiction will predict what they really will be like.

Visitors From Space – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

I’d really love to be proven wrong here.  We could use an alien like Klaatu or Karellen to knock some sense into us, but I don’t think that will happen.  What are the odds of intelligent life developing anywhere in the universe?  What are the odds of intelligent life developing twice and near enough to each other to visit?  It must be tremendous.  I’m not saying it’s impossible.  Let’s say it will be nice surprise.

For story purposes, the concept of visitors from space is pretty tired, although it will remain popular.  The idea has endless possibilities and offers so much fun and thrills.  Essentially, it’s a fantasy concept equal to stories about angels and vampires.

SETI Contact – 1 in 1,000,000,000

Detecting an intelligent signal from space is probably far more likely than having aliens over for coffee.  Detecting intelligent alien life in the universe would have profound philosophical implications to our society, so it’s strange that this topic is so seldom tackled by science fiction.  Often it’s a setup for physical contact or acquiring super-science, like Contact by Carl Sagan.  We need more books like His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem, The Hercules Text by Jack McDevitt and The Listeners by James Gunn.

I figured if we were real lucky, and I mean astronomically numbered lucky, SETI would detect a signal from space before I passed on.  That’s the most exciting thing I can practically hope for, but I doubt it will happen.  I think if we build some really gigantic space telescopes we might visually detect artificial elements in the atmospheres of extra-solar planets.

Cloning Humans – 1 in 100

I’ve always considered cloning boring.  It’s making a human without sex, but you end up with another human, big whoop. Most science fiction is about 20 year-old cloned bodies grown in a month, which is silly.  Also, the idea of copying the brain patterns of a natural human onto a clone’s brain is also silly.

Uploading Minds – 1 in 1,000,000,000,000

Mind uploading is a growing topic.  It’s all part of the Human 2.0 theorizing, and has been slowly emerging in science fiction for decades.

[You can see the complete documentary here, or go to YouTube and watch all the parts.]

Whether you copy my brain to a computer simulation, clone, or android mind, I’m still going to die in the process.  What’s the point?  This is no route to immortality.  I’d much rather design an AI mind than copy my own.  Being alive is about experiencing the now, and that’s not copying memories.  However, seeking to reach Human 2.0 status is where much of the science fictional action will be during the 21st century.

The Cutting Edge

If you really want to explore the frontier of what’s happening scientifically, right on the border of where science meets science fiction, be sure and read the  Top thinkers from around the world examine the most far out ideas on the planet.  Most of the articles are very down to Earth, but some could be used to springboard into science fiction stories.

The Future of Science Fiction

From what I can detect, I’m thinking the appeal of science fiction is even waning, at least for the moment.  I examined many months of book reviews at and only a handful could be considered new breakthrough science fiction.  If the editors there removed all the obvious fantasy titles their site would shrink dramatically.  Many of the titles that most SF fans would classify as science fiction, are really adventure stories set in old comfortable science fiction worlds with few writers trying to imagine anything new conceptually.  Like I said above, science fiction writers have gotten much better at telling stories.

Right now I think of all the predictions dreamed up by science fiction writers, I think robots, AI and Human 2.0 explorations are the ones most likely to come somewhat truer in my lifetime.  SETI contact with alien signals from space is going to be like finding one snowflake in all the snow storms of Earth each winter.  It could happen, it might take a thousand years, or a million years, or it could be next year.

I don’t think we’ll ever seen visitors from the stars, and I doubt mankind will ever be an alien invader.  Science fiction has always been deceptive about interstellar rocketships, implying they’d be something like a new model airliner from Boeing.  That thinking is on the order of asking how fast does Santa have to travel to visit every house on Earth.

Until men and women colonize the Moon and Mars and we learn how to build with materials found in outer space and create a new economy that has no dependency on Earth, we won’t be able to think about traveling further than Mars.

I think the dramatic new ideas that come out of science fiction will be about living on Earth.  The potential of combining the Internet, artificial intelligence, robots, advanced learning techniques, simulated computer worlds, and so on will generate new possibilities for humans.  Science fiction writers need to think very hard about what’s going on in this world.  Sooner or later a new H. G. Wells, Jules Verne or Robert A. Heinlein will show up and surprise us.

JWH 12/28/8

Future History and Science Fiction

We generally live in the now, washing dishes, typing emails, talking to friends, staring at the television.  Looking backwards at history does fill our minds on occasions.  Education seems all about looking backwards, and much of fiction is about the past, and even during football games or golf playoffs on TV, commentators will spend time talking about past games and legendary players.  Many hobbies dwell on the past including collecting coins, guns and stamps, genealogy, airplane modeling, refinishing antique furniture, learning to play music, art collecting, woodworking, rebuilding old cars, and so on.

Of the past, present and future, we mainly live in the present, and look backwards, but some people like to think about the future.  When you buy a lotto ticket you are hoping to change the future.  A political election is all about the years to come.  But there are little ways to think about the future too.  Like waiting for an anticipated job change, or looking forward to your favorite TV show coming back next week, or just thinking about cake after dinner.  Overall though, we don’t spend a lot of time on the future.  People are notoriously bad about preparing for what’s to come, such as saving money for retirement, eating right for getting old, teeth care to avoid large dental bills, and so on.  The future is there and we know it, but we only deal with it in a cursory fashion, like planning your day during a shower, or studying Consumer Reports to pick the best TV to buy.

The past has a sweep of 13.7 billion years to the big bang.  K-12 and college years are when we cram in thousands upon thousands of facts about the past.  We don’t however dwell on the next 13.7 billion years, that is unless we read science fiction.  I’ve always felt that reading science fiction was studying future history.  Robert A. Heinlein even called some of his SF stories his future history series.  Now science fiction isn’t meant to predict the future, but its alternate name is sometimes speculative fiction.  We could also call science fiction, tales of future histories.  Science fiction may come true, but that’s accidental, what science fiction tries to do is show what happens if this goes on, regarding a single point of speculation.

I’m not particularly old at 56, but I can remember the Mercury space program and how TV commentators talked of the future Gemini and Apollo programs.  I waited a few years and those missions came to pass.  Then NASA talked about orbiting labs, space shuttles, robotic missions to the planets, and a giant space telescope called Hubble.  I waited and they too came to be.  Stuff NASA has been doing since 1958 was vaguely suggested by science fiction going back hundreds of years.

It is possible to change the future through imagination.  Take for instance T. Boone Pickens and his Pickens Plan?  Pickens, an oil billionaire gets an idea, and now he’s trying to create a future in which his vision unfolds.  It helps to be a billionaire if you want a big idea implemented fast, but it also takes a practical idea that millions will support.   Whether Pickens’ plan plays out according to his intent still remains to be seen, but I think it’s pretty obvious that energy windmills will start sprouting all across the U.S. midsection like giant dandelions.  You don’t have to be a science fiction visionary to spot a money making idea.

There’s a new nonfiction book out called 10 Books That Screwed Up the World by Benjamin Wiker.  Wiker is a Christian moralist worried that ideas can be unleashed that adversely affects our culture.   I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I do think ideas can be like seeds that blossom into cultural change.  Over the years I think science fiction, and it’s earlier incarnations, have planted many of these seeds.  Some have taken a very long time to come to fruit, and others won’t blossom until far into the future, and many still, will never germinate at all.

Space Travel

Science fiction’s biggest claim to fame is space travel.  Stories of fantastic voyages to the moon, planets and stars go back centuries, but many people give Jules Verne and H. G. Wells credit for popularizing the ideas for the 20th century, which led to modern science fiction, rocket experimenters, and eventually the Russian and American space programs.  I won’t dwell too much on this idea because it’s so obvious, but I will say it’s been over speculated.  Although the word “science” is part of the label “science fiction” the field has always been weak on the science aspect and heavier on the fiction component.  Many readers can’t tell fantasy from speculative fiction.  The potential for mankind traveling across the galaxy is there, but it probably won’t look like Star Wars or Star Trek.

The human race is about three years away from its 50th anniversary of manned space flight.  Long dormant, manned space exploration has gotten renewed interest with the take-off of the Chinese space program.  I think the odds are good for humans returning to the Moon, and slight for making it to Mars during the next 50 years of exploration.  For imagining further we need to study both space science and science fiction, and reconcile the two visions.


Almost as old as space travel are dreams of creating mechanical men.  If you watch the science shows on television you will know that the science of robotics is taking off like a Atlas V.  Most people are familiar with toy and movie robots, and some even know about industrial robots, but will intelligent, free moving humanoid robots ever appear in the next 50 years?  Guessing that involves following a number of scientific breakthroughs.

Electronic and mechanical bodies that are roughly shaped like people, and are as mobile as our species, should be ready within 50 years, and probably much earlier.   We have humanoid robots now, but they are slow and limited. Like futuristic cars, battery technology will limit the range of android life.  Robots will always be hungry for energy and an AI companion that can go where you go, and for as long as you go, will require some very good batteries.

Next in limitation is intelligence.  There will be two levels of intelligence involved.  What scientists are working on now is what we might call mammalian intelligence.  They need to create a machine with the hardwired wits to survive in the real world like an animal.  Currently the progress seems to hover around the development of insects, but I’ve seen one robot that reminded me of a dog in its behavior.  Of course the real goal of our robotic dreams is artificial intelligence.  We want our mechanical pals to be as smart as Data on Star Trek.

What we’re waiting for is an AI breakthrough, the singularity, like that promoted by Vernor Vinge.  Personally I don’t see any laws of science stopping us there, not like Einstein’s laws putting the kibosh on FTL interstellar travel.  Like the kid in 1961 waiting for the moon landing in 1969, I feel like seeing intelligent robots is merely a matter of waiting.  This is going to have a big impact on society.  For a period robots will be like serfs and slaves, but at some point the civil rights of AIs will come up.  At what point does your faithful Rosie the Robot maid become too close to a manmade Hazel?

I’m hoping personal robots will be ready by the time I get old and need a caretaker.  I’ve watched a lot of people age and lose their independence, so I think the most obvious purpose for a personal robot is as a companion and helper for when we get frail.  Interestingly, this overlaps perfectly with another science fiction prediction, life extension.

Life Extension

Science predicts that I should die around age 79.  Those are my odds.  I might beat them by a bit, or I might cash in early.  In other words, on average I can plan to live another 22 years.  With the direction my body and mind has taken during the past decade I worry that even those 22 years will not all be good ones.  However, I’d like to think that medical technology could fix me up and keep me going.  If I had decent health, especially if my mind holds out, I could picture wanting to live to 100 or 110.  There’s plenty of science fiction predicting people will live hundreds, if not thousands of years, but for the next fifty years I think those stories are in the realm of the fantastic.  My personal fantasy is to double those 22 expected years and live a bit past 2051, and enjoy a 100th birthday.

The odds are against me, but medical science is moving fast.  I really don’t want to live to be 100 so much as I want to see what life will be like a 100 years after my birth.  Will we make it to Mars.  Will intelligent robots be common.  Will we make SETI contact.  Will space telescopes detect Earth like planets with artificial chemicals in their atmospheres?

With a little bit of life extension, baby boomers might get to see another decade called The Sixties.  What will life be like then?  Well, we all know what science is predicting for those years, the weather.

Global Warming

Science is usually not in the business of predicting the future, except for the limited time frames of controlled experiments, but climate scientists are now oracles prognosticating quite far into our futures and it isn’t good.  Despite the beliefs of climate change deniers, thousands, if not millions of scientists, engineers and technicians are working on the assumption that human activity is changing the climate of planet Earth and they are working hard to engineer ways to stop it.  In relation to science fiction, global warming is not an idea that came out of left field, because science fiction has often explored the end of the world through environmental catastrophes.

Global warming, overpopulation and the limits of resources will really determine the true nature of the next fifty years, and those forces could drastically effect what happens with space travel, robots and life extension.  If you want to get an idea how bad things could get, and why we should avoid any possible chance that we’re damaging the environment, then take up reading after-the-collapse stories written by some of the more gloomier science fiction writers.

For science fiction to be truly speculative fiction it must consider the laws of science carefully.  Will it be practical for 10 billion people to own a robot and live longer?  We know we can apply alternative technologies to solve the problems and answer the question in the affirmative, but science isn’t very good at predicting human nature, and that’s the real factor in how our future unfolds.

The reason why I’ve taken side tracks into exploring polarized attitudes and speculating on twin human species is because I’m not sure we can change our habits even with the aid of better technology.  If you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, you’ll see with some changes in the laws we could dramatically transform society.  That transformation will be like the major societal shifts we’ve seen in the last few hundred years.  Examples include converting to an industrial economy, the migrations to urban environments, the move from horse power to horsepower, learning to fly, and supplementing our neural brains with silicon thinking.  Climate change deniers may have no more impact on slowing change than Luddites or lovers of the horse and buggy did in the past.

If this is true, science fiction has a lot of room left in writing future histories.  Despite what conservatives want, and fundamentalists dream, we won’t stay the same or move backwards in social development.  Fossil fuels will run out, but new technologies will replace them.  The future can be as bright as we want, the question is will we dial darkness or light.  If we can unintentionally change the world, can we intentionally change it back?


Humans show a talent for adapting, just look how fast DVDs, cell phones and iPods were adopted.  I think integrating robots into society will happen just as fast.  Reading science fiction will give us a range of future histories to study on how to handle that problem, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories, to City by Clifford Simak, and Blade Runner‘s demand for empathy for androids.   Space travel is harder to accept because most of us will be paying for a few people to have all the fun.  And how many will reject life extension if offered?

Humans are very quick to accept change if it’s cheap and easy.  Dealing with Global Warming is more like not smoking, eating healthy, exercising and flossing your teeth.  Being disciplined on a world-wide level will require laws because on average we’re not a particularly disciplined species.

I read science fiction to think about all those centuries that I won’t get to see, all those billions of years of evolution I won’t get to study.  If you’ve explored the past you know great upheavals are common.  It would not be all that hard to write science fiction novels about futures where the number of carbon molecules in the atmosphere doubled and tripled, and the population halved and then halved again, and then again and again.  Humans have the adaptability and survivability of cockroaches and eventually we’ll make a comeback.

People do not like change.  Overall, we’re all like gamblers who go to casinos every single night hoping to break even.  What are the odds on that?  We don’t like change, but we certainly have the training for it.

JWH 9/28/8

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