August 18, 2003

Live Long, Prosper, See the Universe

Discover Magazine presents a detailed article on what it would take to get us an earthlike planet in the Alpha Centauri system should such a planet be found. This is good reading, with descriptions of the different propulsion systems we might use (fission, fusion, matter-antimatter, laser sail) and a good run-down on issues like food, air, water, radiation, and gravity. With all these ducks in a row, the star voyagers could make the trip in about 45 years, raising the question of who would want to go on such a long trip, with no real possibility of return?

Ken Layne has the answer to that question:

Who wouldn't want to go? Let's see, die while taking the greatest voyage in history, or die down at the Loser's Club Home For The Aged? Just 500 years ago, the chances were very slim that a human would see anything beyond his or her village. Hell, a century ago it was terribly rare for a human to leave its birthplace. In this country, at least, the majority of us die far away from where we were born.

Absolutely. Besides, as we've been reporting here lately, we ought to have some good answers on the human lifespan front around the same time we have our laser sail starships ready to fly.

One of the issues Aubrey de Grey and I got into when doing the Seven Questions was the likely high-levels of risk-aversion that go hand-in-hand with a longer life. It isn't just flying cars: we would expect virtually all forms of transportation to be totally risk-free. Even the one-in-a-million threat that commercial aviation currently poses would be unacceptable. We would demand that all homes, workplaces, and public meeting places be indestructible: completely fire-, lightning-, earthquake-, and even bombproof. We might even decide to give up travel altogether in favor of staying home where it's safe. Some of us might even go so far as to shun personal relationships because of their occasional tendency to lead to violence.

There are three reasons why I believe this might happen:

  1. With other causes of death out of the way, all our death-prevention thinking will focus on how not to get killed.

  2. Risk aversion has historically gone up as our lifespan has increased and our own infrastructure has driven the risk of mortality down. That very infrastructure make us more risk-averse.

  3. Death is less acceptable when it occurs less frequently. Compare the horror and revulsion that we feel towards Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with the attitude towards infant mortality that our ancestors of 100 years ago had. It's not that they loved their children any less, but (by necessity) they viewed the death of an infant as more to be expected, more part of the natural order of things, and more acceptable than we can really fathom.

Of course, I'm painting in very broad strokes. I'm sure there will still to be those who are not only non-risk-averse, but who are downright risk-friendly: the thrill seekers and the adrenaline junkies. In fact, risking an abrupt and premature end to a 700-year life might be considerably more of a thrill than doing the same for one of our old 80-year models. But on the whole, I think attitudes will tend towards an intensely risk-averse direction. Eventually, the major cause of death may be suicide as people grow bored with hundreds of years of not going anywhere and not having any friends.

It is beyond ironic that the very technologies that are most likely to bring about radical life extension, and thereby foster radical risk-aversion, are the same technologies that will enable humanity's grandest adventure: the exploration and settlement of the solar system and beyond. When the starships are ready to fly, will there be anyone left ready to face the challenges and dangers of space exploration?


Maybe the very old. Maybe people who are alive now (or who will be born in the next few years) who live to see those days will be the most willing to go. After all, they might be a little more risk-friendly than their progeny, remembering as they will a world in which icy roads or unprotected sex could do you in. If that turns out to be true, then those of us who are interested in subjects such as life extension, nanotechnology, and space exploration have an additional motivation to stay alive.

The future needs spacefarers. And that might very well mean us.

Posted by Phil at August 18, 2003 10:23 AM | TrackBack

You forget one important factor in your risk-aversion discussions. As "normal" causes of death are eliminated, things lower down on the probability list are promoted to the top. One of the things on this list would be death due to asteroid impact, large volcanic eruption (think Yellowstone caldera), etc. While most modes of transportation may get hung up in the absolute safety trap, I should think that extreme longevity would be a GOOD thing for space technology. And eventually, I think good old human curiosity will win out and with a few hundred years to play with, most modes of transportation will be made excruciatingly safe. So, the "I don't want to risk my very long life, so I won't go anywhere" phase will be an aberration in the intermediate term. In the longer term, transportation will become essentially as safe as staying put.

Posted by: Eric at August 19, 2003 11:10 AM

"Eventually, the major cause of death may be suicide as people grow bored with hundreds of years of not going anywhere and not having any friends."

I don't think so. What they'll do is get bored and start taking risks again, risks that we consider acceptable (and maybe a few that we wouldn't consider acceptable) and live, on average, several more centuries.

Posted by: Ken at August 20, 2003 07:05 AM

me me! send me! And being 46 now it's rather unlikely that I'd see the end, but I'd go in a minute, anyway.

Posted by: JSAllison at August 20, 2003 10:43 AM

for an excellent vision of what life on a long-term starship might turn into, read Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun. The "Long Sun" is the heat/light source running down the middle of the cylindrical spacecraft. the occupants have been onboard for several generations and have forgotten that their world ("whorl") is artificial. there are artificial and organic inhabitants (chems and bios, resp). computer cards from the backup systems have been cannibalized and the primary unit of currency is a "card" and cards are sliced into bits. computer screens can be used to program humans via visual inputs. excellent book (4 volumes)

Posted by: chris hall at August 20, 2003 02:50 PM
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