Friday, December 12, 2008

What The Far Future Will Really Be Like

So, if the Intelligent Universe is arguably deeply improbable, what is the probable distant future?

Let's look at the trends, the empirical evidence. Fundamentally, the case is convincing that the technology of sustainability will continue to exceed the technology for moving and maintaining large numbers of people on some place other than Earth, and that this trend will continue well into the deep future.

Population growth, though still large in absolute numbers, is slowing percentage-wise, and is projected to drop to 0%, essentially constant human population, somewhere around the middle of this century (the 21st). Projections vary, but a steady-state human population of somewhere around 8 to 10 billion is about right. Interestingly, recent revisions have been made, toward the lesser of these numbers. In other words, the population growth rate in the third world (where almost all the population growth is) is slowing more quickly than previously estimated - a promising trend, indicating among other things that the sensibilities of the "developed" world are not without impact even in the "Third World". Despite the us vs. them nature of these terms, we are all one world, and what happens in one part touches many others, everything linked together in myriad ways, some obvious, others very subtle.

Now, this sounds like a lot of people, and it is, 2 to 4 billion more than the 6 billion now living here. However, the Earth with sustainable technologies in place can easily support this number. This is critical to realize - 8 to 10 billion people most definitely does not represent an overpopulated, overburdened Earth - not with the right technologies and policies in place, intelligent land use and environmental stewardship policies chief among these. This is no Soylent Green future. This is true even though much of this growth will be in the developing world, with the developed world having challenges with actual population decline. In a future blog entry, I will take this issue on with what I feel should be the primary focus of the foreign policy of the developed world, that is, the ultimate goal of a sustainable economy within the borders of each country on the planet. Not self-sufficient, but sustainable, I will dive into that in another entry.

After this maximum number is reached, it will remain at this number more or less into perpetuity. It may decline due to a sudden catastrophe such as an asteroid strike (the risk of which after the next 100 years or so will be greatly abated by advanced technologies, this being a special flavor of sustainability technology), but a large increase above this number is not really a seriously entertained statistical probability by scientists and demographers who study population trends.

The upshot of this is the science fiction idea that humanity will flee a polluted, overburdened Earth for the other planets and beyond will not be an imperative. In fact, even way cool ideas like a Ringworld (I love the Larry Niven Ringworld books) will not really be necessary by any reasonable, non-science fiction based analytic treatment of this topic.

The above-mentioned trends address the lack of a need to leave Earth; now let's look at the desirability (or lack thereof) of doing this, even if it's not necessary but the technology is there anyway. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz said, there's no place like home. Even when we develop the technology to enable the migration of large numbers of people from Earth to points beyond, this will not happen, though I'm not discounting an initial rush due to human curiosity - any such rush will quickly abate after a brief period. Space is deeply hostile; other planets, even after centuries of terraforming, will still be a pale copy of Earth in terms of biotic richness and complexity. To even approach a small percentage of the floral and faunal richness of Earth will require very, very long timeframes, millions of years, not decades or centuries. And because of sustainability technology, it seems very doubtful that we will need to do this for mining materials or energy sources for our needs here. In other words, it will never make economic sense to mine the hydrocarbons on Titan, for example, for the energy needs on Earth. By the time it is economical, we will have almost certainly moved on to other energy alternatives. That will happen with whatever material or energy need we care to contemplate.

Even when we eventually find other planets that seem more or less "ready to move in", that will almost certainly mean that they are already inhabited by existing, alien lifeforms. Colonizing those alien worlds will therefore be charged with ethical, logistical, scientific, and psychological dilemmas. How do you colonize an already-inhabited planet without fundamentally imperiling that planet's biota and hence its scientific value to us, to say nothing of its own inherent right to exist?

On Earth, when biota collide, even with the same microbial substrate, solar budget, etc, that we all share on this planet, mass extinctions usually result. For example, when North and South America merged via Central America 2-3 million years ago, and of course when Europeans contacted the New World 500 years ago, one side wins, the other side perishes in vast numbers, with mass extinction and population reduction the unhappy outcome. For Earth space travelers to contact and settle a planet with a completely alien biota, with probably a different kind of sun, lot of different things, the catastrophe may make the Earth examples look mild by comparison.

And here's the thing: even if we win, we lose. Even if we emerge the successful settlers of some alien planet, much of the scientific value of that amazing discovery will be lost. Plus, a planet with alien biota may not be palatable to us; under an alien sun, our biota may not thrive.

Prediction: no matter how many life-friendly worlds we discover, none will seem anywhere near as welcoming as our own planet Earth. Certainly within our own solar system this is true; once the tech is here to be able to affordably fly to Saturn for a weekend, people will do that in large numbers; but only to visit. But to stay, to live for 20 or 30 years on Enceladus or Titan, or in orbit around Saturn? There will be some, but they will have rock-solid reasons for being there, scientists and employees of tourism companies come to mind. But, those numbers of people will be small, probably in the handful of 1000s at the most. You're not going to have 30 million people living on Titan, even in the distant future.

When the tech first gets here, there may be an initial rush of the starry-eyed or adventurous-minded; but that will quickly abey, and the population outside of Earth will remain a minuscule fraction of the population that remains on Earth.

Now, traveling to Saturn and traveling to the nearest star is like comparing walking across the living room compared to walking from the north pole to the south pole. The same considerations apply, multiplied a million-fold.

The future will tell, but because of confirmed effects like mass dilation, I don't believe that faster-than-light travel for macro-level objects like spaceships and us will happen anytime soon, probably never. Even if a proton were to reach the speed of light, it would attain the mass of the entire observed universe; that is a difficult concept to get one's arms around, but to simply wave it away is irrational, unreasonable. The conservative, empirical approach would be that we will be constrained to something appreciably less than the speed of light forever, or at least a long, long, long time.

What this means is that even if we found a identical copy of Earth around the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, you're talking a 30 to 40 year one-way trip for anyone embarking on that voyage. You talk about homesickness; you can't turn back, and even if you went there and did come back, most likely all your relationships on Earth would be gone or distant memories by the time you got back, even factoring in breakthroughs in longevity tech.

Now, it may seem that I am therefore predicting a glum future, where we are forever locked onto our home planet, and the rest of the universe will remain unexplored and unknown. But that is not at all the case - in fact, we will have our cake and eat it too.

For one thing, just because we human beings may not go abroad (particularly beyond the solar system) in large numbers does not mean that we won't explore these distant realms. Unmanned probes (the show Alien Planet and the Darwin probes are a good example of this) will explore these realms, as well as of course advanced telescopes that eventually may allow us to resolve objects as small as a house (or really, geological formations of that size, not predicting houses around other stars unless we get fabulously lucky) around planets orbiting other stars out to, say, 100 light years from our solar system.

And the advanced form of AI that I predict for the hyper-reality engine will in fact bring us these worlds in detail so vivid that we feel like we're actually there - without sacrificing our entire life, our relationships, and our home planet in order to experience them.

It seems reasonable to suggest that any extra-Earth settlements will have an exponential function that rapidly decays with distance from the Earth. Meaning, there eventually may be a population of perhaps a million people on the moon, perhaps, and maybe another 100,000 beyond that point, some 80-90% of which would most likely be on Mars. Beyond these two close and relatively accessible places, most other points beyond will probably be populated by small teams of scientists and/or tourist destinations, often combined into the same locale, possibly sharing many of the same personnel (what better tourist guide to your visit to Titan than a scientist that has spents years studying it?).


teknoarcanist said...

I never understood why, if we had fully-peripheral VR which perfectly emulated all five senses, we would feel the need to climb into a giant clunky metal spaceship that shoots fire (or even a sleek future jello spaceship that shoots magic) in order to go visit other worlds/intelligent species. That's always seemed like kind of retro-futuristic thinking(in the vein of: "Laef, man, some day we will build these dragon-headed Viking canoes out of COPPER and ROW THEM INTO SPACE.'

Anonymous said... is very informative. The article is very professionally written. I enjoy reading every day.

John said...

All very interesting and speculative.

With advancing tech over the next 100-200 years, we can only in our wildest imaginations concieve what is before humanity.