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Why We Should Send Uploaded Astronauts On Interstellar Missions

A Review of the Article by Giulio Prisco

Sending people to planets beyond our solar system has been a growing interest for space exploration. The future colonization of an Earth-like planet is inevitably necessary for mankind's long-term survival. A major milestone in advancing this endeavor was reached with the creation of the 100 Year Starship joint research project between NASA and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The project resulted in the Icarus Interstellar organization, which carries out research and development for the purpose of interstellar travel.

While finding ways to support interstellar travel for flesh-and-blood astronauts can lead to advancements in life-sustaining spacecraft, it is no easy challenge to engineer massive starships with all the essentials to sustain hundreds of human generations toward the goal of reaching an Earth-like planet to keep humanity going. It's not impossible, but what if we didn't need to be concerned with the biological requirement and could just focus on supporting the minds of the future space travelers? This is where mind uploading becomes the most logical solution. Professionally known as Whole Brain Emulation, this solution would eliminate the challenges of many otherwise crucial factors, such as artificially generated gravity, replenish-able food and water, recycled breathable air, air pressure containment, and the overcoming of other life cycle limitations. Given these conditions, Whole Brain Emulation would provide a means for people to no longer need an Earth-like planet to survive.

Still, the crew of digital astronauts will need some replenishing resources, such as power (the main resource for keeping all machinery functional, even if the crew is dormant for the travel) and raw material for repairs and technological modifications. Furthermore, the ship and its crew will have a mass that must be propelled across several light years. Using chemical burning rockets would take about 100,000 years to get to the next nearest star, Proxima Centauri. To address this issue, the Icarus team has proposed a method of fusion-based propulsion offering 1 million times more energy than current rockets.

"Light sails", which take advantage of the possible lightweight craft containing a digital crew, provide another propulsion solution. This project, led by the Planetary Society, uses large solar panel type sails to catch the momentum of light particles from starlight. The organization currently has launched 2 light sail prototypes now in orbit around the earth. Light sails can also be propelled with much greater efficiency, acceleration, and eventual speed than their host solar light can provide by utilizing lasers at the source of the trip. However, there is no way to decelerate such a spacecraft as it approaches its destination; such a mission would be a flyby. That said, once a remote colony is established, it could offer a laser-braking system to receive incoming laser-propelled light sail spacecraft.

Another option for interstellar exploration would be to send AI instead of emulated humans. While this may aid in the field of space exploration by data transferred back to Earth, it doesn't solve the challenge of mankind's objective to colonize the rest of the universe, nor the challenge of finding a new home after the lifespan of the Earth as run its course.

While it's easy for the average person on the street to be more concerned about getting to work on Monday than about getting to Proxima Centauri in several centuries, time is running out to find a home for generations in the future. Earth will not be here forever and it will be habitable for even less time (see previous blog post, a review on The Greatest Long-term Threats Facing Humanity). It is human nature to expand and explore. This problem is well understood by scientists such as those of the Icarus organization. Furthermore, if Whole Brain Emulation is developed in "Joe's" lifetime, "Joe" will have a reason to be invested in interstellar travel.

Opinion (by Michael Ulrich):

Whole Brain Emulation is absolutely essential for long-term space travel. The advantage of having a small payload isn't just a factor of the mass of the digital crew. Using fusion propulsion or light sails can help resolve the fuel issue, but the crew will likely want to bring a lot of things with them. For example, the ideal life of an emulated person differs from person to person. Some may be perfectly fine with living as a computer program, spending all their time in a virtual world. Others may prefer to maintain a level of interaction with the real world, much as they did in original organic form. This group will want to bring engineered vessels (i.e., bodies) along to inhabit when they reach their destination exoplanet. If they want to build a civilization of embodied persons who can roam the world in suitable form, then they will want to bring the necessary equipment with which to bootstrap a high-tech infrastructure.

The main point is that we will have a lot of baggage to pack for the trip regardless of whether we're emulated. This will require a massive ship which will need power and technical support resources. Alternatively, having the means to build an infrastructure could be started by bringing the minimum essential utilities derived from a calculated chain of development. A builder “seed” nanobot that could exponentially reproduce itself would greatly aid a payload constraint.