Emigration: Colonies of the Mind and Space

Humans like to emigrate.  To pick up sticks and leave a familiar place and move to somewhere new and to settle. And then do that again and again.

Ever since our ancient ancestors walked out of Africa between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago humans have pushed themselves to explore and to emigrate to territories that would have been almost impossible to reach for the technology at the time.  Imagine how hard and dangerous it would be to adapt to living in the frozen tundra of the arctic north or to settle Pacific islands like Easter Island, thousands of miles from the nearest land.

Human migration from Africa  over the past 170,000 years

Human migration from Africa over the past 170,000 years

Recorded history shows that even when the planet was reasonably settled it did not stop peoples from continuing to emigrate from one territory to another, generally uninvited and unwelcome by the people who were already there.  Emigration became aggressive, whether you were a Mongol riding across the steppes into Europe or skirting the deserts into China,  or a European sailing across the Atlantic to the Americas or a Bantu herding your cattle across the rivers, jungles and deserts into Southern Africa.

In the modern world, migration, from mainly non-Western countries into Western countries, has accelerated to unprecedented levels with children of immigrants frequently outnumbering children of locals in major cities, presaging a major demographic and cultural shift over the next 20 years.  How far will emigration go?

Colonies of Space

Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal, founder of SpaceX, which delivers cargo to the International Space Station and is the founder of Tesla, the electric car company, wants to create an 80,000 person colony on Mars.  The trip there would cost about $500,000 per person: essentially the life savings of wealthy citizens in developed countries.  Colonists should not expect to ever return to Earth.  The thought of never being able to return home and spending all your money to make the trip is nothing extraordinary for humans – that is what we have been doing for over 60,000 years.

SpaceX rocket landing on Mars

Mars has almost exactly the same surface area as Earth (which is bigger but is mainly covered by oceans) and so there is plenty of space.  Humans have successfully lived in hostile climates, like the arctic and  in deserts, and although Mars is even more hostile than anything on Earth modern technology should make it easier to adapt there and to maintain larger numbers.  Once you have colonised Mars, why not the Moon or even the stars?

This sounds exciting and vaguely plausible.  Early exploration and colonisation on Earth was, for the available technology and knowledge, expensive and very dangerous. Colonising the Solar System and the stars would also be expensive and dangerous, but prices would come down and the dangers would be managed.

But also perhaps pointless.

Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not

One of the great puzzles of science is the question: “Are we alone in the universe?” Arthur C Clarke, the famous science fiction writer who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, famously said:

 “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” 

If other sentient species existed in the Universe they would also have a drive to emigrate, due to the same pressures that have driven humans.  This would suggest that they would colonise other planets and solar systems and that the Universe would be teeming with intelligent life.  But since we have not found any intelligent life, other than on Earth, the assumption is that there is no other intelligent life and we are alone. Hence Arthur C Clarke’s comment about this being a terrifying possibility.

But there is a third possibility and that is that at a certain point in time intelligent life becomes so advanced that it become pointless to colonise other planets and solar systems.

And humans are rapidly approaching that point, thanks to advances in computing power and virtual reality.

Lets go back to the purpose of emigration.  Curiosity is a key driver for some people, but they are a minority and it would have been hard to justify the risks of taking your family away from their community just because of curiosity.  Instead,  most humans are pretty content where they are and have no real desire to move even if where they are is not that great.  Why would humans chose to settle in a desert or in the arctic?

Humans move because something compels them.  There is not enough space, or food, or not enough security.  If someone has discovered something better – more space, more food, more security etc – then they can be both pulled and pushed to emigrate.

If you were to emigrate to Elon Musk’s colony in Mars you would be guaranteed the following: food would be bad (vegetarian only); accommodation would be cramped; you could only go outside at great expense, discomfort and risk; the climate would be a mixture of a desert and the arctic; your legal rights and colony governance would be quite different to what you are used to as the colony blended a mixture of Earth based laws and new Martian based laws; and you could never go back and see your family again.

Colonies of the Mind

What if you were presented a nicer, alternative, place to emigrate to?  You could have a luxury house as big as you liked, any kind of view that you wanted, fine clothes, furniture and the best art; cooks and cleaners to tend your needs, people who were like you and had your interests.  You could have your ideal legal system and governance structure.  Anything that you could imagine you could have. You could even live “forever”.  A type of paradise.

The catch is that while the Martian colony would be “real” the alternative colony would use virtual reality.

The ultimate form of virtual reality is something similar to that portrayed in The Matrix: a virtual world so real that it is impossible to distinguish between the real world and the virtual world.   We are not that far off:  modern sci-fi and action films routinely show digitally created worlds and characters that are impossible to distinguish from the real world.

The fork is not real, the steak is not real.  But it tastes good.

Scene from The Matrix: the fork is not real, the steak is not real. But it tastes good.

The technology to create a visually perfect virtual reality world already exists, albeit unevenly distributed and expensive.  But Moore’s Law, which predicts a doubling of computing power every 18 months, still seems to work, after 60 years.  The new Sony Playstation 4 and Microsoft X-Box One games consoles, to be released in 2013, already demonstrate real time computer animation that is almost photo realistic.  In the 20 years before any rudimentary and expensive Mars colony is available computing power will have doubled 13 times and a cheap games console will have the power of today’s fastest and most expensive super-computers.   That is more than enough processing power to have any virtual world that you could imagine.

Next Generation Playstation 4 and Xbox One games consoles can produce nearly photorealistic real-time animations.

So in 20 years time perhaps millions of people will be living the bulk of their lives in multiple virtual reality worlds of their choosing with their own unique economies and social systems.  A parallel real economy will cater for their real needs with simple food and simple shelter.  The cost to house, feed and maintain the real world population would be significantly cheaper than the cost of maintaining a Western family today, potentially enabling the population to reach 10 billion people without too much difficulty or conflict.

Given the expense and discomfort of “real” colonisation to other planets virtual colonisation may be a far more appealing alternative – not just for humans but for other alien species in our galaxy as well, which may well explain the apparent absence of intelligent life despite there being possibly millions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy.

As more people emigrate to these Colonies of the Mind it may even reduce pressures on Earth so that more of the planet can be returned to its natural habitat, resulting in a resurgence of biodiversity and life.

But perhaps the only way we will see that is in a virtual world catering for idealists and environmentalists!

 
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  • Eric Fletcher

    I wouldn’t cross off the possibility of other sentient species yet.

    First, would we even know if a more advanced species was amongst us? (Are cats or dogs aware of what humans are really about, despite living with us so intimately?) Secondly, we have plenty of past history to show the risks of uninhibited contact, so wouldn’t it make sense to manage it more carefully — either by us if we were expanding, or to us if we were being considered as a new entrant? Finally, what if we are in fact the result of an earlier contact? Our understanding of our distant past is still quite murky, and if time was less of an issue (i.e. your point about virtual living), then a “real-world experiment” of many thousands of years would not seem much of a stretch.

    Interesting article; I always find myself listening to your podcasts more than once!

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