Space travel in the year million
- Published: 13 February 2010
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By the year million, quantum mechanics may allow the equivalent of Star Trek’s transporter beam, but even if it doesn’t, we can grow a ‘faxed’ copy of you in a remote location, based on a description file transmitted by ordinary radio or laser communication systems, writes Wil McCarthy.
Space is big. Really big. It’s also hard to reach. The thick atmosphere and deep gravity well of Earth present a real challenge to getting large masses up and away. Fortunately, once you are out there, and if you’ve got the time, it’s possible to move around in space with very little energy.
Newton’s inertia might stubbornly resist acceleration, but the vacuum presents no drag on objects that are already moving. What’s more, the motion and gravity of celestial bodies can be used to buy acceleration free—remember the Venus-Earth-Earth gravity assist that propelled the Galileo probe to Jupiter? Even better: with proper timing, an Earth satellite in a really high polar orbit—390,000 kilometers high—can hook around the moon every fourteen days as it lopes around the equator.
If the Earth and Moon fit on an imaginary plane together, the spacecraft is hopping up and over this plane, and through it, and down and under, and back up through it again, on a perfect schedule. Every time the spacecraft crosses the Earth-Moon plane, the Moon is there giving a little extra tug, so the vehicle is picking up higher and higher velocity until finally it is ejected from the Earth-Moon system altogether.
Then you can do the same trick with the Earth and Sun, and step your way out to the larger planets, building up colossal speeds that fire you off like a celestial cannon in any direction.
Given an ordinary rocket engine and a million years, you could easily travel hundreds of light-years from Earth, and by using solar sails and launching lasers or a fancy nuclear engine of some sort you could reach any point in the galaxy without ever breaking 10 percent of the speed of light. The venture is more attractive when you consider you need to make the journey only once.
Why? Teleportation. Quantum mechanics might someday allow the equivalent of Star Trek’s transporter beam, but even if it doesn’t, we can grow a “faxed” copy of you in a remote location, based on a description file transmitted by ordinary radio or laser communication systems.
Think about it: your genome—the complete description of how to build your identical twin—consists of about 35,000 genes, made up from 3.3 billion base pairs, which equals roughly a gigabyte of data. If you store only the differences between your genes and a standardized human genome, and then apply standard data compression techniques, the size of your individual genetic specification shrinks to just a few megabytes.
Similarly, since it’s possible to estimate your height, weight, physical description, and brain chemistry straight from your genes, all the important attributes of your physical body—including scars, moles, hair style, patterns of gene methylation, etc—could be stored as differences from the genetic baseline, similar to the way avatars are defined today for virtual worlds like Second Life.
A megabyte or two should provide enough detail to fool your own mother.
There will be differences, naturally, as there are with the natural clones we call identical twins. Plenty of processes in a growing embryo are stochastic; they follow a prescribed track, but wander around on it.
Then all we have to deal with, in reconstructing you via fax, is your memory.
The data storage requirements for this are difficult to estimate, given how little we know about the brain’s inner workings, but if we imagine your sense of identity as (a) an Encyclopedia Britannica worth of accreted data, opinion, imagery, and sound (five gigabytes), (b) a personal text narrative a thousand times more detailed than a typical historical biography (one gigabyte), (c) a series of three-hour high-definition movies, or thirty-hour low-def movies, showing the highlights of each year of your life (twenty-five gigabytes per year), and (d) a huge relational database that links specific sights and sounds and smells to specific information in the other files, then we could probably get pretty close with two terabytes (that is, two trillion bytes) of storage space.
Even if we multiply that by a safety factor of a thousand, we end up with a fairly manageable amount of data, equivalent to about four and a half hours of broadcast time from your satellite TV provider.
I’m not suggesting your memories are actually stored in this form, or anything like it, but a future society with a detailed understanding of microneurobiology could almost certainly record, transmit, and reconstruct your memories and personality—your soul, if you will—using this kind of data.
You might find this bald claim hard to believe. Well, think of Mark Twain, or Benjamin Franklin, or Jesus, or any other historical figure you know and love. Chances are you have a pretty good idea what they’d think and say and feel about a wide variety of different subjects. How they’d dress, what they’d sound like, how they’d hold their drinking cup in a fireside chat. Your brain does a pretty good job of reconstructing the person.
And yet, all the information you’ve ever heard about them—their own words, the words of others, a couple of painted portraits—probably amounts to a few megabytes at the very most. So what do you think a hyperintelligent computer could do, one built expressly for the purpose of reconstructing people, with a hundred million times as much information?
Even if we allow for some sort of ineffable mystery, even if we accept that something prevents the faxed copy from being you in the deepest sense (maybe your unique talents and passions aren’t fully captured, or the somewhat stochastic copy expresses them differently), the resulting person would still be more similar to you than are your parents, your children, or even the most identical of twins.
So in a very real sense, you are transmittable and could be beamed to any point in space where someone had bothered to set up a fax receiver. Of course, the strength of even a laser transmission drops off with the square of the distance it has to travel.
The TV satellite, from its perch in geosynchronous orbit, has to send its signal only about twenty-six thousand miles (forty-two thousand kilometers) to reach the dish on your roof. To send the same signal to Alpha Centauri would take two hundred million times as much power, or else take two hundred million times as long (about a hundred thousand years of repeated messages for sufficient accuracy) at the same power.
Even in a far-off world of near-magical technology, the laws of physics will keep this magnitude of transmission from being a trivial undertaking.
The good news, though, is that the blueprints for a whole library of plants, animals, and machines could probably be sent for a fraction of the cost of a single human.
Besides, who is to say that the definition of human will remain constant over time? A million years ago there might have been as many as a hundred distinct species of humans scattered around. A million years from now there could be many more than that.
Posthumanism is the science and philosophy of extending human capabilities through a combination of genetic engineering, machine assistance, cybernetic implants, and any other available technology. Think of the Borg on StarTrek but in a thousand different varieties, from fairy-tale elves to hard-shelled lobster people to big-headed, big-eyed, grayskinned Close Encounters types—not to mention androids, humanoids, animaloids, floating heads, disembodied brains in jars, hive minds, living buildings, living vehicles, whole landscapes made of pulsing meat.
In the extreme case, it might be that each individual is a species unto itself, and the birth of children is impossible without serious technological assistance.
Then again, some people won’t want to change—will be horrified by the very idea of change—so it’s likely there’ll be at least a few good old-fashioned Ur-humans running around in the far future as well.
Wil McCarthy is a science fiction novelist, Chief Technology Officer for Galileo Shipyards (an aerospace research corporation), and the science columnist for the Sci Fi Channel (United States). His website is here.