2016 Contact Conference

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The 2016 Contact Conference was held from April 1-3 at the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale, California, featuring the usual "blatantly diverse" program ranging from science and science fiction to art and history, mostly connected to the theme of contact with alien beings. The [Cultures of the Imagination http://contact-conference.org/c00b.html] component of the event was limited because two teams had been playing out a contact scenario before the conference began, but they did get to play out the beginnings of a contact with a mysterious third alien race with the audience on Sunday.

Contents

Speakers

Ben attended almost all of the talks this year and presented one himself, which was added to the program when the very first speaker turned out to be unable to attend.

Ben Sibelman: Biospheric Communionism

Abstract: We all hope for amicable relations with any sapient alien race we may encounter. But as our ecological consciousness grows, new questions about contact arise. It seems highly likely that any starship will carry living ecosystems to enable long-term life support, or at least an array of seeds, spores, and embryos that could be used to recreate such ecosystems on arrival at its destination. How then can we establish good relations between our respective biospheres, avoiding at least some of the problems that usually come along with "invasive species" entering a new ecosystem? To what extent are we morally obligated to solve these problems and create the best possible world shared by two independently evolved trees of life? And how would this apply to the case of a starship filled with Earthlife traveling to another living world with no sapient inhabitants? I'll lay out the origins of this area of thought, which, to our knowledge, has mainly been developed by my friend Eric Saumur, and I'll discuss some speculative ideas for how Biospheric Communionism could work and what it would ask of us.

Text of the talk

Audience Q&A:

  • Penelope Boston: The Competitive Exclusion principle in ecology might be a showstopper, preventing two biospheres from sharing the same planetary "niche" just as it prevents two species from using the same survival strategy in the same place
  • Zac Zimmer: What if aliens misrepresent a world to be jointly terraformed as a “barren neutral ground,” in a similar way to how Europeans defined the Americas as a blank slate?

Allen Taylor: Mixed Reality

  • Allen worked for NCR when they were proud of having sold 8000 mainframes
  • 1982: first edition of Flight Simulator, one year after the first IBM PCs
  • Holoportation makes face-to-face contact between beings who can’t live in the same environment

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: rewiring kids’ brains in a way that makes it hard for them to interact with the real world?
    • Don’t use it with young children without lots of research
  • ?: how much bandwidth do you need for holoportation?
  • ?: don’t you need two identical rooms with corresponding furniture?

Larry Niven: The Legacy of Heorot series

  • Four authors, 20 years or so, 3 novels & a novella (one novel is in progress)
  • Trying to win a Hugo for Jerry
  • Jack Cohen helped Anne McCaffrey reshape her world into something more like sci-fi, created aliens for two other authors (David Gerrold is one)
  • Super-simple real-world ecosystem: tadpoles eat moss, frogs eat tadpoles
    • Grendels (lizards that can move super fast) are the females and Samlon (fishlike fungus-eaters) are the males/food source that can turn into Grendels
  • Cryogenic problem on a starship launched by the Geographic Society: more ice crystals form in your brain every time you cycle in and out
    • Children of colonists don’t trust their parents’ judgment
  • Jack insisted that beings not be just renamed Earth creatures
    • He created an evolutionary precursor, the Avalon crab, that evolved into marine life, burrowers, avians etc
      • Harvesters are gigantic shelled creatures with an ecology under the shell and another one on top
      • Avalon bees eat Grendels for the Speed chemical that allows them to move so fast, then act like airborne piranhas
    • Big relatives of Grendels can serve as dams, others can build dams or live in snowy environments
    • Cthulus are squidlike electric amphibians that used to have high tech, tried to domesticate Grendels but the Grendels brought them down, now they attack Grendels on sight
    • Horse-mane trees let their photosynthetic parts blow to one side
  • Wild coffee plants somehow absorb a little Speed

Gerald Nordley, Anticipation and the Laws/Limits of Nature

  • Laws often apply to a limited domain (e.g. PV = nRT)
    • Conservation of energy may not apply to dark energy
  • Einstein rederived Lorenz’s empirically-based equations based on theory of invariant speed of light
    • Equations are not natural laws; the laws are based on observations, and aren’t “proven wrong” if behavior outside the observed domain is different – therefore they’re immune to being invalidated by future scientific discoveries (?)
    • Nevertheless, understanding a natural law probably requires having a predictive equation for it
  • Any technology develops according to a roughly logistic curve with a physical limit at the top
    • Lighting tech, in terms of efficient use of the power source, has already reached the top plateau with LEDs
    • Supposedly the 707’s design is near-optimum because it’s a very fast subsonic transport
  • Audience member: E.E. Doc Smith’s Aurelians (sp?) hit some kind of very high limit

Penelope Boston: Exoplanet Studies Informing Astrobiology and SETI

  • Does our new exoplanet knowledge inform our understanding of what fraction of planets have life or intelligence?
    • Rough approximation: on the order of 100 million Earthlike planets
    • Physics limits what our telescopes can perceive
      • Mass, orbit
      • Rotation rate and tilt
      • Sometimes density, maybe very basic tidal and atmospheric motion data
      • Atmospheric composition (once we get spectroscopy data)
        • One signature of life is complex spectral signature due to variability in redox states
  • Comparative studies of planets/star systems are now possible, which gives us huge new scientific leverage
  • We need a Theory of Habitability (intersection of exoplanetology and astrobiology)
    • Look at Earth’s Critical Zone (near surface, above and below) – rapid material cycling/exchange
      • Chlorophyll is the most common protein on Earth, very detectable from space
    • Consider Boston Type 2 biospheres with bottom-up energy sources (chemosynthesis required, sulfuric acid is food!) and atmospheres in chemical equilibrium (Europa, Martian aquifers?)
      • Critical Zones will be much more stratified due to the “roof” over the biosphere
      • Use certain caves and mines on Earth as models of rock fracture habitats which form a kind of Type 2 half-biosphere (making Earth a hybrid)
      • Low-energy system, leaks to be detected from a distance will be very limited
  • As for intelligence, we don’t know what environmental factors lead to it (Planetary Foundation of Intelligence and Ecology of Intelligence studies?)
    • Climate change? Catastrophes that create population bottlenecks?
    • Is it only predators that become intelligence? (Penny is unconvinced)

David Morrison, the Search for Life in our Solar System

  • David met some orangutans in Borneo, made eye contact with one from ~4 meters for a while
  • 3 ways to search: listening for intelligent signals, detecting life on exoplanets from light-years away, searching in our solar system
  • We currently focus on searching for surface life
  • Mars
    • Curiosity has found that a lakebed probably had saline water
      • More saline water could last longer on Mars’s current surface
    • Since Viking we’ve known of both outflow channels and dendritic structures indicating a rainy past
    • Episodes of melting in recent Martian history?
    • Gullies are all on steep slopes we don’t know how to climb with a robot, and what’s weird is that they’re not where you’d expect if linked to a deep aquifer
  • We don’t have a real life-detection instrument
  • Europa
    • Is there an energy source that works?
      • People studying this are hoping for surface turnover so solar energy could be transported to the ocean as chemical energy or heat
  • Common origin would add at least a 4th domain to our taxonomic tree
  • Second genesis would be more hopeful about the prevalence of life in the universe
    • We don’t know of any mechanism to exchange material with Europa or Enceladus, so it would have to be a second genesis
  • Enceladus
    • No drill or submarine required!
    • Hubble says there may be similar plumes on Europa
      • Congress has already mandated a lander to study the plumes even though they’re unconfirmed
  • Titan
    • Has complex carbon chemistry, a rapidly cycling atmosphere and “hydrosphere”
    • Because it can’t host life as we know it, we should ideally go there first

Jim Funaro: Evolution of Star Trek as American Mythos

  • Myths derive their credibility from affirming the values of their culture, but also helps create those values
  • Talk is limited to the first 4 series because the fictional timeline is in sequence
  • Jim claims that each captain appeals to women of the time they were broadcast
    • Kirk matches the tradition heroes of the 60s, the cowboy, the war hero, and the lover
    • Picard is sensitive, intellectual, and his sexuality is only rarely/partially expressed
    • Sisko is black and a single parent (matching an emerging trend in America), shaved (active) vs. bald (passive)
    • Janeway can fight, has more complex sexuality (episode where she kisses Seven)
    • Jim thinks the next captain should be an ex-enemy alien LGBT polyamorite
  • First officers are complementary to appeal to a wider audience
    • Riker is a demotion of the macho guy that follows the rise of feminism
  • Progress of sexual equality
    • Uniforms went from miniskirts to pantsuits
    • Original TNG pilot had a female first officer!
    • More and more women on the bridge over time
  • Racial diversity
    • Anthropology tries to be anti-ethnocentric and “make the world safe for difference” (Ruth Benedict, 1946)
    • DS9 and Voyager each had 3 people of color and 5 aliens
    • Constant subplots of aliens becoming friends, although a few aliens remain evil
  • Machines
    • Until the 1930s the dominant narrative was replacement of human labor
    • In the war years through the 50s, machines are dangerous but serve as allies
    • The 60s were a good time for narratives about AI
    • 80s: machines are pals (esp. early computers)
    • 2000s: machines redefine social life
  • “The Inner Light”: Picard gets to vicariously live an ordinary life

Andy Weir: Future Cost of Launch to LEO

  • Current Falcon 9 price: almost $2500/kg!
  • Assumptions:
    • We solve reusable boosters and other issues
    • There’s infinite demand
    • The same fraction of income that gets spent on fuel as in the airline industry (15-18%)
    • We use hydrogen and oxygen in an efficient mixture, giving the max specific impulse possible with a chemical fuel (currently this melts all known rocket engines)
    • Dry mass of spacecraft per passenger is the same as aircraft
  • Compare with the Boeing 777-300 ER, the dominant long-haul commercial jet
    • Could hold 550 economy-class passengers!
  • You need a delta-v of 9800 m/s because 2000 is lost to air resistance
    • This gives 12.04 kg of fuel per kg of dry weight
    • Based on all assumptions, cost per passenger is a bit over $7000
  • Air freight for 200kg costs the same as a passenger
    • This plus the above would give $35 per kilogram of freight!
      • Audience member: $168/kg for soft landing on the moon
    • Hence $35 million for a million-kg space hotel, vs $100s of millions for tropical resort hotels
  • Gov’t investments will be repaid in tax revenue, just like their investments in the airline industry in the 1930s-50s
  • If you compare the Falcon Heavy to the SLS, the cost of the latter is 700x more!

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: Tourists make trash
    • Biodegradable trash (and human waste) is a good thing to have on orbit!
  • ?: Safety
    • Clean up space debris
    • Double-hulled system to avoid debris penetrating the pressure vessel?

Bruce Damer: Architecture for Interplanetary Spaceflight

  • Both Apollo and the program depicted in The Martian could only reach one location on the surface, and exposed themselves to the harsh surface environment
  • Bruce worked at NASA for 15 years, and helped with asteroid landing plans for Constellation
    • Asteroid mining won’t work with current thinking
    • Bruce suggested capturing a comet and putting it in Earth orbit as a massively valuable source of volatiles
    • A Contact 2014 attendee designed the SHEPHERD model so you could wrap an asteroid in a balloon and move it without touching it
      • 0.1 atm xenon, de-spin with air friction
      • If it has volatiles, suck them into tanks – or use them to make a biosphere inside your bag!
      • The Monde process enables easy manufacture of precision parts from nickel-iron asteroids inside this balloon
      • Send a captured comet to Mars to give them the ability to make brief visits to the surface and live mainly in space
      • Build fueling stations everywhere to help explore the outer planets

Bruce Damer: A New Model for the Origin of Life

  • Work started in 1976
    • Computational models for 20 years, then gave up
    • 4 conferences with Richard Dawkins etc
  • New model accepted for publication last Monday
    • Recent visit to NW Australia to learn about the Archaean
    • Dry a warm pool with lipids in it, then partially rehydrate the resulting hydrogel – gets you long chains of amino acids
    • RNA caught in a bubble might have basic selection in favor of returning the bubble to the film
    • Then collections of vast numbers of bubbles in the gel would be selected over individuals
    • Planning to write a 100-page paper listing the testable hypotheses for others to tackle

Audience response:

  • ?: Was there a second genesis and one of the proto-biospheres lost?
    • More likely there was a lot of cross-pollenation that ended in a merger of the “roots of the tree of life”

Jim Moore: High-Level Intelligence May Not Have Evolved Via Natural Selection

  • If high intelligence is selected for, we’d expect lots of life to mean lots of intelligence
  • Once we got metazoans, size and proportion of body parts shifted easily
  • Insect flight evolved independently 3 times? (dragonflies, bees, butterflies)
  • Source of human uniqueness
    • Not spindle neurons
    • Lots of animals have complex communication systems or at least
    • It’s not clear that our brains have major organizational differences from those of other primates; the % of our brain that is frontal cortex isn’t unusual
    • Encephalization quotient (brain size / body size)?
  • Bipeds (Homo erectus) are more efficient runners because our breathing rate isn’t tied to our leg motion
    • This enables us to chase faster animals until they’re exhausted
    • Lack of hair also helps because we can dump heat efficiently
      • But you’ll still heat up your brain during hunting, which makes you delirious—unless you have a larger brain to make it more redundant and therefore reliable (Fialkowski, 1986 and 1994)
      • We have brain circulation specializations to deal with overheating
    • Because this sequence is so complex, it makes the evolution of intelligence the way it happened with us a lot less common than we’d otherwise think
  • One possible issue is that other hyperintelligent beings could have evolved – e.g. we don’t even know enough about some cetaceans/odontocetes

William Clancey: John E. Arnold's Design for Aliens

  • Arnold did WGBH shows on science, precursor of Nova
  • Engineering should start with creative consideration of different kinds of design, to avoid copying existing stuff
  • Arnold's design approach was imported from MIT to Stanford
    • He created the Design Division of Stanford's engineering department, leading to IDEO and the d.school
  • Arnold was part of the Human Potential Movement
  • Class on "design for the Methanians of Arcturus IV"
    • Students had to ask tons of questions about the aliens & their world
      • They're described as subhuman, but have a culture much like 1905 America
    • Each course had a theme, e.g. home products, transportation, farming
    • Unfortunately, Arnold didn't involve anthropologists (or Methanians) in the design process

Gus Frederick: The Golden Age of Free-Thought

  • Gus's research started with Homer Davenport's autobiography, with a story of a Reverend Braden debating a freethinker about evolution in 1873
  • At the time of the American Revolution, only 17% of colonists were church members
  • In the late 1800s, "Free Love" meant abolishing anti-cohabitation laws for unmarried men & women
    • Also, organizing around someone's arrest for mailing a contraception manual
  • The Boston Investigator, founded by President Adams, was one of many freethought publications
    • Truth Seeker is still active
  • Key freethought leaders: Robert G. Ingersoll, Samuel P. Putnam
    • Ingersoll, a lawyer, defended the last American to be tried for blasphemy (he lost, but the judge fined the defendant just $1)
  • The McMinnville Building housed the First Secular Church & Science Hall
    • Secular Sunday schools with science and nature education
    • Had its own freethought journal
  • The Liberal University of Oregon got funding from a prominent contraception supporter, and only lasted two years
  • As a graphic designer, Gus finds the debate over two freethought emblems fascinating (one by a man named Otto Wettstein, the other by a woman)
    • The drama may have played a role in the end of this Golden Age

Jim Pass: Al Harrison and Astrosociology

  • Jim introduced astrosociology in 2004, started a research institute in 2008, planning to publish a book called Launching Astrosociology this year
    • Relationship between space & society
    • Integrates humanities & arts
  • Al wrote Spacefaring: The Human Dimension in 2001, helped Jim a lot with legitimizing the field
    • Al warned of the risk that people would see it as a pseudoscience related to “little green men”
  • In 2005, Jim proposed a definition of a “spacefaring society” that our civilization doesn’t meet, one where society is extensively transformed by astrosocial phenomena (vs. “space-capable society”
    • Applied astrosociology would guide us toward becoming a spacefaring society
  • Al’s maybe most important paper on the subject was about SETI, in the journal Astropolitics in 2011
  • Al’s chapter for the book is on planetary defense
  • Trying to connect w/ astrobiology
  • Plan for a crowdfunded Albert Harrison Astrosociology Scholarship named for

Melanie Swan: Blockchain Crowdminds

  • Empowering human-machine relationships, e.g. the law firm Robot, Robot, and Hwang
    • One relationship is prosthetics
    • A bad one is drones/unseen panopticon
    • Another bad one is personal data that acts on us more than we act on it
  • Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) could become AOAC brain-internet connections
  • Cloudmind means a thinking entity located in (or connected through?) the cloud
    • Mechanical Turk
    • SETI@home?
      • Do the same for unused brain cycles??
    • Applications include crowdsourced event memories, humans using IoT entities as real-feeling extensions of their bodies
  • We want industry standards (& other external referees)
  • Avoiding addiction
    • Gamers prefer novelty over pleasure and have better brain connectivity (but game addiction is still a major problem)
  • Blockchains could enable planetary-scale projects in ways that hierarchical models can’t
    • Use them for privacy and security administration in cloudminds
    • Also a system for logging and rewarding new ideas
  • Personal identity and how to preserve it
    • Reasons and Persons book and fMRI studies say that we don’t need or even have a really continuous identity (future self is considered a stranger)
    • Initial BCI-based cloudminds need not challenge personal identity, or could create extensions – a new personal society of mind extending into the cloud

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: When will we actually have a useful BCI?
    • Human Connectome Project can help us understand the brain well enough
    • Julie works in private security with a deaf coworker whose machine interface makes people think he’s dumb
  • ?: Legal systems tend to lag behind
    • If you’re in control of your personal blockchain (e.g. your quantified health data and later your brain output), you can be a “cryptocitizen” less vulnerable to legal subpoenas of your info
  • ?: Past societies that privileged community over individual, ecological impacts of energy-intensive blockchain proof-of-work security mechanism
    • Consensus mechanism may need to change from proof-of-work (Etherium has already added proof-of-stake)

Seth Shostak: Searching for Intelligence that Isn’t Alive

  • Seth was being filmed at the Allen Telescope Array for the 9th season of Ancient Aliens
  • Drake Equation has been the ruling paradigm of SETI for over 50 years
  • Having a few dozen habitable exoplanets to look at (which we do!) isn’t likely to give us a transmitting civilization, given temporal factors
  • New 20,000-red-dwarf survey
    • Kepler statistical extrapolation: >16% should have Earthlike worlds
  • Tabby’s Star (KRC 8462852) had a brief reduction in brightness of over 20%
  • Colossus Telescope would look for infrared signatures of alien megastructures
  • Time-scale argument
    • We may well have AI within 150 years of the invention of radio
      • Consider the 2400-nm feature size of synapses in the brain, vs. 16 nm in modern electronics
      • BCI is a stopgap measure, like putting an ICE in a horse
    • Most life in the universe may actually prefer to avoid oceans and atmospheres because they aren’t friendly to electronics – may prefer more powerful astronomical energy sources near the galactic center
      • Could we intercept communications passing between two such locations?
    • Travel time is much longer than AI evolutionary time, so why travel?
  • ?: What if our AI descendents inherit our desire for exploration?
    • Exploration has survival value for us
    • Susan Schneider agrees that the first generation of AI will inherit our desires, but because they design their own successors, it’s likely those desires will be eroded/replaced

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: If we find alien AI, will they be interested in communicating with us? Should we search for organic intelligences so we can establish a 2-way conversation?
    • Why would such an intelligence even make itself visible to us?
  • ?: What if someone sends us an AI – should we give it access to our internet?
    • Trope isn’t realistic – can’t teach Neanderthals to build a cell phone
  • ?: Machines’ evolutionary pressures
    • They’ll still have survival pressures, so avoiding natural disasters – not sure what else
  • ?: Changing one bit in an AI fitness function screws it up, and the universe is fine-tuned for biology
    • Best way to handle fine-tuning is multiverse theory

Kim Stanley Robinson – Why We Can’t Go to the Stars

  • “Earth is humanity’s cradle” quote is obsolete
  • Bussard Ramjet seems unlikely to work, meaning best speed where we can carry enough fuel to slow down again is 0.1 c
    • Multigenerational starship community has settled on this figure as within our abilities
    • Biggest plausible starship has a trillionth the living area of Earth
  • Recent advances in microbiome studies
    • Gut microbiome evolves faster than humans, causing divergence and illness
  • Can’t model keeping a closed ecology alive
    • Even 0.1% of material failing to cycle will ultimately clog up the system
  • Starship life requires totalitarian control of both love and work
    • Revolutions are going to break critical things
    • No good jail system?
  • We won’t survive the 10,000 years it takes to terraform a world starting with just a single starship
    • But bacteria will – so if you like seeding extrasolar worlds with bacteria, go ahead
  • What about cryogenics?
    • Even if we slow ourselves down, cold-loving extremophile bacteria will eat us
  • What about uploading and strong AI?
    • The brain is unsolvable – can’t look at it at a deep enough level when the brain is alive
    • But yes, AIs can go to the stars
  • Four terms of the Fermi paradox are permanently unknowable, e.g. “how long do transmitting civilizations last”
  • “Don’t keep all eggs in one basket” is one of the lamest excuses for space exploration
    • Most people think it’s crazy
    • Better justification is Antarctic-style research stations

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: Why not let robots do the terraforming?
    • Okay, not impossible, just a 10,000 year project
    • How do you take care of all the kids when the embryos are first hatched?
  • ?: Spreading super-slowly via Oort-cloud hopping?
    • That would work – I’m just arguing against 100yss
  • ?: We don’t know what we don’t know (e.g. 110 years ago, “heavier-than-air flight impossible”)
    • Analogies are always false
    • We can see the limit on the logistic curve of what we can know
  • ?: Planetary catastrophes mean we eventually need to find another place
    • Humans aren’t that important – lasting 10 million years would be fine

Don Scott: The Halcyon-Oceano Enlightenment

  • Why do enlightenments always happen in poor, obscure places?
  • Halcyon and Oceano are on the shore next to dunes with lots of freshwater lakes in them
  • Ireland
    • People involved in the “Celtic Twilight” and fighters for independence were often involved in Theosophy
    • Ex. Ella Young, researcher on Celtic mythology who hid guns for the IRA, then tried to emigrate to the US but was declared a terrorist
      • Eventually made it in and became Chair of Celtic Mythology at UC Berkeley
  • Oceano Dunites
    • Poor people living in cabins who could steal crops and get water from the lakes
    • Wood came from a failed beachfront community
    • Often got work as extras in movies filmed in the dunes
    • Ella convinced Chester Allen “Gavin” Arthur to build a mystical community
      • Steinbeck and Ansel Adams visited, as well as Indian “Don’t worry, be happy” inventor Meher Baba
      • Community published 7 issues of Dune Forum magazine, available online – failed in the mid-1930s
      • Eventually Arthur left for San Francisco
    • After early 1940s, the last surviving Dunite document is an alleged novel that’s actually nonfiction, The Face of the Clam
  • Halcyon was founded by Theosophists for the end of a 2000-year cycle, to welcome the Avatar back
    • Founders didn’t have many resources – started a pottery and a printing shop which survive
      • Focus on the common person, hence the Temple of the People
    • Failed to start a real socialist community
    • Henry Cowell, “the creator of modern music,” spent a lot of there and designed a prototype theremin there
    • Theosophists believed electricity and X-rays were interesting because they prove invisible forces exist, so spirits could exist too
    • The Varian boys from Halcyon invented a means of seeing in the fog while flying for Pan-Am, made a deal with Stanford for lab space and $100/year in exchange for 50% of the profit from what became the first lightweight radar, the Klystron, which won the Battle of Britain
      • Varian Associates also invented the MRI
  • Mars projects often use klystrons for all kinds of things – ion propulsion, satellite comm
    • The Varians were environmentalists (Russell was in the Sierra Club), so space exploration is partly based on that?
  • Lessons
    • Encourage irrational leaps of faith
    • Education should be of intrinsic value, not job training
    • Poor, obscure places allow creative invention with limited materials and no interference from supervisors
    • STEAM / cross-discipline thinking (which spaceflight encourages – “they should have sent a poet”)
  • Audience member: First Klystron 2 was made from Mason jars by Ball, a company that had Ball Aerospace as a descendent

Michael Sims: Uplift

  • This talk is about the planets-with-intelligent-life-that-can-communicate terms of the Drake equation?
  • In a typical human-made environment (e.g. this room) there is nothing that any nonhuman could create
  • The assumption that intelligence arises due to individuals shaped by evolution & the environment is flawed
    • No single individual being (anywhere in the universe?) could build any manufactured object (e.g. a chair in this room)
      • Resource extraction, processing, assembly all took many generations to develop
    • Written language is the enabler of all manufacturing because it allows collaboration across spacetime separation
    • Single individuals aren’t the primary source of intelligence/innovation/production
  • Uplift
    • One implementation option apart from genemodding: give them a technology that enables collaboration across spacetime separation
    • Michael has only vague preliminary ideas for what this would look like – contact him at simsspace@gmail.com to help out

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: What would motivate animals to do this type of communication?
    • We do need to make the tech useful to them
  • ?: Bucky’s Cumulative Advantage concept – how to make next year’s whale songs better than this year’s?
    • Michael doesn’t believe we have a method for determining how sophisticated existing nonhuman languages are
  • ?: Don’t we need to understand nonhuman language before we can offer them useful tech?
    • No, just need a system for letting the dolphin decide who to call on the underwater cell phone
  • ?: Population density needs to be high enough to enable transmission of ideas, enabling a Cultural Ratchet
    • That’s not an issue with written language

Mars panel

  • Penny Boston: I got hooked on Mars while watching Viking’s first photos raster in – it’s my model for the hard-to-attain destination
    • A lot of my career has involved difficult-to-reach and hard-to-survive locations (caves)
    • Being an explorer gives a richness to my scientific thinking – danger focuses the mind
      • I’ve done roleplaying at Mars Desert Research Station, which is enough to make us hyper-aware of what we’re doing
    • Most mainstream astrobiologists aren’t really passionate about human exploration
      • Planetary protection is hard to reconcile with sending humans to Mars
      • I recently re-read KSR’s The Martians, which gives an important personal perspective and ecological approach
  • Larry Niven
    • I met Ray Bradbury in my doctor’s office when I was 10 and got a copy of The Martian Chronicles
      • I already knew that the depiction of Mars wasn’t realistic
      • I wrote a new story every time the space probes “changed Mars”
    • I took the view that we can get more out of the asteroids (and maybe moons) than Mars, and it’s even harder to go to Mars than we thought
      • I didn’t anticipate the lasting predominance of unmanned probes
      • We need to go to Mars because it’s there
  • Kim Stanley Robinson
    • I was learning to write sci-fi & exploring the Sierra Nevada & Buddhism when Viking landed on Mars
      • I read the book on it, The Surface of Mars by Michael H. Carr, & looked at stereoscoping photos & thought “that’d be a cool place to backpack”
    • Looking at the Case for Mars group’s articles (4 volumes published by British Interplanetary Society), I thought it would make a great novel, but didn’t start writing for 10-15 years
    • Carl Sagan and discussions of nuclear winter were related to the first scientific discussions of terraforming
  • Michael Sims
    • In grad school I cut back on reading science fiction by picking one author, Niven
    • Robotics and AI will get us to Mars easier than any other tools
    • Science and exploration are deeply entwined
  • Carol Stoker
    • Mars is the most clement nonterrestrial planet, and its resources are a lot easier to get at than the Moon’s
    • Once you go there, you have to stay and live off the land
  • Andy Weir
    • Why send humans to Mars? Robots are clearly better
      • Objective is to find out how to do it right, so we can eventually colonize Mars and reduce our odds of extinction to nearly zero
      • Also an excuse to dump $ into commercial space research
      • It will happen no matter what, because we’re frickin’ crazy and will go anywhere we possibly can
        • The things that make modern saddles for horses so good were all invented for other reasons
  • Chris McKay: Search for life on Mars

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: What if we discover deal-breakers for colonizing Mars?
    • Larry: The way I dealt with how they kept changing Mars was going into fantasy
    • Penny: We keep exploring different parts of Mars, and ultimately we’ll focus a lot more on one place because we want to land humans there
    • KSR: Sci-fi writers have created a feedback loop that leads from Percival Lowel to the moon landing
      • The next wave was about a totally dry Mars
      • Viking showed that there was some water there
      • Perchlorates are a big issue that make it more important to write “escape from Mars” story
    • Michael: Our perspective on colonizing Mars is myopic – the financial cost is not prohibitive and priorities will change, and the attitude that it’s too dangerous is silly
    • Carol: Elon was trying to get into the space program 10 years ago, and he’s already building rockets that get us much closer to landing on Mars
      • We learned about the perchlorates by accident – I don’t think we’re asking the right questions
  • ?: What happens when the Chinese send a geologist to Mars on a one-way mission?
    • Andy: I don’t think any government would do that – but I don’t think it matters much who goes to Mars, and it will more likely to be an international project
    • Chris: Steve Squires said that a geologist could do much more work per unit time, but the infrastructure to support him/her is important too
      • Andy: The only thing robots couldn’t do is have something that thinks as well as a human – the first science missions may keep the humans in Mars orbit
        • Michael: It’s actually easier to survive on Mars’s surface than in orbit, according to some studies Carol and I participated in – and transitioning from a habitat good for a year to a fully sustainable one isn’t that hard
      • Penny: There is nothing like being immersed in an environment in terms of the intuitive leaps you can make – we in geology, biology, etc don’t fully understand how the things we study send signals to our minds
      • Michael: I think we’re not too far from getting an experience with robots relatively comparable to a human being there
  • ?: Aspirational/societal benefits of a positive vision like Apollo
    • Larry: USSR believed Star Wars program could work and therefore disbanded their country – their scientists said it couldn’t work, but the politicians believed us because we had landed on the Moon
    • KSR: Somebody Oliver has a theory that going to Mars is the hardest thing we can do right now and that’s why we want to do it
      • As soon as we land on Mars, most people will lose interest, but young people aren’t as easily jaded
    • Andy: The core reason for colonies is always economic
      • Even McMurdo station “turns a profit” using incoming research grants
  • Methane as a signal of life on Mars?
    • Chris: The SAM instrument is the only one that has made a solid, high-enough-precision detection of methane, showing it’s constant at half a part per billion, which is what you’d expect from meteorites
    • Penny: If your subsurface biosphere is too leaky, it will lose materials it needs to keep sequestered – so Chris is right, the supposed huge methane plumes don’t even make biological sense
      • Detection of life even in Earth’s subsurface is really hard!
      • Mars has been appearing more habitable over time, but a habitable environment doesn’t mean it’s inhabited
    • Andy and Penny: A “cryptobiosphere” would be a very different thing than life on Earth
    • Michael: I think we need humans there before we can find cryptic subsurface life – even sample return missions are a waste of time for getting organisms
      • Carol: The goal of those missions is finding evidence of an ancient biosphere
      • Carol: We can find evidence of a modern biosphere using the proposed Icebreaker mission
  • KSR: How bad are these perchlorates for people on Mars?
    • Andy: I’ve received tons of emails, and a paper was written showing that perchlorates are like smoking (so Mark could have survived for a while)
    • Andy and Penny: Perchlorates can be easily removed from the regolith – some microbes can just metabolize them
  • ?: Moravec’s paradox: the problem with robots is coordination – it took 60 million years to evolve good enough coordination for brachiating apes
    • Larry: Moore’s Law helps
    • Andy: Put humans in low Mars orbit
    • Michael: We have no idea what robots will be capable of in the near future – and we already have the coordination needed for a robot to drive a car much better than a human can
      • We’re not trying to replace everything a human can do
  • ?: Can you make better life detectors as you study more subsurface life?
    • KSR: I think Chris has said that subsurface life must have all gone extinct by now
    • Penny: We are getting better, but we still can’t make a mechanical detector anywhere near as good as a field scientist
      • One important area of research is making less intrusive instruments
  • ?: What is the likelihood of Mars rover control being a driving force behind the development of strong AI?
    • Andy and Michael: very low

Chris Ford: Photorealistic FX

  • Newly cheap computing resources make full physics-based raytracing with indirect light feasible
    • But we’re still researching some of the basic fundamentals of how light behaves
    • We also need to bring rendering time way down so we can have realtime photorealistic CG
  • Renderman makes it super easy to apply very realistic materials as textures
  • The image starts out very noisy and can be rendered more finely for an arbitrary number of loops

Rick Sternbach: Keynote: Alien Civilizations: What Lies Beyond Our Imaginations?

  • The Black Cloud and Solaris (very alien aliens) came out right as the real space age began
  • Some argue that all alien encounter stories are really about us, but what happens when we write stories after actually making contact?
    • Audience member: Would Hollywood stop writing scripts about fictional aliens immediately when SETI succeeds?
    • Audience member: It would expand our imagination about what’s out there, suggesting possibilities we likely haven’t even thought of yet
    • Audience member: It will probably take years to decode a signal, and during that interval there will be a demand for creative renditions of what it might be, some of which could be very cynically political
  • The original Cosmos came out around the same time as Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials
  • In 1981 there was an early session for designing an alien world with a sapient species, run by Joel Hagen

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: How would you rank artists on the list of people to send to Mars?
    • Leonov was an artist as well as a cosmonaut
      • See also Alan Bean, Chris Hadfield
    • But training an artist as an astronaut is unlikely to work well
  • Ben: Aliens you’ve worked on that think the least like us?
    • The little crystal guys with the “ugly bags of mostly water” line
  • ?: Designing alien starships
    • Mainly for humanoids – all the ships had windows
    • The weirdest Star Trek aliens with ships were Species 8472; I didn’t work on that
    • And then there was Tinman, which Rick did design
  • ?: Physical vs. digital media
    • Back in the physical media era I had a couple weeks to finish a cover
    • I watched the development of computers from Timex Sinclair to 16,777,216 colors
      • Enabled a fairly smooth transition, and I love using the computer to put together an image in half an hour
  • ?: How did you get started?
    • Dad was an architect, so I was sketching (and painting) really early
    • Then at 7 or 8, I got hooked on the brand-new space program
      • Chesley Bonestell paintings appeared in books at my elementary school
    • First sales were to Astronomy Magazine
    • G. Harry Stone, who taught thousands to fly model rockets, showed my art samples to Ben Bova from Analog and they let me do a cover for one of Harry’s articles

Zac Zimmer: Rewriting the Conquest of the Americas

  • Prof of Latin American literature and culture
  • Comparative study of sci-fi allegories (?) of the Columbian Exchange, native genocide, etc, that involve contact with aliens
  • The historical moment was always described in hyperbolic terms, as a great historical disruption
  • Before 1492, European maps of the world were also theological diagrams mapping continents to Noah’s three descendents and poorly understood geographic forms to Christ’s body
  • More importantly, this was a biopolitical event
  • Alfred Crosby, author of The Columbian Exchange, and Nazi historian Carl Schmitt both say it will never have a parallel until we travel to (and exchange lifeforms with) other planets
  • Reinvention of the concept of life?
  • Interspecies intersubjectivity or the impossibility of it
  • Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: multinaturalism – nature is a relative term, while culture is universal
    • A shaman’s “shapeshifting” jaguar pelt, like a spacesuit, is designed as a means of entering a different nature
    • Contact scenarios demand new perceptual tools, so as to see the world with other eyes
  • Tenochtitlan was larger than any city the conquistadors had ever seen, and the greatest architectural feat on the continent
    • One of the conquistadors described it in terms of chivalrous stories, i.e. “genre fiction”
  • Artists who use the frames of museum, curiosity collection, and archive
    • Adrian Villar Rojas builds clay structures seeded with life that disintegrate and grow plants over time
      • Ex. a huge installation showing a vault full of the remnants of our civilization
      • Points to incomprehensibly vast scale
    • Eduardo Villacis (from Ecuador) created a museum of the Aztec conquest of Europe!
      • Starts with “tech exchange” by interrogation of Columbus and his crew
      • Europeans mistake the feathered warriors for angels
      • Europe then becomes the United States of Amexica
      • Fictional anthropologists dismiss ancient Rome as having been “nothing more than a set of dispersed villages with no historical significance,” just as real Europeans dismissed Aztec Mexico

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: First Contact book from 1930s about New Guinea tribes
  • ?: Catholic conversion
    • There were some groups that wanted to incorporate native beliefs into Catholicism, while others were fanatically against it
    • Cathedrals in Ecuador use the equilateral Andean cross

Douglas Raybeck: Literacy Lost Redux

  • Update of a paper written 20 years ago, with the thesis that voice interaction with computers will render literacy obsolete, leading to loss of abstract reasoning ability
  • Reading is good for us, connecting several parts of the brain through the inferior parietal lobe
  • TV wasn’t a complete wasteland – see Learning Channel, A&E, Discovery
    • 20 years later, Learning Channel now has Honey Boo-Boo, Discovery has a reality show called Gold Rush, A&E has Duck Dynasty
  • Humans are cybernetic systems that demonstrate the dire necessity of negative feedbacks
    • There’s a positive feedback between illiteracy and computers
  • 128 million adults in America can’t read at 8th-grade level, and this correlates with poor health and high likelihood of imprisonment
  • Young people are on Vimeo, Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr and Vine, not Facebook or Twitter (which are composed mainly of words)
  • A cognition/reading researcher found that her habit of skimming was super hard to break, although she knows the importance of deep reading
    • Someone is developing an app to automate skimming, letting you “read” 20 pages a second
  • The best way to write is in cursive, which ties into all the same brain areas involved in reading
    • A study of cursive vs. laptops found that shorthand helps with memory because you have to reframe the material on the fly
  • Alternative forms of literacy
    • One woman suggests a constellation of literacy practices based in MMOs
  • Voice recognition is now in the high 90s % accuracy, but is bad for serious writing
  • AlphaGo couldn’t use a brute force technique
    • Founder of DeepMind wants to teach computers to learn so they can replace 50% of jobs within a decade or two
      • Analogy: farmers have lots of kids to do the farmwork, then overpopulation causes famine (tragedy of the commons)
      • Finland is trying Universal Basic Income for a year to see how it affects people
  • One woman is training computers to recognize emotions so your freezer can lock itself when you’re depressed and want to binge on ice cream
  • Gullible electorate: 77% of Trump’s statements over the past year were judged at least Mostly False by Politifact
  • Audience member: Look into cognitive effects of writing Chinese, Japanese etc

Steve McDaniel: Self-Sterilizing Coatings for Planetary Protection

  • 2013 debate between Chris McKay and Mars pariah Gilbert Levin on evidence for life
    • Levin asserts that Vikings discovered life and suggests sending a modified instrument to test his claim
    • Levin and McKay agree on the value of chiral metabolic tests
    • McKay claims that Levin’s proposed kinetic impactors would have to go down several meters to provide the extraordinary evidence for his extraordinary claim
    • McKay points out the problem of contaminating the subsurface environment with Earth microbes
  • Steve’s company, Reactive Surfaces, has shown how porous smooth plastic surfaces are at 800x magnification
    • It makes enzymes and peptides that can detoxify pesticides (and other chemical weapons)
    • It can also convert vegetable oil into soap, making it easy to clean
  • The first team to provide solid robotic evidence will be super famous, and Steve believes we need to find DNA
    • Use nucleases to remove DNA from the surface of the probe
  • Steve’s ExoLife Probe
    • Small enough to “hitchhike” on other missions
    • Use bunker-buster bomb tech to get deep enough (simulations suggest 6-10 meters)
    • PCR with very generic primers
    • Quiver approach allows multiple probes to land in a variety of locations
    • Would cost so little that a single billionaire could fund it, and a large number of missions to cover vast areas of Mars are feasible

Audience Q&A:

  • ?: How do your antimicrobial and nuclease agents survive in interplanetary space?
    • They’re inactive but will still be effective when warmed up again

COTI For Us presentation

The teams' aliens

  • Team Omega: six-legged tailed furry beings who live in the sea except for their juvenile phase, can communicate using EM, and need a 2-stage nuclear rocket to escape their massive planet’s gravity
  • Team Alpha: “soggy Io” (ocean moon with many volcanic islands) around the other star of a binary system, with two coevolving sapient species with a recent common ancestor (honoring Lynn Margulis who had recently died)
    • Recent impactor serves as impetus for evolutionary leap and forms a pseudocontinent to enable later development of metallurgy
    • Sapients are tentacled decapods who make natural fiber for building material (sea scorpions as well as spiders do this) and highly distributed neural network (one large brain and 10 smaller ones) and form an endoskeleton
    • Main habitat: partially sea-flooded lava tubes
    • Sex involves direct neural connections, and can also be used to form a fishnet made of several/many of the aquatic sapients (with fiber mesh between them), as well as to communicate between members of the two species
      • This isn’t the only communication method; they also use wide-spectrum sound, tentacle waving, and skin color changing
      • Their computers have always allowed direct neural connection as interface
    • Drivers of intelligence: complex multichannel sensory input, folding of both fiber structures and their own sometimes interlinked bodies, making knots in fiber to form a 3D abacus, skin chromatophores
    • Collaboration: land species has more tech, ocean species has better 3D and general mathematical thinking
    • Exploration using galleons with internal watery habitats and two captains each, exemplifying the culture and mythos of dyads (one member of each species)

The previously played out contact scenario

  • For biological compatibility, they assume meteorite exchange of microbes between the two teams’ homeworlds enabling a common evolutionary origin (and possibly some microbes on the recent giant impactor could have helped trigger the Alphas’ rise to intelligence)
  • Each team landed a vessel on a barren moon near Team Alpha’s homeworld, then managed to link them
  • At first, Team Omega only sent juveniles
  • They had been in radio communication before landing, enabling them to avoid killing each other on sight (which happens in about 50% of COTI contacts)
  • During the contact event, the teams used music as a cultural lubricant and the Alpha team danced

The new partial contact scenario

  • One year later, there’s a joint village (Olympics style) on that moon, and have just detected a rogue planet about the mass of Neptune emitting radio chatter
    • Not coherent enough to even verify artificial origin at this distance (1/2 ly), possibly due to the multi-bandwidth complexity/sophistication of the signals that is near-indistinguishable from noise
    • Team Omega has an argument about whether to try a signal to the rogue planet without telling Team Alpha (but they’d have to use radio transmitters back near their home planet, possibly bringing down the wrath of a super-advanced civilization)
      • One team member advocates working with Team Alpha partly because she’s been involved with them in interspecies sexuality
    • Team Alpha is enthusiastic about contacting the rogue (or highly eccentric) planet, but decided not to launch a manned mission – instead, they want to propose a joint project to build and launch a robotic probe, perhaps with a preliminary trip to the Omegas’ homeworld to discuss it with their elders
    • There’s a discussion of whether the Alphas have the ability to lie (partly because the direct neural link was discussed so much)
    • The two teams debate whether a physical probe or radio message is more dangerous, and how much they can know about the rogue planet (what if the radio is coming from a moon, or what if the whole thing is a giant fleet of ships and not a planet at all?)

Stuff Ben encountered that he wants to learn more about

  • Band called The Extremophiles that made a CD called Soundtrack for a Mars Movie with a song about Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Don Scott's One Planet from Two Perspectives project with the Commission on Space and the National Park Service, to build a partnership between Earth-observing satellite work and national park management
  • Goblins’ Reservation novel by Clifford Simak
  • Deity’s Soulmate novel by attendee Angelina Ivanov
  • Symphony of Soil movie
  • Aquarius Habitat off Florida is America’s only surviving underwater installation
  • Imagination Foundation of Southern California makes lots of cool stuff, like shirts
  • Vasu architecture for water & energy capture
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