Wednesday, July 6, 2016

should we develop an actual lifeboat to escape human extinction

The Lifeboat Foundation scientific discussion list mainly focuses on trying to understand threats to the very existence of the human species, and of how we might reduce the probability that the human species goes extinct (at least within the next few thousand years). But this week, one of the folks has argued that we should actually build a lifeboat, like a Noah's ark or the spaceship in the movie Wall-E. Here is my last response, which
touches on broader questions like the ongoing loss of US scientific leadership:  


>... argued for a project to build an actual lifeboat...

Yes, the relevance is clear, although I believe the Lifeboat Foundation still would like us to put energy into trying to understand and prevent extinction, rather than only how to escape it.

I accept your position that what you want to do is highly relevant, and deserves a place in our discussions. But I have seen hundreds and hundreds of people who say "Give me money and I will figure out how." Bill Gates would not fund an investment plan by a group which does not establish that they know how to do what they say they are doing. That goes in spades when hundreds have tried to do X, and all or almost all have failed. NSF, in its glory days, was perhaps the best place on earth to be able to fund the really important, highly innovative high risk things, WHICH IT COULD SUCCEED AT sometimes, because of a very thorough review process as tough as anything the banks would do, but with criteria which allow more high risk work to get through. (AND were wide open to lots and lots of competition!!!) For amounts of money much smaller than what you would want, it was necessary to provide a lot more evidence, and a plan.

Actually, two years ago (maybe to the day), I gave my last really big public talk on what it would take, in practice, to get money form NSF. In practice, it came down to just three questions: WHAT? HOW? WHY? If any are not addressed well enough, well-run panels will explain the questions which need to be addressed and say "try again when you can answer these questions." "WHAT": some folks think they can just say "I want to work in area X." No information on the specific target. (One could write a book on what a "specific target" is, and I think of a book by John Von Neumann on game theory which in a way did exactly that, or at least did part of that.) "HOW": that's why I would not YET see your proposal as fundable now, AND ALSO why I (and Keith) have tried to focus on questions you would need to address better. Usually "how" requires something of a plan (which can be like a decision-tree for high-risk stuff, but needs to convey a readiness to actually do something), and an evaluation of previous efforts to achieve that target, and specific ideas to address the problems. And one could write a book about any of THOSE things!
WHY is also essential, but yes, in this case, many of us could see "why" TO SOME DEGREE -- enough to make it a valid activity, if it doesn't get in the way of other priorities.

Actually, I can think of a cynical reason to give you good marks on "why": if it is better understood how hard this is, it may help more people appreciate the importance of the other branch of the big decision tree, the importance of not getting to a point to where people without a lifeboat all die. If they understand they won't have a lifeboat, no matter how wealthy or well-ensconced or relaxed and normal they are, maybe they wilkl appreciate more what their stake is here.

Best of luck,


P.S. That was an incredible week, two years ago. The talk was to about a thousand folks in an IEEE international conference in Beijing. The Chinese got excited, and they really liked the three questions. I was surprised when a limousine suddenly appeared at the front doors of the conference hotel, carrying me and  a couple of others to, first, the key dean at Tsinghua University, and then the NSF of China. On July 12, on the airplane home, I finally got to watch Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which my son had been urging me to see for months -- and was rather nervous that I could see more parallels than I had expected to for what was/is going on in DC. And on July 14, I started to really learned how pervasive the new defacto structure is that Lamar Smith put in place, and how it makes my comments about NSF above totally obsolete. The recent article about Arecibo in Scientific American has some real zingers for those folks who know how to read between the lines, from experience with the new realities, and the news now is that China is investing to take over the leadership which the US has abandoned. The obscure aspects of physics discussed in that article actually relate to the "NUC" cluster of extinction options, because there are things we do not know very well yet which may lead to changes in nuclear technology... beyond what I see even in science fiction, except for a few obscure things you probably haven't read. (Last year I reread Olaf Stapleton's First and Last Men, very inexpensive now as a kindle book.)


On Wed, Jul 6, 2016 at 7:01 AM, [lifeboatfoundation] <> wrote:

The very definition of a Lifeboat is an independent method to survive an extinction level event (sinking ship). In my view, the only project on which the Lifeboat Foundation is working that fits this classification is a space habitat in low earth orbit but NASA is involved with settlements on the Moon and Mars. Just as a land based prototype is the first development preceding the volume production of a class of U.S. Navy warships, the first project of any off-Earth settlement should be an Earth-based prototype. I chose a Moon settlement simply because I believe it has the best chance to capture the imagination of the general public but, if that is not the case, building an Earth based prototype of a space habitat or Mars settlement would work just as well.  A nominal population of 10,000 was used in the 1970s NASA report on a Stanford Torus space settlement so this same population base was chosen for an Earth based prototype. The design intent is to fund the project with donations from foundations, the wealthy, and member nations of the UN with any shortfall derived from a percentage of the earnings of entertainment centers patterned after a space settlement.



For a blog, I should add a LITTLE bit of detail on this large subject. I used to compare the old system and corporate culture of NSF, started by Vannevar Bush but developed by many committed to the same kind of vision, to what Churchill said about democracy: "It is admittedly quite horrible, full of disgusting things,m the worst system ever developed by man -- except for all the other systems." Many people worked hard to make it work better for many, many years.

Under new new order, I remember a debate with a friend higher in management. "We agree there is a new gestapo in place, but WHOSE gestapo is it? The scientology-like secretive tactics make it hard to know." he argued it was Obama, but I argued that Obama was playing golf. Certainly a clear, important trail went to Lamar Smith, but there were trails in the computer systems as well going outside and not just watching.
Yesterday, I felt something akin to stomach pains when I heard one of the questioners of the State Department guy asking why they don't more actively use administrative investigation mechanisms to put severe sanctions (get rid of) folks who do not give total control to the new dot gov systems -- new systems I have seen in operation, not reporting to the president, and investigative systems which have also been compromised.
God help us. But reply to this lifeboat guy was only about one hour; my main activity has been a new paper
showing some new methods of analysis of brain data, which my collaborators are now looking at... maybe close to all done. And family/spiritual life.  

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