Factory+Files Future

The difficulty of practical interstellar travel is horrendously underestimated. … Known physics will never deposit living people on Earth-like planets around other stars. (more)

That was Donald Brownlee, who said something similar in our film. It occurs to me that skepticism about cryonics and interstellar travel have similar roots, and that understanding this is useful. So let me explain.

Imagine that one tried to take a rock, say this fossil:


and put it somewhere on Earth so that it could be found in a million years. Or that one tried to throw this fossil rock so that it would pass close to a particular distant star in a million years. Few would claim that doing so is impossible. Most would accept that these are possible, even if we require that the rock (plus casing) remain largely unchanged, i.e., retain its shape and maybe even most of its embedded DNA snips.

So skepticism about making people last a long time via cryonics, or about getting people to distant stars, is mainly about how people differ from rocks. People are fragile biological systems than slowly degrade with time, and that can be easily disrupted by environmental disturbances. Which justifies some doubt on if the human body can survive long difficult paths in space-time.

So why am I more hopeful? Because there are (at least) two ways to ensure that a certain kind of object exists at certain destination in space-time. One way is to have an object of that kind exist at a prior point in space-time, and then move it from that prior point to the destination. The other way is to build the desired object at the destination. That is, have a spec file that describes the object, and have a factory at the destination follow that spec file to create the object. One factory can make many objects, factories and files can be lighter and hardier than other objects, and you might even be able to make all the particular factories you need from one smaller hardier general factory. Thus it can be much easier to get one factory+files to a distant destination than to get many desired objects there.

Yes, today we don’t have factories that can make humans from a spec file. But if our society continues to grow in size and abilities, it should be able to do the next best thing: make an android emulation of a human from a spec file. And we should be able to make a spec file from a frozen brain plus a generic spec file.

If so, a frozen brain will serve as a temporary spec file, and we will be able to send many people to distant stars by sending just one hardy factory there, and then transmitting lots of spec files. The ability to encode a person in a spec file will make it far easier to send a person to a wide range of places and times in the universe.

See David Brin’s novel Existence for an elaboration on the throwing rocks with files theme.

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  • Dave Lindbergh

    “Known physics will never deposit living people…”

    It took me a very long time to realize that when most people say “never”, they mean “not in my lifetime”.

  • Vladimir Nesov

    I’d guess the biggest subproblem in ensuring that a fossil remains on Earth in a million years would be destroying civilization so that it doesn’t reach an AGI stage and use fossil’s atoms to make something else. Making sure that fossil-preservation is one of AGI-stage goals might be harder.

  • matt6666

    You should be even more optimistic. We are only a few very simple technologies away from doing this today.

    1. We can freeze embryos indefinitely.
    2. We can send objects very slowly out of our solar system

    What we need are:
    1. artificial womb.
    2. Better robotics and AI, that can help raise a group of infants.

    Lots of other tech could make this easier, but this is the minimum viable product, and I think this isn’t just possible in my lifetime, but likely.

    • OK, that might produce a human at the other end. But not a particular human that you started with on this end.

      • matt6666

        Yeah, but that gets into the technologies we hope are possible, vs the technologies that are already being worked on in the lab. I tend to get more skeptical the farther I look into the future, additionally, if a major theoretical breakthrough is necessary in order for something to happen, I severely discount it because, It may not be possible, and even if it is possible it may not ever be practical.

      • IMASBA

        “OK, that might produce a human at the other end. But not a particular human that you started with on this end.”

        Why would that matter? Are you concerned only select personalities have what it takes to start a civilization on a new world and that AI cannot raise artificially grown embryos (whose genetics can be selected on Earth) to develop such a personality?

      • QM

        Please state the problem precisely enough for us to poke holes in it!

        You want the “same person” at both ends? Sequence the DNA and map the brain. Reconstruct at destination. Even if faithful reconstruction is not available at the start, by the time the information gets there, faithful reconstruction methods can be transmitted by radio.

      • lump1

        The Brownlee statement was that we will never “deposit living people on Earth-like planets around other stars.” He does not specify there that these living people had to have been born on Earth. Indeed, the (dumb) idea of generation ships also assumes that the first extrasolar colonists would be born far from Earth. What makes them genuine terrestrial colonists rather than some kind of descendant aliens is the continuity of biology and culture that the would have with us. This continuity would be even stronger if we sent people as data (DNA base-pairs) and had assembler-factories build them from the data.

  • anon

    Praise Helix! He shall be our salvation and path to everlasting life!

  • TheBrett

    I’m not sure that answers the problem so much as it just changes the problem. You still have the issue of building a factory that capable that can survive interstellar transits of centuries or even longer.

    • You only have to get one factory to the destination, and you have a lot of freedom to redesign this factory to make it hard against problems in transit.

      • Curt Adams

        Assuming em’s are possible (not a certainty) it probably would be easier to send an em factory. BUT – it’s still insanely hard. We can’t design any complex mechanism to last thousands, or even hundred of years without maintenance; plus, an em factory will most likely be an extraordinarily complex one.

        Also, the public action limitations are significant too. It’s hard to get a bond passed to pay for local school improvements. Just imagine how hard it will be to get some group to spend likely staggering sums so that tens of thousands of years later something *kinda* like people *might* exist on another planet somewhere.

  • lump1

    – A deleted post about “assembling” biological humans, which I realized was made redundant by a matt6666 comment. –

  • Doug

    Sure, but consider the near indefensibility of relativistic weapons. Nearly any single party from the originating start system can stop the factory by timing the impact shortly after the arrival of the factory.

    It would seem that interstellar colonization of this manner would require either global coordination to prevent this. Otherwise in the traditional space race the USSR would simply relativistically annihilate any US colonies and vice versa before they get started. Global coordination presents a much more difficult challenge than the physical engineering aspects.


    • That is a generic argument against being able to place anything at any distant anywhere; it does not distinguish people from rocks.

  • Trimegistus

    There’s three billion factories capable of making a human from a spec file walking around on the Earth right now.

    • Ronfar

      None of which, unfortunately, can survive interstellar travel.

  • Handle

    It is more than just a problem with biological systems. You need a power source that can also last a million years during interstellar travel, even in a dormant mode. Is there one?

    Photovoltaic cells do not last that long, and degrade when bombarded with typical densities of particles in space. Chemical batteries will not last that long. Plutonium-238 is used frequently for RTG’s, but has a half life of only 88 years. It might be possible to do some chain stagger of some long-half-life fissile material – a kilowatt times a million years = a gigawatt power station for one year. But will the computer chips running the sustainment system and waking up the frozen brain on time last? Will they accumulate defects too?

    Making every part and system last a million years, especially in remote regions of space without solar power, is more than an ordinary technical challenge. One way around it would be to have an everything-on-the-ship factory on the ship, and have robots wake up every 50 years or so, and remake every part on the ship from scratch and replace the new part with the old, word-out one. This doesn’t work for the supply of fissile material, naturally.

    • Doug

      Millions of years is way too long. Even at Voyager’s 62 thousand km/h speed reaching the nearest star system would only take 70,000 years. Solar sails with Earth based lasers providing the propulsion could easily make the journey in a few thousand years.

      Solid state electronics can easily last for thousands of years with the proper shielding. As can many modern nuclear reactors.

  • Lord

    If the star is a million light years away, I have doubts even of the former. What is more difficult, traveling to a world, terraforming a world, or evolving life adapted to a world in that time? What if the former makes no sense without the latter? If possible, why hasn’t life already evolved the capability to do so? Or has it and we are the result? Would any possibility of colonization already be occupied? Why would you chose to produce humans if you could produce factories, assuming factories have some capability of sex and selection? Would we have any interest in seeding distant stars with our ancestors from a million years ago? We view space, time, form, and environment as independent but what if they are closely interrelated?