Star Trek got it all wrong - and so did every other space-fi movie
There's a blatantly politically incorrect racial joke that goes like this: "Why aren't there any _____ on Star Trek." (Fill in the blank with your most feared enemy's ethnic group.) The punchline goes, "Because it takes place in the future." Just in case one or two of you missed the joke, it's implying that they were wiped out at some point in the nearer future. But there's a much, much deeper irony built into this joke that's being obscured by our mistrust of one another. While our puny cerebellums are fearfully squabbling over our selfish interests, a collabortive of neo cortexes is planning our collective evolution - or some might say extinction! We humans as a race should be pondering a more serious riddle: "Why are there any humans on Star Trek at all if it takes place in the future?"
With a little tendency for A.D.D. my mind sometimes wanders. I was watching the trailers for the upcoming movie, "Battle: Los Angeles," and someone says, "The first thing you do when you colonize is wipe out the indigenous people. We are being colonized." That lead me to think about humans colonizing space, which lead me to thinking about the difficulties that space travel poses to biological organisms. From there I started thinking about Star Trek and the fact that the human race somehow figured out how to create gravity on a space ship that's not spinning. Then I was thinking about all the sci-fi flicks and how they all seem to take huge leaps of faith when it comes to human spaceflight.
And then it dawned on me. Perhaps Hollywood has been getting it all wrong all along. There isn't a space fiction movie made that doesn't include at least one human being, or at least a humanoid being, as the main character. It's understandable considering the source. But is this really a reflection of reality? Personally, I don't believe we'll ever see human beings leaving our solar system and here's why.
There are a host of challenges to human beings in space. There are the obvious ones like the effects of microgravity on the human musculoskeletal system and the effects of cosmic rays. And there are the not so obvious ones like the effects on human reproduction. And then there are completely unknown and unimagined risks which I'm sure are plentiful when you go star hopping.
In an attempt to wish away some of the physiological issues some futurists have gone so far as to propose the idea of genetically engineering humans to be more adaptable to the requirements of living in space. Well, while ethicists are chewing on that one - we'll check in on you in 90 years and see how you're doing - futurists are taking a wholly different tack. They're claiming that consciousness need not be confined to a bag of meat. And if that's the case then perhaps we can send consciousness into space without sending people.
One scenario for peopleless space colonization is that we develop realistic telepresence and assert our consciousness remotely. In other words, we create robots with sensors and feed the sights and sounds and feelings of far away places remotely and directly into our brains (or at least eyes and ears). Three words: ain't gonna happen. This might be fine for walking around your home world, but the delay created by space-time I think would pretty much rule out using telepresence for human space travel. The latency would be maddening.
Even if we could tap into some kind of subspace communication channel that violates all known laws of physics to control robots at great distances in real time and actually feel present in outer space, it would still look nothing like Star Trek. Think Star Trek but instead of the human crew it's a ship full of robots, drones, droids, and probes, and any of the human characters in the movie can become any one of these tools at any moment - but in reality the humans operating them would all be sitting at home in their PJs while they work and communicating telepathically. I don't know, that might actually make a good sci-fi flick. (Note to self...)
Another argument for there never being humans in space, which is admittedly a repeated theme in my blog, is that given the exponential acceleration of the evolution of technology, by the middle of this century we'll have computers that far exceed the intelligence of the entire human race. In essence we'll seem as intelligent to them as lab rats seem to us. Our robot overlords (as we bloggers are fond of calling this super artificial race) won't have to worry about the limits of their biology because they won't have any biology. It might be more accurate to say that "it" - as it will inevitably become one giant conscious network of glorious computation - won't have any essential biological components. Its presence in the universe will be a web of sensors and robotics and quantum computers that is completely interconnected. Think Starship Enterprise only it's alive and sans the crew. But that would make a boring movie.
A third scenario is that we somehow are able to upload our consciousness to a computer, leave our bodies behind, and achieve what's referred to as substrate independence. This idea becomes a little more complicated and philosophical, but imagine we're all running around inside a computer sampling whatever information we choose to focus on from an endless array of sensors and data and computation. Who knows what we'd even be thinking then, or if our puny minds would just be relegated to billions of tiny points of view in a vast, super intelligent machine. Again, think Starship Enterprise with no crew, just a bunch of us on a server someplace safe oohing and ahhing.
Human beings have been around the moon. Maybe some day a few of us might set foot on Mars. But if the space program of present day is any indication of the future, it's pretty obvious to me that intelligent probes will be the pioneers of tomorrow. And who knows, perhaps one day there will arise machine consciousness. But one thing I'm pretty sure won't ever happen is that a star ship full of meat bags will be rocketing across the universe colonizing distant star systems. We're either stuck here cheering them on while intelligent robots go have all the fun, or we end up being a planet full of super bot pets with our every need taken care of, or we become a fuel source for a far superior race of artificial consciousness.
In any case, I believe it's highly unlikely that biological beings will colonize the galaxy. I suspect that if consciousness does spread throughout the galaxy, it will be something as unlike human consciousness as cockroach consciousness is to us. And if there are other races from other worlds beating us to the punch, we won't find any evidence of little green men sending us greetings or greys coming in peace. It will be something unlike anything Hollywood can imagine.
So the punchline to the riddle, "Why are there humans on Star Trek at all if it takes place in the future?" is, "Because Hollywood and the public at large are totally clueless about the future." There's gotta be a movie in there somewhere.