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Saturday, August 17, 2019

Gatewood: Project Ethics Debate (Part I)

The year is 2238. Kestral McBride and Ishida Caldwell have just watched their friends ship out to find one of the crew members, Mateo Matic’s wife on a planet called Varkas Reflex. They stand here with a man named Saxon Parker, who has arrived to aid them in their endeavor to map the whole galaxy. The Milky Way is one of the largest galaxies in the observable universe. It spans over a hundred fifty thousand light years across, and contains anywhere between two hundred and four hundred billion stars. Those wildly inaccurate numbers are why the three of them are here. Situated nearly six light years from Earth, Barnard’s Star is the perfect location to build unfathomably large hyperstructures. Kestral and Ishida were first dispatched here to restart the construction of centrifugal cylinders. The initial intention was to allow colonists from Sol to cross the void, and settle around a new star, but these plans were abandoned in favor of diverting resources to other stellar neighbors. It came to serve a new function, as a refuge for the billions of people fleeing an oncoming war with an alien species in another universe.
Team Keshida, as they were sometimes called, built the cylinders in preparation for them, but they did not know this at the time. They were receiving instructions through their dreams, by a then unknown entity, who they later learned to be an artificial intelligence from another reality named Mirage. This being exists in a dimension that observes time as a spatial dimension, and can therefore see how the future turns out, simply by looking further down the timeline. Now that the cylinders are complete, and the refugees have begun to stabilize a new body of government, Team Keshida has other responsibilities to handle. Three interconnected projects, and one semi-unrelated project, are on the schedule right now. First, gigantic telescopes must be sent out to the void between galaxies, to gather a better picture of what the Milky Way is composed of. As this is happening, even larger ships will depart to systematically reach every single star system. The journey will take many tens of thousands of years, while traveling at nearly—but still not quite—the speed of light.
All three members of the team, original and newly conscripted, are aware that temporal manipulation is possible. With enough innovation, and access to the right time travelers, every star in the galaxy could probably be reached within a century, or maybe even faster. As of yet, though, the vonearthans are not aware of such possibilities, and they are the ones for which the team is working. The ignorant are expecting the project to last for two hekamyres—which means two hundred thousand years—so that’s how long they’ve designed it to last. Of course, the entire project remains a secret for now, because ethical questions regarding outward expansion were never fully resolved. Certain members of Earthan leadership have given the go-ahead for Project Stargate, and all that goes with it, but not everyone would be happy to find out it had been approved. They would be especially upset if they learned about its side project, Operation Starseed.
There are plenty of ethical concerns when it comes to Project Stargate. The idea is to send billions of modules through interstellar space. At first, these are held together within two gargantuan quad carriers, but they continually break apart, and fan out in different directions, until reaching the smallest independent unit; the seed plate. Each plate contains historical data, sensors, nanites, and other instruments. Once it arrives in a star system, it will start gathering details about it, and in order to do that, it must start building new machines, using the resources orbiting the star, or stars. The Earthan government, and civilian researchers never really figured out whether it was okay to do that; to interrupt the natural development of the system, in even the smallest of ways. Theoretically, the tools on the seed plate could build quantum messengers, and consciousness focal tethers, which would allow an individual to cast their mind light years away, almost instantaneously, and operate a surrogate body while there. This might be immoral on its own. Operation Starseed takes this further, and not even all of the people involved with Stargate are aware of it. Instead of allowing people to travel to new worlds using the quantum network, people would be grown on the new worlds. The exact nature of their lives is up to any number of variables, which would probably have to be calculated by an artificial hyperintelligence, but they would be created using genetic samples from people back home, who have not been told that their samples are being used in this way. Saxon Parker arrived on Gatewood with these samples, and Team Keshida still hasn’t decided whether or not they’re going to use them.
“All right,” Kestral says to Ishida. “You played a good devil’s advocate when it came to terraformation ethics. I suppose it’s my turn to play D.A. for this dilemma.”
“When do I get to play devil’s advocate?” Saxon asks.
“You’re just the actual devil,” Ishida says to him. “Your position on Starseed is quite clear. The purpose of this exercise is to consider all perspectives, by forcing one’s self to take an opposition position.”
“You’re saying you don’t agree that we should move forward with it?” Saxon asks. “Or, sorry, you, rather.”
“You’re part of the team now,” Kestral assures him. “Your opinion matters just as much. You’re just not part of the argument right now. I’m completely convinced that we should do this, which is why I’ll be fiercely arguing against it.”
“Okay,” Saxon says. “I’ll go back to the audience.” There is no audience but him, since the three people here right now are the only ones in the solar system who can be trusted with this information.
Ishida takes a deep breath. “Wait, which one am I again?” She likes to play dumb. She and Kestral get along so well because they’re both modest, and never want to be the smartest one in the room. The only time either of them is not the smartest one in the room, however, is when they’re both in the same room.
“You believe in Starseed,” Kestral reminds her. “Now. Try to get me on board too.”
“Okay.” Ishida takes another deep breath. “Egg Basket Theory,” she says simply.
“Go on,” Kestral encourages.
“Egg Basket Theory states that, if you rely too heavily on a single source of assets, when that source fails, all operations tied to it fail. Diversity is key.”
“You said, when it fails,” Kestral echoes. “Is that inevitable?”
“Umm...yes?”
“In all cases?”
Ishida thinks about her response. “Plus Murphy’s Law.”
“Explain.”
“Nothing lasts forever. Failure is indeed inevitable. Nothing is indefinitely sustainable. We know the ultimate fate of our home star, which is why scientists are already discussing Project Tipping Point.”
Kestral waves her hand dismissively. “I don’t wanna talk about Tipping Point. Life on Earth is doomed regardless. An argument for the preservation of life does not explain how that helps the life that does not survive.”
“Explain,” Ishida prompts.
“Operation Starseed functions on the idea that human life is unconditionally valuable, in any form it takes. The continuance of the species is considered to be good on its own. It doesn’t matter where the species lives, or what happened to its predecessors. Life simply must go on, even if individual specimens don’t survive long.”
“Well, should it not survive?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m questioning whether we should be focusing resources on creating life that has almost absolutely nothing to do with us, when we could be devoting those resources towards protecting the natural progression of life. Starseed basically grows genetically recombined clones of a handful of what are essentially randomly selected sample donors. But who cares? The life we seed on other planets are not our children, or our legacies. Right now, they’re just hypothetical, and there’s no logical reason we should manifest them. Egg Basket Theory is a good argument for why we should colonize our stellar neighbors, which is why we’re in the middle of doing that. Most of the civilizations we seed will never know where they’re from, or how they got there, if they even last long enough to form a civilization. We will never interact with them, and if all life in the galaxy dies in a blink except one given world, that one world doesn’t matter to us. Earth is where life began, but this survivor world has no connection to Earth, so why are we meant to care about that?”
“You don’t care about them because you’ll never meet them?”
“You’re twisting my words.”
“I’m practically repeating them.”
Kestral tries to figure out a different approach. “Let’s say Saxon and I have a child.”
“Okay.”
“Does that child have value?”
“Of course it does.”
“Let me rephrase. Does that child have value...” She emphasizes the punchline by pointing twice to the floor, “...right now?”
“I don’t understand.”
“The child does not exist. He and I have never had sex. I don’t even think I’ve physically touched him before. Maybe I shook his hand once. The child doesn’t have any value; it isn’t real. If it were to become real, sure. But we would have to complete that task first. We would have to, at the very least, initiate the creation of this life. We can’t, as rational people, assign value to it until we do.”
Ishida opens her mouth to speak, but is cut off.
“And if we were to do that, we would decide together, and we would raise that child in whatever way we see fit. Starseed, on the other hand, is asking us to shoot our gametes into space with nothing more than a smile and a salute. It’s one thing to become pregnant, and not be able to raise the child yourself. It’s a whole different thing to create life with the intention of not being around for it. Is that not unethical?”
“Ah, but we will be around. Not us personally, but the seed plates will hold the knowledge required to nurture that life. You’re only talking about the first generation. A hundred and forty-seven people. The second generation will have parents.”
“A hundred and forty-seven people per world,” Kestral corrects. “Upwards of billions total. That’s a lot of orphans.”
“Again, they’ll still have parents, per se. They’ll be robots, but...they won’t be alone. That’s more than evolved life on Earth can say. When you think about it, what we’re trying to do is more ethical than what God did.”
“Okay, now you’re bringing in religion, which is not what we’re doing here.”
“Kestral, you’re doing a really good job of sounding like you don’t think we should do this. We decided it was ethical to terraform certain worlds, as long as exhaustive life-potential surveys are conducted first. Would you have us scrap Starseed entirely?”
“I’m not going to break character until we understand this issue completely. I will, however, submit to a break.” She looks over to the audience of one. “I believe Saxon needs some time to process the hypothetical scenario where we parent a child together.”
“I’m fine,” Saxon promises. “This was...as impressive as it was intense.”
“We’re not done yet,” Kestral says. “I need to check for imperfections in the Project Topdown telescope lenses again, though, so we’ll sleep on it. Come ready for round two tomorrow.”
“Yes, captain.”

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