Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Gone But Not Forgotten: Existential Risk and the Corpus Humana: The Case for Offsite Backup

I recommend we all get behind the efforts to digitize the world's knowledge and literature, such as "Google Books" and similar projects, because humanity is facing major existential risks. Some human extinction scenarios that we could induce ourselves include --

  • Civilization set back to Middle Ages (99% lethal virus)
  • All life terminated (nanotech grey goo eats all carbon)
  • Entire planet destroyed (micro black holes trigger gravitational collapse), etc.

Plus there are the "conventional" astrophysical risks, including --

  • Comet or asteroid strike, triggering super volcano activity
  • Supernova of nearby star (2 years of gamma rays, must live underground)
  • Wandering dwarf star or mid-size black hole, pulling Earth out of temperate zone
  • We enter dense interstellar gas and dust cloud, poisoning our atmosphere, etc.

In view of these non-trivial risks that everything that we have ever created could be lost, we should digitize and beam or otherwise deliver all our enduringly valuable cultural data into outer space, to assure that someday, somewhere, someone might be able to appreciate our works, and allow them to live on, even if we do not survive. "Gone but not Forgotten!"

To achieve this we should micro engrave as much as possible of our civilization's "record" (the "corpus humana") onto glass or metal plates to be sent up with every future interplanetary space craft. Thus if Earth were lost, someone could find our data on Mars, Saturn, or out in space. Just a standard "offsite backup" process. We should back ourselves up on a regular basis! Sending copies on many craft affords redundancy, in case some (or many) are lost or destroyed.

As Richard Feynman pointed out in his famous 1959 paper, atoms are small enough that you could engrave a photographic copy of the (then) Encyclopedia Britannica onto the head of a pin with room to spare. Obviously the data could be far denser if it were encoded into digital bits rather than character images, so perhaps a few dozen 12 inch diameter plates would do it.

Also, personal genomes are costly now but getting cheaper all the time, and 6GB is not a lot of data. One day soon these too can be beamed up and/or engraved onto space objects, so that someday, somewhere, someone could recreate "you," like a Jurassic dinosaur, and give "you" a chance to live again.

As our technology advances, we can do even better, by also shipping into space along with your genetic code the necessary chemicals and friendly robots to actually make and raise you again on some faraway planet (discussed by Bostrom).

Although we have a long way to go to defend ourselves against existential threats, it would be simple enough to digitize the corpus humana and deposit it off-Earth, right now, using existing technologies, and initiate a program of regular backups, to cheaply and easily reduce our risk of existential catastrophe! If the engraved data-bearing components can double as structural members or shields, their weight factor could be near zero, adding little to launch costs.

Of course there may be copyright problems (!), as Google found when an authors' group sued them. However, in all likelihood no human will ever read the data, and omitted works risk historical oblivion, so wise authors will grant permission.

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Jim Dator says that several years ago he and Jim Burke proposed a repository on the Moon (and perhaps another on Mars). To me this sounds like a permanent installation or at least fancy equipment requiring a special mission, plus maintenance missions. Whereas my proposal (static plates) is financially and technically feasible today. The only thing missing is a semi-complete database of human works.


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