The Startup
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The Startup

The Race to the Red Rock

How the mission to Mars will tear the world apart

Photo by NASA.

Throughout this year and into the next decade, a contingent of private companies will begin one of the most ambitious industrial efforts since the introduction of transcontinental rail. The goal being star system colonization — starting with Mars, then soon the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Of the many organizations in the mix, SpaceX is moving the fastest. Run by veteran entrepreneur Elon Musk and staffed by a team of 7,000 seasoned aerospace, chemical, and mechanical engineers, a project headquartered in Los Angeles now has newly opened launch-and-land facilities in Texas and Florida. More than sixteen years after beginning a journey that was most likely to fail, SpaceX is on the verge of building the first interplanetary transportation system.

In the course of all this rapid change, appearing are more odd and speculative bets. Just before officially announcing an ambition to move several metric kilotons of material to the surface of the Red Planet, Musk incorporated a small biotech company named Neuralink with the aim of connecting human minds to AI. The product designed to preempt a singularity without a second driver, but also a role to play in space-faring. Going on the Joe Rogan Podcast in late 2018, he gave listeners a glimpse of the company’s aspirations. “It will enable anyone who wants to have superhuman cognition,” said Musk. “If you can’t beat it, join it.”

Over the last two decades, the technologies so far mentioned have only quite recently become feasible. Combined with nanoengineering, new materials, and faster computer processing speeds, the transhumanistic ethic so passionately pursued by elements of the technorati is nearly here. These advancements, paired with a small cadre of imaginative and wild-eyed futurists, are close to setting the stage for a truly revolutionary moment in every sense of the phrase. With the possibility of moving millions of explorers to Mars, there will be those along for the ride that have wished to exit politics-as-usual, to merge with machines, and extend life beyond old age. During the early aughts, this kind of unbound optimism could generate polite laughter, but as the years go on many increasingly find it no longer funny. What that means for society is an open question, and some have proposed answers that are not always appealing.

From the very start, SpaceX had envisioned a Mars Oasis — and it was precisely the title given to early blueprints, mentioned during a 2003 discussion at Stanford University. “Where we’d put a small robotic land rover on the surface of Mars with seeds and dehydrated nutrient gel…[for] life support systems,” said Musk. The initial idea germinated, and as the technical questions were worked out, it soon became essential that to move the tons required into orbit there had to be a reimagining of the way rockets functioned.

Across the lifespan of NASA’s space shuttle program, the average cost of each launch amounted to $1.5 billion. For Musk to make a business out of space-travel, the figures need to be an order of magnitude cheaper — or 1/10th the cost — than the US space program, which relied on firing expendable rockets that only retained a single useful launch. After toying around with refurbished Russian parts, and gathering a team of Silicon Valley investors, what became clear is that for SpaceX to profit off a more efficient rocket, they had to implement the buzzword ethos so often found in monthly business magazines. Everything from vertical integration, flat management, and lean manufacturing were printed on job postings as resumes flowed in. A maniacal drive for reusability and cheaper construction drove segments of the company mad, as confident engineers were satisfied with quicker launch times that sacrificed recyclability. Many did not understand the bigger picture, which is not to merely toss a few satellites to our nearby neighbor but to create a supply chain that operates in deep space.

Photo by SpaceX.

The motivations that inspire Musk can be crudely economic, as in profit or fame that comes with being featured in popular culture. But over many occasions, the South African born tycoon has often pointed to science-fiction as a source for his ideas. In particular, the literary legend Isaac Asimov and his Foundation Series is touted as an inspiration for the underpinnings driving SpaceX. Written in 1951, Foundation is the first book in a trilogy of stories in the Foundation Series, where the plans of character Hari Seldon are worked out to reduce the suffering following the fall of an advanced Empire. Using statistics and mathematical modeling, the science of psychohistory emerges, revealing for Seldon his civilization’s doomed future and the immediacy of colonizing the outpost planet of Terminus. Implied is nothing short of another empire, repopulated far away by scientist pioneers. Books continuing the series such as Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth go on to develop this galactic fantasy, but it is the Foundation that remains the most compelling description of what Musk tirelessly aims to achieve. To find another home, removed from deteriorating life on Earth, surrounded by methane and cold mountain peaks of fresh ice.

At SXSW 2018, Musk sat down with Jonathan Nolan — acclaimed writer of the film Interstellar with his brother Christopher — to discuss how AI and Mars impact his thinking, and why the mission to space remains so critical. “There’s likely to be another dark-ages […] particularly if there’s another third world war,” said Musk during the nearly one-hour session. “[W]e want to make sure there’s enough of us, of a seed of civilization somewhere else to bring civilization back and perhaps shorten the length of the dark ages.” Musk continues-on to frame SpaceX through the lens of probability, like those mathematical formulas Hari Seldon used to plan his migratory escape. It isn’t that there will be a doomsday soon arriving but that we should prepare nonetheless, or we might follow the same fate as other galactic empires, real or imagined.

As of this year, the overall plan is swiftly moving forward as SpaceX continues to sign contracts for satellite deployments, with occasional flights to the International Space Station. Changes are in constant motion, both in the design of the overall starships and logistics. In several keynote speeches Musk has been public with how exactly each liftoff will work, down to the schematic designs of engine innards. Even emigration numbers approaching the millions have become mantra inside LA headquarters, as every two years will provide a window of opportunity for a fleet of Mars-bound ships, each carrying up to two-hundred persons and one-hundred tons of industrial supplies. To put it into perspective, within the next few decades, SpaceX will launch between one-hundred to one-thousand ships into Earth’s orbit to be refilled and prepared for each mission, at which time every craft will make their way in unison. “The Mars colonial fleet would depart en masse,” said Musk during the official 2016 SpaceX technical update. “Kind of like Battlestar Galactica … a bit like that.”

Adjacent to orbital rocket development and solar sails are other ideas for a much more integrated experience between meat puppets and machines. Bio-interface startups have begun to crop up around Silicon Valley trade shows, each sales station with its marketing pitch promoting products connecting our cranial wetware to the shiny gleam of silicon wafers. Seeing all of this makes the origins of Musk’s Neuralink all the more intriguing. Why not buy these technologies off the shelf? Or wait for another group of innovative entrepreneurs to pour tens of thousands of work hours into a project untethered from SpaceX? The answer might seem opaque, but it’s the convergence between space telemetry and brain-metal plugins that has prompted a crew of industry experts to take up Musk’s call for talent. But to read between the lines requires more than a general review of press releases. Far more interesting to ask: why would high bandwidth neuro-connectivity be needed in zero gravity cargo crafts or on dusty Martian deserts?

During the late 80s, science fiction author Iain Banks wrote the first of many books in his series titled The Culture. Starting with Consider Phlebas, this collection of stories explored themes often found in the once ridiculed space opera subgenre. Post-scarcity economics, quasi-omnipotent artificial intelligence, orbital starships, all elements of a widely expansive universe that resembles something akin to utopian anarchy rather than run-of-the-mill liberalism. Banks was indeed gunning for an egalitarian world that retained its progressive individuality, close to a desirable techno-fueled dreamland.

In spite of Bank’s overarching political and cultural message, the more practical ornaments used throughout the telling of the series caught the interest of Elon Musk in the middle of 2015. One focus was a concept called a Neural Lace (NL). For Banks and the inhabitants of The Culture, an NL is critical for functioning in an artificially intelligent society. Beginning as an implant into the brain of a newly born infant, an NL develops alongside its subject providing them with high-bandwidth digital connectivity. Enhanced hormonal regulation, virtual-omnipresence, and limitless cognition becoming advantages afforded by biomechanical integration. In effect, the NL helps merge the gap between feeble humanness and powerful hyperconscious machines, intensified by replayable memories, tele-immersive awareness, and spiritual transcendence.

After a summer’s worth of reading and without surprise, Elon launched Neuralink a year later in July of 2016. Co-founders that opted to join the team include a bevy of big minds from neurosurgery at MIT to biomaterial engineering at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In August of 2017, Neuralink received needed capital, raising $27 million to expand hiring and acquisition of tooling necessary for development. The vision is now on its feet and gaining speed, putting into motion industrialized production of Brain Machine Interfaces (BMIs), using the same level of manufacturing applied to smartphone microchips and directing it towards nanoscale electrodes — or neural dust — sprinkled onto the human cortex like pepper on steak.

Photo by the Human Connectome Project.

Another year after initial funding, a cryptic tweet by Musk perhaps revealed the level at which Neuralink will guide the delivery of SpaceX’s promise of space transport. “Oh btw I’m building a cyborg dragon,” said Musk in a late morning post. Liked by more than 460K others and retweeted 105K times, the underlying message stood clear for ardent followers and neophytes alike. Dragon being an apparent reference to SpaceX’s human delivery vehicle, which is preparing for its first manned mission. Just as in Bank’s neurally laced cosmic drama, SpaceX orbital crafts will incorporate the same sort of machinic interfaces that have so far remained elusive to aerospace practitioners.

Developing and implementing BMIs for space navigation is only a tiny fraction of the Mars mission. Traveling to the faraway planet successfully, if at all, and doing the necessary work to establish a proto-colony is pivotal to the grand narrative targeted by Musk and his investors. In tandem, another piece of the puzzle involves the sort of arc that carried the protagonists of The Culture to the edges of their universe. Artificial Intelligence, whether in the form of robotic servants or cybernetic gods, is the most prized possession for this new cadre of galactic gunslingers. From Musk and his quest to build a reimagined Terminus to IBM’s robotic AI space assistant CIMON, there is no future within the outskirts of Jupiter’s Europa or Saturn’s Titan, much less the icy deserts of Mars, without first “summoning the demon.”

To call forth an alien power in times of distress or need is nearly a mythical cliche. Aztec architecture is strewn with deities forged from the sky, be it the sun, moon, or brightly lit stars. Likewise, Mars being the god of war now is the title crest for a new frontier. This fervent enthusiasm has now sparked the appearance of a small army of hunters with their eyes on distant horizons. Mars colony development prizes now require the use of AI as a first principle starting point. Games simulating new settlements use sentient bots as a core mechanic, automating expansion of resource collectors as they scour windy plateaus for metallic ore.

Photo by NASA/JPL.

The status of AI as a cultural and industrial phenom is not without good reason. Only several years ago was the concept of spiritual machines panned as naive wishful thinking. To suggest inert electronic transistors could fill their cold hearts with warm and forgiving selves amounted to secular mysticism. Today, mere months away from the 20th year of this new millennium, the existence of algorithmic self-learning beings is not an exception but the rule. Google’s DeepMind is on the precipice of beating the most talented and advanced players at StarCraft II — a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game whose human masters have yet to lose to a line of code. In a backdrop that mirrors the story of space exploration and colonization, this competitive classic might very well train the AI of tomorrow in the tactical maneuvering of war, complete with all the knowledge, rules, and strategies incorporated into the RTS engine.

The presence of war from time-to-time has shaped human settlements since before spoken language or written text. It was once thought that with the emergence of modernity that this brutal practice brought on by unresolvable conflict would subside in the face of flourishing science. Instead, as J. Robert Oppenheimer thought when he saw the blinding light of nuclear fission fill the New Mexican sky, “[we have] become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Nations and even street gangs routinely fight over plots of land, shiny stones, and winds to sail by; but with an ever decreasing livable terrain and rare tokens of gratitude to show for our regimented way of life, sitting in office cubicles wasting our best years pushing digital files across virtual desks, an interesting dilemma exists: would you take the chance to change everything forever? Such a question is addressed in The Artilect War, written by Hugo De Garis, which confronts the distant likelihood of intelligent machines splitting global communities along religious, political, ethnic, and ideological lines. Cosmists on one side, steadfastly dedicated to building Artilect AIs; Terrans on the other, militant activists organizing to prevent sentient machines; and Cyborgs, whose merging with Artilects would signal the christening of transhumanism.

The core of Garis’s argument attaches itself to a broad list of scientific and engineering advancements not widely known outside the academic community. These esoteric theories often sit dormant atop dusty shelves of research offices, waiting patiently to be applied. Ready techniques eventually find their way to market through the shiny reflection of premium phones or in the soft recitation of Siri’s answers. Evolutionary engineering, artificial embryology, even neuroprosthetics are just a few of the cutting edge fields now demanding the attention of the world’s prominent scientific institutions. It may be the case that the most radical forms of support will come from zones outside the influence of democratic states. Although many international sovereigns are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty, break-away corporations cannot be prevented from forming self-sufficient territories on the surfaces of other planets and their satellites. That possibility is what some are counting on.

Fifty-five million light-years from our pale blue planet burns eternal the event horizon of a supermassive black hole, spinning at the center of a faraway galaxy packed with more mass than 6 billion suns. It’s discovery and photographic imagery confirms the grand cosmological theory presented to the Nobel Prize committee in 1998 by Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess. Their contributions to science recorded the distant explosions of supernovae as they flashed across the night sky. What they saw was not just material combusting in the cold vacuum of space, but light arriving to our eyes from the deep past, from objects traveling faster as they faded. The glimpse they caught was all the more puzzling when they finished their calculations over champagne and chardonnay, seeing a universe neither in constant motion nor progressing towards stability. Instead, our violent and ancient cosmos was accelerating, picking up speed, and careening toward a confusing dark future.

Half a decade prior, thousands of miles away from the Chilean Cerro Tololo observatory where Perlmutter and his colleagues launched their prize-winning thesis, a drugged out philosophy professor introduced a similar conjecture but in the realm of metaphysics. Nick Land, a theorist in the art of speculative realism, coined — or perhaps reimagined — the concept of accelerationism from his dingy campus office. But he wasn’t describing the tearing apart of stars, rather his strangely evocative fiction detailed the ripping up of souls. Founded within the confines of a college club known as the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), Land along with others ventured into an experimental space where parts of the self became upgraded, mechanized, and networked into something beyond anything safely recognized as human; tracing life as it slowly bleeds into a patiently gazing machine. Technological evolution writ horror.

“Nothing human makes it out of the near-future.”

— Nick Land

After a drug-induced psychosis and with his academic career in shambles, he escaped to the metropolis of Shanghai. Still, his style of combining the disfiguring reality of alienized capitalism with the cybernetic reverberations of networked culture had an alluring following. Late friend and CCRU member Mark Fischer along with the Laboria Cuboniks collective attempted, perhaps somewhat unsuccessfully, to parlay Land’s borderline nihilism into something useful in the emancipatory sense. Left-accelerationism and Xenofeminism emerged as answers to the initial Landian prognosis, that instead of increasing the rate of capitalism’s transformative power and aiming the car off the cliff towards a techno-singularity, humanity should take the reigns and make the machine’s purpose liberational.

Photo by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

This tension between the speculative modes of accelerationism also has counterparts in the decelerationist tinge. Resembling something akin to ludditism, or the monks who spend their time wandering the “Pine Trees,” one of the more infamous proponents for slowing down the technological evolution, and maybe even reversing it, is Ted Kaczynski. Around the same time CCRU was popping speed and mechanizing turing cops, Kaczynski explicitly stated his analysis of the situation in Industrial Society and Its Future when writing “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” Envisioning an end to human freedom and a socio-imprisoning of the individual, Kaczynski railed against ideological subversion as a symptom of technology’s perverse societal effects. Perhaps burned from his participation in unethical drug experiments, or jaded by life without love or affection, the fear that drove the mathematician turned Unabomber was a deep aversion to the machinic. Kaczynski imagines hell not as a religious fantasy, but an actual fate for those willing to step into the abyss of techno-divinity.

More contemporary decelerationists count within their ranks the likes of Pentti Linkola, whose strain of deep ecology runs alongside those of Earth First! and other anarcho-primitivists. Like other radicals from another era who swept aside democracy, Linkola shares a firm conviction that it will take the actions of brave and ruthless leaders to mitigate absolute ecological terror, stating:

“Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy. There cannot be so incompetent a dictator, that he would show more stupidity than a majority of the people. Best dictatorship would be one where lots of heads would roll and government would prevent any economical growth.”

— Pentti Linkola

Linkola is not an element within the environmental fringe, in fact, he is a polemicist with extensive intellectual presence, influencing the newly forming field of activists and politicians. His 2011 book titled Can Life Prevail? does not mince words nor does it run from aesthetic reasoning, but calls for revolutionary action in the face of technological acceleration, and emancipation from the horrific forces of total extinction.

The specter of accelerationism again swept the scene in 2007, when software engineer turned political theorist Curtis Yarvin, pseudonymously known as Mencius Moldbug, published a formalist blog. Critiquing the edifice of capitalism through the metaphor of Catholic ritual and protestant ethics, Yarvin presented the idea of patchwork, or refashioning state functions around corporate city-states rather than nations of the Enlightenment variety. CEOs as presidents, shareholders as voters, and floating metros extending across vast blue ocean. Exit from the French Revolution; exit from global consensus; exit from the neoliberal Cathedral.

Photo by Maxime Lebrun on Unsplash

Only a few years after Yarvin established a small audience of Silicon Valley libertarians, one of his more influential followers, Peter Thiel, began incorporating some of the core components of Neoreaction (NRx) into his public speeches and comments. In a 2009 essay titled The Education of a Libertarian, Peter Thiel expounded on the constriction of free markets in the face of increasing voter enfranchisement and welfare expansionism, limiting the speed of creative destruction. Of the three suggestions, Thiel identified Outer Space as an ideal undiscovered country, ripe for commercialization with limitless possibility. More than a year prior, Thiel injected more than $20 million in investment capital into SpaceX, run by Elon Musk, his former partner at PayPal. Two years later, Musk launched the first test flight for Falcon 9 v1.0, the boosters that would eventually power Falcon Heavy, and are now being re-prototyped to build Super Heavy, the Mars mission rocket.

“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

— Peter Thiel

It will take not just rockets to successfully become multi-planetary, as Musk and Thiel have reiterated. A re-engineering of the human body will be required. Gene editing, once thought to be an appendage of fantasy, is now a burgeoning field of scientific exploration. Making travelers more resistant to radiation is a first and obvious step. The manipulation of our genetic material for this purpose is not lost on Thiel. During late 2018, Thiel’s Founders Fund led a $110M investment in Synthego, pioneering the realm of CRISPR tooling. More than a year prior Synthego awarded grants to those clinicians successful in the creation of synthetic RNA to improve radiation sensitivity, reducing the toxic effects of chemotherapy used to remove cancerous cells.

The use of CRISPR for genetic customization would not be limited to the effects of radiative damage on the human skin. In April of 2019, Chinese scientists, who have no qualms with the same ethical and moral complaints plaguing Anglos, have genetically modified the intelligence of macaque monkeys. Using markers uniquely found in human DNA, geneticists from Kunming Institute of Zoology successfully manufactured a transgenic animal, which performed all its evaluations with remarkable improvement. Work is now progressing for not just those at the Kunming Institute, but a long list of international medical professionals, seeking to setup residence in a nation once regarded for its Marxist philosophy, now beginning to show signs of hyper-techno-capitalism.

The pursuit of money along with a burning desire to escape regulatory authority is on the verge of launching the most audacious industrial effort seen in over a century. To aid these attempts will be residual advancements in artificial intelligence, including the use of genetic engineering to harden human travel across space. With the support of neoreactionary billionaires and sci-fi inspired technologists, new forms of power are forming well beyond the traditional notions often cited in humanist literature. Concepts such as biopower, social justice, and emancipatory politics fall flat and fail to address the sonic boom of megaton thrusters.

To say that many will accept this standing by diligently would be a massive understatement. Anarchists and Kaczynskites, including the Individualists Tending Toward the Wild (ITTW) and others, are dedicated to the destruction of these new centers of leverage. ITTW in particular firmly believes in scenarios such as the “grey goo” hypothesis, and that it is a moral and ethical duty to end the lives of those such as Peter Thiel and Aubrey de Grey, who sit on the edge of an emerging transhumanist and post-human ethos. These are just rumblings. Once the window opens and Musk launches his armada to that Mars oasis, as he has said he intends to do, what movement for equity could still call itself one if it did not in earnest try to clutch the wheel of history, swerving its path back towards those precepts that have spirited its development thus far?

It is difficult to imagine what the stakes might genuinely be in several decades. A vast majority of climate scientists may not agree on a lot, but they do foresee most ocean facing city centers encountering permanent flooding. Additionally, destabilization of average seasonal temperatures will significantly alter global farming patterns; which does not guarantee international conflict but will increase the likelihood that such disputes will be zero-sum. Even the U.S. military is preparing for famines in Africa that will threaten tens of millions of lives if current humanitarian efforts are interrupted.

That is not to say that there are ways to mitigate these challenges, but the awesome sight of thousands of ships leaving Earth for redder pastures would instill the kind of rage one might only encounter once in a lifetime. How this would not motivate millions of political actors, if not only by way of the human autonomic nervous system and its flight response to danger, knowing that the only way to ever save their lives, or the lives of whom they love, would be to get on those ships, anyway, anyhow. And if not joining the crews of cybernetically-enhanced, genetically modified travelers as they head towards new worlds, stopping them in their tracks so they may suffer the same as those trapped and waiting.

In the 1979 book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams uses the phrase “DON’T PANIC!” to encourage readers, and perhaps all of humanity, to control that sense of fear that will assuredly consume you in times of intense danger, when you know your life might end. On the first launch of Falcon Heavy — the very engine configuration seed funded by Peter Thiel and will be modified to launch the Mars mission cargo ships — Elon Musk included a Tesla Roadster, in it the LCD deck reads “DON’T PANIC!” as an ode to his sci-fi bona fides. When the time comes, and everyone is rushing for the exits, it would be a good idea to remember that phrase. To override the serenity of fate embodied in the bio-logic built into every person’s limbic nerves. Don’t panic, don’t panic indeed.

Photo by SpaceX.



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