Speaker notes for presentation How to Jump-start an Interstellar Civilization
How to Jump-Start
an Interstellar Civilization
[Slide 1: Title slide]
So we have 15 minutes to jump-start interstellar civilization. I'll do what any smart
person would do in this situation - talk really, really fast. We love to talk starship
designs and propulsion, but there is more to the concept of civilization than
[Slide 2: Moon landing]
1969 we have Apollo 11, first men walk on the moon. We have five more missions,
12 men total on the moon. Half a century later, are we mining He3 and sipping
cocktails in a lunar bar? Nope. We are still a terrestrial civilization, scrambling to
rebuild our lunar landing capability.
So there is more to civilization than technology alone. I am personally not interested
in developing starflight capability just for the heck of it. I believe it's imperative for
our survival to put it to good use, to become an interstellar civilization. So how do
we do it? Let's start with a definition.
[Slide 3: Ghandi in London]
According to the urban legend, a journalist once asked Ghandi during his visit to
London: “What do you think of Western civilization?” Ghandi supposedly gave an
acerbic response: “I think it would be a good idea.”
The concept of civilization is contentious. I spent weeks immersing myself in the
academic discourse among world historians. It is not a pretty sight, I tell you. Few
now attempt a fundamental definition or even agree that civilization on balance is a
good idea. But after stewing in the accounts of our past and speculations about
extraterrestrial civilizations, I came up with this:
[Slide 4: Civilization definition]
Civilization is a cultural infrastructure designed for continued survival and evolution of
Earth-originating minds in the universe.
Should be good for at least a hundred years.
• The who are the Earth-originating minds, rather than the specific human form we
• The why is the continuity of our survival and evolution.
• The where is the universe—we have to think in terms of the greatest context we are
currently aware of.
• Civilization is something we “design” rather than something that happens to us.
• And now the crux of the matter, the what—cultural infrastructure.
[Slide 5: Building blocks of cultural infrastructure]
TECHNOLOGY is certainly a building block—without interstellar propulsion and
workable starship designs we won’t get out of our solar system. But there is also:
• IDENTITY: If we see ourselves as Earth-bound terrestrials, that's exactly
what we will remain.
• GOALS: Without explicit interstellar goals, we surely won’t just wake up
one fine morning to the sight of Alpha Centauri to our own surprize.
• ORGANIZATION: If we pull in different directions, can't mobilize our
collective resources, we'll be going nowhere.
So we've got "civilization", now what's "interstellar civilization"?
[Slide 6: Extensive vs. intensive innovation]
I'll borrow an idea from a venture capitalist Peter Thiel. He makes a distinction
between intensive and extensive innovation. Intensive innovation is when we create
new capabilities that did not previously exist, like inventing the internet. Extensive
innovation is when we extend the benefits of intensive innovation into new
geographies, to new people, say get 7 billion people online. Extensive innovation
can take a while but it’s quite predictable. Intensive innovation is hard and
[Slide 7: Innovation staircase]
So here is our innovation trajectory to interstellar. It is two intense vertical climbs
away. This is fish coming out of water and becoming human, only squared! Very
How do we get from sub-planetary to interstellar? Superficially, the answer “stairs”
you in the face: take the stairs! Complete the buildout of the planetary civilization,
do the hard work of becoming a inter-planetary civilization by settling Mars and
then the rest of the solar system. And then we can wipe the sweat off our foreheads
and start talking interstellar.
That's the wrong answer. I believe we must jump! One-species-one-planet strategy
and even one-species one solar-system strategy is akin to walking the ledge of a
skyscraper and not caring too much about the outcome. For an intelligent species,
we are embarrassingly ambivalent about our own survival. We can however make a
strong moral case - as Nick Bostrom - does in his recent paper in Global Policy - that
reducing our extinction risk should be an overriding global priority.
We are talking about the future of possibly trillions and trillions of descendants,
possibly the future of intelligent life in our galaxy. We will have to go interstellar in
any event before our sun's sell by date but interstellar diversification now offers
some protection against a whole class of extinction risks.
[Slide 8: The Jump]
We don't have a choice if we want to survive - we must jump. The only justifiable
target speed here is “as fast as humanly possible.” Our technology may very well
end up advancing in a staircase-like fashion but our minds must make the
interstellar leap now to make it possible.
[Slide 9: Sizing the Jump]
How high is the jump? Several people have tried price-tagging an interstellar
mission. So we get the range from $1-125 trillion. Then we compare it to the size of
the entire world economy and get depressed. It'll take us 100-500 years to get to a
place where we can afford an interstellar mission. I think we should give up
thinking linearly. Where there is a will, there is a non-linear way!
[Slide 10: Getting the balls rolling]
To jump-start an interstellar civilization today, we need to get a whole bunch of
balls rolling at the same time.
[Slide 11: Cultural infrastructure building blocks]
So I'll quickly go through each element of the cultural infrastructure - what's the
nature of the jump, how do we get started?
[Slide 12: Identity from-to]
On a good day, we are Earthlings or Global Citizens. We need to jump to Cosmic
Citizens. There is a cognitive and a moral component to this jump.
[Slide 13: Cognitive jump]
Here is what we have to do cognitively. Today our civilization is sitting tight inside
the Earth-Now box. We have to expand it to Universe & Eternity.
[Slide 14: Moral jump]
Morally, we need to expand our circle of care—from caring about my tribe, or (on a
good day) about all 7.2 billion to all future generations. We don't need all 7.2 billion
to make this jump, but we need to reach a critical mass among the creative
[Slide 15: Target industries]
Three industries give us amazing access to people's minds & hearts: books, movies
and games. There are more than 130,000 cinema screens on this planet, more than
a billion smart phones. Science fiction is a good genre. It does well at the box office,
in digital book sales and in games. But we have the wrong contents! Today, science
fiction is mostly what Alfred Hitchcock called MacGuffin. It's something that
moves the plot of the story along, but is not really a central focus. Take Elysium—
yes, we have a stunning space-based habitat and body-reconstituting machines, but
the plot is really about the present, the implications of global inequality. Nothing to
do with space habitats.
[Slide 16: Interstellar Art Academy]
So what do we do? We need art that expands our identity towards the stars. So let's
start an Interstellar Art Academy! Imagine a graduate program for writers, game
designers and film directors. You come and learn from the masters of the genre but
you also get grounded in Big History, Cosmography, Propulsion, Astrobiology, X-
rsisk, The Scientific Limits of the Possible. We need a steady stream of art-to-the-
stars contents and perhaps create a 100 year book-movie-gaming franchise on future
history - a prelude to Star Trek that tracks Earthlings turning into an interstellar
[Slide 17: Goals from-to]
OK goals. Today we've got the Big Four: Peace. Justice. Prosperity. Sustainability.
At interstellar, we'll probably go for Settle the Milky Way. Seed Life. Find Others.
Now we have to expand the current discourse on the goals of human civilization.
This means we need to start getting outside the interstellar community.
[Slide 18: Goals-related communities]
More specifically, I believe we should target global public policy fora (e.g., WEF,
The Clinton Global Initiative) and entrepreneurial fora (e.g., Skoll World Forum,
TED). But we need to be smart about it.
[Slide 19: Potential angles to expand discourse]
Wwhat's our angle in global public policy fora? Talking about "Finding Others" is a
sure way to not get invited back. But we can and should talk about existential risk
and interstellar diversification as a solution. But there is more. Baron Münchhausen
pulled himself and his horse out of a swamp by his hair. That's what the interstellar
perspective can do for lifting ourselves out of our current sub-planetary quagmire…
...If we offer interstellar context as a thought experiment to help people think
outside the Earth-Now box.
• Sustainability? Imagine you are headed for a barren planet with no
ecosystem services to offer you besides raw materials. How do we set up
closed loop life support systems? We can solve the problem out of terrestrial
context and then implement on Earth. The Modern Green movement is
looking to do just that, so we have natural allies in the global public policy
• Peace? Take geopolitics to space. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nation-
states from bringing nuclear weapons or claim sovereignty over celestial
bodies. We’ve declared space a common heritage of humanity. How do we
secure peace under those circumstances?
• Justice and prosperity? Earth-based scarcity and geographic resource
lottery call fairness into question. Imagine how would our socio-economic
picture change if we had access to near-infinite supply of resources? Or if we
switched to He3-deuterium fusion as the main source of energy powering
We have to "normalize" interstellar in global public policy community. Even if the
word is heard in the context of a thought experiment, it enters circulation, offers an
alternative angle to decades old debates that have gone stale.
And then we have entrepreneurs. Many of them are starting the wrong kind of
companies. We need to help people adjust course!. Imagine we have become an
interstellar civilization. What are the companies that helped make it happen? Let's
put together a list of startups we need in the next 100 years and then go around
introducing it in entrepreneurship-oriented fora!
[Slide 20: Technology from-to]
So we have this massive technological transformation we need to pull off. Who
should do this?
[Slide 21: Technology-related communities]
The lazy answer is "space industry & government space programs". But that's only a
small part of the answer. If we rely on space tourism, scientific exploration and
satellites, we'll be going at snail pace. We need to wake up a couple of sleeping
• Mining. We need our $650 billion mining industry. A single small metallic
NEA asteroid can contain more good stuff than what has been mined on
Earth during the entire history of our civilization. Mining NEA asteroids
alone would increase resources available to our civilization by a factor of
about 1 million.
• Energy. The $6 trillion Earth-based energy business is a tiny fraction
compared to what becomes possible once we put up solar power satellites or
tap He3-deuterium fusion. We have 3 billion years worth of He3 energy on
Saturn alone. The outer planets can be the Persian gulf of our solar system.
• Construction. The $4.6 trillion construction industry should be scrambling
to build floating space habitats and settlements on Mars right now.
• Biotech. Biotech industry should be busy with closed loop biological
systems, lab-grown meat, designing ecological habitats, redesigning humans.
• ICT. Laser-based interplanetary and galactic internet should be under
Most of it was already part of Tsiolkovsky's 1926 "Plan of Space Exploration." And
yet, our mining giants ain't busy prospecting NEA asteroids. Our energy companies
ain't making plans for He3 extraction from the moon. Construction companies ain't
doing research on how to build cities in the volcanic caves on Mars.
[Slide 22: Forget blue sky, think black sky]
The problem is the wildest dreams of our industrial giants are still blue sky! Just
last week, I was talking to executives from a Norwegian oil and gas company whose
deep sea drilling expertise can come in handy in asteroid mining and planetary
drilling. Although visibly fascinated by the prospects, the response was “where is
the market, six people on the ISS?” On a five year horizon, that's a valid point. So
how do we get them dreaming black sky?
[Slide 23: Interplanetary Technology & Economy Roadmap]
I think a good first step would be to “normalize” space industrialization through
collective involvement. Let's get the leading thinkers from these industries working
on an Interplanetary Technology & Economy Roadmap. When people think
through together what it would take to develop a full-fledged interplanetary
economy and what role each of the industries should play, these ideas become more
credible through mutual validation. R&D funding might follow.
[Slide 24: Organization from-to]
So we are jumping to some form of pan-solar economy. We'll trade in resources,
ferry people around and share knowledge (discoveries, art, product designs, etc.).
[Slide 25: Designed by Apple on Earth. Assembled on Tau Ceti e.]
We'll live in the interplanetary and inter-stellar realization of the dream of today’s
3D-printing enthusiasts—we'll trade designs across interplanetary and interstellar
space but produce on different planets locally (“Designed on Earth, made on Mars”
or “on Tau Ceti e”). Pan-solar economy is a prerequisite for building an interstellar
civilization but at interstellar scales, it’s unlikely we will engage in interstellar
tourism or trade in physical substances.
[Slide 26: Interstellar civilization is the ultimate knowledge society]
That makes our interstellar civilization the ultimate Knowledge Civilization, held
together by shared stories about our common past and a common future, propelled
by sharing knowledge. The founding document of our budding interstellar
civilization should be “A Pact on a Free Exchange of Knowledge and Beauty.” We
could treat our scientific, technological and artistic advances as “common heritage
of humanity” and share them to accelerate our collective evolution. Galactic
Internet will be the single most critical infrastructure for the functioning of an
[Slide 27: Organization-related communities]
We already have several groups of governance revolutionaries chipping away at the
way we organize our civilization. But perhaps the most interesting ongoing
experiment in galactic market and governance is EVE Online. Half a million people
play this online game, set in a galaxy of some 7,500 star systems. It’s not an ideal
lab-- they've got warp drives and stargates, so moving stuff around between stars is
too easy, piracy is a legitimate professional occupation, etc. But using online space
simulation games as a lab for testing our new organization models seems like a
good idea. So let's design a more realistic interstellar game!
[Slide 28: Overview of communities we must get involved in]
So here is a high-level overview of industries, communities and types of fora we
need to get involved in to jump-start interstellar civilization.
[Slide 29: So who is going to get all the balls rolling?]
These activities won't take obscene amounts of funding but we need quite a bit of
legwork. So who should get the balls rolling?
[Slide 30: Interstellar energizer bunny]
So today, the interstellar community is small but very dedicated. Generally, most of
our energy is inward focused, it goes to own research.
[Slide 31: Interstellar tornado of energizer bunnies]
We'll need something that looks like this - a tornado of energizer bunnies.
[Slide 32: 1 million active members]
I am imagining an epic self-funding volunteer organization of 1 million members.
That’s hard but not impossible. Online petitioning organization Avaaz has 20
million members. If we create a real hands-on opportunity for people to contribute,
I am sure we can sign up a few people. This is the most exciting challenge in the
history of our civilization!
[Slide 33: The Interstellar Jump]
If we want to survive, we've got to jump, head first!