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Thursday, 20 April 2017

Interstellar Trade is Possible Part III: Threats, Strategy and Evolution

Interstellar trade does not happen in a vacuum.
The colony will be face multiple threats, to be defended against as it evolves into a more and more significant part of human civilization.
Imagine an interstellar seed was built on bio-nanotechnology and propelled by a laser sail, exploiting an existing interplanetary transport network. It brakes at its destination with an onboard dusty plasma fission-fragment rocket and lands on a large comet. 
Barnard's Star and three tiny exoplanets.
It takes 10 years to reach Barnard's Star at about 0.55C. 

Within a year, it builds solar panels, excavates mining sites, embeds thermal ovens and starts running a biological 3D printer. Within two years, it has shot off copies of itself onto the largest asteroids and comets of the system and within three years it is building a large solar-powered laser arrays to propel nuclear pulse units into a propulsion track. Rockets ride the track to deliver payloads of refined precious metals back to our home system.

Is that the end of the story? Will investors get to sit back and just bankroll the operation from the fat profits being made?  


The risks facing an interstellar operation vary from the mundane to the criminal. Some have been covered in Part I: the financial risk of not having enough money to maintain the operation, and the economic risk of not being able to provide products at interesting prices, do have solutions.

Here are some other risks to consider and the consequences they may have:

-Mission failure:

The interstellar operation was never fool-proof. It can fail at any step on the way, from departure (the laser sail burning up) to halfway through the set-up phase (the DNA-encoded information is damaged beyond recovery). 

The obvious solution to increase the robustness and reliability of the seed sent out to the stars. This can be accomplished by installing multiple redundancies, using safer technologies and more robust components. However, there is a limit to how much can be invested in improving the seed before we hit diminishing returns - millions might be required to increase the chance of success from 99% to 99.9%.

Sending a second spaceship to the same destination vastly improves the chances of success. Multiple simultaneous missions could theoretically turn a low chance of success per seed into a near-guaranteed success per operation.

For example, imagine the seed had a 50% probability of reaching the star, targeting a comet, settling in, growing, and becoming an interstellar industry. The other 50% is the chance of failure at any point along the way. 

Sending two missions increases the chance of success to 75%. Three missions to 87.5%. Ten missions to 99.9%!  

There will certainly be a point where investors calculate that it is less costly to send ten cheap seeds than to develop and send one ultra-reliable seed. 

-First come, first served and competition: 

It is said that ideas are a dime a dozen, that it is the execution that counts. Many investors with sufficient funds and access to the required technology will have the idea to mount an interstellar operation, but only those who take the risk and execute the plan will count. 

The practical result will be that either multiple operations will be launched to the same destination, or that multiple operations will try to recreate the success of a pioneering group of investors. This leads to competition and considerations beyond simple feasibility and profitability.

An example of such considerations is the cost of including a program dedicated to teaching the colony to hinder competing growths. It must be weighed against another program that tells the colony to grow faster and organically nudge the competition out of the star system. 

Beyond these complications is the great leveller that is exponential growth. 

A slower growing, less efficient and generally inferior seed can 'win' a star system by simply arriving earlier. It would begin to send copies of itself onto the precious few mega-asteroids of the star system very quickly and basically make sure that competing seeds never find a good foothold in the system. This ties into the concept of resource size divided by growth rate. It is much more efficient to concentrate the colony's efforts on the largest groups of rocks and volatiles possible, as exponential growth can break down hundred million ton asteroids into trillions of extraction sites and have greater output than multiple smaller asteroids of the same mass. 

This makes the largest asteroids the most valuable, and the seeds that reach these first will be able to produce more goods faster and cheaper than later seeds forced to settle for smaller asteroids.


One of the major advantages of interstellar mining is that the separation between the industry and the market is so great that authorities at home cannot impose restrictions such as taxes and ownership rights. 

A Wild space where the sheriff is a dozen lightyears and several decades away. 
Laws and tributes cannot be imposed if they cannot be enforced. Once an interstellar self-replicating colony is large enough to send back signals and be detected, it is far too late for a 'military' colony with the sole intent of destroying the former to be effective. 

It would be like sending out a gnat to eat a whale ten years too late.

The downside of this situation is that nothing would protect the colony from hostile forces. Seeds containing predatory programs would have to be confronted head-on, using only the resources available on-site. The worst part is that countermeasures have to be installed from the start, possibly decades before the attack actually happens, or added through instructions beamed across a time and distance gap of several lightyears. 

The preferred method of long distance law enforcement.
Attackers have an even easier time in settings where the seeds are launched using short-ranged beamed power. The entire acceleration sequence might only last a few hours and could easily be disguised as an interplanetary spaceship launch. The interstellar operators would only be notified 8 or more years later... if the attack was unsuccessful. If everything goes according to plan, the investors will never know that an attack even too place.  

-Hijacking and ransoming:

Let us consider an interstellar operation from the point of view of an attacker. 

The operation is protected by laws and police in the home system. The seed is uncatchable after it is accelerated to half the speed of light or more. You cannot know if it has successfully bloomed into a colony until nearly a decade later, and you would only bother mounting an attack on a successful colony anyways. 

Attacks can be performed along communications channels or physically. A predators seed operates along the principle of 'if a hacker has physical access, its game over'.
What results is that attacks will be focused on the mature, well developed colonies that probably span an entire star system by the time a predatory seed arrives. 

Just like the gnat and whale situation mentioned for law enforcement, an attacker cannot hope to match the size of an established colony. Theoretically, a predatory seed can take on a cancerous strategy and dedicate itself only to growing as fast possible, in everywhere possible, just to deny as many asteroids and comets as possible from the interstellar operation. But how would the attackers benefit from such a move? Spite?  

No, it is much easier to have the predatory seed take over the established colony than to try and destroy it. 

The main vulnerability of an interstellar colony is that it must maintain a communications link open with the home system. If the predatory seed can replicate the signals the colony is listening to and trick it into accepting its own commands, it would have successful hijacked the colony.

A hijacked colony can be told to self-destruct and make room for the competition. It can be ordered to deliver products the attackers are interested in instead of those most profitable to the operators, or stop delivering anything at all! More subtle moves are also possible: building a second communications array that listens to future commands by the attackers back home, or modifying the colony's reports to make it look like that the preferred metals are no longer available. The operators would naturally focus on extracting a new resource, a move the attackers would be able to anticipate and exploit on the market.

Subtle or overt, hijacking the colony is a risky and effort-intensive task. All the attacker's work could be exposed and rolled back by the next update the colony arrives, and partial hijacking is worse than a complete failure.

A much better attack from a risk/reward perspective is to ransom the colony. Ransoms work by scaring the victim with potential damage to something they care about, or by promising to stop ongoing damage, in return for payment. 

Scaring the victim in this case means revealing to the interstellar operators that an attack is taking place. They cannot know that it will be successful or not - they might only be informed, anonymously, that a predatory seed is on its way. Would they risk the complete take-over of the colony, or pay a small sum into an unmarked bank account now? 

The ongoing damage variant is where a successful hijacking does take place, but all the attackers do is demonstrate their ability to make the colony do what they want. Maybe they have the colony beam back a ransom message, or have the next delivery be filled with useless ice as a warning. The attackers demand money in return for not harming the colony. They can keep this up until the operators come together to launch an anti-predator predatory seed... but so can the attackers.

-Interstellar war:

Continued conflict between predatory an anti-predatory seeds over the control of an industrial colony can be called a war. When these seeds are launched across lightyears to other star systems, then it can properly be called an interstellar war. 

A laser sail can deliver goods... or weapons. 
Interstellar war would mostly be conducted out of sight and out of mind. It takes decades for actual battles to occur, and when they do, they are are detectable only as subversive code spammed over the electromagnetic spectrum in between bouts of weird and self-destructive behaviour from the losers. 

Back home, interstellar war is just a necessary expense to fend off opportunists and pirates. It might only be visible as a few lines on a profit/loss sheet and serves mostly to keep Risk Management types and Electronic Warfare programmers employed. 

Your enemy is necessarily anonymous - exposure means a SWAT team at the door and a thorough sweep of the basement. 

Overall, this makes interstellar war far from exciting. 

-Interplanetary war:

Strangely, it is quite logical for interstellar war to take place before interplanetary conflict arises. 

This is contrary to most portrayals in science fiction. 

Consider this: interstellar operations are private enterprises, involving small sums of money invested over long timescales. It is only when million ton deliveries of platinum and iridium reach the market that such enterprises become 'mainstream'. Bigger and bigger players will consider the investment worthwhile. More money is involved and due to the fantastic multiplier that is unhindered exponential growth, the interstellar economy can quickly become larger than the domestic economy.

This is the difference, for example, between Tesla building solar panels and the Chinese government investing $780 billion in renewable energy. One raises eyebrows and looks good on the stock markets, the other can change the world. 

Imagine, within 30 years of the success of the first interstellar operation, having dozens of star systems delivering billions of tons, regularly, of every type of resource imaginable at dirt-cheap costs. The output only increases over time.

An important activity would be building factories to turn interstellar resources into more valuable products.
Entire industries would become completely dependent on these resources. Nuclear reactors fed on interstellar uranium, wiring made out of interstellar gold and copper, bioreactors running on interstellar amino acids... energy, manufacturing, electronics, food, propulsion...

A mature interstellar economy would enable previously cost-prohibitive endeavours to become cheap. In return, they tap into the revenue streams of countless industries critical to human civilization. Were it not for the need for converting all the cheap resources into useful machines and complicated products inside the home system, this would be a post-scarcity situation.

With such wealth comes jealously and competition. Cheap resources, cheap construction and lots of money combine to make war affordable...

Affordable wars would trivialize conflict. Overt interplanetary war, between governments dependent on taxing rosters of interstellar operators, could become inevitable... an interesting premise to a setting, no doubt.


Considering the threats that an interstellar operation might face, investors might request a strategy that implements the countermeasures at minimal cost. 

These can be simple, such as 'send as many seeds as possible to that star!' or 'preemptively design and send anti-predatory seed s every year'. Others can be complex, such as hiding behaviours in the colony's programming to be triggered by attacks, or adding identification/verification protocols that help trace back an attack to the perpetrators.  

Strategies change over time, either as predicted or in response to developments in the home system. For example, anti-predatory programs must be updated to respond to new versions of predatory seeds. A strategy that was effective during the first few years of the colony's growth might not be effective when it becomes a mature colony under attack on multiple fronts...

As described above, attackers will always have the first move against a colony. The departure of a predatory seed can be hidden, the technology employed kept secret and the operators' response will always be many years too late. Does this mean that any interstellar operation is bound for failure? Not necessarily. 

The interstellar operator's trump card is the ability to move outside of the reach of attackers for decades at a time. If even a tiny portion of the colony's production is dedicated towards producing new interstellar seeds, it will gain the ability to colonize new stars very quickly. Unending numbers of interstellar seeds can be beamed out of the first star into surrounding destinations. 

The strategic decision to start exploiting new star systems as soon as the first system matures closely resembles tactics found in nature. When the survival of a species is at stake, exploring new environments is essential. Trees spread their seeds with the winds, chimp groups splinter and settle new grounds and interstellar seeds are shot into space. 

The buffalo (colony) attracts parasites (hijackers) and the oxpeckers (anti-predators) eat them.
Further natural inspiration cannot hurt. Oxpeckers and buffalo have a symbiotic relationship that helps remove parasites. Mothers share antibodies with the fetus to 'update' their immune system and prepare them for the threats of the outside world. DNA mutates over time to create new defences. These can be applied to interstellar trade and self-replicating colonies...


A truly vast neighbourhood. At 0.75C average expansion rate, we'll have 53 stars supplying Earth within 40-50 years of the first interstellar operation.
Like every other human endeavour, interstellar trade will progress more or less quickly depending on the level of success and interest it garners from the largest investors. 

The first interstellar colony might not target the closest stars, but those with the greatest promise for profit. The choice will be influenced by scientific data available at the time. 

What is certain is that the first product deliveries will be small. The most disruptive effect they'll have will be through speculation, but that does not have a concrete effect on human access to resources. What is also certain is as soon as tons of platinum arrive in orbit, some people will want to steal a slice of the pie.

Natural survival strategies compel the colonies and operators to invest in new star systems as quickly as possible.  

If the second wave of colonies also start beaming seeds to a new set of stars, we'll end up with a rapidly expanding front. It will outpace any attempts at sabotage, hijacking or ransoming as predatory seeds must be sent out of the home system and cannot be updated en-route... but this might change if a 'pirate' star system is available.

Our robot servants could meet alien species long before we even notice them.
So, what will we end up with?

After the first colony is deemed successful, it become easier to expand outwards from that point than to start a new operation from the home system. Once multiple systems come 'online', humanity will be flooded by an endless stream of resources at no extra cost. This revenue stream attracts more and more envious eyes, but the damage they do to the economy can only expand linearly. 

Eventually, law enforcement will find a way to impose rules on the game. Maybe a set of predatory seeds is sent out to all nearby stars, developed using a military budget. Or instead, enforcement is done at our end, with interstellar payload travelling at a good percent of lightspeed deemed an existential threat to humanity and controlled as such. These measures cannot stop the expansion of interstellar trade or prevent access to cheap resources, but they can impose legal, political and social restrictions that mean that the trade cannot be analyzed purely from a mathematical/economic point of view. 


An interstellar operation faces a variety of threats, both internal and external. Some can be solved by simply sending many seeds to the same star system, or arriving faster and growing faster than the competition. Others must be actively defended against, such as predatory seeds carrying instructions to hijack and ransom the output of an established colony.

Enduring conflict across interstellar distances is an interstellar war. As the colonies hop from system to system to escape their attackers, truly interstellar war is the result... but it will be long, boring and unwinnable. However, they can lead to conflict in the home system. 

It is necessary to design interstellar seeds according to predicative and preventative strategies, which evolve in response to new developments.


  1. Another survival strategy could be to create a laser highway using another seed, and ship the EW and RM personel to the new colony.
    This would give them the home field advantage over any attackers external to the colony. The laser highway would also speed trading between the home system and the colony. It could even enable immigration...

    Another thing: A colony could be programmed, or reprogrammed, to send out predator seeds to other systems.

    1. Hi VIPM!

      I doubt that anybody would want to get shipped out to another STAR just to do their office job better :D

      However, you do raise an interesting point: if you have a mature colony readily putting out the resources needed to fuel all of human civilization, then some people might want to divert a tiny fraction of that flow and live in situ.

      They won't agree to being shipped out to sit for the next few decades on a cold, desolate rock without being able to call anyone, so they'd need comfortable habitation to move into and company both at the destination and along the way.

      The 'laser highway' could be implemented as a stream of massive re-focusing mirrors pushed out like laser sails at low velocities. After time, you'd have a line of them stretching out to your destination. They can train a laser on a target across lightyears...

    2. Well, you could have the immigrants do it for you instead of shipping out corporation personnel. You'd grant them some percentage of production capacity in exchange for them administrating and defending the mining colony against attack.

      Of course, there's then the interesting problem of making sure they don't mutiny and take ALL the production capacity...you'll probably want corporate personnel onsite anyway. Or have dire consequences for breaking contract.

      I'd think having laser stations along the way instead of mirrors would be worth the cost because for redundancy and reaction time...part of the reason the highway works well is it laser brooms away interstellar dust and debris along the route. Coordinating this with a huge laser back home would be rather difficult, even absent hostile action.

    3. Well, if the immigrants rebell, then they would be cut off from the homeworld - not in physical, but in informational sense. The corporation could easily stop the retranslation of modern scientific data, cotemporary designs for productions and cultural information to the colony.

      This would hardly be a blow in short therms, but in long therms the colony would start to fall behind rather quickly. Clearly not the price that colonists would be ready to pay for something insignificant.

      And, of course, it is always possible to send a battlefleet to "pacify" the HUMAN rebels.

    4. @VIPM:
      Well, two things to consider in such a scenario:
      -The new, human colony could never use all of the resources being produced and sent out by the automated colony. Stopping production is a purely destructive move.

      -The colonists cannot hold the production for ransom, as the home system cannot really offer them anything they could want. Money? Where would they spend it? Even better technology? At the time they decide to rebel, they would have the most advanced tech possible. What then?

      On the other hand, the home system can play multiple cards to bring the colonists back under control. They can use radio signals to bring the production back online (the automated colony is unlikely to be 100% under the control of the colonists), or tell it to start producing nuclear bombs to wipe out the human colonists instead.

      Imagine being told that if you rebel, the machines you depend on to survive will start building millions of missiles to kill you on the spot.

      @Алексей Широколава:
      That would be a concern for colonists that intend to return to or compete with the home system. The disadvantage they would have in terms of technology would be terrible for them... but this is unlikely.

      First, the type of person who goes to live in another star doesn't really want to come back. Second, they already have everything they need and most new technology would not benefit their lives - advanced in weapons tech, in super-advanced manufacturing techniques or new medicines. They have no real use for those.

      Second, the home system can always order a battlefleet to be built on the spot, or sent in from the nearest non-rebel star system.

    5. Well, this is basically the reversion of usual problem of interstellar trade; instead of "what could colonies offer to homeworld", the question is "what could homeworld offer to them"?

      The answer is exactly the better technology and designs. Yes, the colonists would probably be able to live with the tech they already have, but it's like "we don't need your electricity and radio, we have steam engines and optical telegraph!" Not productive. And, there is also a question of medical and biological information. How long would colonists survive with only the medicine and crops they initially have? Pests and diseases are capable of adapting, too. Without the ability to design new solution, they would eventually face plague and famine, with no means to deal with it.

    6. This is true up to a certain point. Consider the case of the early American settlers. They moved into a land they could grow food on, using only the equipment on their backs and whatever the pioneers had built.

      They could, with difficulty, keep up with the technological advancements of the well-developed European nations. But if they decided enough was enough, would they be in immediate danger? Would they be sad to lose something they don't have yet (future technology)?

      I doubt anyone today is sad that they don't have the iPhone 10. I doubt North Korea would stand down if we promised it the designs of the next Intel processor, when they arrive.

      My point is, promises of future technology and medicine are not strong enough motivators to stop colonists from rebelling. Its not an immediate threat, something they depend upon or even something that lowers their standard of living.

      Also, there are practical issues with imposing the 'no new technology' punishment on a rebellious colony. The Solar System is not a monolithic group. Some part of them will leak the data intentionally or not. The colonists could promise new scientific data to the national rivals of the country imposing the punishment, allowing the colony to play off nations against each other and come out the winner...

    7. //Consider the case of the early American settlers.//

      I'm afraid, all the similarities are false. The North America have the climatic & environmental conditions not only perfectly suited for human lives, but, actually, even better than european.

      Unless you would found a perfectly P.E. (Parallel Earth) planet, this would hardly be a possibility for interstellar colonization. The average conditions on colonial planet would almost always be much WORSE than on Earth. The colonists would depend of technology MUCH more, than the colonists of North America.

      And in such conditions, they would desperately need the scientific capabilities of homeworld to solve the problems. Simply because they couldn't have enough of their own scientific potential before the colony would reach the sizable size of at several millions. They would be forced to deal with quite a lot of purely biological problems; new virus strains, new crop diseases... If the planet have local biosphere, the problem would be multiplied (not directly, because the local organic would hardly be edible for Earth organic and visa-versa).

      Basically, without medical and biological help from homeworld, the colonists standards of living would drop pretty quickly.

      And, in case of crops - we have all cards in our hands. Basically, how the situation looks like? The homeworld university develop new crops for colonial conditions. Said cultivar would then be send - either as physical package, or as data for local synthesis - to the colony, for local testing. After the series of tests, the data would be retranslated back on homeworld, where the initial "crop design" would be refitted according to the colonial data.

      The thing is, that the colonists have no need to knew exactly HOW this particular crop works. They have the DNA sequense, all right - but they have no clue, what exactly are those gene complexes do, and HOW. This data is secret, and held under strict control on homeworld (after all, it's copyrighted biological design!)

      So, if colonists would chose to rebel... Well, we just shrug and stop the transfer of new plant designs to them. And let the pests and diseases to do the rest (they are highly adaptable!) The colonists could not easily replace our plant designs, because, basically, all their ecosystem is build around them! Even if they have benefactors on Earth, without acess to our - carefully protected! - genetic data, their benefactors could only recommend them "well, start to build a new ecosystem from scratch". Definitely not the thing that colonists would approve.

      And I'm not even started to talk about such possibilities as pre-programmed "off switches" in crops... ;)

    8. Early settlers:
      The 'perfect environmental conditions' in North America would be comparable to the habitats ready-built by the autonomous colony, just waiting for the arrival of human colonists. Massive rotating structures where the best food, luxuries and entertainment is available for free isn't necessarily worse than conditions back in the home system.

      Also, I stated in the initial conditions for humans going on an interstellar trip that they would not attempt it until every problem has been solved and every necessity covered, plus the expectation of a better life on top of that.

      Also, considering that we haen't found any planets that even Earth-*sized* within 16 lightyears means that realistic, near-term colonization is mostly a stay-in-space affair. A completely artificial environment minimizes the uncertainties that comes with growing crops on open land and exposing themselves to unknown diseases.

      Considering these conditions, why would living conditions drop? They (and their machines) control every aspect of their lives and environments. If the machines fail, then by extension the entire interstellar operation is doomed to fail because the autonomous colony that supports the humans relies on the same technology.

      Now, we're deviating far from the purpose of the analogy, which was to point out that we've had situations before where the colonists didn't depend on the homeland, so could afford to rebel without immediate or short-term negative consequences... but this is interesting so let's continue :)

      Crops controlled from the home system is not going to be biologically possible, at least without some serious convoluted mechanisms. Consider Alpha Centauri: 4.2 lightyears. Even if everything goes well, 'updates' cannot be spaced closer than 8.4 years in case something goes wrong. The plants will need to sustain themselves and corrected in-situ for 8 year periods or more. This entails very open genetic documentations and mature genetic tools available to the colonists. I mean, some evil corporation might risk dooming the entire colony to starvation and failure to protect its genetic property, but that's more a fixture of dystopian settings than something we can be certain of happening.

  2. My IMHO - you are relying too much on self-replicating simple machines. Basically, with "seeding" scenario we are forced to take into accout the purely biological factors - such as mutations and evolution processes. Basically, we are creating an artifical biosphere - without any real means to control it. And the "colonial war" scenario, abovementioned, only worsened the situation. To deal with all possible factors of such situation, the "colony" must rely pretty much on their own ability to adapt and react - i.e. they would need to have quite adaptable AI. And, because the colony computing capabilities growth are almost unlimited, we would pretty soon have a VERY smart AI, which, while may not be truly self-aware, still could deviate pretty much from original ideas.

    Basically, the problem quickly boil down to the situation "we have artifical biosphere, controlled by the evolving artifical intellect, which is capable to operate interstellar-level energies without ANY possible human control".

    The same "good" idea as "let's wire all our nuclear arsenal to the control of computer, linked to the Internet, so it could analyse the data and decide when to launch". Even the "Death Hand"-type machines - like old Soviet "Perimeter" system - NEVER have the ability to call the attack by themselves, they could only control the authority to launch such attack (i.e. they still need human to physically push the buttons and thus rely the command order). You suggest something even worse; the near-biological system, with the ability to threw relativistic kill vechicles anywhere they want.

    1. ...This guy has the right of it, Matter beam. How ARE we going to prevent runaway AI colonies?

    2. I'm afraid, the only way is to have a human control over them. Which means that we need to colonize the system first, and THEN start to think about "what we could send to Earth"?

      So the situation would probably looks like:

      * The initial "seeding" with the goal to prepare space habitats and vital resources (water, oxygen, carbohydrates, trace elements) for the initial human colonization. If we use laser propulsion, they could probably also build braking laser, but they should NOT have any programming that could lead them to the idea "hey, let's launch something back!"

      * Then the colonization mission arrived, and took the matters in their own hands.

      Hm... we actually could have BOTH stimulus for colonization (to control the machines) and interstellar trade here. The colonists would trade minerals from their systems for the newest scientific & cultural data from Earth.

      Of course, we still have the problem that some colonists somewhere in nearby systems have relativistic weaponry in their hands... but at least against humans the deterrence through threat of mutual destruction work well enough)

    3. @Алексей Широколава:

      Well, you are right, but it was stated in Part 1 that without autonomous colonies of machines, you wouldn't be able to start the whole thing at all! I'm just considering it as a required piece of technology essential to the interstellar trade concept.

      On the subject of colony intelligence: I don't think so. The self-replicating machines do not perform research or self-improvement. They must react and adapt, but that doesn't necessarily require intelligence. Our immune system reacts to diseases and finds solutions to a massive variety of problems, but it is not intelligent.
      What we will find is that the colony will have more calculating capacity, because they can add together more and more computers, but just like today, just adding computers doesn't equal intelligence.

      @VIPM: By hoping that no combination of unrepaired damage, stray cosmic rays, pirate software and unprotected computers produces AI in the first place!

    4. @Алексей Широколава:

      So you intentionally cripple the self-replicating machines so that they cannot do anything until humans arrive?

      That sounds good in theory, and might be the sort of thing governments and militaries will impose through laws and regulations, but its bad from an economic/mathematical point of view. Waiting for humans to arrive adds a decade or more to the maturity time. Instead of platinum and palladium arriving on your doorstep in 15 years, you have to wait 30 years.

      On top of that, it isn't really an option for the first few colonies. You don't have a laser highway set up and no affordable rocket can send an entire human population 'ready to go'.

      So, it is only possible for later colonization attempts. Possibly by the time people realize that hey, this thing is happening and we need to get in on it. But by then, the original autonomous colonies would have matured and pose all of the problems you and VIPM mention... it would make for an interesting SciFi setting.

      The mutual assured destruction is an interesting question: it works today because your victim will fire back at you and kill you in half an hour. Would you still attack if it takes 20+ years to your victim to react? If you're a 60 year old politician, you'd press the button.

    5. Matterbeam, all those assumptions are based on the main assumption that the average human life would have the same lenght as in early XXi century and the global economic would be more or less the same. If the human average lifespan would be increased to, say, 150-200 years, or the lenght of "active" period would be stretched from around 40 to 80+ years, we would have the situation where it is perfectly possible to wait half of a century to gain profit.

      Also, if we have more centrally-controlled economic - like socialists - we, again, could wait much longer until the profit would came. Because we aren't limited by the requirement of short-therm payments, we could perfectly agree to the plan, that would generally benefit next generations, not our (at least not directly)

    6. The implicit statement made in Part 1 is that interstellar trade can happen in the next two centuries. As soon as we have fast interplanetary travel, either through powerful nuclear rockets or a laser transport network, we'll be able to send probes to other stars. Whether the self-replicating seed technology becomes available at the same time is speculation...

      ... but the self-replicating technology is as much of an unknown as life-extending medicine and economy-disrupting social structures. Either or all of them could become a reality in the next decade... or stay unavailable for the next 1000 years. Interstellar operations only really need 15 years to come online, so we'd just need for the right conditions to arise.

      A good metric for discussing these sorts of situations is Technology Readiness Level (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_readiness_level).

      Lasers are TRL 9. We have them.
      Megawatt space lasers are TRL 6. We'd demonstrated smaller scale lasers in space, we just need to make them bigger.
      A laser transport network is TRL 4. We have all the technologies needed.

      In comparison, self-replicating seeds and human life extension are all TRL 0. We don't even have the all the scientific concepts pinned down, and have yet to even invent them. Massive social change doesn't have a TRL.

      What I'm saying is that TRL 0 technologies have no horizon for discovery and we cannot start saying that they will be ready in X number of years. In this case, I could argue that self-replicating seeds will be available in 200 years, you can say they won't, and neither of us will have solid grounds to argue on...

      What we can do though is imagine the consequences of one or both are available.

      In long life is available before self-replicating seeds, then interstellar trade will take a very long time to happen, because long-life humans won't risk the next 80 years of life by going on a slow interstellar cruise only to work their assess off for decades on the other end.

      If self-replicating technology comes earlier, we'll have both massive industrial, social and economic changes. If we can grow a colony around another star, we can build an entire autonomous industry right here too. We won't have the same massive access to resources as in the interstellar scenario (at first), but we'll have things such as houses growing out of the ground, cars being made in minutes and massive mirrors in orbit solving energy and global warming. Labour disappears, production costs approach zero...

    7. //In comparison, self-replicating seeds and human life extension are all TRL 0. We don't even have the all the scientific concepts pinned down, and have yet to even invent them. Massive social change doesn't have a TRL. //

      Actually no, the human life extension technologies are between TRL 2 and 3. We already have sucsessfull experiments with animals life extension by means of "switching off" several genes. We still don't have the total comprehense - because the mechanism of aginng is VERY complex - but clearly not at TRL 0.

      //Massive social change doesn't have a TRL. //

      Well, USSR existed. And several pretty large-scale projects were sucessfully implemented by plan-based economical models. I see no reason to assume that socialist states could not appear again in near future.

      //In long life is available before self-replicating seeds, then interstellar trade will take a very long time to happen, because long-life humans won't risk the next 80 years of life by going on a slow interstellar cruise only to work their assess off for decades on the other end. //

      Not linked. Actually, the modern models tended to show other results; peoples are more likely to risk, if they thought that they have "reserves".

  3. Matterbeam, I really doubt that autonomous robotic seeding & colonization may be possible without at least SOME level of AI. Too many unknown factors, too many unpredictable parameters. Without at least some ability to adapt and learn, the whole project could decay pretty soon just because system would not be capable to deal with real, non-simulated situation. Entrophy would came in work.

    The immune system analogy isn't correct. The immune system worked with only limited purposes. The immune system is not forced to basically build a biosphere in unpredictable condition and make it stable. And, immune system could not deal with all problems with just pre-programmed responses.

    Basically, the seeding system is an attempt to make not only stable and self-sustained, but productive biosphere, capable of rationally dealing with output. I'm afraid, such system could not be build only on simple "trigger-response" basics.

  4. Predator seeds are more or less doomed to fail against established seeds. After all, they presumably use a lasernet to accelerate cargo to the home system. This means they essentially have a web of death rays vaporising anything that doesn't get identified by the friend or foe system as a friendly. After all, if something moves towards you at relativistic systems and doesn't identify as a friendly, it's dangerous. Whether it's a relativistic kinetic kill vehicle or a rival seed is irrelevant.

    1. Again the same problem: we have automatic user corporative (I.e. private) control, that could wreak devastation on unprecedent scale. Moreover, the MAIN FUNCTION of said automatic is exactly to shoot relativistic packages toward Sol system.

      The analogue: we allow EVERYONE to use nuclear devices for industrial purposes (like large-scale digging and geological excavations - nukes are, actually, pretty good in it), by the means of automated missile base in Antarctica, controlled via Internet. How long before something would gone wrong, even not counting the possible malevolent attempts?

    2. @Wouter Debois: Yes, brute force attempts to subvert the production will fail. But if the predatory seed only has to find an empty rock and build a radio dish that beams hacking signals to the colony, then it can use the colony's own laser net to do whatever it wants.

      The predatory will arrive mostly unnoticed. The large laser sail is departed on is discarded, leaving only a nuclear stage a few kg in mass. This is a really tiny object. It will be visible during the braking burn, but I doubt that multi-gigawatt beams can effectively track a tiny target once it is already inside the star system. That required military grade tracking.

      If the predatory seed knowns a lot about the colony, it can perform its burn behind the main laser array, such as behind the system's star or very close to the laser array, so that it has a very large angular velocity.

      After the burn is complete, the predatory drone detaches the nuclear stage and basically becomes invisible. A few weeks to months later, it has grown a solar panel and a radio dish and the game is over.

      It's not fool-proof, and there are ways for the colony to physically defend itself, but the advantage remains to the attacker.

  5. If written well, even a subversion attempt by a non-sentient probe could be an exciting scenario.....