Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Terraforming Exam Question

Ready for the next stage of terraforming
The script below was obtained through the most extraordinary circumstances, purporting to be an examiner's guide to an exam set in 2265 AD. The test appears to be aimed at sixteen year olds.
"Q1.  Terraforming Options

For the purposes of this question the planet to be terraformed orbits a sun-like star (such as Tau Ceti) within 50 light years of the Earth. The planet is Earth-like, with rocky continents and large oceans, but when discovered was completely devoid of life.

You may assume that the relevant global mapping and resource surveys have been carried out and that initial seeding of the planet's landmass and oceans has been accomplished. As a result, the conversion from carbon-dioxide to oxygen is well under way as the atmospheric composition approaches that of Earth.

At this point in the terraforming process, two possible ways forward present themselves - scenarios A and B. You should discuss the pros and cons of each of the two methods as precursors to human colonization.

Scenario A: the 'Protestant' strategy.

Sometimes called the 'high-technology approach', this scenario calls for large-scale autonomous robot deployment on the planet to undertake mining, infrastructure-creation, manufacturing, farming and city-construction work. The intention is to create a post-industrial rural/urban environment into which humans can be inserted with an extremely high standard of living from day one.

1a. Why is this called the 'Protestant' strategy?

1b. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

Scenario B: The 'Buddhist' strategy.

Sometimes called the 'ecological' or 'genetic-engineering' approach, this scenario creates an ecology of plants and animals which have been genetically engineered to be tame and to implement a number of important functions and services. For example, most multicellular creatures possess a  'packet-radio transceiver' organ, which allows them to operate as both edge-devices and routers in a 'biological internet' (sometimes known as the 'Internet of creatures'). Humans are also genetically upgraded to participate in this global network.

Dwellings, transportation and the hundreds of other services used in an advanced society are mainly or exclusively provided by gene-tailored organisms.

1c. Why is this called the 'Buddhist' strategy?

1d. What are the main advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

As you will be aware, both approaches have been used with more or less success.

1e. In less than 250 words, compare and contrast the two strategies and indicate whether one is clearly superior to the other, and why.


Examiner Notes

(a) For full marks, the student should note that the 'Protestant' strategy refers back to the early twentieth century thinker Max Weber's views of the Rise of Capitalism, while the 'Buddhist' strategy particularly relates to the views of the unity of nature in that religion, linked to ideas of reincarnation.

(b) The student should expand on the idea that the main advantages of the 'Protestant' strategy are that devices (such as high-powered radio transmitters, aircraft & spacecraft, high-density power-generators) can be quickly implemented in the most convenient materials and that the design process is extremely flexible.

The main disadvantage is the brittleness of the resulting civilisation: any systemic social catastrophe leads to the end of hyper-specialisation and a collapse back to hunter-gathering.

(c) The student should have noted that the 'Buddhist' strategy is in some ways complementary to the 'Protestant' strategy. Since functions are implemented in the biosphere, an ecology which is distributed, self-maintaining and self-reproducing, the basics of civilization are extraordinarily stable and resilient in the short to medium term.

There are, however, three main disadvantages:

As the optimised ecology needs negligible input from the majority of people on the planet, there may well be a psychological loss of purpose, a kind of 'ennui in the Garden of Eden'.

Secondly, it may require considerable ingenuity to implement a novel function or service within the constraints of biology. Credit will be given to answers which make reference to the difficulties already encountered in genetically-engineering routing and wifi across diverse biosystems.

Thirdly, the student should draw attention to the fact that the genomes of virtually all the organisms in the ecology have been purposefully set up not to benefit the fitness of the creature itself, but to be useful to humans. It follows that mutation and natural selection will tend to subvert the status quo and cause reversion to a feral ecology; without the closest monitoring and ruthless culling the Buddhist utopia will eventually collapse.

(d) In the final part of the question, full marks will be obtained by answers which appreciate that neither pure strategy is optimal under all conditions. In practice the question is where to draw the balance point in a mixed approach. In conditions of social stability with backup, the 'Protestant' strategy can be given enhanced weighting; in opposite circumstances the more resilient 'Buddhist' approach is recommended."
The manuscript ends here.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating little story, but it would have been a nice touch to qualify the first half of the first sentence!


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