A Philosopher's Blog

Asteroid Mining & Death from Above

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on October 17, 2014

Having written before on the ethics of asteroid mining, I thought I would return to this subject and address an additional moral concern, namely the potential dangers of asteroid (and comet) mining. My concern here is not with the dangers to the miners (though that is obviously a matter of concern) but with dangers to the rest of us.

While the mining of asteroids and comets is currently the stuff of science fiction, such mining is certainly possible and might even prove to be economically viable. One factor worth considering is the high cost of getting material into space from earth. Given this cost, constructing things in space using material mined in space might be cost effective. As such, we might someday see satellites built right in space from material harvested from asteroids. It is also worth considering that the cost of mining materials in space and shipping them to earth might also be low enough that space mining for this purpose would be viable. If the material is expensive to mine or has limited availability on earth, then space mining could thus be viable or even necessary.

If material mined in space is to be used on earth, the obvious problem is how to get the material to the surface safely and as cheaply as possible. One approach is to move an asteroid close to the earth to facilitate mining and transportation—it might be more efficient to move the asteroid rather than send mining vessels back and forth. One obvious moral concern about moving an asteroid close to earth is that something could go wrong and the asteroid could strike the earth, perhaps in a populated area. Another obvious concern is that the asteroid could be intentionally used as a weapon—perhaps by a state or by non-state actors (such as terrorists). An asteroid could do considerable damage and would provide a “clean kill”, that is it could do a lot of damage without radioactive fallout or chemical or biological residue. An asteroid might even “accidentally on purpose” be dropped on a target, thus allowing the attacker to claim that it was an accident (something harder to do when using actual weapons).

Given the dangers posed by moving asteroids into earth orbit, this is clearly something that would need to be carefully regulated. Of course, given humanity’s track record accidents and intentional misuse are guaranteed.

Another matter of concern is the transport of material from space to earth. The obvious approach is to ship material to the surface using some sort of vehicle, perhaps constructed in orbit from materials mined in space. Such a vehicle could be relatively simple—after all, it would not need a crew and would just have to ensure that the cargo landed in roughly the right area. Another approach would be to just drop material from orbit—perhaps by surrounding valuable materials with materials intended to ablate during the landing and with a parachute system for some basic braking.

The obvious concern is the danger posed by such transport methods. While such vehicles or rock-drops would not do the sort of damage that an asteroid would, if one crashed hard into a densely populated area (intentionally or accidentally) it could do considerable damage. While such crashes will almost certainly occur, there does seem to be a clear moral obligation to try to minimize the chances of such crashes. The obvious problem is that such safety matters would tend to increase cost and decrease convenience. For example, having the landing zones in unpopulated areas would reduce the risk of a crash into an urban area, but would involve the need to transport the materials from these areas to places where it can be processed (unless the processing plants are built in the zone). As another example, payload sizes might be limited to reduce the damage done by crashes. As a final example, the vessels or drop-rocks might be required to have safety systems, such as backup parachutes. Given that people will cut costs and corners and suffer lapses of attention, accidents are probably inevitable. But they should be made less likely by developing rational regulations. Also of concern is the fact that the vessels and drop-rocks could be used as weapons (as a rule, any technology that can be used to kill people will be used to kill people). As such, there will need to be safeguards against this. It would, for example, be rather bad if terrorist were able to get control of the drop system and start dropping vessels or drop-rocks onto a city.

Despite the risks, if there is profit to be made in mining space, it will almost certainly be done. Given that the resources on earth are clearly limited, access to the bounty of the solar system could be good for (almost) everyone. It could also be another step form humanity away from earth and towards the stars.


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Story & Games

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 11, 2012
La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

All the roll playing you need.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher who teaches aesthetics and a gamer, I find questions about games and art to generally be rather interesting. As I have argued elsewhere, I take the intuitively plausible view that video games can be art. However, even if that matter is considered settled (which can be debated), there is still a rich vein of philosophical issues to mine.

One topic that I and many other gamers often find interesting is the matter of the importance of story in games. John Carmack, who knows a bit about games, said  that “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” Folks who delight in story driven games no doubt disagree with this view and there does seem to be an issue worth discussing here. For the sake of this discussion, I will be assuming that games (specifically video games) can be art. I have argued for this in an earlier essay and hence will not repeat my arguments here.

Obviously enough, there are games that have no story at all and are still fine games. To use the obvious examples, Tetris and Asteroids are story free, yet fine games. Naturally, these are not the sort of games that people debate about when it comes to whether or not story is important. However, it is worth noting these sorts of games because they provide a relatively pure context in which to present two relevant points.

The first is that game mechanisms (that is, the purely game aspects of the game) are reasonably seen as being distinct from the art aspects of the game (that is, the game as art).  After all, while all games are games and some games are art, not all games are art.  This can, of course, be argued against. However, it does have enough intuitive plausibility that it is well worth considering.

The second point is that even the art aspects of a game that is (or contains) art can be distinguished from each other. For example, while Tetris and Asteroid do not have plots, they do have game artwork and sounds (which might be dismissed as mere sound effects rather than having any status as art). As another example, the music and visual art of Halo can be distinguished from each other in that one is music and the other visual art. This point seems reasonable certain.

The matter of the importance of story is most interesting when it comes to games that do, in fact, feature a story. Obviously enough, the story (or plot) of games have varying degrees of integration into the game. For games that have a story, in one end of the spectrum lives the games whose story have an extremely minimal role in the game. One excellent example of this is Serious Sam: The First Encounter. The game does have a story: an evil alien threatens earth and you, as Sam, have to travel in time and kill wave after wave of monsters. That is pretty much it. Despite the rather limited story, the game works amazingly well as a game-that is, it is fun to play. On the other end of the spectrum are games that are heavily story driven, such as Knights of the Old Republic and Star Wars the Old Republic. These games are, not surprisingly, role-playing games. In these games the player takes on the role of a character and spends considerable time talking to non-player characters, making decisions and experiencing the plot unfold. As might be imagined, the story in such games seems to be rather more important than in the typical first person shooter. In the middle are games like the Halo series which have well-developed stories and unfolding plots, but do not actually have any role-playing elements. For example, in Halo your choices mainly revolve on what gun to use to kill which alien in what way.

As might be imagined, the significance of the story would seem to be proportional to its role in the game. After all, a first person shooter whose plot is rather lacking or poor would suffer less than a full blown story-driven role-playing game whose plot is lacking or badly done. That said, it could still be argued that plot is important.

It is tempting to compare a game with a story to a movie and, obviously enough, plot seems to be somewhat important to a movie (although Michael Bay, some might claim, endeavors to prove otherwise). The idea of plot being the most important aspect of poetical works (broadly and classically construed to include theater) dates back at least to Aristotle. To steal his argument regarding tragedy, the following argument can be given for the importance of plot in games that have a story element.

Games are not an imitation of humans (or elves, aliens, or dragons), “but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.” It is, of course, the actions taken by people that  “make them happy or miserable.” As such the “the incidents and the plot are the end of” the game  and “the end is the chief thing of all.” Thus the story is important, at least on the key assumptions made by Aristotle.

For Aristotle, a key part of having a good plot is ensuring “that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity permits a change from bad fortune to good or from good to bad.” In more general terms, the plot must be such that the events make sense and fit together to form a coherent whole. In my own experience as a gamer, I have consistently disliked games in which the story fails to meet that basic requirement that events play out in a way that makes sense (except, obviously enough, for games that are supposed to not make sense). After all, if you are running around in a game doing things that make no sense for no apparent reason that leads to nothing, then that will tend to be a disappointing gaming experience (although it would be a fair approximation of life).

The rather obvious reply to this is that there are games that are rather weak in the story department that seem to be great successes as games, thus helping to support Carmack’s claim. This seems to be a rather consistent aspect of the top tier first person shooters-they tend to be marked by weak, implausible or otherwise lame plots but are top-ranked for game play, especially competitive multi-player. As I once jokingly put it, “I don’t really care why I am killing, I just care about whether I’m enjoying it or not.” That, I think, nicely captures the view of most gamers.

Interestingly enough, this view often extends into games in which story would seem to be rather important, such as role-playing games. While some people do enjoy going through all the dialog and getting into the story, my general experience has been that the main focus is on the game-play rather than on the story.  This even extends to my experience in traditional role-playing games, like AD&D and Pathfinder:many players are far more into roll-playing (that is, simply killing monsters in combat) than role-playing (that is, talking to the monsters before killing them).

Getting back to the point raised earlier, namely that the game aspects of a game are not art this does seem to suggest that the story is not as important to the game as the game aspects of the game. Alternatively, it could be argued that the game aspects of the game are still art, but they are a different sort of art than a story. After all, the name of the game is, well, “game” and not “story.” In the case of a first person shooter, the game is (obviously enough) about shooting things from a first person perspective. Story is thus secondary. Even in role-playing games, such as Pathfinder, all the actual game mechanism are about rolling dice, usually while trying to kill monsters who are blatantly and shamelessly holding the loot that rightfully belongs to the party. While the game can be augmented by art (acting, beautiful maps, and well-crafted stories) the core of the game is , it can be argued, the game mechanics. As my friend Ron puts it, “if you are not rolling dice, you are not playing the game. You are just sitting around the table talking.”

The idea that a game should be focused on the game is, interestingly enough, also consistent with Aristotle’s view: “each art ought to produce, not any chance pleasure, but the pleasure proper to it.”

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The Ethics of Asteroid Mining

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 27, 2012
Asteroid mining spacecraft

Asteroid mining spacecraft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While asteroid mining is still the stuff of science fiction, Google’s Larry Paige, James Cameron and a few others have said they intend to get into the business. While this might seem like a crazy idea, asteroid mining actually has significant commercial potential. After all, the asteroids are composed of material that would be very useful in space operations. Interestingly enough, one of the most valuable components of asteroids would be water. While water is cheap and abundant on earth, putting into orbit is rather expensive. As for its value in space, it can be converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen-both of which are key fuels in space vessels. There is also the fact that humans need water to survive, so perhaps someday people will be drinking asteroid water in space (or on earth as a fabulously wasteful luxury item). Some asteroids also contain valuable metals that could be economically mined and used in space  or earth (getting things down is far cheaper than getting things up).

Being a science fiction buff, it is hardly surprising that I am very much in favor of asteroid mining-if only for the fact that it would simply be cool to have asteroid mining occurring in my lifetime. That said, as a philosopher I do have some ethical concerns about asteroid mining.

When it comes to mining, asteroid or otherwise, a main points of moral concern are the impact on the environment and the impact on human health and well being. Mining on earth often has a catastrophic effect on the environment in terms of the direct damage done by the excavating and the secondary effects from such things as the chemicals used in the mining process. These environmental impacts in turn impact the human populations in various ways, such as killing people directly in disasters (such as when retaining walls fail and cause deaths through flooding) and indirectly harming people through chemical contamination.

On the face of it, asteroid mining seems to have a major ethical advantage over terrestrial mining. After all, the asteroids that will be mined are essentially lifeless rocks in space. As such, there will most likely be no ecosystems to damage. While the asteroids that are mined will be destroyed, it seems rather difficult to argue that destroying an asteroid to mine it would be wrong. After all, it is literally just a rock in space and mining it, as far as is known, would have no environmental impact worth noting. In regards to the impact on humans, since asteroid mining takes place in space, the human populations of earth will be safely away from any side effects of mining. As such, asteroid mining seems to be morally acceptable on the grounds that it will almost certainly do no meaningful environmental damage.

It might be objected that the asteroids should still be left alone, despite the fact that they are almost certainly lifeless and thus devoid of creatures that could even be conceivably harmed by the mining. While I am an environmentalist, I do find it rather challenging to find a plausible ground on which to argue that lifeless asteroids should not be mined. After all, most of my stock arguments regarding the environment involve the impact of harms on living creatures (directly or indirectly).

That said, a case could be made that the asteroids themselves have a right not to be mined. But, that would seem to be a rather difficult case to plausible make. However, some other case could be made against mining them, perhaps one based on the concern of any asteroid environmentalists regarding these rocks.

In light of the above arguments, it would seem that there are not any reasonable environmentally based moral arguments against the mining of the asteroids. That could, of course, change if ecosystems were found on asteroids or if it turned out that the asteroids performed an important role in the solar system (this seems unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility).

Naturally, the moral concerns regarding asteroid mining are not limited to the environmental impact (or lack thereof) of the mining. There are also the usual concerns regarding the people who will be working in the field. Of course, that is not specific to asteroid mining and hence I will not address the ethics of labor here, other than to say the obvious: those working in the field should be justly compensated.

One moral concern that does interest me is the matter of ownership of the asteroids. What will most likely happen is that everything will play out as usual:  those who control the big guns and big money will decide who owns the rocks. If it follows the usual pattern, corporations will end up owning the rocks and will, with any luck, exploit them for significant profits.  Of course, that just says what will probably happen, not what would be morally right.

Interestingly enough, the situation with the asteroids nicely fits into the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke: there are resources in abundance with no effective authority (“space police”) over them -at least not yet. Since there are no rightful owners (or, put another way, we are all potentially rightful owners), it is tempting to claim that they are they for the taking: that is, an asteroid belongs to whoever, in Locke’s terms, mixes their labor with it and makes it their own (or more likely their employer’s own). This does have a certain appeal. After all, if my associates and I construct a robot ship that flies out to asteroid and mines it, we seem to have earned the right to that asteroid through our efforts. After all, before our ship mined it for water and metal, these valuable resources were just drifting in space, surrounded by rock. As such, it would seem that we would have the right to grab as many asteroids as we can-as would our competitors.

Of course, Locke also has his proviso: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. While this proviso has been grotesquely violated on earth, the asteroids provide us with a new opportunity (presumably to continue to grotesquely violate that proviso) to consider how to share (or not) the resources in the asteroids.

Naturally, it might be argued that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space and that things should be on a strict first grab, first get approach. After all, the people who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to reach and mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will end up, as they always do, out of luck and poor.

While this has a certain appeal, a case can be made as to why the resources should be shared. One reason is that the people who reach the asteroids to mine them did not do so by creating the means out of nothing. After all, reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to humanity and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Second, there is the concern for not only the people who are alive today but also for the people to be. To use an analogy, think of a buffet line: the mere fact that I am first in line does not seem to give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself so I can sell it to those who just happened to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Fortunately, space is really big and there are vast resources out there that will help with the distribution of said resources. Of course, the same used to be said of the earth and, as we expand, we will no doubt find even the solar system too small for our needs.

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