Zen White Paper
by Robert Viglione, Rolf Versluis, Joshua Yabut, and Jane Lippencott /  May 2017

rob[at], rolf[at], josh[at], & jane[at]

Zen is an end to-end-encrypted system with zero-knowledge technology over which communications, data, or value can be securely transmitted and stored. It is an integration of revolutionary technologies that create a system over which innovation can accelerate by combining three functions that are traditionally done separately: 1) transactions 2) communication, and 3) competitive governance. This is done in a secure and anonymous manner, using a worldwide distributed blockchain and computing infrastructure. The system integrates multiple best-in-class technologies to form an open platform for permissionless innovation that can evolve with user preferences.

We live in a hyper-regulated and surveilled world where billions of individuals are deprived of basic human rights, such as property ownership, privacy, free association, and access to information. The technology now exists to solve some of these problems, and Zen’s early implementation will do exactly that. Zen is a collection of products, services, and businesses built around an enabling technology stack employing zero-knowledge proofs and a core set of beliefs. As a distributed blockchain system leveraging the latest censorship-evading techniques, fully encrypted communications, and a social and governance model designed for long term viability, Zen will contribute to the human right to privacy and provide the necessary networking infrastructure for people to securely collaborate and build value within a borderless ecosystem. Our mission is to integrate the latest technologies available post-Satoshi with a decentralized, voluntary, and peaceful set of social structures to improve life for anyone who wants to participate. We believe that this is an idea whose time has come. Zen’s framework is a secure, privacy-oriented infrastructure with a governance system structured to enable participants to collaboratively extend functionality in many dimensions. Opportunities include hosting of individual identification data, selective proof of title for property, decentralized banking services, privacy-preserving p2p/b2b asset exchange, mutual aid societies, p2p insurance, decentralized humanitarian aid mechanisms, or use purely as an anonymous token of value. These functions can be utilized to serve disenfranchised populations currently excluded from vital services such as banking and healthcare due to lack of identification, capital, and secure channels. They can also be leveraged by individuals who desire to take ownership over and monetize their private data, or, for example, by enterprising communities that wish to develop a competitive bidding system on internally generated solar energy. The unique implementations are unbounded, the common link being the belief that decentralization is the engine of moral progress, and that voluntary solutions are the most creative and enduring.

Zen builds on the heritage of the best cryptocurrencies, network architecture, and distributed file sharing systems in existence by incorporating both existing as well as new features to yield a solid foundation designed for long term viability. Just as important as our technology stack, we’re building on the latest ideas in distributed consensus and competitive governance. Some of the foundations of our project come from Bitcoin, Dash, Decred, and Seasteading. Zcash extended Bitcoin with fully anonymous shielded transactions, so that users could choose between normal Bitcoin-like addresses (t-addresses) or shielded addresses resistant to traffic correlation analysis (z-addresses). Then we created Zclassic, a Zcash clone that changed some key parameters our community felt were important: we removed both the 20% Founders’ Reward and the slow start to the money supply. Since launching Zclassic, we’ve formed a vibrant open-source community eager to move the technology forward in a unique direction. Some early accomplishments include developing an open source mining pool application for both Zcash and Zclassic, as well as Windows and Mac wallets. Our team realized that Zclassic could be further extended as a fully encrypted network with an innovative economic and governance model that better aligns with Satoshi’s original vision for a decentralized global community. We view Zclassic as a fundamentally pure open-source, all-volunteer cryptocurrency project, while Zen extends into a platform with internal funding to facilitate a broader set of communications, file-sharing, and economic activities.

The Z transactions in ZenCash have the ability to incorporate text-based messages, which are encrypted and included in the blockchain. There is a 1024 character limit for these messages, and they enhance the ability for users to conduct secure commerce. Instead of discussing the transaction in other less-secure channels that may not have the same level of privacy enhancements as Zen, users can communicate via the ZenTalk messages with the other party or parties before and after the shielded transfer takes place with very small z transaction spends. These messages can be sent directly from one z address to another, and they can also be sent to a channel. By generating a z address from the hash of a channel name, users can subscribe to the channel and read anything published by anyone to the channel. For example, the channel #ZenCash announcements would hash to zXXXXXXXXXXXX, allowing any user to send an anonymous message to the channel. Each message would cost a finite amount of ZenCash to send, since it is contained in a z transactions, therefore reducing the amount of non-useful messages on common channels. Official announcements would be signed by private key and would only be displayed if deemed valid. Furthermore, essentially private group messages can be published using z transactions by first creating a complex channel name,and then encrypting the contents of the message with keys only the desired recipients have. ZenTalk messages would be encrypted with algorithms such as AES-256 with Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS), matching current standards of encryption for secure communication.

Zen has the ability to publish documents to the IPFS or GNUnet. This is done by publishing a IPFS or GNUnet address in the text field of a z address. The preferred document publishing system at this time is GNUnet, because it provides the required infrastructure for anonymous publishing and maintains an active database of documents. The system is similarly extensible to IPFS or any other future distributing archival system. By creating an anonymous messaging layer in conjunction with an anonymous publishing layer, ZenPub allows for the creation of truly anonymous publications which can be rapidly distributed to interested readers.

It is possible for regulators in countries hostile to crypto-commerce to block traditional crypto-currencies like Bitcoin and even Zcash. Zen uses Domain Fronting to extend the ability to complete transactions in adversarial network environments, as explained in Blocking-resistant communication through domain fronting abstract: “We describe “domain fronting,” a versatile censorship circumvention technique that hides the remote endpoint of a communication. Domain fronting works at the application layer, using HTTPS, to communicate with a forbidden host while appearing to communicate with some other host, permitted by the censor. The key idea is the use of different domain names at different layers of communication. One domain appears on the “outside” of an HTTPS request–in the DNS request and TLS Server Name Indication, while another domain appears on the “inside”–in the HTTP Host header, invisible to the censor under HTTPS encryption. A censor, unable to distinguish fronted and non-fronted traffic to a domain, must choose between allowing circumvention traffic and blocking the domain entirely, which results in expensive collateral damage. Domain fronting is easy to deploy and use and does not require special cooperation by network intermediaries. We identify a number of hard-to-block web services, such as content delivery networks, that support domain-fronted connections and are useful for censorship circumvention.” The specific implementation of Domain Fronting used by Zen at launch is with a Commercial Content Distribution Network, but as with every aspect of our architecture, flexibility is designed in from the start and the system can extend in many directions as the technology evolves.

Zen is what we consider to be an optimally decentralized open source project, and so we expect applications to be built and contributed to the ecosystem by many parties. Many of these contributions will likely come in voluntary open source fashion, but we expect a robust business community to grow around the platform as well.

Zen is designed with a decentralized governance model incorporating multi-stakeholder empowerment and the flexibility to evolve to optimally suit our community. Fundamentally, our philosophy on governance is that we do not know a priori the best approach, but we have some ideas for how to initialize the system and enable it to evolve with the needs of the community. We believe in governance as a service (GaaS) and aim to efficiently provide value to our direct stakeholders, the broader community, and the world. ”Any industry that delivers poor service for a high price deserves to be disrupted” (Quirk, 2017), governance being a consummate example. In solidarity with other projects and ideas taking root around the world, we reject forced centralization and embrace voluntaryism. Rather than entrusting a minority of the people with power, we believe that all people have the right to be trusted with freedom. The core philosophy of our governance model is that decentralization of power maximizes inclusion and creativity. Practical implementations must recognize that pooling resources and effort provides synergies that should be optimally balanced against full decentralization; optimal points being state and time-varying, best determined through voluntary participation and secession. Importantly, we are implementing a system where competing DAOs can emerge to share resources or even completely subsume less efficient or unpopular versions. There should be no one-size-fits-all structure invariant across environment, function, culture, or time; rather, structures should be fluid, suited to specific problems, and flexible to scale when working and fade when failing relative to alternatives. Such a system of systems would dynamically evolve in such a way that it is antifragile to competitive feedback. Our objective governance state will balance decentralization, implementation efficiency, separation of powers, broad stakeholder empowerment, and evolutionary flexibility. This initial state will be the result of at least a 12- to 18-month R&D effort into game theoretic, political science, and economics research into optimal voting mechanisms coupled with feedback from multiple testnet implementations. The project will be one of our first funded efforts with final deliverables including a comprehensive research report and operational code integrated into the Zen network. Within 6 months of governance implementation we expect to have leadership teams in operation from our first full and open election.

By decentralization we mean that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, that we are fully inclusive, and that decision-making authority is maximally diffuse such that the system is resistant to capture. Theoretical maximum decentralization means that every individual retains authority to equally influence decision-making; this is difficult to implement in practice when pooling resources to collaborate on a common system. Even if implemented in such a pure fashion, individual decisions naturally pool for collaboration efficiency and resources accumulate to certain stakeholders at unequal rates. We cannot stop these natural forces, nor is there reason to categorically deem them harmful in every instance. What we can do is to design the system such that all participation is voluntary, that decision-making power over resource allocation is balanced across a broad cross-section of stakeholder types, and that a credible mechanism exists to evolve with feedback. A structure infused with flexibility is more important than initially designing the best system to suit all circumstances, especially since we are creating a movement so expansive that predicting all developments is essentially impossible. Implementation efficiency is also a big concern for decentralized organizations. Pure decentralization could suffer decision-making paralysis, voter apathy, or delusions of the herd at the extrema. This is why we initially shy away from a system of pure democracy for all decision-making, and are taking the time to research competing models and test them under varying conditions of stress. Our proposed system of free and open competition for DAOs is designed to encourage groups of high-performing functional area experts and professionals to propose their leadership in specialized domains so that our system-wide efficiency in converting resources to higher-value end products or services is continually evolving to suit user needs and demands.

A key lesson learned from human history is that powers are best separated and competing power clusters should provide some equilibrium state of checks and balances. The balancing should be resilient to unchecked growth in any single power cluster such that the entire system succumbs to capture. To initially prevent this condition, Zen is launching with a Core Team in control of 3.5% of block reward funding, and an initial DAO comprised of industry leaders controlling 5% of resources. In addition, our objective state to be implemented after the 12- to 18-month R&D and test phase will include a hybrid type of multi-stakeholder voting so that a wide cross-section of the community retains power to influence decisions and resource allocations. Every aspect of our governance structure will ultimately be subject to competitive feedback and change. We are taking an evolutionary approach that starts with a simple model that will grow with the community.

The Zen system will have at least one DAO funded by a portion of the mining rewards, and governed by a voting system that brings stakeholders together. This system of governance helps ensure that implementation of changes, improvements, and integrations minimizes contention and reduces the chance that a disagreement leads to a fork in the project. As we unroll our broader governance plan derived from rigorous R&D and testing, the goal is to open the governance landscape to full competition; this means that we could see multiple competing DAOs emerge with different teams working on different problems. Each DAO would emerge with its own proposed structure, processes, and goals, which ensures these attributes are evolving through competition and the wrong initial organizational decisions do not perpetuate. Our DAOs will be responsible for building, maintaining, and improving the infrastructure that keeps the system going. It is also responsible for implementing changes to the Zen software applications, and is flexible enough to accommodate other community priorities,such as community outreach, marketing, training, etc.

As the Zen system grows in popularity, the support structures for users, miners, Secure Node operators, and ecosystem partners will need to grow and scale as well. The DAO structures will have funds, allocated through projects and proposals, with which to assist in the growth and support. The community is encouraged to participate in contributing to Zen in all different ways. The DAOs are responsible for coordinating the community contributions, and have funds to assist in offsetting expenses incurred by the community. One of the purposes of proposals is to repay community members for their expenses in supporting the system. At launch, Zen will have one DAO staffed with respected professionals that span relevant industries. When the governance plan is ready for implementation, this DAO will be one proposed grouping subject to market competition for others who might wish to stand up their own governance structures; the broad community will make that decision.

Our unique innovation to the cryptocurrency community is our fully competitive and evolutionary governance model to empower a broad cross-section of stakeholders in an environment of optimal decentralization. Bitcoin created the original breakthrough in distributed consensus, but other projects have since taken that further with various voting mechanisms. These projects range from Dash with its simple proposal submission and community voting model all the way to Decred with its embedded community governance; each has contributed positively to the evolution of decentralized consensus, but Zen takes this to the next level by relaxing additional constraints such that our system is set to evolve over time through perpetual competition between providers of governance services within the ecosystem. We are implementing an autonomous system that will change with feedback and trial-and-error innovations in how decentralized systems organize to solve specific problems. In this sense, we believe Zen is groundbreaking in social technology, pioneering a system that has never been attempted at scale. From a broader perspective, Zen competes with incumbent currencies and banking systems, as well as emergent FinTech startups with particular advantage in providing services to the disenfranchised. We choose to make our contribution to this innovative, social welfare oriented space by providing enhanced privacy and security. As a secure messaging and distributed data archival system, we compete with other services, such as Signal, Telegram, and the Tor Project. There are also an infinite number of potential projects that can be built on the Zen platform, increasing our competitiveness exponentially. We view competition as an enabler of healthy processes of growth and therefore welcome maximum competition. We’d rather live in a world with fierce competitors forcing us to accelerate our own innovations than a static world devoid of progress. We hope that Zen adds positively to human welfare by integrating great technologies and communities, morphing governance into a competitive service, and enabling anyone in the world to participate in our system of permissionless, collaborative, and decentralized innovation. We also view incumbents and future startups in this space as potential partners and allies instead of winner-takes-all competitors.

Forecasting is a challenging exercise, but we see a bright future for Zen and the peaceful and productive ecosystem we’re building. We believe that the decentralized, fully inclusive, voluntary, and flexible organization we’re creating will be seen as obviously superior in the future compared to the static, centralized, one-size-fits all versions perpetuated in the 20th century. The advent of cryptography, voluntaryist philosophy, and blockchain technology make such a thing possible, and we believe many people already do, and will, share our vision for a better world; especially when they see how we can accelerate innovation and improve human welfare by empowering everyone to express their values. The next one to two years will see this vision come to fruition in our early organization by executing our Roadmap. There will certainly be challenges along the way, but flexibility and peaceful cooperation consistently overcomes seemingly insurmountable issues.”


‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’, by Jeremy Rifkin
Review by Richard Waters / Financial Times / March 21, 2014

“Machines are about to change what it means to be human. According to social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, they will undermine our sense of private property, take away our jobs and turn us into free agents in a new global “sharing economy”. For good measure, they will also destroy capitalism before the middle of the 21st century. If you’re already thinking that The Zero Marginal Cost Society belongs to the genre of techno-futurism that resorts to extreme predictions to attract attention, then you’d be right. The value of this book, however, doesn’t lie in the accuracy of its specific forecasts, but rather in the extrapolations of current trends that enable Rifkin to reach them. On that measure, this is a thought-provoking read that pushes some of the most important new technologies to their logical – and sometimes scary – conclusions.

Take the machines that underpin the book’s central argument. They will be self-replicating, capable of producing their own spare parts and propagating themselves indefinitely. They will be powered by an alternative energy source like the sun, allowing them to run more or less forever. And they will be connected by the coming “internet of things”, a self-organising network that will allow them to operate as part of a new pervasive intelligent infrastructure. These machines will also be fully automatic and require no human labour to operate. As a result, they will throw off products at virtually no cost, save the minimal one of supplying the basic raw materials.

This gets to the heart of Rifkin’s argument. If the marginal cost of producing each additional item falls to essentially nothing, then everything becomes free. In their pursuit of profit, businesses will have irrevocably undermined their own margins: capitalism will have destroyed itself. But don’t despair. Rising in its place, Rifkin argues, will be a civilisation based on a new and more fulfilling communitarianism, free of the hang-ups that have characterised the materialistic individualism of the late capitalist age.

Though only 300 or so pages, this is sometimes a dense book. Besides detours into subjects such as the economic history of the human race from earliest times, there are sections that pack in extensive descriptions of some of the key technologies. They include 3D printing; open-source software; the internet of things; the sharing economy; the online courses that are reshaping education; and the artificial intelligence enabling machines to replace many types of human labour. An extensive bibliography shows that Rifkin has read widely and compressed the results into his latest tome – though, to be fair to his previous work, he has also written entire books himself on several of the themes that converge here. That makes this something of a grand unifying theory of his thinking over four decades.

Three of Rifkin’s predictions serve to illustrate both the breadth and the finality of his arguments. One is that the “sharing economy” (think letting out your spare room on Airbnb or summoning a car on Uber) will overthrow some of the biggest companies on the planet. It will only take between 10 and 30 per cent of a particular market to shift to these self-help networks, argues Rifkin, for the thin profit margins of giant companies to shrink to nothing.

A second prediction is that a decentralised network of alternative energy sources will replace the existing vertically integrated, carbon-based energy industry. It will be made up of “prosumers” generating their own power and networked together through a smart grid that routes power to where it is needed. By the middle of this century, says Rifkin, 80 per cent of electricity will be generated this way – an estimate he claims is conservative.

A third trend is the elimination of work, as the machines take over. According to Rifkin, workers – and the profitmaking companies that employ them – can look forward to one last hurrah. This will cover the 40-year period it takes to build the world’s smart, self-replicating infrastructure. After that, it will be the end of history for labour: apart from a few people needed to programme and monitor the machines, it’s all over for the wage slaves and salarymen.

This all sounds ominous. But Rifkin reaches an optimistic conclusion. He anticipates a world of plenty where individuals will lead more fulfilling lives than they do now, with their material wants taken care of and their days of toil at an end. Fulfilment, he argues, will come from building “social capital”. Freed from the need to earn a living, people will get closer to the things that really matter: collaborating – and empathising – with other people.

There are obvious quibbles to be had with much of this. One is that capitalism has proved pretty adaptable so far. When markets are commoditised and profits evaporate, capitalists have been good at either monopolising industries or finding new sources of value to build on top of the commoditised markets of the past. Just because, from the blinkered present, we can’t see what the markets of the future will be, it doesn’t mean they won’t exist.

A second quibble is with Rifkin’s assumptions about how human nature will change to accommodate the new realities he describes. After all, if everything is free, won’t that lead to an even greater materialism that wrecks the planet for good? The way Rifkin sees it, replacing scarcity with abundance will spell the death of materialism. When everything is in plentiful supply, why gather and hoard? Rather than outright ownership, the humans who populate his future will be content with access to material goods, many of which will be shared – just as they are already becoming accustomed to accessing digital goods in a world of infinite supply.

The millennial generation, as he sees it, is already hankering for this more collaborative, altruistic society. He also sees an automatic stabilisation that brings the human race into a permanent equilibrium with the planet. As living standards rise, birth rates in poorer parts of the world will fall: the global population will gradually fall back to a sustainable 5bn (though it isn’t clear why Rifkin picked this level). Alternative futures seem equally plausible. Wealth and income inequality could become more accentuated, as a winner-takes-all capitalism takes hold. The millions emerging from extreme poverty in developing countries could find themselves in a world of limited opportunity. The loss of employment may create a permanent – and growing – underclass. How we deal with the consequences is up to us.”

by Jeremy Rifkin  /  June 6, 2014

“A new economic system is entering onto the world stage. The collaborative commons is the first new economic paradigm to take root in recent years and is allowing hundreds of millions of people to produce information, energy, and goods and services at near zero marginal cost and exchange them with each other in a sharing economy. Not surprisingly, the emergence of this new economic system is coming at a time of low growth, rising unemployment and greater inequality. The triggering agent that’s precipitating this great economic transformation is zero marginal cost. Marginal cost is the cost of producing an additional unit of a good or service after fixed costs have been absorbed.

The near zero marginal cost phenomenon wreaked havoc across the information-goods industries over the past decade as millions of consumers turned prosumers and began to produce and share their own music via file sharing services, their own videos on YouTube, their own knowledge on Wikipedia, their own news on social media and even their own free ebooks on the World Wide Web. The zero marginal cost phenomenon brought the music industry to its knees, shook the film industry, forced newspapers and magazines out of business, and crippled the book-publishing market. Meanwhile, 6 million students are now enrolled in free massive open online courses that operate at near zero marginal cost and are taught by some of the most distinguished professors in the world. They are receiving college credits, forcing universities to rethink their costly business model.

Now, a powerful new technology revolution is evolving that will allow millions — and soon hundreds of millions — of prosumers to also make and share their own renewable energy, and an increasing array of 3-D printed physical products and services, at near zero marginal cost. The communications Internet is converging with a fledgling energy Internet and nascent automated transport and logistics Internet, creating a new technological infrastructure for society that will fundamentally alter the global economy in the first half of the 21st century.

Billions of sensors are being attached to every device, appliance, machine and contrivance, connecting every thing with every human being in a seamless neural network that extends across the entire economic value chain. Already 14 billion sensors are attached to resource flows, warehouses, road systems, factory production lines, the electricity transmission grid, offices, homes, stores and vehicles, continually monitoring their status and performance and feeding big data back to the communication Internet, energy Internet and logistics and transportation Internet.

It is estimated that by 2030 more than 100 trillion sensors will connect the human and natural environment in a global distributed intelligent network. Business enterprises and prosumers will be able to connect to the Internet of Things and use big data and analytics to develop predictive algorithms that can speed efficiency, dramatically increase productivity, reduce the use of natural resources and lower the marginal cost of producing and distributing renewable energy and 3-D printed physical products to near zero. Then they will be able to share what they’ve made with others on a vast global collaborative commons, just as billions of prosumers now do with information goods.

Hundreds of millions of people are transferring bits and pieces of their economic life from conventional markets to the global collaborative commons. Forty percent of the U.S. population is already actively engaged in the collaborative sharing economy. Some 800,000 individuals in the U.S. are now using car-sharing services. Each car-share vehicle eliminates 15 personally owned cars. And millions of apartment dwellers and home owners are sharing their dwellings with millions of travelers, at near zero marginal cost around the world, via online services like Airbnb and Couchsurfing, weakening the traditional brick-and-mortar hotel industry.

In a zero marginal cost society, extreme productivity decreases the amount of information, energy, material resources, labor and logistics costs needed to produce and distribute economic goods and services, once fixed costs are absorbed. And the goods and services that are produced at near zero marginal cost are redistributed and shared over and over again on the collaborative commons, dramatically reducing the number of things sold, meaning fewer resources are used up and less global warming gases are emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere. The shift from the exchange economy in the conventional marketplace to the shareable economy on the collaborative commons offers the possibility of dramatically narrowing the income divide and democratizing the global economy in the first half of the 21st century.

Global companies, operating in the profit-driven capitalist marketplace, will likely remain far into the future, albeit in an increasingly streamlined role, primarily as an aggregator of network services and solutions, allowing them to flourish alongside the collaborative commons as powerful partners in the coming era. The capitalist market, however, will no longer be the exclusive arbiter of economic life. People are entering a world partially beyond markets where they are learning how to live together in an increasingly interdependent global collaborative commons.”




Engineering the Perfect Astronaut
by Antonio Regalado / April 15, 2017

“At the International Astronautical Congress last September, in Guadalajara, Mexico, Elon Musk convinced many die-hard space engineers he could get a fleet of private rockets filled with thousands of people to Mars. Musk’s speech was long on orbits, flight plans, and fuel costs. But it was short on how any of those colonists would survive. Bathed in radiation and with nothing growing on it, the Red Planet is basically a graveyard.

Recently, a few scientists have started to explore whether we might be able to do a little better if we created new types of humans more fit for the travails of space travel. Some far-out ideas once relegated to science fiction and TED Talks (here and here) have recently started to take concrete form. Experiments have begun to alter human cells in the lab. Can they be made radiation-proof? Can they be rejiggered to produce their own vitamins and amino acids?

One person looking at the idea is Christopher Mason, a member of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. In 2011, Mason came up with what he called a “500-year plan” to get humans off Earth. In it, genetic modification plays a big role. “I think we have to consider it for people that we send to other planets,” he says. “We don’t know if it’s a slight nudge to existing gene expression, or a whole new chromosome, or finally a complete rewriting of the genetic code.” Mason says there’s a decade or two of work left just to find out what effect space travel has on your genes, and which ones might be okay to change and which should be on a “do not disturb” list. His lab participates in NASA’s Twins Study, which is tracking physiological changes to an astronaut who was sent to the International Space Station for a year while his twin brother stayed on Earth. So far, that’s about as close as NASA has gotten to the subject of GM astronauts—one that still hasn’t been broached in any official agency document.

Yet Mason says his lab is ready to take an initial step. Space is full of rays and fast-moving particles that damage DNA. So he’s working on radiation-proofing human cells. His students are taking cells and adding extra copies of p53, a gene involved in preventing cancer that’s known as the “protector of the genome.” Elephants have many extra copies of p53 and hardly ever get cancer, so maybe astronauts should have them too. Mason says he recently submitted a proposal to NASA to send the modified cells to the space station. “There is not a genetic engineering astronaut’s consortium or anything, but maybe we should start one,” he says.

All this has become easier to think about because it has become easier to do. In 2015 we published an article, “Engineering the Perfect Baby,” about the fact that gene editing, especially with a technology called CRISPR, had suddenly made it possible to easily change the genes in a human embryo. For the first time, we faced the real possibility of genetically modified people. Since then, scientists in China and Europe have begun editing embryos to see how it works. Would it be ethical to then actually make a gene-fixed baby? The U.S. National Academy of Sciences this year said yes, heritable genetic changes could be considered to avoid disease, but only in a few situations and under very strict supervision. The organization opined that under certain rare circumstances in which a couple could not otherwise have a healthy child, it would be acceptable to create a GM human being.

Mason thinks that space travel will offer a second, very powerful argument in favor of genetically modifying people. “You can’t send someone to another planet without genetically protecting them if you are able to,” he says. “That would also be unethical.” But putting astronauts in the mix might also open the door to “enhancement.” For now, the experts remain dead set against using gene editing to make a child who is smarter or endowed with perfect eyesight. But let’s face it: NASA already “selects” people according to just such criteria, accepting only 14 of 18,300 applicants to its latest class of astronauts. Maybe you have seen the movie Gattaca? Only supermen with topped-off genomes are allowed to travel to Titan, while the genetic losers, called “invalids,” stare up in envy as the rockets lift off. Like most good science fiction, the 1997 film is not so far from reality.

To think about surviving in space, a term from the science of genetics—“fitness”—will come in handy. In genetics, the fitness of an organism is how well it can thrive and reproduce in a given environment. The fitness of a human in space or on Mars is extremely low. Just picture an astronaut encased in a space suit with the right amount of oxygen, the right amount of nitrogen, and the right temperature. The purpose of that suit is to bring along the environment for which the astronaut’s genes make him or her fit.

Some scientists have already prepared a catalogue of genes that might help. A Boston company called Veritas Genetics is offering to sequence anyone’s genome for $999. And one of the things that Veritas will give you is a report on your “space genes.” Do you have the specific variant of EPAS1, common to Tibetans, that lets you get by with less oxygen? How about the natural mutation that results in huge, extra-lean muscles, which might counter atrophy? Another DNA variant is associated with good problem-solving skills and low anxiety.

You’d be unusual if you had any one of these mutations. And the chances are billions to one that you have all of them. That’s why to get them all into one astronaut—the perfect astronaut—we might want to add them, probably before birth, and maybe using a technology like CRISPR. George Church, the big-bearded Harvard University genetics powerhouse and all-in futurist who founded Veritas, circulates a similar list of “rare protective gene variants relevant to an extraterrestrial environment.” Call it a wish list.

What other kind of adaptations could we install into our race of astronauts? If you leave some large elephants on an island and come back 10,000 years later, what you’ll find is a bunch of small elephants. They’ll have adapted to the lack of surface area and shortage of food. The phenomenon is called “island dwarfism.” Under the Mars domes, smaller might be better too. There’s probably not that much space, and every pound of provisions NASA takes into Earth orbit costs $10,000. That means the perfect astronaut probably isn’t just twice as strong as the average person but half as big. (Church, who is 6’5″, notes that he was once told by NASA not to bother applying because he was too tall.)

Let’s take the modifications even further, as some scientists say we might need to. If you ate breakfast cereal this morning, you might have looked at the side of the box, where it says things like “Vitamin C—10% Daily Value.” The “essential” nutrients and vitamins listed on the box are so called because the human body can’t make them. Instead, we have to eat organisms that do, like plants, fungi, or bacteria. These organisms are classified as “prototrophs,” meaning they synthesize everything they need from minimal starting ingredients like simple sugars or what’s in the soil.

In 2016, Harris Wang of Columbia University gave a talk titled “Synthesizing a Prototrophic Human” at a large off-the-record meeting of synthetic biologists organized by Church at Harvard Medical School. It could be pretty interesting for space travel, Wang told the group, if humans could subsist on sugar water.

Despite the title of his talk, when I reached Wang by phone he wanted everyone to know he’s not actually synthesizing humans or astronauts and doesn’t have plans to. That’s still many, many years away, if ever. “I am suggesting that if you want to do intergalactic travel, you need to solve the problem of being totally self-sufficient,” he says. “We are putting humans in very extreme conditions, and from that perspective this seems to be one idea for a long-term plan.”

Wang says it’s not certain if the concept can even work. In his lab, researchers are trying to get human kidney cells to synthesize the nine amino acids our bodies don’t normally make, starting with the simplest one, methionine, manufactured by adding a single gene. If that works, he’ll move on to tryptophan, phenylalanine, and vitamins D, C, and B. Altogether, creating a prototrophic human cell would require around 250 new genes.

Creating astronauts able to make their own essential nutrients would obviously be immensely complicated. Yet as complex as it is, it might be less challenging than the alternatives, such as terraforming a planet or bringing along a space ring complete with an atmosphere, plants, and livestock grazing overhead. Wang told me it would also be interesting if space travelers could perform their own photosynthesis, turning light into food. But any human able to do so would hardly be human, he admits.”