Cosmic Pioneers: How technology will transform our future – and us

Cosmic Pioneers: How technology will transform our future – and us

This article is part of the Forum Network series on Digitalisation and will feed into upcoming discussions at OECD Forum 2019.

The smartphone, the web and their ancillaries – ubiquitous today – would have seemed magic even just 25 years ago. So, looking several decades ahead we must keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to transformative advances that may now seem like science fiction.

Deep Mind’s “Alpha Go Zero” computer famously achieved world-championship level in the games of Go and chess in just a few hours – it was given only the rules and learnt by playing against itself over and over again. Its processing speed allowed it to complete several games every second.

Artificial Intelligence can already cope better than humans with complex fast-changing networks, such as traffic flow or electric grids. And in science, its capacity to explore zillions of options could allow it to discover recipes for better drugs, or a material that conducts electricity with zero resistance at room temperature; and perhaps tell us physicists whether string theory is correct.

Image: Kieran Jones

Computers learn to identify dogs, cats and human faces by “crunching” through millions of images. They learn to translate by reading millions of pages of multilingual text – EU documents for instance (their boredom threshold is infinite!).

The implications for our society are already ambivalent. If there is a “bug” in the software of an AI system, it is not always possible to track it down; this is likely to create public concern if the system’s “decisions” have potentially grave consequences for individuals. If we are sentenced to a term in prison, recommended for surgery or even given a poor credit rating, we would expect the reasons to be accessible to us – and contestable by us. If such decisions were delegated to an algorithm, we would be entitled to feel uneasy, even if presented with compelling evidence that, on average, the machines make better decisions than the humans they have usurped.

AI systems will become more intrusive and pervasive. Records of all our movements, our health, and our financial transactions, will be in the “cloud”, managed by a multinational quasi-monopoly. The data may be used for benign reasons (for instance, medical research or to warn us of incipient health risks), but its availability to internet companies is already shifting the balance of power from governments to globe-spanning conglomerates.

There will be other privacy concerns. Are you happy if a random stranger sitting near you in a restaurant or on public transportation can, via facial recognition, identify you, and invade your privacy? Or if “fake” videos of you become so convincing that visual evidence can no longer be trusted? Or if a machine knows enough about you to compose e-mails that seem to come from you?

Being More Trustworthy: The Basics

Being More Trustworthy: The Basics

The “arms race” between cybercriminals and those trying to defend against them will become still more expensive and vexatious when drones, driverless cars etc. proliferate.

Many experts think that AI, like synthetic biotech, already needs guidelines for “responsible innovation”. But others, like the roboticist Rodney Brooks (creator of the Baxter robot and the Roomba vacuum cleaner) think that for many decades we’ll be less concerned about artificial intelligence than about real stupidity. And machines are still clumsy compared to children in sensing and interacting with the real world.


The incipient shifts in the nature of work have been addressed in several excellent books by economists and social scientists. Clearly, machines will take over much of the work of manufacturing and retail distribution. They can supplement, if not replace, many white-collar jobs: routine legal work, accountancy, computer coding, medical diagnostics and even surgery. Many “professionals” will find their hard-earned skills in less demand.   

In contrast, some skilled service-sector jobs – plumbing and gardening, for instance – require non-routine interactions with the external world and will be among the hardest jobs to automate.

The digital revolution generates enormous wealth for innovators and global companies, but preserving a healthy society will surely require redistribution of that wealth. There is talk of using it to provide a universal income. It is better when all who are capable of so doing can perform socially useful work rather than receive a handout.

Indeed, to create a humane society, governments will need to vastly enhance the number and status of those who care for the old, the young and the sick. There are currently far too few and they’re poorly paid, inadequately esteemed and insecure in their positions. Far more fulfilling than work in call centres or Amazon warehouses. I can see this happening in Scandinavia, though there might be barriers in nations with lower-tax ideology.

Be that as it may, it’s likely that society will be transformed by autonomous robots, even though the jury’s out on whether they’ll be “idiot savants’” or display superhuman capabilities.

Enthusiasts like the futurologist Ray Kurzweil, author of a book called The Age of Spiritual Machines, predict that humans will transcend biology by merging with computers.

But even if our predictions are more cautious than Kurzweil’s, it’s surely credible that human mentality and physique may become malleable via genetic and cyborg technologies. This secular “intelligent design” will change us far faster than Darwinian evolution did.

This is a game changer. When we admire the literature and artefacts that have survived from antiquity, we feel an affinity, across a time gulf of thousands of years, with those ancient artists and their civilizations. But we can have zero confidence that the dominant intelligences a few centuries hence will have any emotional resonance with us – even though they may have an algorithmic understanding of how we behaved.

But it’s in space that robots surely have a future, and where I‘d argue that these changes will happen fastest and should worry us less.

We depend every day on space for satnav, environmental monitoring, communication and so forth. Europe has a strong aerospace industry, and the European Space Agency is fully a match for NASA in space science.

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

During this century the whole Solar System will be explored by swarms of miniaturised probes – far more advanced than the probes that have beamed back pictures of Saturn’s moons, Pluto and beyond and 20,000 times further away than our Moon. Think back to the computers and phones of the 1990s, when these probes were designed, and realise how much better we can do today.

The next step will be the deployment in space of robotic fabricators that can build large structures under zero gravity, for instance solar energy collectors or giant telescopes with huge gossamer-thin mirrors.

What about manned spaceflight? The practical case gets ever weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturisation.

Were I an American I would only support NASA’s un-manned programme. And I certainly wouldn’t support a manned programme created by ESA. I would argue that private-enterprise ventures like Elon Musk’s “Space X” – bringing a Silicon Valley culture into a domain long-dominated by NASA and a few aerospace conglomerates – should “front” all manned missions. They can take higher risks than a western country can impose on publicly-funded civilian astronauts. There would still be many volunteers – some perhaps even accepting “one-way tickets” – driven by the same motives as early explorers, mountaineers and the like.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

By 2100 courageous thrill-seekers may have established “bases” independent from the Earth, on Mars or maybe asteroids. Elon Musk says he wants to die on Mars – but not on impact.

But don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. Nowhere else in our Solar System offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. Here I disagree with Musk and my late colleague Stephen Hawking. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. Dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. There’s no “Planet B” for ordinary risk-averse people.

But those pioneer adventurers who escape the Earth could be cosmically important. Here’s why: they’ll be ill-adapted to their new environment yet beyond the clutches of our terrestrial regulators. They will use all the resources of genetics and cyborg technology to adapt, changing so fast they could – within just a few generations – become a whole new species.

Related Topics

OECD Forum 2019 Artificial Intelligence Privacy & Cybersecurity New Jobs & Occupations

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