AI: Friend or Foe?

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination”

– Albert Einstein


Earlier this month, Elon Musk of SpaceX reacted to comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on the subject of Artificial Intelligence. “It begins“, he declared on Twitter. Musk has long warned that the creation and application of truly autonomous technology could have disastrous consequences, and Putin’s suggestion that any country with a monopoly on it’s use would dominate the world lends weight to his concerns.

For those of us who enjoy gazing into humanity’s future, the creation of AI has long been both an aspiration and a source of foreboding. Fictional examples such as Skynet and Hal 9000 may be designed to disturb, but the idea of machines evolving beyond our control is a nagging concern as well as a common sci-fi trope.

But what about the positive possibilities for AI? Short of a spectacular scientific epiphany, manned spaceflight – even within the confines of our own solar system – remains prohibitively complex and protracted; our plans to land on Mars already promise to stretch the limits of our technological ability and physical endurance. Unless some genius invents a real-world version of warp drive, long haul space travel is likely to come at a heavy price in terms of time and risk.

Some form of cryogenic stasis is seen as one of the more scientifically grounded concepts for deep space exploration to arise from fiction. With the crew incapacitated for an extended period, the ship’s computer would have to ensure the continued operation of numerous systems such as propulsion, navigation and life support and react to unpredictable challenges such as solar flares, asteroid impacts, and technical malfunctions. Such a scenario would necessitate highly advanced autonomous control, but crews will face the same dangers whether they are in stasis or not; it is not difficult to imagine spacecraft on more tangible planned missions – such as that of NASA to Mars – benefiting from this looming breakthrough in AI.

Mr Musk is very vocal on this subject, and I can’t say I blame him; rapidly advancing technology combined with an unstable global political situation carries an inherent risk. Hopefully, though, we’ll avoid disaster and manage to make some progress towards becoming a true space-faring race. Perhaps in decades to come, SpaceX vessels will travel the solar system under the control of sentient onboard computers…


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