Jobber Group had the privilege, and frankly, my child-like excitement, to participate on a panel for the Colorado Space Business Roundtable Roundup on December 6 called “Take Me With You – Is it Artificial Intelligence or Humans?” The panel’s focus was whom do we send into deep space, humans or the AI that we’ve created. More importantly, who are the right talent and how do we figure out what the “right stuff” is that makes up the right talent?
The panel, moderated by Alires Almon, Orchestrator of Engagement for 100 Year Starship, included Ken Granville, CEO & Co-founder of MindAptiv; Christoffer Heckman, PhD, Asst. Professor, Computer Science & Robotics at CU Boulder; and Robert Chambers, Director, Human Spaceflight Strategy and Business Development at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. And of course yours truly…which, just let me say that being surrounded by literal rocket scientists and academics who actually make our space programs a reality, a little bit of nervousness took me over. Good news is talent is an absolute necessity and an obstacle to successfully heading into space, just like with any earthly industry.
Obviously we have very little data or analysis to help guide our hypotheses, other than movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien that don’t make a good case for AI. The reality is it’s a hybrid endeavor, with AI and robotics integral to helping humans deal with the unexpected, which deep space travel will have in abundance. What will that software and hardware component need to have in order to be integral to any mission in space?
Ken of MindAptiv talked about Semantic Intelligence, which, if I’m understanding him correctly, goes beyond AI to give humans the ability to talk normally to a computer and have the computer recognize and answer in a way that we expect. For example, if a song is playing on Alexa and we ask “Alexa, who is performing?” Alexa will not understand and will respond, “It sounds like you got cut off.” She’s expecting you to finish that question with something like “…this song?” However, if we ask, “Alexa, who is playing?” she will respond with the correct answer. The point Ken was trying to make is that AI is not advanced enough yet to be useful to space travelers to give them the answers they need, particularly in a moment of crisis. Think Star Trek or Interstellar. That’s the type of interaction we need.
Robert talked about the possibility of putting our brains in a jar and sending those out into space. Scary thought, but the point is our human bodies as they are now may not be able to handle the treacherous nature of deep space travel; but if we can somehow find a way to transfer or send our consciousness, then in coordination with AI and robotics, we may be able to go out and explore, because it’s our nature to do so.
Christoffer explained that robotics could certainly add tasked-based value for simple things, such as collecting and analyzing samples. If we expect them to perform more complex tasks that we as humans naturally do, we may be a ways off from accomplishing that.
Ultimately it seems that everyone was in agreement that a deep space launch would involve a combination of humans, AI and robotics to be successful. The question then of course turned to how we figure out whom the right humans are to send into deep space, who has “The Right Stuff.” That’s where Jobber comes in.
It’s really like finding the right people for your organization here on Earth. Our process and methodology stick; what we need to do is conduct research and discovery of our space pioneers to define our first Deep Space Talent Persona. These include the astronauts who have endured shuttle travel and long periods of time in space, on the International Space Station for example. What elements do these people, who have chosen to launch themselves into the unknown, share? And can we find the same mix of elements in groups of people who we never would have thought would be a candidate?
Then we have to understand the complementary elements that will work well with every possible elemental mix on a crew to ensure positive group dynamics. After all, these first small teams will be together on a small starship for a long time. We can’t end up with one crew member left over by the time we reach our final destinations.
The other aspect we need to consider is the type of jobs or roles these people will be filling. As you may have heard, we’re not far in time from conducting mining operations in space. Chris Hansen, the day’s keynote and Manager of the EVA Office, responsible for integrating all spacewalking activities for NASA, mentioned that the role he needs most on the ISS is a maintenance role for systems like the toilet that need constant attention. Do these take a very special person, or can someone with the right skills, with the right elemental mix, be just as successful in space? Sending humans into space in the next 15-20 years will not be limited to the few astronauts who have been vetted very selectively. There are ~7.4 billion people to choose from on Earth. We just need a data-based understanding for what the right elements are that will correlate and predict success in space. Then we can find the humans who have that “Right Stuff.”
We are the pioneers of this great endeavor to leave the only place we’ve ever known to explore the absolute unknown. This should not be a guessing game. We test and re-test and test again the technology that will take us into space. We do the same thing with our astronauts, but as we near the time when every human will have a chance to travel in space, we need a way to scale that vetting process for the important missions to build way stations on the Moon and fueling colonies on Mars. And we need a way to continuously collect and analyze data on the elemental mix and how it may change over time, so that we are fine-tuning the recipe for that “Right Stuff” and building confidence that the people who are out there are the right people for what they are tasked to do. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a Ripley on the team.