Learning, lasers and life on Mars

It was a reassuring moment for the Tech Futures Lab team when physicist, futurist and author Michio Kaku hypothesised on the destiny of education at the Auckland stop of his worldwide tour: ‘The Future of Humanity’.

Assisted by instant and integrated access to information (web-enabled contact lenses anyone?) there will be no need to use our precious grey cells and learning time to accumulate information. The traditional concepts of expert and student will become obsolete. Instead the role of education will be helping people to apply knowledge, to put it into practice, with educators as facilitators or mentors. It all sounded very familiar to the team responsible for designing and delivering our Master of Technological Futures, including the industry guests there with us. That’s definitely the way we roll at the Lab.

But I’d be twisting the space, time and truth continuum to say this was the focus of the event. In reality, quantum or otherwise, it was to sell his latest book. “Get me to sign a copy after the show and then sell it on Ebay. You can actually make money from coming here,” Michio quipped.

Seeing red

Kaku’s latest opus focuses on our hankering to explore the possibilities of human life on Mars - the red planet – and beyond. Outlining various risks to our existence (from being consumed by our own sun, to asteroid impact, annihilation by super-volcano, climate change, nuclear war and biological weapons) he thinks settling Mars is a sensible insurance policy. "The dinosaurs did not have a space programme and that's why they're not here today," he observes. “We need a Plan B.”

With the price of space travel dropping like crazy, thanks to private investment from Silicon Valley billionaires, we’re heading into a new Golden Age of space exploration. “The Martian [the movie] cost US$100,000 million but the Indian government put a space probe on Mars for US$70,000 million. That’s how cheap rockets have become,” says Kaku.

To put a pound of anything into orbit around the earth apparently costs around US$10,000. Reuseable rockets such as the ones Elon Musk is developing could drop the price even further. Silicon Valley has a double incentive to poke around in space. Just as the development of the microchip was driven by the hustle to land on the moon, the new space race needs quantum computers. The age of silicon will come to a close as chips shrink to the point where they will start leaking electrons and generating heat, frying into a puddle of obsolescence. For SV innovators, it’s a matter of being in on the upgrade of the millennium, or becoming the new rust belt.

So, NASA plans to have a space station orbiting the moon by 2016 to use as a base for a Mars-bound rocket. Musk hopes to skip the lunar step, aiming for a Earth-to-Mars direct flight in his Big F#@’n Rocket (yes, that apparently really is what B.F.R. stands for). Amazon’s Bezos is also in the game, trying to lift off from his very own spaceport in Texas. Provided everything makes it through the ring of space junk circling the earth that no one is interested in cleaning up, we might end up with traffic jams out there!

Jokes aside, Michio warned of the need to re-examine international agreements governing space. Existing treaties state no country may claim other galactic bodies or exploit their resources but say nothing about companies. And while nuclear weapons are banned in space, conventional weapons are not. With Google already contemplating mining asteroids for rare metals, an all-guns-blazing commercial battle for space is not as inconceivable as it once might have been.

Down to earth

Life on Mars is not a future Michio is keen to experience for himself. It’s a job for hardy, industrious types who don’t mind regular meals of algae and like the idea of inventing new, low-gravity sports. It will take quite a bit of time to mine the polar ice caps to create water to sustain a colony (for chasing down that slug of algae as well as for separating into hydrogen for fuel and oxygen for breathing) and quite a bit more to create a Martian atmosphere before things get comfier than a book tour.

He’d rather stay back on the blue planet, where we should be focusing on trying to fix the problems we’ve created. It was a reminder that innovation is varied in its nature and scale. For some, it is something as massive in its ambition as a Mars mission. For others, it is more grounded in a more earthly day-to-day reality - a way of doing something better, using new ways of working and technology; the kind of innovation we explore through our Master’s.

Discussion of Mars colonisation segued into a discussion about artificial intelligence. Will our disappearance from earth (or our flight to space) be hastened by a robot takeover?

The restrained Kaku believes we will benefit greatly from AI until it reaches the point of self-awareness, around the end of the century. “Robots today have the intelligence of a cockroach…a retarded cockroach. Put our most advanced robot in a forest – it just gets lost,” he reports. “When robots become as smart as a monkey, then we need to put a chip in their brain to cut them off.” He figures eventually they’ll figure out how to neutralise the failsafe system. “At that stage we should merge with them rather than compete with them.”

For now, it’s only the middlemen, the brokers, the agents, the data-crunchers and the 90,000 people in our transport sector that need fear AI. Jobs requiring dexterity, creativity, pattern recognition – that’s another story. “Intellectual capital is what robots cannot do. That is innovation, that is expertise, that is creativity, curiosity, leadership, analysis. Robots can't do any of the above,” reassures Kaku. Intellectual capital is also something even small, resource-poor nations can develop, with investment in the right places.

Major laser

Michio’s themes of space travel and AI neatly intersect in a concept he feels may already be the preference of alien civilisations. Observing technology that’s already being deployed to retrieve, record and reload memories, he believes that in the future our digitised consciousness will be shot from one location to another on a laser beam, perhaps sliding into an environmentally-appropriate avatar on arrival. For all we know, he posits, there’s an interstellar laser highway out there already, perhaps with a brief vantage point so sophisticated inter-galactic travellers can watch the primitive beings struggling away on Earth, as we might observe animals in the wild.

Which begs questions like, why should we be preserved?

Do we really deserve another planet?

What is our contribution to the universe?

Maybe that’s the next book? For a man who has helped complete Einstein’s search for the Theory of Everything, whose eloquence and imagination are equal to his intelligence, these questions shouldn’t pose too much of a problem.


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Tech Futures Lab is an education facility of The Mind Lab, a NZQA registered Tertiary Education Organisation under the provisions of the Education Act 1989. Candidates who are studying on a programme delivered by Tech Futures Lab are enrolled with The Mind Lab.

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