Elon Musk, Starman

By Andrej Mrevlje |

A week ago I considered the dilemma between humanity and artificial intelligence; have we created our own damnation? I wrote a little about Elon Musk, the owner, CEO, and designer of cars and spacecraft. He is a formidable figure, a man quite inarguably of his time but who gives the sense that, no matter the epoch, he would be pioneering on a frontier. This fascinated me, so I spent more time this week learning and thinking about Musk, the innovation of his ideas, and the stagnant world that respects and opposes him. Musk exudes, publicly and intentionally,  uplifting and optimistic ideas, but also elicits doubt.

Soon after Musk’s SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, the world’s most potent operational rocket, capable to carry a Boeing 747 into space, Elon Musk’s success raised some questions and quite a lot of envy. Public doubt about whether a substantial part of the nation’s space industry should slide into the hands of a single private operator is considerable and fair. The conquest of new planets by an individual, no matter how smart and capable of acting in the interest of the whole of humanity, recalls the seeds of absolute statehood.

For some time, Musk repeatedly claimed that he wanted to colonize Mars. The world, before the Falcon Heavy launch, considered Musk’s fantasy a marketing scheme of sorts, an audacious and effective attention-getter in the glamorous age of artificial intelligence. His opponents, who understood the potential for his “fantasy,” hopelessly tried to deter this future reality. Musk, in his visionary genius, successfully launched the most powerful rocket in the history of the space industry, catapulting the idea of a colony on the planet Mars into a reality, within grasp.

The stakes high, Musk’s success also generated hostility. As Mashable recently put it: “It’s probably not the best idea to entrust the selection of the crew that will be sent to Mars to the capitalist forces. If we look at the exploration of Mars through a capitalist lens, then only the richest among us will be able to go to the red planet and what they do there will also be oriented toward profit-making.”

It is hard to believe that a tech publication like Mashable is using the terminology of the class struggle to undermine the success of SpaceX. Perhaps it should be read as surrender, the total lack of constructive counter-arguments. I find Mashable’s argument conservative, narrow-mindedly ideological; the question is not which class representatives should be sent to Mars, but who will be capable of leaving mother Earth. Not I, which does not mean that civilization is obligated to terrestriality. I agree with Musk that the future of the human race is to look to the universe, explore its possibilities to evolve humanity into interplanetary beings who boldly go as far as our imaginations, and our technology may carry us.

I do simultaneously hope that more minds and bodies will join Musk in his interstellar endeavor. It is not a question of trust, or class, but a belief that substantial exchange will bring about better ideas and ensure their responsible implementation. It’s true that the perceived supremacy of technology may encourage a stalemate of ideas in our current age, and Musk’s projects are a testament of will and efficiency that seem to me to a right and purposeful cause. His views on AI are revolutionary, but how do we decide on the proper and healthy use of it before we become too highly dependent on, and more closely resembled, the robots we build? Can we reach distant planets without becoming robots? That is, how much artificial, as opposed to human intelligence, is needed to get us there? Currently, Musk is the only leading figure who opposes the technology fanaticism coming out of Silicon Valley, but can we let him be the only one to decide?  Will we let him build his empire? Anyway, is such “permission” something that is ours to give?

Surprisingly, the funniest and most infantile objections to — or envy of —  Musk’s success come from the people who know the complexity of the space industry best. As we know, the only object Falcon Heavy left in space was Elon Musk’s old red Tesla roadster with a “Starman” dummy in the driver’s seat. The car is currently looping around the sun on an elliptical orbit that may traverse Mars’ orbit.

As Business Insider reported “The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis bemoaned the planetary protection risk posed by Musk’s un-sterilized car crashing into Mars and sprinkling debris coated with bacteria, viruses, and fungi all over the planet. The reason: alien microbes may be hiding out in Martian soil.”

So scientists and researchers sat down at their computers and initiated thousands of simulations of where and when the Starman’s red Tesla roadster will land. We know the galaxy is basically safe after scientists published the results of their research on a few days ago:

This modeling work gives the Roadster a 6 percent chance of crashing into Earth in the next 1 million years and a 2.5 percent chance of hitting Venus during that same stretch. The car will probably slam into one of those two worlds at some point in the not-too-distant future (well, cosmologically speaking, anyway), the researchers said.“Although we are not able to tell on which planet the car will ultimately end up, we’re comfortable saying it won’t survive in space for more than a few tens of millions of years,” lead author Hanno Rein, director of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Centre for Planetary Science, said in a statement.When that happens, most or all of the Tesla will burn up in the atmosphere, team members said.

We, planet Earth, will be safe from the potential cloud of cosmic bacteria provoked by Musk’s roadster upon its crash on Mars two to three million years from now, institutional experts reassure us. But we never asked them this question or requested reassurance. They created it, and they answered it. Why? One possibility: Because, in the 1970s, when NASA created the Golden Record for the Voyager, the agency spent months agonizing over what they would include on this unoccupied emissary of humanity. Now, instead of a government-sanctioned record of our times, SpaceX sent into space an old car.

You can buy the Golden Record for a few dollars on Amazon, and if you looked at it, it is not something to be very proud of. It is very obsolete information, and Musk’s innovative mindset stands out in this regard. Here are his thoughts explained in an interview for TED with Chris Andersen, in April last year. The most exciting part of the conversation starts at minute 29:

I think it’s important to have a future that is inspiring and appealing. I just think there have to be reasons that you get up in the morning and you want to live. Like, why do you want to live? What’s the point? What inspires you? What do you love about the future? And if we’re not out there, if the future does not include being out there among the stars and being a multi-planet species, I find that it’s incredibly depressing if that’s not the future that we’re going to have…

The sustainable energy future I think is mostly inevitable, but being a space-faring civilization is not unavoidable. If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969. Then we had the Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the Space Shuttle retired, and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend. The trend is like down to nothing. People are mistaken when they think that technology just automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only enhances if a lot of people work very hard to make it better, and it will, I think, by itself degrade, actually. You look at great civilizations like Ancient Egypt, and they were able to make the pyramids, and they forgot how to do that. And then the Romans, they built these incredible aqueducts. They forgot how to do it.

Two weeks ago, when SpaceX launched the biggest and the most powerful rocket ever, the contagious joy of the millennial scientist Musk took under his command  got caught on video. Because of what we’ve gained from his charisma and enthusiasm for ideas that lift the human species off the ground again, it seems our shared will is the only remaining factor in achieving our potential. This is different from 1962 when the U.S. entered the space race because it wanted to defeat the Russians in the Cold War. This is about a greater purpose. As I said, it’s all about the ideas.

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