2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Roboticist; Panasonic Professor of Robotics (emeritus) , MIT; Founder, Chairman & CTO, Rethink Robotics; Author, Flesh and Machines
Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Chief Technical Officer of iRobot Corporation; author Flesh and Machines

The 22nd Century

I am optimistic about many things, especially the future. Just last week I met a number of people from the 22nd century, and they were delightful.

We smiled and giggled together a lot but none of them seemed to speak a word of English. Even their Japanese was not so great just yet. But demographic analysis tell us that many of those little girls I saw in Kyoto will end up as citizens of the next century.

I am optimistic that even if none of the people I just met do so, then at least someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off-Earth. And next century my new young acquaintances will go to sleep at night on Earth knowing that humankind has spread itself out into the solar system. Some people will have done it for wealth. Others, driven by our evolutionarily selected urges, will have done it to once again mediate risks across our gene pool by spreading out to different environmental niches. But the wonder of it all is that those now old, but sprightly, women in Kyoto will be able to revel in the romance of the human spirit, always questing to learn, understand, explore, and be.

Is this really going to happen this century? Really.

Government space programs in China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States, have all in recent months talked about their plans for the moon during the first quarter of this century. There is a new government-backed space race, less agitated than the last, but more likely to produce sustainable technologies.

And then there are the billionaires and billionaire-lites. Richard Branson has teamed with aircraft design maverick Burt Rutan (who won the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne funded by billionaire Paul Allen) to develop the world's first space airline, Virgin Galactic. They plan on putting 500 people per year into suborbital space. There are other suboribital and orbital space competitors (and collaborators), including Rocketplane Kistler, Space Adventures, and Benson Space Company, all driven by charismatic individuals. PayPal principal Elon Musk, through his company SpaceX, has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 vehicles and had his first launch, with a backlog of paying customers. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is less public about his plans, but his company Blue Origins has been getting FAA licenses for low altitude tests of a vertical take off and landing system at his Texas ranch. And there is no shortage of other high tech billionaires who have expressed interest in space ventures, and may well be investing in some not yet announced. And while all these efforts are building hardware for launches from Earth there are starting to be serious discussions of start ups for companies which will provide higher order services, including shipping asteroids to new orbits to deliver rocket fuel to paying customers. These are the first little nano-steps of solar system engineering towards the ultimate of a Dyson sphere of mankind's very own.

In the current activities there are obvious analogies with heavier than air flight in the early twentieth century, and look where that, with the help of a couple of world wars, got us in that century. There is no longer a mono or duo culture for access to space and planetary bodies—certainly a reason to be optimistic about this second wave of access to space. If this wave does eventually sputter like the last we still have plenty of time for a third wave during the lifetimes of my Kyoto friends. The key drivers will turn out to be either military or economic or, most likely, both. Just as in 1907 the economics of heavier than air flight were not obvious, we are still struggling in 2007 with the economics of this new endeavor. But that too will come and will be the ultimate driver.

By the beginning of the twenty second century mankind will have significantly raised the probability of its long term survival by spreading its genetic material beyond Earth. That genetic material may be significantly modified from the current model but that is another and different story. The point is that we will have spread ourselves to more than one little tiny ball in our solar system, and will continue to step to other systems and throughout the galaxy over subsequent centuries.

As for the coming events of this century there may not be a Gion but there will be bars on Mars and over time they will gather their own histories and legends as stories are told and re-told. And, just perhaps, one of my peek-a-boo playmates will be one of the great actors in the derring-dos and swashbuckling courage under pressure that will surely be part of the coming adventures.