Who’s in charge of our future?


Credit: inverse.com

Concluding today is Amazon re:MARS, an invitation-only four-day conference organized by Amazon. The company has described the conference as “a new global AI [artificial intelligence] event on machine learning, automation, robotics, and space, to learn why and how to apply the latest AI advances in your business and work.”

The cost of admission was $1,999. The cost of three nights at the conference hotel, the NV Aria Resort & Casino, was $857.16. The conference featured two receptions plus a “re:MARS party” last night.

Amazon told invitees that they should attend because “re:MARS brings together innovative minds with diverse skill sets who share an inventors spirit, a builders mentality, and a desire to use AI to initiate change and shape the future. The event is designed for business leaders and technical builders (including developers, engineers, data scientists, ML experts, and roboticists) who translate customer problems into real-world technology solutions using AI. We want you to learn, have fun, foster new relationships, and find unexpected inspiration.”

Amazon actually provided invitees with “justification letters” intended to convince their bosses to let them attend on the company tab. (Wow.) From these letters: “At re:MARS, I’ll hear the latest AI trends, learn how Amazon and other leading companies use AI to innovate, see the latest invention and business solutions for AI, and connect with other leaders.”

“Gold” sponsors of the conference included Accenture and Intel. “Featured speakers” at the conference included (of course) Jeff Bezos and several other Amazon executives – plus Robert Downey Jr. (what?).

To my eye, perusing its agenda, this conference appeared to be designed in large part as an opportunity to promote Amazon products and services (and perhaps another opportunity for Bezos to air his personal visions for the future of humanity).

(Who put him in charge of our future? I don’t like it.)

Apparently this conference was open to the media (or was it just invited media? I don’t know). VentureBeat reported today that Bezos told conference attendees his aerospace company, Blue Origins, is “going to the moon to ‘save the Earth.’ The idea is that moving more of humanity into space could be part of a long-term strategy to protect the Earth…. ‘To do big things in space’ we need to use in-space resources, and so the moon is great. The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth. [If] we are going to continue to grow this civilization, we need the moon’,” he said.

I find this rationale specious at best.

I’ve just published a paper in the journal Futures arguing that colonizing other planets is a bad idea. Here’s my abstract: “Should humans seek to colonize outer space? I say no. I have worked in the space community for 35 years with a variety of programs and projects ranging from science to human space flight. My view as a social scientist is that humans are not sufficiently advanced, technologically and socially, to be establishing colonies on Mars, or any other place in space. Except for the threads of Russian cosmism, the ideology of space colonization and exploitation is largely Western, and Christian, as noted above. It appears to be some interpretation of Christian dominion, or dominionist, theology that drives colonization advocates to declare that humans are destined to fill the universe, that humans “must” colonize Mars, that outer space resources are there for the taking. The ideology of space exploration is in need of rejuvenation. The author advocates a vision of a human future in space in which humanity finds its way to a collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth, a way to work together to preserve life here and to look for life out there. Perhaps at some point in the distant future, humans might be ready –technologically and socially – to live together peacefully on other planets. But we are not there yet.”

As to VentureBeat, it is supported by corporate and individual investors or sponsors. As of July 2014, Amazon was not an investor. I don’t know about today, as I can’t find any more up-to-date information via Google.

Other media outlets reporting on the conference included GeekWire and CNBC.

It disturbs me that the mass media so readily report on the space “visions” of zealots like Bezos without any critical thinking about their feasibility, utility, or validity. A small but growing community of scholars and analysts are exploring the ethics of colonizing other planetary bodies. The issue of Futures that contains my recent paper is a dedicated issue on the topic of human colonization of other worlds, presenting a wide range of views on the subject, from philosophers, ethicists, natural scientists and social scientists. Alas, the papers are behind a paywall, but at least you can read the abstracts for free to get a flavor of a thoughtful discourse on this subject that is vastly underrepresented in the media.

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