Space, robotics and artificial intelligence

I gave a speech at Festival delle Idee, hosted by Space Meetings Veneto, on space, robotics and artificial intelligence, in conversation with Francesca Ponzecchi.

I believe we are at the beginning of a new era of exploration and opportunity, made possible by extraordinary technical advances that are lowering the costs of access to space and enhancing the capabilities of satellites and space services. Visionary companies like SpaceX are rewriting the rules of the game by focusing on revolutionary solutions such as reusable rockets.

A technology that will certainly be the protagonist of the future will be artificial intelligence. The progress of recent years has been simply astonishing: today we can communicate with systems like ChatGPT on any topic, obtaining increasingly more relevant and creative answers. AI will soon be integrated into our lives everywhere through increasingly natural and powerful voice, visual and robotic interfaces.

This will pose enormous social, ethical and philosophical challenges. Automation driven by AI and humanoid robots will transform the world of work and our very conception of citizenship and prosperity. We will have to rethink the contract between individuals, companies and institutions from scratch.

The good news is that the future is not predetermined but depends on our choices. It’s up to us to decide what world we want to create with these wonderful tools. This is why everyone’s contribution is needed: engineers, entrepreneurs, philosophers, artists, legislators and citizens. Only together can we ensure that AI and other emerging technologies serve the common good.

My invitation, especially to young people, is not to remain spectators but to become protagonists of this revolution. Don’t be afraid to dream big and take risks: the world needs your creativity, your passion and your values. We embrace change with courage and wisdom, ready to learn from failures and celebrate successes. The future begins today and belongs to those who know how to imagine it.

Below is the recording in Italian, and revised transcript of my conversation at the conference.

Francesca: Good evening everyone, welcome to this last event of the Space Meetings Veneto Arena. Thank you for being here on behalf of the Veneto Region, Festival of Ideas, and thank you also for deciding to listen to this last event where we will talk about two topics in particular, artificial intelligence and technological innovation. We talk about it with David Orban.

David: Thank you. First of all, I am really happy that on the last day and presentation of this good conference, there are so many of you. I am happy and proud. Who among you has dreamed or is still dreaming of going into space? This is a conference that we are hosting, which talks about space, a wonderful frontier. Today we will also talk a little about how it changes people’s minds. 

Another question: Which one of you has a smartphone? Perfect, everyone. By now grandparents or great-grandmothers, for better or worse, are trying to get involved.

Who among you has not only heard of, but actually tried ChatGPT? So, you all have smartphones, and I hope that by the end of our conversation, even that half who hasn’t tried ChatGPT yet will want to do so, a bit like maybe you resisted trying WhatsApp and now you have it.

Francesca: We are at Space Meeting Veneto, an international initiative dedicated precisely to the space industry.  What do we mean when we talk about New Space? We are talking about the private space industry, companies working to develop spaceflight and low-cost technologies. I would like to ask you, as a privileged observer, the reasons for a particular acceleration of initiatives dedicated to the New Space sector.

David: Space was thought to be inaccessible. Until a hundred years ago, if you said you wanted to go into space, you were labeled crazy. There were Jules Verne and other writers who had such effervescent imaginations, they described spaceships in books that we now call science fiction. As well as the space stations that did not yet exist in ’68 when “2001 A Space Odyssey” was filmed. It was a beautiful, visionary film, which in a certain sense anticipated the space stations we have today. 

For a long time, space exploration and space travel were the prerogative of governments. Today, however, there are many private initiatives, companies, startups that deal with space. There are three or four reasons for this change.

The most fundamental is that with the end of the Cold War, NASA decided to focus on interplanetary exploration and scientific research, leaving a series of activities, such as putting satellites into orbit or building Earth observation infrastructures, in private hands. This has allowed the development of applications whose benefits go to users and profits to private individuals. 

The second reason is the improvement of the technologies underlying launches, management, and above all the electronics that constitute the heart of the satellites. Electronic miniaturization has made it possible to create very powerful satellites even in small dimensions.

The third reason is that there has been a natural universal learning curve that applies to all technologies. We see similar phenomena of radical cost reduction not only in space launches, but also in solar panels or batteries. These improvements arise both from technological advances and simply from our increased ability to do the same thing thousands or millions of times while learning more and more.

Francesca: When you talk about lower costs, both at the level of entry and services, we are talking about an important order of magnitude. For example, even for drones, unlike the costs of traditional satellites, we are talking about a shocking reduction in costs, which leads us to consider this a new sector in great expansion.

David: The first Shuttle missions cost a billion dollars each. If you do the math, with about 5-7 astronauts staying over 2 weeks, the cost to get one kilo of useful mass into orbit was millions or tens of millions of dollars. 

Today we have systems that can put satellites into orbit at several orders of magnitude lower cost. We are talking about 1,000 or 10,000 dollars per kilo, or even less in perspective.

But we must make an important distinction: much of this cost reduction, which continues today, is due to a single company, SpaceX. PartitWith the science fiction mission of colonizing Mars, to get there they knew that something never achieved before was needed: the reusability of rockets. 

A bit like when we take flight and don’t throw away the plane upon landing, it was essential to be able to reuse rockets to reduce the costs of space travel. Having succeeded, even if it is still a journey to be completed, SpaceX has achieved this radical cost reduction. 

If you search online, you will find beautiful videos of these rockets landing and after a few days being relaunched. At the moment a rocket can be reused about twenty times. The next launch facility, Starship, is being tested. When you hear that Starship’s test failed because it exploded, stop for a moment and remember what I’m telling you today. It’s normal for first tests to fail, because the only way to learn how to make something new work is to keep trying knowing it will go wrong until you find the right solution.

That ambition led SpaceX to do things no one believed. The goal is to launch 100 tons at a time into orbit and relaunch within a few hours. Already today, in the first quarter of 2024, SpaceX has brought 86% of all useful mass into orbit, with 12% made by Chinese companies. Europe, sadly, has brought zero into orbit. 

I want there to be a European ambition to compete with SpaceX, and for rockets like Ariane and Vega to be reimagined, not just to succeed but to push the limits of what is possible.

Francesca: What are the innovations produced in this market, in the Space Industry, that have brought benefits to our daily lives. Does development in this sector have an impact on the management of everyday life?

David: It’s a frequent objection from those who perhaps aren’t familiar with how technology has positively changed our lives. They say “we have so many problems on Earth, why waste resources going into space?”. Luckily we are all free to follow our passions. 

Velcro was invented for space applications. Today it is present everywhere in our clothes. Non-stick coating technology was perfected for the space and today we find it in every home. 

The GPS that we all use to navigate was created for military purposes and has been progressively improved. Today we have a precision of less than one meter thanks also to parallel systems such as European Galileo, Russian GLONASS and Chinese Beidou. A new GPS satellite system with 2cm accuracy even indoors has just been announced.

Telecommunications have also evolved thanks to geostationary satellites, which initially allowed extraordinary broadcasts such as Eurovision and today are the basis of global communications.

Like these, there are many other examples of technologies born for space that have revolutionized our everyday lives.

Francesca: Let’s go back to the market prospects of the space industry. You talked about a high level of demand from companies. In your opinion, why do these companies continue to invest? Why is the space industry and New Space market constantly developing?

David: It is undeniable that if a change of mentality does not occur in Europe, the most passionate talents working on the most promising projects will simply go to America to develop their dreams.

There are two changes in mentality needed. One is to see private enterprise and the risk it takes as something desirable, which must be repaid with profit when, having met the challenges and eliminated the risks, it manages to reap it. The alternative is that everything is managed with public money, which however travels at very different paces and is subject to controls and criticism such that it is unable to create disruptive innovations.

The other change in mentality concerns the regulatory framework in Europe, which is philosophically the opposite of the United States. There things are done and tested, and at most we argue fiercely afterwards to understand the rules. In Europe, however, there is a tendency to establish all the rules in advance. 

But for frontier technologies it is impossible to know from the start what will work and what will not. If it were easy, there would be no borders. Instead in Europe we expect regulators to know how to handle things that no one has experience with.

A concrete example is the rapid pace with which SpaceX develops and tests Starship. The second attempt was done “dry”, without using water which usually controls the expulsion of hot gases. This destroyed the launch pad, with debris flying everywhere. A deliberate and predictable disaster, which infuriated the control authorities. But after investigating, nothing serious ultimately happened and SpaceX was able to continue testing.

In Europe, an ambitious company like SpaceX would have been hamstrung for years by regulations and requirements to build launch containment basins. Rules that make sense on paper, but in practice prevent the innovation needed to make rapid progress.

Francesca: Let’s talk about startups. At Space Meeting Veneto there are many startups and a dedicated area. Italy has a good level of both startups and investments in innovation by large space companies. In your opinion, can the approach in which failure is considered an integral part of the entrepreneurial path also be applied to traditional companies? And if so, could it be a positive element to continue on the path of development and change?

David: In English the word “entrepreneurship” is combined with “intrapreneurship”, i.e. innovation that starts within a company. Some people are allowed to carry out experiments that fail several times before finding something useful that perhaps changes the fortunes of the company.

Without this, internal antibodies are often created that attack those who try different paths, saying “we already know how to do things, we don’t have to invent anything new”. 

Kodak for example invented the digital camera. But when the team working on it proposed investing in it, they were chased away because the company didn’t understand that those primordial machines could improve to surpass the quality of film cameras. Kodak then went bankrupt, while digital photography dominated the market.

So for companies that fail to encourage innovation and protect these sparks of change internally, extinction is inevitable. It’s not a question of possibility, it’s a necessity.

Francesca: The think tank RethinkX estimates that in 10-15 years the production of humanoid robots will reach one billion pieces per year. What do you think the near future will be like? And above all, what will be the role of people?

David: Artificial intelligence is a subset of computer science that has piqued the imagination of enthusiasts and experts since the 1940s. We had waves of progress and failure from the 1960s to the 2000s. 

Today, AI is advancing so rapidly that it surprises even specialists. Things that were thought to be possible in 20-30 years, such as having in-depth conversations or creating images and translations, are reality today. 

Even just asking ChatGPT for detailed information, such as the percentages of families investing in the stock market in various countries, gives results that a few years ago would have required days of research.

The current limitation of AI systems is that they do not know how to evaluate the accuracy of their answers. They are so eager to respond that they sometimes say the wrong things. But already there are ways to interact with them that get them to think step by step and admit when they’re not sure.

An even more fundamental aspect is that current systems are black boxes: even for experts it is impossible to understand how they arrive at their answers. Europe has decided that this is unacceptable and in a couple of years a law will come into force that forces AI systems to explain their internal processes. It will be interesting to see the impact on European companies. 

Until a few years ago, robots were slow, blind, deaf and had no understanding of context, so they had to stay in cages so as not to hurt people. They are industrial robots. Now thanks to advances in AI they are rapidly gaining capabilities to see, listen, understand and act effectively and safely in the environment. So it makes sense to design them so they can share our world, without posing a danger to people.

There are impressive recent videos in which a robot is able to pick up objects pointed to by a person, distinguish between plates and food, and put things where required. It seems trivial but it’s a huge breakthrough.

It is expected that by 2025 these robots will begin to be sold at affordable prices, 20-30 thousand euros, less than a car. At first they will come produced a few tens of thousands, but within 10-15 years it will reach a billion. Think about the impact not only in factories, but in other areas too private. 

We will have to understand how to live in a world where we can converse with super-intelligent AI on any topic and where robots will revolutionize the very concept of work. The challenge is not technical but philosophical and existential: finding a new social contract when work will no longer define the value of people. And we will have to do it quickly to avoid devastating tensions and conflicts. 

I am not pessimistic: humanity has already faced enormous transitions, such as the transition from feudalism to the modern age. It won’t be easy but I’m confident we will find a way to make these extraordinary tools bring prosperity and fulfillment for all. The key will be to define a new concept of a full and dignified life independent of having a job.

Francesca: In your opinion, is there a limit to the development of humanoid robots and general artificial intelligence?

David: Absolutely, there are some science fiction dreams that I think we will never realize, like faster-than-light travel, because they contradict fundamental principles of physics.

But as long as we play within natural laws, the things we can do together with robots and AI will be wonderful. The limits are our imagination and our wisdom in managing these very powerful tools.

Francesca: Thank you very much David. At this point I leave the floor to the public if there are any questions.

Q: I wanted to ask you, with the development of artificial intelligence and technologies such as quantum computing so fast, how do you think the scenario will change further?

David: A century ago quantum mechanics gave rise to innovations like the electronics, medical scanners, and GPS we use today. For a while, people have been trying to design quantum computers that exploit quantum phenomena to increase computing power by millions of times.

There are already specialized quantum computers for specific problems such as optimization. Creating quantum computers for general use will still take time because extreme conditions are needed, but we are working on it engineering-wise and progress is constant.

When we have powerful and flexible quantum computers, their impact will add exponentially to that of artificial intelligence, allowing us to solve hitherto intractable problems. It will be another revolution. 

But we must also consider the physical limitations. Energy is a fundamental factor: with current fossil fuels our growth is limited, both by availability and by environmental impact. We have virtually unlimited alternatives such as solar and nuclear fusion that could potentially support a civilization that inhabits the entire solar system.

For interstellar travel, another leap will be needed: the ability to produce and manage antimatter in significant quantities.

Q: I would like to comment on the ethical and social implications of artificial intelligence. I worry that its outputs are taken as true without verifying their reliability with the risk of spreading misinformation. What is your opinion on this topic? What ethical rules should we give ourselves?

David: The AI’s enthusiasm often leads it to overconfidence in its answers without stopping to think. As we said before, there are ways to interact with current systems that lead them to better evaluate what they say, for example by asking them to verify their reasoning step by step. We must learn to ask intelligent questions to obtain reliable results.

More generally, the quality of the data with which AIs are trained is a big open question. Again, the United States and Europe have different approaches: fair use allows you to use a lot of data without asking permission overseas, here it is more limited so there will be legal battles.

Personally I believe that the spread of false information produced by AI should be treated like any other disinformation: the main responsibility lies with those who spread it, not the tool. There is no need for special laws, defamation for example is already a crime.

More than rules, we need a solid ethical-philosophical framework to orient ourselves in this transition. In times of great change, one often loses the sense of purpose and dignity of one’s social role. We must build a society where everyone can cultivate their talents and passions beyond employment. It will be a huge challenge but also a great opportunity for progress.

Q: I would like to raise the issue of the geopolitical impacts of artificial intelligence. Its development seems concentrated in already rich and technologically advanced countries such as the United States and China. How can we avoid this worsening inequalities with less developed countries? Is there a risk of a scenario where few countries or companies control such powerful technology?

David: It’s a central theme and history teaches us not to take for granted that technology always benefits the weakest. However, I would like to share some counter-trend reflections.

First of all, let’s not underestimate the capacity for innovation and technological adoption of emerging countries. Thirty years ago it was thought that there would never be enough copper cables in Africa to carry telephones. Today the level of use of smartphones and digital services in countries like Kenya surpasses that of Europe in many respects. 

AI could accelerate this process, let’s think about the possibility of having instant access in one’s own language to medical, technical or entrepreneurial knowledge hitherto limited by the language barrier. Or the use of AI to optimize agriculture or logistics in the most difficult contexts.

Of course, this doesn’t erase the problem of technology control, which is real. But I would like to suggest that rather than a scenario where AI is in the hands of a few, we are moving towards a world where AI experts will be required everywhere. Already today it is the most coveted job and many more are needed than we produce.

Francesca: Thank you David for your intellectual generosity and the passion with which you communicate these issues. I think I speak on behalf of everyone by thanking you for the stimuli you have offered us today. Thanks again to all the participants and organizers of the Festival of Ideas. Let’s continue the conversation and have a good evening!