Each year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada offers a chance to see the most promising and impactful technologies on the horizon and look back at past shows to see the trajectories technology has followed. It is at once inspiring and overwhelming. When I attended CES in 2000, many of the technologies we take for granted today—flash drives, Internet gaming, Bluetooth wireless technology, smartphones, and even cell phones with built-in cameras–– didn’t exist.
Many products on display now incorporate artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), automation, and robotics. This year’s line-up included voice-activated automatic frying pans, “bionic” floor cleaning machines that simultaneously sweep, mop, and dry floors, golf balls with Bluetooth trackers to make them easier to find, baby beds that monitor an infant’s vitals while rocking it to sleep, and wearable technology to monitor and quantify just about every metric of health.
The most obvious message is that of rapid change. Advances in computing power have made devices smarter and more connected, and the rise in AI and automation is making technology increasingly invisible to the user. Advances in consumer electronics aren’t so different from those in space exploration, and I saw plenty of consumer applications for robotics and AI. I watched people lose at ping pong against an AI-driven robotic opponent and autonomous vehicles and robots performing functions once exclusive to humans. But as I marveled at the ingenuity, I thought about how these technologies might change the way people experience space travel and exploration.
In his January 15th Disruption Hub article, “Driving Emotional Transformation,” futurist Gabor George Burt argued that “digital transformation should not be regarded as an end goal in itself, but as a means to the goal of perfecting human experiences.” The late Steve Jobs also knew the importance of perfecting human experiences, and he had a reputation for disrupting markets with products that did not fit into an existing category. No one had ever combined the experiences of listening to music, talking on the phone, and browsing the web, but as Jobs said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.”
The iPod and iPhone were both revolutionary designs that disrupted entire markets, radically changed human behavior, and completely infatuated people. Yet research into infatuation and perception routinely shows that over time, people get less excited about ongoing advances (like better cameras, longer battery life, or faster wireless). The emotional connection they once had with new technology wanes over time; that is, until the next big disruption comes along to capture people’s hearts again.
Starman flying in orbit in Musk’s cherry red Tesla. Photo Credit: SpaceX
It comes as no surprise that we see the same cycle of infatuation during the life of our manned space program. The Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts, were treated like rock stars and the public was completely infatuated with them. Science fiction became fact as men left Earth to explore the heavens. Over time, interest in the program (including the Gemini and Apollo missions) would frequently cycle high and then low as each new success fascinated the public only to wear off shortly afterward. After the program reached its highest point during the first lunar landing, the remaining few peaks were offset by many longer lull periods until most people generally lost interest. This pattern has continued despite current commercial successes such as landing boosters for reuse or sending Elon Musk’s cherry red Tesla Roadster into space with Starman behind the wheel.
One might ask why the public needs to buy into this incredibly expensive endeavor when we’ve already been to the Moon several times and seen high-resolution pictures of the Martian surface. As we watch SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, NASA, and others continue to perfect their rockets to successfully and more efficiently lift people and resources into orbit, it begs the question: is the primary focus on the technology itself or the experiencepeople will have while using it (especially if they end up traveling to and living on both the Moon and Mars)?
This matters because technology is unlikely to be a limiting factor. Having seen the successes of the Apollo missions in the 1960s and the incredible advances in engineering and technology in the decades since, I know we can overcome the technical barriers. We aren’t fighting our ability to innovate, but the public’s apathy toward space. With so many problems here on Earth, it makes sense that many have trouble seeing why funding extraterrestrial projects is important. We could argue that there’s been a massive return on investment from space-related research and innovation, but that’s neither tangible nor obvious to most people. It definitely doesn’t inspire like Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon.
Author Rod Pyle speaking on his new book, Space 2.0, at CES 2020 Photo Credit: Paustian
Rod Pyle, the editor of Ad Astra (who was at CES for a stage discussion to promote his book Space 2.0), said during his presentation, “Everything about space tries to kill you.” Working and living in space carries a high level of risk along with a big price tag. Many people support constructing and maintaining roads, bridges, and other infrastructure because they often interact with those things and understand their value. While there will certainly be a need to send people to the Moon and Mars for research, maintenance, and other reasons, there will always be risk and it’s our job to show people the value proposition that offsets those risks.
I keep coming back to what I saw at CES: based on the rapid advances in AI, VR, and all other two-initial technologies, I realized that working and living in space could actually be sampled to inspire excitement and create a general understanding of why it’s important to push the boundaries of technology and human capability. Whether it’s the burgeoning space tourism business, companies like Proctor & Gamble and IKEA giving serious thought to future space experiences and designing products for habitats on the Moon and Mars, or Hollywood’s increased emphasis on space-related movies and television, the desire exists to craft space into a human experience.
Maybe the answer isn’t another peak, though I believe it will come eventually (perhaps when we land the first people on Mars), but I don’t think that’s the solution. Peaks are followed by lulls, and successes by letdowns. Perhaps the answer is to keep interest gradually rising, lifting the industry, and building excitement a little bit at a time. Costco, the incredibly successful warehouse store, is well-known for offering samples to whet their customers’ appetites, encouraging them to buy products they wouldn’t otherwise know about. This not only drives up sales in the short term, it also keeps those customers coming back for leisurely strolls through the store in search of new offers on any given day.
It may be that the secret to gaining support for future space exploration and settlement is to provide “a taste of space” using AI, virtual and augmented reality, and other technologies. Providing these regular, interactive space-related samples may be enough to encourage the public to care more about human spaceflight and other endeavors, regardless of who’s in office or what party is driving the agenda. This would let people know what’s out there and hopefully keep them wanting more.