Earth to be shared with robots: astronaut

Dr Dan Barry has seen every country in the world from space but only this week did he step foot on his seventh continent.


The retired NASA astronaut touched down in Sydney this week to address dozens of business and science minds at AMP Capital’s Amplify conference on Wednesday night.

His closing speech, The Edge of Wonder, explored the level of trust humanity should extend to machines, as the decision to put human life in the hands of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) looms on the horizon.

Dr Barry is one of 550-odd people who’ve had the chance to go to space. It takes eight minutes to reach orbit and 45 minutes to re-enter and land, he says.

The 63-year-old has been on three space missions including two visits to the International Space Station (ISS) and four space walks.

After 13 rejected applications, the American was accepted into the astronaut program in 1992.

Every single person selected by the Chief of the Astronaut Office that year went on to fly in space, he says.

“People say: ‘You trusted a machine with your life’? But that’s not really quite true,” Dr Barry told the conference.

“We went around in that first year of training and we met the people who built the shuttle. You look them in the eye and you say ‘That weld has my life in it’ and you recognise those people understand that.

“I didn’t really trust the machine, I trusted the people who built that machine. And the robots aren’t going to be able to take that away.”

The Boston engineer, who has also delivered a TEDx talk from Antarctica’s Scott Base, runs two robotics companies but insists machines won’t “take all the jobs” from humans.

“I think the robots are going to take the jobs that are below human dignity to do,” he said.

“There should not be anybody that wastes their lives for 40 years digging ditches.

“We shouldn’t waste a human mind doing repetitive, detailed things that ‘AI’ can be so good at.”

He says humans will reap the benefits, rather than lose out, if companies hand robots the most mundane jobs.

Meanwhile, Dr Barry said the easiest jobs should stay available for workers who are feeling unwell or are suffering an injury.

He said the intelligence of these machines is broad, he says, and the level of trust varies greatly – AI ranges from bricklaying robots to bodyguards, drones, autonomous vehicles, remote-controlled surgery and brain implants.

“In the end, we’re going to trust these things with our lives,” Dr Barry said.

“We have to decide at what level do you want these things to exist? At what level are you willing to trust them?”

The key, he says, is complementing each other rather than competing.

While ‘AIs’ get all of the details right they are oblivious to the bigger picture, whereas humans understand the particulars of a situation and when the rule book might need to be ignored, such as with insurance policies or certain laws.

But AI can only progress in industries outside of robotics – such as law and finance – if information is shared, problem-solving software embraced, and companies stop trying to individually reinvent the wheel, Dr Barry said.

Proof of what humans are capable of, he says, can be seen when looking down on Earth at night from the space station: “We light this thing up like a Christmas tree”.

“That is the representation of intelligence in our entire galaxy. We don’t know of any other planet lit up at night, not even one light on any other planet,” Dr Barry said.

“That represents people working together, developing technology, trusting each other, sharing resources.

“And this sort of view gives me optimism. We’ve made the world an amazing place and we’re going to take it all over the galaxy some day, if we trust each other.”