Last year, the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, which includes billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking, proposed to send a tiny nanocraft to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, around the year 2038. The nanocraft would travel at an incredible 15- 20 percent the speed of light, allowing it to get to the star in only a couple of decades.
Chien pointed out that an interstellar mission would be a perfect use of AI. It could figure out by itself what type of planets are in a system, how to navigate the craft into orbit, what types of data to collect, and where to deploy probes, if the world looked habitable. But science observations of this kind would not work with Breakthrough Starshot's current design because the mission is not supposed to slow down. However, some proposals from other groups suggest slowing it down would be possible. But regardless of the mission architecture, an interstellar probe would be best served using AI because humans cannot anticipate everything, Chien said.
"When an interstellar probe gets there, it will have lots of information,” he said. "Let's assume the planet has oceans and we have probes that we can drop from orbit to sample those oceans and take measurements.” The question then, he said, is where to deploy the probe, and AI could make that decision quickly.
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The JPL scientist encouraged a healthy respect and concern in the public when thinking about using AI in future missions, but added that fear of AI is irrational as long as we make sure that people familiar with the technology are involved in its development and are consulting with the public.
"There was a time when to make a phone call, a human had to be involved. When you rode the elevator, a human had to be involved,” Chien said. “Now we would say that's insane. These are the wheels of progress. It's going to happen, we need to get used to it, and we need to do it in a reasonable and rational fashion."