Today, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first humans walking on the moon from the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969. It was perhaps the most complicated and remarkable technological accomplishment the world had ever seen at that time. I can’t imagine the complexity in doing this with the knowledge we had back in 1969, and without the Internet.
I wasn’t alive back then, but I have studied some of the history and am hoping to read more about it. More importantly, though, I also want to understand how we can encourage a similar kind of “grand mission” for the 21st century, but this one hopefully cooperative among several nations rather than viewed in the lens of “us versus them.” I know this is not easy. Competition is an essential ingredient for accelerating technological advances. Had the Soviet Union not launched Sputnik in 1957, perhaps we would not have had a Space Race at all, and NASA might not exist.
I also understand the contradictions of the 1960s. My impression from reading various books and news articles is that trust and confidence in government was generally higher back then than it is today, which seems justified in the sense that America was able to somehow muster the political will and pull together so many resources for the Space Race. But it also seems strange to me, since that era also saw the Civil Rights protests and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, and then the Stonewall Inn riots of 1969. Foreign policy was rapidly turning into a disaster with the Vietnam War, leading Lyndon Johnson to avoid running for president in 1968. Richard Nixon would be the president who called Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they landed on the moon and fulfilled John F. Kennedy’s vision from earlier — and we all know what happened to Nixon in 1974.
I have no hope that our government can replicate a feat like Apollo 11. I don’t mean to phrase this as an entirely negative statement; on the contrary, that our government largely provides insurance instead of engaging in expensive, bombastic missions has helped to stabilize or improve the lives of many. Other factors that affect my thinking here, though, are less desirable: it’s unlikely that the government will be able to accomplish what it did 50 years ago due to high costs, soaring debt, low trust, and little sense of national unity.
Investment and expertise in math, science, and education show some disconcerting trends. The Space Race created heavy interest and investment in science, and was one of the key factors that helped motivate, for example, RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson to study physics. Yet, as UC Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti describes in The New Geography of Jobs (the most recent book I’ve read) young American students are average in math and science compared to other advanced countries. Fortunately, the United States in the age of Trump continues to have an unprecedented ability to recruit high skilled immigrants from other countries. This is a key advantage we have over China, and we cannot relinquish it, but neither does it give us a pass for the poor state of math and science education in many parts of the country.
What has improved in the last 50 years is the strength and technological leadership of the private sector. Among the American computer science students here at Berkeley, there is virtually no interest in working for the public sector. For PhDs, with the exception of those who pursue careers in academia, almost all work for a big tech company or a start-up. It makes sense, because the most exciting advancements, particularly in my fields of AI and robotics, have come from companies like Google (AI agents for Go and Starcraft), and “capped-profits” like OpenAI (Dota2). Google (via Waymo), Tesla, and many other companies are accelerating the development of self-driving cars. Other companies perform great work in computer vision, such as Facebook, and in natural language processing, with Google and Microsoft among the leaders. Those of us advocating to break up these companies should remember that they are the ones pioneering the technologies of this century.
NASA wants to send more humans on the moon by 2024. That would be inspiring, but I argue that we need to focus on two key technologies of our time: AI and clean energy. Recent AI advantages are extraordinarily energy-hungry, and we have a responsibility not to consume too much energy, or at the very least to utilize cleaner energy sources more often. I don’t necessarily mean “green” energy, because I am a strong proponent of nuclear energy, but hopefully my point is clear. Perhaps the Apollo 11 of this century could use AI for better management of energy of all sorts, and could be pursued by various company alliances spanning multiple countries. For example, think Google and Baidu aligning with energy companies in their home countries to extract more value from wind energy. Such achievements have the potential to help people all across the world.
AI will probably be great, and let’s ensure we use it wisely to create a better future for all.