This week's pair of science fiction technologies phasing into everyday life: robots and rockets

This week two more science fiction technologies entered our world in a big way.  This time they are robots and rockets.

First, robots: an Estonian company is about to trial its delivery bots in Washington, DC.  Starship Technologies has built small, six-wheeled robots that carry a cargo to a target destination, such as a home or business.

Starship Technologies robot

PR photo.

It’s really a multi-device hardware system, as vans carry the bots to the destination area:

Robot delivery with van

A few thoughts: it’s an interesting alternative to flying drones.  If the Estonian invasion succeeds, perhaps we’ll see a competition between robots for air and ground.

I wonder about what’s needed for areas to support this.  Would sidewalks need to be cleaned or cleared?  What about vandalism or accidental damage?  The hacking possibilities are fun to contemplate.  Let’s see if technology fears attach to this deliverybot (Fox News: is ISIS using Starships to deliver bombs to your children?)

I’d love to see educational uses.  Can students build their own for on-campus uses?  How about inter-institutional competitions, like whose bot can deliver a pizza the fastest?  What creative uses will faculty and students come up with?

My favorite photo from the Starship site:

Delivery bot and an older gentlemen.

For my “21st century meets the 20th” files.

Related robot story: Nissan is experimenting with helping you live your WALL-E reenactment dream.

Second, space travel: Elon Musk, a Robert Heinlein character come to life, issued his company’s plans for taking humans to Mars in the medium-term future.  It’s a complex project, involving some older technology (one giant booster rocket) and new (a huge crewed ship that’ll land itself on Mars).


There’s an inspirational trailer:

(And is that terraforming at the end?)

I have so many questions, and not a few emotional reactions.

How likely is this to happen?  SpaceX is certainly working on it, with multiple projects and tests, from the Raptor engine to that crazy autonomous landing booster to the successful Dragon ships.  Musk says they’ll send “something” to Mars every two years, at least a Dragon shipment, starting in 2018.

But how far can this actually be realized, all the way to setting up a colony by 2022 or 2026?  Musk’s presentation jokes about one problem:

South Park joke

He is rich, though, and likely to attract investors like the ones who fund asteroid mining projects.

What does this mean for education?  Maybe we’ll see a spike in demand for space sciences, from rocketry to astrobiology.  Hopefully it’ll inspire a wave of interest in space exploration among students, starting with the youngest.  We should also look for spinoff technologies rippling across education, as inventions and projects race along the Mars missions.

What does this mean for society?  Again, I turn to spinoffs, which we saw from NASA’s golden age (Tang, Teflon, computers, batteries, solar, etc).  It also points to the continued dominance of the neoliberal paradigm, as it’s a huge step in the privatization of space exploration… and that’s if the mission doesn’t fully succeed.  Simply spending huge amounts of money, mobilizing people and capital to get going, and making some progress (as SpaceX already has done) will have a direct impact, with knock-on secondary effects.

More thoughts:

  • Musk wants to name the first crewed Martian ship “Heart of Gold”, joking that its motive force would nearly be an Infinite Improbability Drive.  That’s one serious geek and science fiction fan.
  • Around 1:15 into the presentation he casually tosses off the idea of suborbital cargo delivery by rocket to “anywhere on earth” – watch for this one.
  • Musk also describes the colony taking up to a century to become sustainable, so this is clearly visionary stuff.   “This system means access to the greater solar system.”
  • In the Q+A one Russian audience member asks why this is such a US-centric project.  Musk claims to want an international enterprise, but is being blocked by American laws about foreign nationals and rockets.
  • Related: let’s see if other companies and/or nations generate their own projects.  We could see a Mars race.
  • The vision here is simply breathtaking.  It hurls me back to when I was a lad, reading science fiction and nonfiction about humans voyaging through the solar system.  I got chills watching the video, without a trace of shame or embarrassment.
  • Let’s see how the backlash emerges.  It could come from public good advocates or socialists, who want the government to do this kind of thing.  It could come from anti-technology people, of course.  And when the American economy runs into stresses (think recessions or state budget crunches, for starters) people will demand using this money “for Earthly concerns.”
  • I also wonder how this will play out generationally.  Will older folks love it, feeling an Apollo memory?  Will younger generations be excited, having their own space adventure, and generally more immersed in technology?
  • I’m intrigued by Musk’s presentation style, which is informal (suit but no tie, no prepared remarks), very low-key.

What do you make of these developments in rockets and robots?

(Musk link via HackerNews)


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4 Responses to This week's pair of science fiction technologies phasing into everyday life: robots and rockets

  1. I don’t mind saying the phrase “Estonian invasion” scared the crap out of me before I read more carefully!

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    this reaches me just as I am watching a video of Australia’ Pop Up Festival of Dangerous Ideas session with Arlie Russell Hochschild: We Have Outsourced Ourselves,

    Serendipity or what? Is the next chapter outsourcing by drone and robot?

    …relieved along with Lisa about the Estonian Invasion

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