NorthStar’s CEO Asks for Deep Thinking on Artificial Intelligence and Solving Space Problems

Stewart Bain speaks at the Canada-Italy Business Forum on Artificial Intelligence on Nov. 7 and 8 in Montreal. Image credit: Italian Chamber of Commerce in Canada.

We’ve been grappling with the problems – and promise – of technology, society, politics and space ever since we first could conceive of leaving our Earth.

To take a single example: Students of history know well that some of the first NASA rockets – including the mighty Saturn V that flew several astronaut crews to the moon – were led by chief architect Wernher von Braun, a Nazi scientist who came over to the United States amid the end of the Second World War.

More recently, most of the world chose to sever its space relationships with Russia after its unsanctioned invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which is still ongoing. A notable exception is the International Space Station, which continues its work with Russia for practical reasons (NASA itself says the station cannot be severed in pieces) and presumably, for policy reasons under the advice of senior leadership in the United States.

This is all of which to say that space cannot be apolitical, nor any of its activities, as – paraphrasing Aristotle – humans themselves are political creatures. We cycle through this discussion every few years in the space world, but the issue is coming up once again with the explosion of artificial intelligence (AI) activities in the last five years.

The release of ChatGPT a year ago, along with evolving space programs that track missiles or craters or other items using satellites or spacecraft, all require care. AI is a tool, and how we choose to use that tool is a matter of human agency, of human priority, and of human creativity.

This all serves as preamble to two brief keynote speeches that NorthStar Earth & Space CEO Stewart Bain gave at the Canada-Italy Business Forum on Artificial Intelligence on Nov. 7 and 8 in Montreal; the speeches were just posted on LinkedIn in late November. SpaceQ readers will recall that NorthStar aims to launch an initial constellation of 24 16U microsatellites, using Rocket Lab (a pivot from their previous provider, Virgin Orbit, which entered bankruptcy proceedings after a launch failure this year.) The first four NorthStar satellites are now scheduled for sometime in Q1 2024.

As NorthStar writes of the theme Bain struck: “Technology is a powerful tool but it is the creativity and ingenuity of humanity, as exemplified by the genius of visionary figures such as Galileo, Shakespeare or Dante, together with the collective force of international collaboration which will be decisive in securing the future of our planet.”

Or as Bain said in the opening of his first speech, in which he pointed out Shakespeare and Galileo were both born in the year 1564: “The foundations of everything we stand on is the humanity and the challenges that we present, either through poetry or through technology. That’s the basis of why we are here. I look at space like a canvas that we can paint any way we like.”

Technology, he pointed out, is a tool and “not the end game,” and as such we need to ask ourselves the reasons why we use technology – and how our choices will make a difference. If sustainability is a goal, for example, we need to ask what kind of sustainability – for a business, for the environment, for space, or some other reason. But what we can say now is that space’s economy is interlinked with Earth’s economy and will continue to be “the future infrastructure of everything we will do and dream of in the future.”

But there are challenges. Bain said there are an estimated 125 million pieces of space debris, or what we called “uncontrolled objects” or a “fuzzball,” in orbit around Earth. The debris is in a zone that contains satellites vital to Earth’s infrastructure, ranging from GPS to climate change observations to telecommunications. “There is no backward capability,” he warned, and he said there are seven million warnings a day of collisions between objects – most worryingly, 15,000 are within 10 kilometres of each other.

In 1996, Bain said, famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke (known in space circles for classics such as “2001: A Space Odyssey”) said that we will lose access to space within 30 years. “I hope he’s wrong,” he said, and said that like gardens we need to find ways of nurturing that threatened space around Earth. Technology could be used to help this problem, or the problem of the environment, on Earth, but again – how we use it and how we collaborate are key, he said.

The World Economic Forum estimated in 2018 that natural resources worldwide are worth $125 trillion USD a year. But when Bain spoke with Kevin Page, Canada’s first Parliamentary budget officer, Page said the number appears “a little low.” That figure, of course, does not take into account the space environment.

Speaking to NorthStar’s forthcoming constellation of satellites, Bain argued the best way to monitor space is from space itself. “You build a constellation of satellites. Each one of those beams represents a field of view of an of a telescope, that looks out through our satellite to low Earth orbit, medium Earth orbit, geostationary orbit cislunar and starts to pick up objects as it passes.

“The more times you see an object as it passes, when it’s moving at seven kilometers per second, the higher your accuracy of locating it,” Bain continued. “So the higher your accuracy of locating it, the better maps you can build. The better location, the better navigation and the more sustainability of the space. Yes, we do have to launch satellites into a congested space to make this happen. But we also have to use trucks to paint lines on the highway.”

Bain pointed to Śūnyatā, the Buddhist philosophy that (very simply put) shows that in emptiness we find true reality. “We are nothing in this universe,” he said. “We are a blip in our 100-billion-year history. We are nothing other than our interdependence on each other.”

He urged the attendees – focused on interdependence between Italy and Canada – to “get outside of our egos, and … reduce ourselves to nothing other than our natural need to be interdependent on others. Then the why and the how will become a lot clearer.”

His second keynote spoke more specifically to AI, which – continuing on the theme from the first speech – comes from technology, which in turn comes from human creation. Narrowing the field of AI to machine learning, Bain emphasized that aspect of AI is “teaching a machine how to do something that a human may either be bored with, or not have enough bandwidth to do individually or collectively.”

Naturally, speaking of a new technology is something to be feared, he acknowledged. “That means it’s important.” But he said that if the community uses its instincts, we will mostly go in the right direction.

To show how, he spoke about Virginia Apgar. She is an American physician best known for creating the “Apgar Score” in the 1950s, which quickly assesses how newborns are doing after their birth. But it was not truly effective in helping to reduce infant mortality, he said, until doctors stopped taking this score individually and began to share it.

“They took all of the data from multiple hospitals in multiple locations from all over the United States and elsewhere, and they compiled it,” Bain said. “They used a computer of sorts, to crunch the numbers. That’s artificial intelligence. The computer did the calculation, not the old doctor with the stethoscope and the pipe saying, ‘Good! Looks good to me.’ And off he goes home.”

Technology, he noted, is “a huge amount of power is being given to us” and as a result, it forces people to work in teams. Bain is an aerospace engineer and said that by virtue of technology, he works with “PhDs, astrophysicists, orbit dynamicists, computer scientists.”

He urged the community to “manage the human element, not the technology element, [as] the technology is coming from inside us.” These management issues bring up deeper questions about whether it’s better to control technology, or to invest in something else – that something which he called “humanity.”

“We should have investing in humanity, because if you really want technology to work for our benefit, we will be spending more time investing in humanity, investing in cognitive behavior, investing in psychology, investing in how do we teach the next generation not to be combative with technology, but to be constructive with technology.”


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That approach, he noted, is “not about building the next innovative thing; it’s about building a better generation of people [and] a better general ratio of people who truly want to do the things. You must have faith in humanity, in order for technology to balance. I think we’ve overbalanced the equation – to speak like an engineer – on the side of technology, and not enough on the side of humanity. It is the fundamental principle of what makes any enterprise work as a business.”

Bain spoke briefly to Robert Oppenheimer’s role in building the atomic bomb, and the early Facebook team in creating a first-generation app evaluating the attractiveness of women, as examples where technology was being used for mixed reasons.

Speaking specifically to Facebook, he said: “The philosophy is off. Your compass is pointing in the wrong direction. And your purpose is misaligned with the benefit of humankind.” The effects on young women, alone, show that “we should never have allowed that [Facebook] to do what it did to society.”

But rather than forgetting what happened, Bain urged the community to learn from it: “Invest in the people, invest in the philosophy, think about what you want to do, and take that to heart. Because we’re just as good at taking care of each other as we are creating technology. We have to believe that we’re going to succeed ourselves.”

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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