6 minute read

AI for space at the IAC

By Luke Heffernan Co-chair (New Horizons Summit), National Space Society. National Point of Contact (Australia), Space Generation Advisory Council

Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the face of healthcare, transport, communication, and many other sectors, but where is its place in space? At the 2022 International Astronautical Congress (IAC), the AI4Space: Perspectives from the Next Generation plenary opened that conversation up for a talented panel of upand-coming young visionaries from around the world.

With a rigorously selected mix of students and young professionals, moderated by experienced experts in their field, the Next Generation Plenary (NGP) series consistently gives voice to those putting their hand up to shape the future space industry. This year, led by Danielle Woods of the MIT Media Lab’s Space Enabled group, the panel explored advanced concepts around the application of AI for supporting off-earth missions; like remote hosting of AI/machine learning (ML) on robotic systems or simplified design processes using learnt language models.

To open the plenary, each panellist gave personal statements on their experiences and visions for the future. The presenters came from varied technical and cultural backgrounds, but a core message prevailed: AI is very much a current-day technology, not future, and there are far fewer barriers to use than many expect. Even some of the harder problems of robotic control were made approachable by Sorina Lupu, who uses the resources available to her during her PhD studies at Caltech to develop autonomous control and ML algorithms to “make robots think on their own”. These attitudes are prevailing in the AI community worldwide, with much of the rest of the world needing to capture the benefits to reap – including the space industry.

Tools like GPT-3 and Stable Diffusion are already disrupting approaches to nearly any written or graphical form of communication, from coding to marketing, reducing timelines to draft even the most technical content from days or weeks to seconds. It was made clear how ESA Research Fellow, Audrey Berquand, saw the impact of these types of AI on our day-to-day lifestyles and efficiency. Referencing an oft-quoted statement from Bill Gates on hiring lazy people to find simple solutions to complex problems, Audrey made her own call to smarter action, “let’s be lazy together”. The question implied in this simple statement is clear: why keep spending our time as we always have? Let’s go further, faster.

My own ideas like to explore this present capability to see a more collaborative future. AI technology is already useful to save us time in low-level tasks, but in no time may be able to do this in more high-level explorative ways. Humans are still at the reins for every task these tools are directed to solve, but as AI research evolves, our models come closer and closer to understanding intent, purpose, and mission, and therefore self-definition of tasks to reach those goals. Either during the mission design phase or when errors inevitably occur that shift the mission, recent advancements in fields like reinforcement learning will

Image Courtesy of IAC: Luke Heffernan on stage at IAC 2022 Image Courtesy of IAC: Luke Heffernan on stage at IAC 2022 allow our machine collaborators to adapt more fluidly and robustly to support us in our mission – be it exploration, science, or survival.

As the session progressed, the floor was opened for questions to allow attendees to prompt discussion from the panel. With over 3000 attendees, the complexity and field of questions varied, but clear themes arose. Early questions implored the panellists to explore where AI ran the risk of being overused, but also where it could contribute the most value to the industry – both questions taken in the spirit that they are not unique to space.

To the resounding agreement of her co-panellists, Kelsey Doerksen very poignantly stated a simple fact: AI has the potential for huge benefit in our lives and work, but to always keep in mind that advanced technology is not a replacement for a proper understanding of stakeholder needs. Referencing her work in developing deep learning models to predict landslides in Nepal, Kelsey highlighted that the key to projects like this lay in how the models were translated into actionable advice for decision makers, not in the technology itself. As is often the case, the failings of “overuse” come not from the methods, but the ability to empower decision makers.

The IAC each year celebrates the values of the 3Gs of diversity – Geography, Gender, and Generation – with a special emphasis in 2022 the theme of “Space for All”. With this 73rd year of the congress, finally returning to its home city, the Next Generation Plenary served this theme through both the panel participants and the value of AI to the audience present.

Each panellist brought their own unique perspectives to the conversation, as well as diverse representation from the modern-day space industry. Going beyond the 3G values clearly displayed, the panellists also came from a variety of technical and business backgrounds, as well as every point along the spectrum of development from emerging to established space industries. As commented by Sorina, the NGP provided a one-of-a-kind opportunity to inspire and empower the next generation to grow into the space industry, especially women and other underrepresented groups.

Antonio Stark described it aptly through his justification Image Courtesy of IAC for bringing AI to the space industry: with the low barrier to entry and massive gains through its use, it can be seen to raise emerging space industries and actors, bringing those traditionally underrepresented or disadvantaged into the fold. While there are risks involved in trusting AI unreservedly, with the right verification processes in place, technologies like these and the broad knowledge it may be trained on can save years and experimental failures that other space pioneers have needed to get to where they are.

As is the case in any other domain, AI has the potential to revolutionise the space industry. Each of the panellists – Audrey, Antonio, Kelsey, Sorina, and myself – emphasised the potential for this technology in each of our fields and in our own ways, and even then, barely scratched the surface. To each and every person in the space industry (and beyond), if you have even one hour to spare each day, learn about where AI fits into your life and multiply it.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Business France for enabling and supporting my attendance at the IAC Paris 2022.