The following is a fictional Media Lab blog post based in November 7th, 2050. This post is a part of Media Lab X.0: Anthology of Tomorrows.
Authors Anastasia K. Ostrowski (Personal Robots), Bridgit Mendler (Social Machines), Manuj Dhariwal (Lifelong Kindergarten), and David Colby Read (Space Enabled)
We are proud to welcome Community + Ethics to the MIT Media Lab! As you may recall, Community + Ethics joined the Media Lab this previous summer led by an interdisciplinary group of co-PIs, Dr. Manuj Dhariwal, Dr. Bridgit Mendler, Dr. Anastasia K. Ostrowski, and Dr. David Colby Reed. The team has expertise in childhood learning, space systems, community design, and social systems analysis. While they’ve just joined in the summer, for this Member’s Week, they will be offering an opportunity for you to hear about their projects and interests. Let’s take a deeper look into the group and what they’ll be sharing with us this week!
We were inspired to found this group due to the tremendous progress we have seen over the past few decades to scaffold civilization on Mars. This effort has been made possible by the work of many nations around the globe, however, we believe it is critical to protect dynamics of cooperation and equality through governance and technology. At this pivotal point in space habitation, we must seek the integration of ethical and technical faculties to ensure that space societies do not repeat societal failings we have experienced on Earth. Instead, we have the opportunity to establish better governance through the technologies we build and the identities and relationships we cultivate.
In 2020, SpaceX released in their Terms of Service (ToS) for Earth, Moon, and Mars for Starlink communications satellite network that SpaceX would make its own laws on Mars. SpaceX saw this as a new type of governing law where
“for services provided to, on, or in orbit around the planet Earth or the Moon, these terms and any disputes...will be governed by and constructed in accordance with the laws of the State of California in the United States. For services provided on Mars...the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has sovereignty over Martian activities”.
Additionally, in 2020, Blue Origin released a lead role in orbital habitat formulation that ignored relational dynamics:
“As Blue Origin’s Formulation Lead for the Orbital Habitat product line, you will lead development of technical concepts, product strategies, business cases, customer relationships, market-shaping outreach, industrial partnerships, implementation approaches and supply chain.”
When you consider SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s visions together, it suggests that we were not yet thinking seriously enough about governance in space. Since 2020, we have seen astronauts reach Mars and begin Mars colonization. While Mars colonization is still in its nascent phase, the Community + Ethics group at the MIT Media Lab is doing crucial research to understand what does governance look like in space and how do identities intersect and define such governance?
Our inaugural projects reflect what we expect to be the most critical ethical challenges to address in the immediate future of Mars civilization. These projects focus on the first citizens of the Mars civilization. Five countries have elected to each send ten builders and their families to Mars. Our projects revolve around these first 50 families and how they will set an example for interplanetary civilization. Today, we’ll share two projects plans and early results.
Project 1: Mars Colony Expansion: Where is Worker Voice?
The Mars Colony Expansion project focuses on what workplace governance looks like on Mars. For the first 50 workers, it will be essential to establish dynamics that protect the equality and cooperation amongst builders in an environment as extreme and perilous as Mars. We look to examples on Earth such as unions that have developed mechanisms to protect the voices of workers as we consider the Mars context. The Community + Ethics group is developing technologies and frameworks that will ensure that workers’ voices are heard, even if the workers are far from Earth.
This semester, researchers have piloted three technologies in the nascent Mars colony with workers who are currently there building habitats on Mars for future settlers. They are currently there with their families and the Community + Ethics group is working with them to identify and develop technologies that can be used to protect worker rights and sustain their employment.
Three pilot technologies have been developed for the workers. The first is a safe information portal for whistleblowers, allowing workers to submit concerns confidentially. The portal’s data is available publicly and can be accessed by people on Mars and on Earth simultaneously.
The second technology that has been developed is an algorithm for optimal reskilling of workers on Mars. In such a harsh environment, it is paramount that if any workers are lost or injured that work can carry on in the colony. For example, if the doctor is unable to work, another worker should be trained to step in and assist this work gap. The algorithm that the Community + Ethics group created provides a network of reskilling so workers can teach one another and pass along skills. The algorithm deduces which skills each worker would be able to optimally learn based upon their current position and pairs them with other workers so they can learn the skills for that job. Overall, this algorithm and corresponding system that allows time for reskilling enables reskilling in the workforce and provides greater security and less risk for the colony.
The third technology was already present on Mars. In the initial stages of colonization, robots were sent to Mars to build the initial groundings for the settlement and help with the larger mechanical tasks for preparing Mars for human colonization. Those robots have been refitted to collaborate with workers in building a sustainable settlement. The refitting was designed to respect human competences and provide workers autonomy over the robot system. The robots themselves were refitted to exhibit greater levels of sociality to support human-robot partnerships. In the upcoming months, these three technologies will be tested on Mars with the workers, after which, workers will generate design guidelines and next iterations of the technology.
Project 2: Mars International Academy
In partnership with the United Nations, we are generating plans to foster positive identity formation in children attending the first school on Mars. Drawing from the work of Dewey, schools are critical sites to learn about and experiment with democracy. With our first generation of students on Mars we must be sensitive to the drastic differences these students will have in the environment that shapes their ethical foundation.
Given the international nature of our cohort, we aspire to build an international school that cultivates civic sensibilities such as self-governance, habits of problem solving, and compassion. In order to succeed in a new Mars civilization, we must fine tune the social domain in such a way that younger generations are equipped to live into democratic societal ideals. We believe that a well-tuned social domain will come from designing with stakeholders and providing shared ownership in development.
Our role for the Mars International Academy (MIA) project is the design and execution of pilot technology used by students and teachers. We are undertaking a participatory design process that involves gathering stakeholders for visioning and brainstorming workshops, facilitating connections between Mars experts and stakeholder groups to develop technology concepts for MIA, and ultimately piloting early prototypes.
At this moment, we have completed early visioning and ideation workshops and we are proud to share our shortlist for pilot technologies.
- Instant translation: We want to ensure that students can learn to their fullest and engage with other students. To this end, we are prototyping an instant translation algorithm. Students and teachers from different countries speaking different languages will be able to seamlessly communicate, learn and play.
- Safety bracelet: Many parents we spoke with reported that naturally, their top concern was the safety of their children. However, many students expressed the desire to be able to play and explore freely. Educators also recommend that developing autonomy is vital to development. We are prototyping a body signal monitoring bracelet to keep track of the location and vitals of children so that they can experience a greater degree of freedom and play on Mars while still being connected and secure.
- School rovers: Educators were enthusiastic about unique learning opportunities for students that would be available to students on Mars. In an effort to give students the ability to learn about their environment on Mars, we are prototyping school rovers made mainly of transparent surfaces so students can go on field trips and observe their environment while staying safe in the rover.
- Virtual teachers: Teachers on Mars will be trained for many grade levels and subjects. But what if you want a guest lecture to teach a class on a specialized topic? We are prototyping a virtual teacher with a physical presence so students can interact with a guest lecturer calling in from Earth. The teacher on Earth connects to sensors that track body movement and the virtual teacher performs the same movements in the classroom on Mars.
Mars ethics and society is a profound moment of inception. We have the opportunity to take lessons from Earth, the good and the bad, and learn from them to get off on the right foot with this new civilization. We are grateful to our wide range of collaborators and advisors that help us make a contribution to address this challenge.