In one of my recent articles, I wrote that the ongoing Sino-US rivalry over 5G technology might escalate into a full-scale space race between the two great powers.
Decades from now, is the space race between Beijing and Washington going to develop into a fierce competition for space colonies in the same way that imperialism colonized Asia, Africa and Latin America more than a hundred years ago?
The scenario might seem a bit far-fetched, but given the jaw-dropping pace of today’s technological advancement, things that were deemed science fiction in the last century might soon become a reality.
Alien, the 1979 Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, not only touches on this intriguing subject but also provides us with quite disturbing insights into how space colonization may work.
First, in the near future, big business corporations may replace traditional sovereign states as key players in space exploration and colonization.
In Alien, the protagonist Ellen Ripley, played by American actress Sigourney Weaver, actually works as a warrant officer aboard a space cargo ship named Nostromo, which is owned by Weyland Corporation.
Today’s private spaceflight companies, such as SpaceX of tech billionaire Elon Musk, bear a resemblance to the fictional company Weyland depicted in Alien.
Once these private firms become increasingly autonomous and self-reliant, they are likely to become even more aggressive than sovereign states in the space race as they search for new sources of revenue at a time when there still aren’t well-established international norms governing outer space.
Second, in the space race of the future, human beings are at risk of being manipulated by artificial intelligence (AI) systems.
In Alien, members of the crew of Nostromo are awakened by the on-board computer terminal known as Mother. They are told to change the course of their spacecraft and head towards an unknown planetoid designated as LV-426, where they find the extra-terrestrials.
This might just be a sci-fi movie plot. But, as we can see, in order to travel ultra-long distances in deep space, astronauts may have to rely increasingly heavily on AI and self-learning robots, or may even have to trust the computers with their own lives, just like the Nostromo crew did.
The problem is, nobody can tell exactly how reliable these AI machines and self-learning robots will be.
Then third, just as Stephen Hawking had warned before he died, during outer space explorations, human beings might accidentally come into contact with an extra-terrestrial force so incomprehensible and destructive that it might eventually lead to the extinction of mankind.
Such extra-terrestrial forces might come in the form of deadly viruses or alien civilizations.
Let’s not forget the history lesson that indigenous African and Latin American civilizations were almost rapidly wiped out mainly because the European colonists carried viruses to which the natives had no immunity.
I bet nobody would want to become the next Inca people in the space age.
Last but not least, movies such Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even the classic Japanese animated series Gundam all envisage a future in which large-scale space colonization may gradually give rise to a sense of national identity or even separatist sentiments among human settlers in outer space, sparked by the desire to protect their own interests.
And over time, the prevalence of such sentiments may trigger “wars of independence” between these outer space colonies and Mother Earth.
All in all, an all-out space race between Washington and Beijing is likely to bring mankind into a new era much earlier than we expect, and the significance of such developments is far greater than concerns in the present time about which nation would become the next superpower.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 12
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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