Elon Musk, SpaceX, Artificial Intelligence And Iain M Banks

BLOG: The story behind Musk’s intriguing names for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 landing drone ships

Hopefully SpaceX will, this Friday, make a successful launch of the SES-9 satellite with its new-and-improved Falcon 9 rocket booster, so here are some factoids about SpaceX and Elon Musk.

Musk has named the two autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) that will hopefully serve as seaborne landing pads for its Falcon 9 rocket after spaceships from the late, great writer Iain M Banks’ Culture universe.

Culture ships (these two specific names belong to ships known as General Contact Units) are controlled by super-advanced artificial intelligent entities known as ‘Minds’. Here’s a comprehensive list of ships from the fictional universe.

Why the Culture? Well Banks had some pretty grand and optimistic ideas about artificial intelligence, and the role it’ll play in a possible utopian future for humankind.

Culture ‘Minds’ and their spaceships typically name themselves, usually something tongue in cheek and dry, and usually mocking war, violence, or human actions that an advanced ‘Mind’ would find bizarre.

Take ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ – what other few perfect words could sum up the harsh but rather babysitting-like approach the Culture takes to minding other lesser-advanced spacefaring societies. They’re clever, witty, and effectively control society.

Here’s an extract from Banks’ seventh Culture book Look To Windward, discussing the evolution of AI:

Most civilisations that had acquired the means to build genuine Artificial Intelligences duly built them, and most of those designed or shaped the consciousness of the AIs to a greater or lesser extent; obviously if you were constructing a sentience that was or could easily become much greater than your own, it would not be in your interest to create a being which loathed you and might be likely to set about dreaming up ways to exterminate you. So AIs, especially at first, tended to reflect the civilisational demeanour of their source species.

And here’s Elon Musk holding Banks’ fifth Culture book Excession – a book that deeply examines the roles and thinking of super-advanced artificial intelligence:


So are these drone ship names a nod to a utopian future for humankind run by artificial intelligence?

I think it’s what Musk would love to see, but we all know he currently holds views that AI is humankind’s next existential threat, and we should be very careful.

So here’s to hoping in a few hundred years we can model AI after humankind’s most admirable qualities, and not create AI modelled after our worst – of which the past few decades has seen very much of…summed up eloquently here by Banks himself in the book Use of Weapons:

“In all human societies we have ever reviewed, in every age and every state, there has seldom if ever been a shortage of eager young males prepared to kill and die to preserve the security, comfort and prejudices of their elders, and what you call heroism is just an expression of this simple fact; there is never a scarcity of idiots.”

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