NASA

The “Moonshot”, and the Conversation. Words to think about from Commander Hadfield

CAH-Spacesuit-Credit-NASA-1050x700debt of gratitude is owed to the BC Innovation Council (particularly Director of Communications Lindsay Chan). In preparing for the feature story about the recentTechnology Forum, I thought it a “moonshot” asking for the opportunity to interview their keynote speaker, Commander Chris Hadfield. They delivered.

Of course, I’m also grateful to Commander Hadfield and his team for making the time for us to have the conversation. Articulate, eloquent, and informed, talking with Chris Hadfield is a personal highlight. Lob him a good question, and he’s off. As the keynote speaker at an event focused on innovation, that was the theme of our conversation, which spanned the gamut from the Commander’s personal life to the role innovation can play in solving today’s global complexities. There are some lessons below that I hope everyone takes to heart.

Creativity and innovation are interrelated. This process often about being able to connect more than one disparate idea, concept and/or discipline. It can also be about how we relate the past, to the present, and with a vision of the future. How should people approach the process to be more innovative in their thinking?

The simplest clearest example is a field stone house. A lot of houses are built where every brick is the same shape. Makes it easy for the bricklayer, makes it a very predictable structure. All you really vary is colour and texture, but the shape is the same. But so many walls are built (everything from what the Inca’s did through to right now) where you use available stone, available materials, where the shapes are not regular and the density is not necessarily regular. So what you do is that you recognize that you have to work with what have, but you need a certain amount of skills, and sometimes you be able to build what you’re trying to build until you find the right piece. I think that way of thinking is how I’ve approached the problem [of creativity and innovation] my entire life.

Cmdr. Hadfield with Albert and Jack.

You don’t even know what you need until the problem is already upon you, and if you have not built the skills in advance, if you haven’t thought about it, if you haven’t put yourself in a position to recognize that is actually what you need, then how are you going to progress?

I think you have to have a perpetual restless dissatisfaction with your own set of skills. You should always be trying to better understand how things work around you, and try to fill in the holes of your own knowledge, so that you can build your particular wall higher and more soundly.

You can just make a simple decision or you can really dig into it and try to look at your particular wall you’re trying to build and figure out the pieces that make sense to you and then make the right call. It’s a real combination between building the baseline of competence and experience so that then your innovation can be enabled and you creativity can be enabled sort of back and forth. They bounce off each other. But if you don’t have that fundamental basis, then all your really have is belief, and belief can collapse like a house of cards or a poorly built wall any time. So for me, real creativity and innovation are hand and glove, but they have to be based on a sound understanding of the principles that support them.

How do you fill these knowledge gaps? What does the role of mentors mean to you?

For me, there are very few things more satisfying than talking to an expert. I love it when I am given time with someone who really understands something in a field that I don’t. You can learn so much in a hurry and get them to explain it to you.

“I’ve kind of chosen a life that is rife with mentors and mentorship.”

The other revelation I had a few years ago was that every single person you ever meet is expert in something that you aren’t. A three-year-old knows stuff that you don’t know. He or she has done and experienced things that you just haven’t yet. Life is varied. So for me, the real key is to find the mentor in everybody.

I’ve been lucky in my life that I’ve kind of chosen a life that is rife with mentors and mentorship. As a university student at three different universities, and then as a pilot learning, and then as a fighter pilot learning, and then as a test pilot (the most rigorous academic year of my life), and then as an astronaut, all you really do is learn your entire career. You’re surrounded by people who have more expertise than you in some finite area, and you become the great integrator of your particular exposure and knowledge.

I think that’s a great way to view yourself. I am the integrator of all the mentorship of all of the raw and available knowledge that I’ve been exposed to in my life. And it’s really up to me to decide how much of this am I going to absorb, understand, and then use in order to be more creative and innovative, and fun loving and may be fruitful in the future.

Commander Chris Hadfield

I was almost seven, but have my own memories of Neil Armstrong’s momentous declaration, “this is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” So I wanted to ask you about your decision to become an astronaut. Was it a series of ah-ha moments, leading to one ah-ha moment?

Both. Sometimes the environment creeps up on you, you don’t really notice. Sometimes you don’t notice the mound of history has built up underneath you. You slowly accumulate a great swathe of ideas and influence and opinion, but then maybe something seminal happens like when two people walk on the moon.

Oh yeah, I knew that we were having rockets, and Sputnik happened, and Gagarin, and Alexei Leonov, but wow we just walked on the moon. For me it was that. I read science fiction. I was reading Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and watched Star Trek and even Lost in Space. I’d watched 2001 A Space Odyssey, and listens to Bowie’s Space Oddity, and all of that was this sort of building wave of awareness of something that was happening that was interesting to me. I had a big picture on my on wall that came from National Geographic of what we knew about the moon. Then on July 20th, 1969, it’s like when you spin the dial on a microscope and you can sort of see everything, but suddenly, wow it comes into this sharp focus and you suddenly recognize what’s in front of you.

“Sometimes you don’t notice the mound of history has built up underneath you. But then maybe something seminal happens.”

So very much based on the past it all came clear to me at this is what I want to do. When I went outside afterwards and looked up at the moon. That’s really when it rang home for me. This what I want to do. There are people walking on the moon and that they’re not walking there because it was bound to happen, they’re not walking there because they had to, they are there because they just barely could.

It was immensely invitational at the time, but the key of course was what do you do with life’s invitations? I decided that day to start turning myself into an astronaut, which is a whole different process than wishing. I said okay, how do I do this? What changes do I make? And I just used this as a guideline for the rest of my life. When I try to make the small daily decisions, I use that as kind of the end game. If everything goes great, that’s where I want to be, so what do I do today? What do I do tonight? What do I do this weekend?

It occurred to me later that your life is not the big grandiose decisions. Your life is the answer to the question of what do I do next? Your life is the accumulation of that answer. Your choice, what you choose to do next defines who you’re going to be, defines what skills you have. And it really does define your life. Fortunately I choose something that really suited me, opportunity arose, I was lucky, I worked hard at it, and I’ve had some magnificent experiences as a result.

Earning your seat in space gives you a unique, special perspective. How has your rare view of our planet shaped your thinking about innovating to making a world of 11 billion people (projected by 2100) a more humane and sustainable one?

We’ve been riding the crest of an accelerating wave driven by enabling technology for a couple of hundred years. It has had incredibly good consequences. The world have never fed as many people as it does today; we have never had this standard of living on average for as many people we do today; literacy over that past 50 years is a good measure of that, with over 80% of the world having an incredible opening of opportunity. But we’ve built it in an accelerating phase and not a sustained phase and anything that’s done under acceleration is temporary. So how do we turn this into something sustainable?

Commander Chris Hadfield

“I decided that day to start turning myself into an astronaut, which is a whole different process than wishing.”

We didn’t get to where we are by being lackadaisical or unimaginative or hesitant. We got here by being driven and restless and hungry about ideas, and we tried to build structures that allowed the brightest among us to solve problems in new ways. Go to Silicon Valley, or go to The Perimeter Institute, or go to UBC and TRIUMF, or walk over to General Fusion – we’ve set up a structure that allows people to take thought and invention to a level that’s never been seen before.

Not everyone is scrambling for their next meal, not everyone is a hunter-gatherer or a farmer. And so we’ve built an amazing structure but it’s unsustainable. And it’s built largely in the past 150 years on the back of burning fossil fuels. We need a better solution.

So every advanced society reins in their population growth, and the accelerated rate of the integration of technology into both India and into China is phenomenal. It’s unprecedented. This isn’t a slow historic change from agrarian to technological with not many outside influences, with people slowly moving into the cities. This is very different. This is fast. You can draw models based on statistics that will predict anything. I’d be very surprised if we went to 11 billion.

I’m not even sure we will, because of the self-imposed limits of the climate. The way we’re changing the way we feed people, the way we house them and clothe them is so energy wasteful and so polluting that I don’t think the planet is going to allow us to grow at that rate. I think it’s the less developed economies and the more fragile environmental parts of the world that are really going to be the canaries in the coal mine that are going to drive that decision-making.

I think it’s a slowly self-balancing system but we have to find alternate energy sources to fossil fuels. We need to continue to educate people to make informed decisions and more than anything we need to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible and make it sustainable.

You know, the best basketball player in the world has probably never held a basketball in their hands; the brightest mind in the world could be out somewhere digging for potatoes, because that’s the only opportunity they’ve ever been given.

If we truly want our species to thrive, we have to free up the natural talents that exist amongst our species to push themselves to the limit of capability. We’ve done that in part of our society but not throughout. To me, that’s got to be the objective: to raise the standard of living for as many people as possible, but make it sustainable. We need this particular wave to crash as gently as possible to get to some sort of steady sea that allows that to happen.

Originally published in BetaKit

Related: Commander Chris Hadfield at the B.C. Tech Forum

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NASA Teams with Google X to give ISIS a New Set of Eyes

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There’s life events where you never forget where you were, or what you were doing. I was almost 7 years old when Neil Armstrong uttered the most famous line – “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It always stuck with me.

Exploring space has influenced countless communications, hardware, software, and material science innovations. Being the third nation in space, Canada’s history of innovation is a rich one. BetaKit has featured the likes of Dr. Alan Winter for his early work in satellite technology, Commander Chris Hadfield for his leadership aboard the International Space Station, and the recent efforts of Vancouver’s UrtheCast to deliver us a 24/7 High Definition view of earth from space.

It’s the fascination of meaningful science behind space exploration that had me excited to learn more about the SPHERES program and Project Tango at O’Reilly Media’s first ever Solid Conference. Over 1400 people attended two days of talks and demos. The event was an enthusiastic exchange of ideas about the present and future for the Internet of Things, as well as the coming together of our digital and physical spaces.

With keynote speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii with MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts featuring over 100 talks, there was plenty fuelling the imagination.

Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google X first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

SphereNASA’s Zachary Moratto (Engineer at SGT / NASA Ames Research Center), shared more insight about the project, saying “it’s technology that can navigate. It’s a GPS-like system, but better that GPS because it works indoors, works without GPS. It knows how high you are up, and even knows what angle you’re pointing at in any given moment of time which allows you to do some pretty crazy things.”

He couldn’t speak to Google’s intentions or future commercialization ideas, but talking from NASA’s perspective “this is perfect for a robot, it’s a satellite that wants to know where it is in the environment.”

The goal this Summer is proving it can navigate throughout the space station. Looking into the future Moratto suggested “we’d like to integrate Tango-like algorithms, software and hardware into Sphere as into one giant robot, and eventually become the “Roomba” of the Space Station. We want a robot that can navigate, do patterns, figure out where it is, and to have expansion ports for attaching other instruments. We want to be the platform and not the end device.”

IMG_2397Use cases include the potential for connecting an air quality measurement sensor. Moratto added “there’s no convection in space, so CO2 pools up and can be a deadly blob of air that an astronaut could fly into. It’s one less thing for the astronauts to check and monitor themselves.”

He also mentioned that it could be a telepresence robot allowing mission controllers, to see over a shoulder. “Right now the astronaut spends up to 30 minutes preparing cameras to record a given operation.”

“The Space Station becomes kind of like a giant dormitory too. People bring stuff and the place gets kind of messy,” he noted. Finding tools and equipment can be challenging at times, and with Tango’s mapping abilities it could helpful for finding assets tags. “It will be great for helping keep track of where stuff is in the space station.”

The “holy grail” would one day be being able to operate outside of the space station.

The NASA and Google teams have only been working together for the past nine months, yet it’s quickly proving to be an important exploration into the potential for today’s state of the art vision technology.

This video is a great look at Spheres and Project Tango coming together.

This story originally appeared in BetaKit

Solid Thinking: Reflections on Solid Conference 2014

Jon & Joi

“Software is eating the world…. Hardware gives it teeth.”Renee DiResta (Principle, OATV)

With one look at what the O’Reilly Media team, Jon Bruner and Joi Ito had planned for the first Solid Conference, there was never a question of me not going. It was only a question of getting there. Having the deep pocketed editor helping jet-set me around in the pursuit of a story is the unicorn in my freelancing magical world. Between the support of the Vancouver technology community, and the generosity of many others the trip came true because of a successful crowd-funding initiative. The 21st and 22nd of May at Fort Mason revealed a treasure trove of thoughts, conversations, and visions of the connected self and connected society. I’m grateful to have earned the experience. This is only the start of a story that will keep on giving.

For the more than 1400 attendees at times the choices had to be overwhelming. With key note speakers like Rethink Robotics (CTO & Chairman) Rodney Brooks, Google X’s Astro Teller,  Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Hiroshi Ishii from MIT’s Media Lab and many more, plus five different session tracts with over 100 talks fuelling the imagination. There was so much on display the senses had moments of being overloaded.

Solid Robot IMG_2396 IMG_2399 IMG_2422

Jon Bruner started everyone thinking by simply asking “what’s a tech company, anyway?” It’s more than the 0’s and 1’s, the circuits, sensors, the materials, the connectivity, and the transcending science fiction into science fact. As the digital experience continues merging with the physical experience, there’s no shortage of why’s to ask. Asking why some of this technology needs to exist is a good place to start. Is it solving big problems? Is it making us more capable? Is it making us smarter? Cool wasn’t making the grade for me.

Astro Teller“Hardware is hard” seemed almost understated coming from someone who’s all about moonshots. Visions of what could be aside, Google’s Astro Teller gave advice more entrepreneurs need to seriously consider saying “get more oil on your hands or mud on your boots to take down the really big problems.” Take the time to learn more about Google X and Astro Teller in the great Fast Company feature.

Envisioning relations in terms of both the potentiality and the tension between our digital, spacial, and physical worlds, Hiroshi Ishii was brilliant.  His talk, “Vision Driven: Beyond Tangible Bits, Towards Radical Atoms” left me breathless.

Hiroshi IshiiIshii leads The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Lab, where the TRANSFORM project is described as one that “fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from a piece of still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by the stream of data and energy. 

The motion design is inspired by the dynamic interactions among wind, water and sand in nature. Escher’s representations of perpetual motion, and the attributes of sand castles built at the seashore. TRANSFORM tells the story of the conflict between nature and machine, and its reconciliation, through the ever-changing tabletop landscape.” Watch for yourself.

 

SphereIn the category of science fiction meeting science fact, the SPHERES program was on my radar before the conference. Seeing the partnership between NASA and Google first hand was a highlight. NASA says the project “aims to develop zero-gravity autonomous platforms that could act as robotic assistants for astronauts or perform maintenance activities independently on station. The 3D-tracking and mapping capabilities of Project Tango would allow SPHERES to reconstruct a 3D-map of the space station and, for the first time in history, enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform 230 miles above the surface of the earth.”

This video is quite the ride – 

Richard IsaacsQuite possibly it was Richard Isaacs (Mechanical Designer and Organ-builder with C.B. Fisk)  who best wrapped a unique context around Jon Bruner’s opening question. His talk, “Musical Counterpoint in Wood, Bone, Metal, and Carbon Fibre” introduced us to the history and the complexity of pipe organs. It’s worth noting (courtesy of Wikipedia) that “beginning in the 12th century, the organ began to evolve into a complex instrument capable of producing different timbres. By the 17th century, most of the sounds available on the modern classical organ had been developed. From that time, the pipe organ was the most complex man-made device, a distinction it retained until it was displaced by the telephone exchange in the late 19th century.” It’s both a history and a future of craftsmanship and musicianship that’s capable of taking us closer to the heavens than any spaceship can. He also shared an impressive visual collection of “pipe-organ porn” too.

IMG_2408 IMG_2412

Most encouraging throughout the two days was the talk of design centred thinking, and how crucial user experience and the user interface is. It’s about putting the human experience at the centre of  our hardware and software experiments. We can talk about the industrial internet and the internet of things, yet there is no industry and there are no things without us at the heart of the equation.

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O’Reilly summed up the spirit of solid thinking best, saying “we need to think about the people… not just about things.” He also extended all of us a challenge, one we need to collectively endeavour towards delivering on everyday – “work on what is hard.”

Many of the pictures are courtesy the O’Reilly Flickr collection.