A Storyteller Helped Send Man To The Moon

(And why we shouldn't fear Artificial Intelligence)

How A Good Story Helped Send Mankind To The Moon (And Can Silence A.I. Fears)

I wanted to write a post about the power of narrative. The New Year approaches and everyone is sharing both retrospective and forward-looking stories about their lives, their work, and about the world through their eyes. The other evening, I read a nice written piece by a well-known investment writer turned venture capitalist, Morgan Housel. It was posted online by another well-known investor, who I had the good fortune to meet and befriend, Howard Lindzon. The epic piece was about storytelling. Just a few weeks before Howard himself wrote about the importance of stories. I wanted to share the following.

I have been entranced, terrified and awed by the story of “A.I.” and its anticipated impact on society and the economy, which includes the end of a lot of jobs. My reaction has been this: we have to be less like machines and embrace our humanity more than ever before. And what could be more human, and humane, than our proclivity for storytelling?

You can go as far back as cave paintings, or go as cutting edge as the ocean of content available on every social network or mobile-messaging platform, to realize one thing. We can’t help ourselves when it comes to storytelling. We won’t shut up. We just can’t stop. And thank goodness for it.

There are so many reasons for our stories. Some are shared and forgotten about. Some are passed down from parent to child for generations. They have been recited/sung around a fire, chanted in temples, etched in stone, pressed into clay, painted on vellum, written on parchment, pressed on paper or recorded in digital media. The best stories come with a lasting impact. They alter the ebb and flow of humanity’s norms and suddenly a routine incoming tide becomes a tsunami. The landscape of the world’s truths is redrawn.

I think that some of our stories about “A.I.” are giving us nightmares about the unknown but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s Christmas time and I am reminded of one mission, Apollo 8 and its an inspirational story. Let’s go back to Apollo and then come back to the 21st century. I promise you’ll feel more excited about the future.

Apollo 8 launched on December 21, 1968. This was the first human crewed mission with the Saturn V rocket — this was the rocket NASA was betting on to take man to the moon, and it paid off:

“Apollo 8 took three days to travel to the Moon. It orbited ten times over the course of 20 hours, during which the crew made a Christmas Eve television broadcast where they read the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched TV program ever. Apollo 8’s successful mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill U.S. President John F. Kennedy‘s goal of landing a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. The Apollo 8 astronauts returned to Earth on December 27, 1968, when their spacecraft splashed down in the Northern Pacific Ocean. The crew was named Time magazine‘s “Men of the Year” for 1968 upon their return.”

BUT that was just the warm-up. The Apollo 8 mission was like a big pass-fail test of the Saturn V and the Command Module (the capsule that the Apollo astronauts would use in a return splashdown back to Earth) BUT one crucial element was NOT yet tested. The Apollo Lunar Lander. Below is the moment with the actual spacecraft used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to land on the moon, on July 20, 1969, for the Apollo 11 mission. And it almost didn’t happen.

Apollo was conceived near the end of the Eisenhower presidential administration and when President Kennedy made his famous speech about sending a man to the moon by the end of the 1960s, the US had only one manned mission completed, which had lasted all of a few minutes. Nobody had figured out yet how this was going to be done.

One guy had a story to tell about how to do it and his name was John C Houbolt. We know the names of the astronauts (sometimes) and JFK’s speech about getting to the moon but there was one guy who really helped make that happen. Houbolt shared a story that helped NASA send man to the moon.

At the beginning of the push to go to the moon, some in charge wanted to send a big rocket to the moon and back but it would require a huge rocket with a lot of fuel, a/k/a “direct ascent”, and one proposed rocket, called “Nova”, would be as big as a battleship. Big, heavy, risky and very expensive.

There was another idea called Earth Orbit Rendezvous but that was also expensive and risky. Everything had to be assembled in Earth orbit and it still required a relatively big rocket to go the Moon. (Above image credit, of the Direct Ascent Scenario, from “The Virginian Pilot“)

Houbolt, a mid-level engineer, was about to elbow his way into a conversation between political giants about how to make JFK’s goal possible with a less expensive idea but it was controversial. He drew upon an idea that was suggested as far back as 1916 (!), “Lunar Orbital Rendezvous” or “LOR”.

“LOR” was a two-part plan. It used two spacecraft — which included a ship that would orbit the moon, the “Command Module” (that was everyone’s ride back home to Earth) and another ship that actually landed on the moon, the “Lunar Excursion Module”, the “LEM”. After the astronauts were done exploring the Moon, they would use the LEM (or the top part of it actually) to take off from the Moon, and dock with the Command Module that was orbiting the Moon. With everyone in the Command Module, the LEM was left behind and the astronauts headed home for a splashdown reentry.

Houbolt was possessed by his narrative, but many superiors were strongly opposed and it was ugly for him. But he talked, and kept talking about it. He would not shut up. He wrote a memo. Nine pages long. Single spaced. It began with what was a pretty unusual sentence for a government memo in the 1960s:

“Somewhat as a voice in the wilderness, I would like to pass on a few thoughts on matters that have been of deep concern to me.”

Quite an opening line. But it turned out that Houbolt was right:

“While some aspects of Houbolt’s initial estimates were off (such as a 10,000 pound Apollo Lunar Module which was ultimately 32,399 lb (14,696 kg)), his LOR package proved to be feasible with a single Saturn V rocket whereas other modes would have required two or more such rocket launches (or larger rockets than were then available) to lift enough mass into space to complete the mission.”

Here is a pic of Houbolt telling his story.

It would turn out to be a blessing in disguise for one mission, Apollo 13. If you have seen the movie version or read the account of that mission, you would know the astronauts would use their “LEM”, their lunar lander, as a lifeboat. When things went very wrong in the Command Module they still made it back home. Houbolt’s contribution to the world’s truths included both success and survival.

Let’s return to the 21st century.

It’s been over a century after “LOR” was suggested for sending man to the moon, and over half a century since Houbolt’s brave story-telling. This kind of thing is going on every day, and I have been privileged to read and be inspired by today’s stories. They have been shared by those brave and generous enough to share — and we all benefit from what has been created because of them.

At the moment one of the most exciting and scariest stories is about what happens to mankind in the face of artificial intelligence. There is a lot of angst right now about A.I. and what happens to humanity but it reminded me of this quote, attributed to Bill Gates:

“We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

I have a story of A.I. that might be unpopular but it might also turn out to be helpful too. It might be like Houbolt’s take on how to go to the moon. Read on and maybe you’ll feel less angst and more excitement.

I saw a post, entitled “AI/ML Is Not Uniquely Powerful Enough To Need Controlling”, from Rodney Brooks’ blog, “Robots, AI and other stuff”.

Here’s his bio (Professor Emeritus, M.I.T., etc.,etc.) The post began with:

“When humans next land on the Moon it will be with the help of many, many, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning systems.

“Last time we got to the Moon and back without AI or ML.”

How appropriate. (I was thinking about the moon AND A.I. What are the odds?) Brooks follows up his moon mission prediction with this message:

“Some AI/ML researchers are making a bug fuss about how their work needs to be regulated as it is uniquely powerful. I disagree that it is uniquely powerful. Current day AI and ML is nothing like the intelligence or learning possessed by biological systems. They are both very narrow slices of the whole system. They are not particularly powerful.”

He then cited his October 2017 piece in the MIT Technology Review, “The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Prediction”. This is a bedtime story to help humans stop being afraid of the monster underneath the bed: the future of employment with the rise of A.I.

Here is how he began to shoo away the monster with this lead:

“I recently saw a story in ­MarketWatch that said robots will take half of today’s jobs in 10 to 20 years. It even had a graphic to prove the numbers.

“The claims are ludicrous. (I try to maintain professional language, but sometimes …)”

“How many robots are currently operational in those jobs? Zero.”

“How many realistic demonstrations have there been of robots working in this arena? Zero.”

“Similar stories apply to all the other categories where it is suggested that we will see the end of more than 90 percent of jobs that currently require physical presence at some particular site.”

This piece had a checklist of “Seven Deadly Sins” which was great.

Sin №1, quoting Roy Amara, founder of the Institute For The Future, echoes Bill Gates’ quote:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Sin №2, is “Imagining Magic”. But the truth about even A.I.:

“Nothing in the universe is without limit.”

Sin №3, is “Performance vs. competence”:

“Today’s robots and AI systems are incredibly narrow in what they can do. Human-style generalizations do not apply.”

Sin №4, is “Suitcase words”:

“Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings “suitcase words.” “Learning” is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience…

“When people hear that machine learning is making great strides in some new domain, they tend to use as a mental model the way in which a person would learn that new domain.

“However, machine learning is very brittle, and it requires lots of preparation by human researchers or engineers, special-purpose coding, special-purpose sets of training data, and a custom learning structure for each new problem domain.”

Sin №5 is “exponentials”:

“…we have seen a sudden increase in performance of AI systems thanks to the success of deep learning. Many people seem to think that means we will continue to see AI performance increase by equal multiples on a regular basis. But the deep-learning success was 30 years in the making, and it was an isolated event.

“That does not mean there will not be more isolated events, where work from the backwaters of AI research suddenly fuels a rapid-step increase in the performance of many AI applications.

“But there is no “law” that says how often they will happen.”

Sin №6 is “Hollywood Scenarios”:

“many AI researchers and AI pundits, especially those pessimists who indulge in predictions about AI getting out of control and killing people, are similarly imagination-challenged. They ignore the fact that if we are able to eventually build such smart devices, the world will have changed significantly by then.”

Last one, Sin №7 is “Speed of Deployment” (and it’s my favorite one):

“I regularly see decades-old equipment in factories around the world. I even see PCs running Windows 3.0 — a software version released in 1990. The thinking is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“The principal control mechanism in factories, including brand-new ones in the U.S., Europe, Japan, Korea, and China, is based on programmable logic controllers, or PLCs. These were introduced in 1968 to replace electromechanical relays. The “coil” is still the principal abstraction unit used today, and PLCs are programmed as though they were a network of 24-volt electromechanical relays. Still. Some of the direct wires have been replaced by Ethernet cables. But they are not part of an open network.”

“Tesla Motors is trying to hire PLC technicians at its factory in Fremont, California. They will use electromagnetic relay emulation in the production of the most AI-enhanced automobile that exists.”

“A lot of AI researchers and pundits imagine that the world is already digital, and that simply introducing new AI systems will immediately trickle down to operational changes in the field, in the supply chain, on the factory floor, in the design of products.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth.”

I think Brooks is right and the “A.I. Story” in summary is:

Yes, we’ll go back to the moon with A.I. tagging along — but not as our overlords. A.I. becomes a part of working but it does not end work itself. Our stories will continue to reshape and redraw the world’s truths. The best tales, as always, will resonate with both success and survival. Let the machines learn to listen and follow along, while humans continue to tell stories and lead the way to the stars.

More on The Big Stack: The Intersection Between History, Trends & Tech

Originally published at big-stack.com on December 23, 2017.