The Evolving Landscape of Space Exploration: Navigating Ethical Dilemmas and the Role of AI

Technology can create and enable access to new spaces, leading to new ethical dilemmas. Outer space being a particularly significant and dramatic physical frontier in this respect. Patrick Lin, a Philosophy Professor and Director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, was our invited speaker on November 30th, 2023. Those who attended the IEAI event at the TUM Think Tank were privileged to see him deliver an engaging presentation on How Technology Unlocks Frontiers and Ethical Dilemmas: The Case of Outer Space.

From outer space, we can observe the Earth in novel ways and gain new insights.

Professor Lin stated that people might not realize it, but they benefit from technology in outer space daily. Satellites monitor people’s positions or guide them from point A to B, aid in financial transactions, contribute to weather forecasts and enable new forms of communication. He added that Earth observation helps in landscape analysis in order to see how we can better manage the land and farms to improve crop yields or to monitor natural disasters, detect wildfires, observe animal migration patterns and address other environmental issues. Additionally, technology based in outer space is used to monitor military troop movements. This is exactly what makes space a strategic domain.

He presented an interesting diagram showcasing the amplification of human activity in space in recent years, highlighting the large number of objects that are being launched into space annually. This is raising new questions, such as what to do with space congestion. The use of AI technology has only accelerated this trend, enabling new capabilities across domains. Prof. Lin also emphasized that a significant number of satellites orbiting Earth are now owned by private individuals or companies, creating new governance dynamics.

Outer space was a playground for countries and nations, now it is a playground for individuals.

Relatedly, he pointed out that space governance, particularly law, has very troubling gaps, leading to ethical challenges associated with the use of “new” technologies, such as AI.

There is nothing in space law that prevents us from setting up camp right next to the other.
Even right on top of each other.
That is an inherently dangerous situation,
especially when you talk about adversarial states or competitor states.

According to Prof. Lin, bioethics, ineffective space governance and potential for armed conflicts are some of the areas of ethical concern and there are new risks emerging from the use of technologies in outer space.

I think space cyber attacks are going to be the main mode of conflict in outer space.

In his presentation, Professor Lin highlighted primary reasons for cyber conflicts or electronic warfare in space. Firstly, the inherent remoteness of space creates challenges. Secondly, the complexity of space systems amplifies vulnerabilities. Thirdly, our guest pointed out that there are significant gaps in space law with regards to this issue, emphasizing the “silence” on matters such as whether a space cyber attack qualifies as interference. In the discussion that followed the 40-minute presentation, topics such as the dangers of space debris and the role of industry in space exploration and what this means for accountability and democracy were touched upon.

We extend our appreciation to Prof. Lin for sharing his valuable insights during the talk and for actively engaging with the IEAI community on this crucial and highly relevant issue. Additionally, we would like to thank all our event registrants for their participation. The recording of the event can be found here.