The Mars Test.
In light of the recent plans by SpaceX for Mars colonisation, I’d like to explain the ‘Mars Test’, a thought experiment our students like to use when they’re trying to figure out what to work on.
Here’s a short video explainer:
Humans will be an interplanetary species within our lifetime.
That means having a functioning civilisation, which means figuring out basic systems, Mars style: Law, education, healthcare, money, politics, everything!
When we go, will we take the systems and processes we have here on Earth and put them on a rocket ship, or will we build new systems for a Martian environment?
Two things to think about:
- Putting things onto space ships;
- Opportunities to leapfrog debt.
First, putting stuff on spaceships:
Things are heavy, and heavy things are expensive to put in space, right? The stuff, systems and processes we take to Mars have to be lightweight.
Take money for example. Earth banks are systematically inefficient. We use lots of people to manage them because money is important, and we have physical bank notes so everyone can access money.
We physically can’t take inefficient systems to Mars. They’re just too big.
Let’s do some lazy math:
If you take twelve people to Mars, each weighing say 80 kilograms each, that’s literally a tonne of people.
Now the SpaceX guess on dollars-per-tonne right now is something like 100–200 thousand US dollars. That’s not including food and whatnot for those people.
You can see it gets expensive quickly to take heavy systems to Mars, even if those systems are embedded in people’s brains.
It makes physical sense that a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin will be used on Mars for managing wealth — Mars bucks or whatever — because cryptocurrency is code you can put on a computer, and code weighs less than bricks and mortar and people.
It also means we don’t have to build a mint on Mars and print money.
What about healthcare, law, education and the rest?
We’re not going to grab the bricks from your local university and drag them onto a space ship and build some lecture theatre on Mars, right?
We’re more likely to have a lightweight system where you get humans to learn stuff from computers using immersive VR. Maybe they’ll work together in a community of practice for the human interaction bit? Who knows!
This is why we are constantly asking ourselves,
“Will the thing we’re doing now work on Mars? If it can’t, does it lead towards a system that might?”
Because if the current Mars habitation timeframes are anywhere near true, we have no time at all to build, test and scale up the education system that will work on Mars.
And it has to fit on a rocket ship!
2) We have an opportunity to leapfrog debt.
Going to Mars doesn’t mean leaving Earth behind. In fact, we might be able to drop some technical debt along the way.
Quick technical debt definition:
When you build a system, you built it using the best tech you have at the time, right? And ‘tech’ means any system humans invent to do stuff smarter.
At some point, someone said, “Hey fax machines are faster than the postal service, so we’ll make everyone use faxes!” It made a lot of sense!
Naturally, it takes a while to get everyone using faxes, so you come up with standards, and people all get used to that standard.
Before you know it something that’s smarter and faster than faxes come along, and some new company is using email instead and you’re all like “Oh man those new kids on the block are so efficient”.
You look at your fax machines and say “Wow, we paid lots of money for these fax machines, throwing them all away now is going to suck.”
The fax machines in this story is the technical debt.
If you think about the bank thing again, you’ll see heaps of technical debt — not just the physical tech, but also all the people trained up to manage the technology.
The cool thing about building any new system is that you have the chance to try out a bunch of new ideas, see if they work, and then take the good stuff and pass it on to the folks still using the fax machines.
Think about what’s happening with money and telecommunications in parts of Africa and Asia — Cambodia for example has a 4g system that’s sometimes faster than the ADSL connection we use in the Fitzroy Academy studio! They leapfrogged a decade of development when they jumped to 3g back in 2008.
Folks in sub-saharan Africa move money around using a mobile phone-based system. They’re leap-frogging paper money.
Bulky systems with technical, cultural and process debt won’t make it to Mars.
And that might be a good thing…
It all sounds a bit science fiction, but with tech and society moving as fast as it is, this actually becomes a pretty pragmatic concern.
We are right on the cusp of a once in a lifetime — once in a civilisation — experience.
Going interplanetary could be an opportunity to reinvent things for the better, for everyone, on whatever planet we end up living on together.
If that doesn’t convince you, watch this. It’s an incredible answer: