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Ainissa Ramirez, author of Alchemy of Us, and the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Photo: YouTube
Ainissa Ramirez, author of Alchemy of Us, and the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Photo: WSHU

Elon Musk is going to privatize space and we should be concerned

Scientist Ainissa Ramirez's The Alchemy of us, a book about the past and future of inventions and their inventors that makes us question their social impact.

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May 27th, 2022

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Last Saturday, we watched with anticipation as Elon Musk achieved what he has been announcing for years. His company, SpaceX, has put two astronauts in orbit, which means the United States will likely stop depending on Russia's Soyuz for travel, above all, is a step closer to the colonization of Mars. By private companies that is. But has anyone thought about the ethical implications?

Materials science and engineering expert Ainissa Ramirez keeps asking herself questions. Questioning the impact of an invention, she says, should be part of a scientist's responsibility and does so in her latest book, The Alchemy of us, where she connects the past and future of innovations and invites us to bridge the gap between us and those supposed "great geniuses" whose mistakes led to great advances. 

"Many people don't feel connected to science at all, and that's what the book aims to do, to create a connection between science and society to look at the past and prepare for what happens in the future," said Ainissa. 

But sometimes the ethics of these innovations were overshadowed or had fatal consequences on which Ramírez sheds light. 

"There are stories like Polaroid, which created instant photography in the 1960s and 1970s and continues to delight photography fans today, but whose invention was used as a tool of oppression in South Africa," she explained, warning that in an age where people are more interested in myths than facts, it is necessary to "create new myths" from the past so that they feel they can "create, innovate and ask questions about AI or driverless cars" and what consequences could result, for example, from using an algorithm that marks a certain route for their passenger. 

"Most great inventions have come through trial and error and when we look at the lives of the inventors we see that they were not so different from us," Ramirez added.

VERY useful accidents

Just to name a few, the story of Edison, who inspired the beginning of this book, and another inventor who was eclipsed by history: William Wallace.  

"When we think of the light bulb and Edison and how he was inspired to create it, many are unaware of the existence of William Wallace. Edison visited Wallace in Connecticut because Wallace had created a very bright electric light - before there were only candles or the gas lamp - and when Edison saw the invention, he told Wallace "I think I can beat you." He went back to Menlo Park and created the light bulb. So William Wallace was also a catalyst for the invention," he says. 

Other times these inventions have served to reconfigure society and create bonds, although the purposes were not so noble.

Can we trust businessmen like Musk, who climbed certain watchtowers of invincibility and even left the same group he founded to defend ethics in AI?

"Steel is one of the great inventions that has made our world what it is, and thanks to it, a railway was created-it was once made of wood and iron and soon had to be changed-and a circulation system that connected society. But the purpose was to encourage people to consume, especially at Christmas; the industrialists needed to sell the excess production that the Industrial Revolution had brought about," said Ramírez, highlighting the experience of one of the inventors of steel, Henry Bessemer, a British industrialist who in the midst of the war needed money to buy munitions, but only discovered steel when the war was over, so it became the material from which railway tracks were made. 

"It was by accident. Again, what we see is a pinball kind of approach and that Bessemer didn't know anything about steel when he started investigating and that didn't stop him," she concluded. 
What social and political drift could there be in leaving the exploration of Mars in the hands of private companies?

Are we co-responsible for extracting resources from other planets or from the moon itself? Can we trust businessmen like Musk, who climbed certain watchtowers of invincibility and even left the same group he founded to defend ethics in AI? Science, technology and alleged advances are not alien to the public, and books like The Alchemy of us urge us to exercise our right to ask the same questions as visionaries and scientists and exercise their duty to give us answers.

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