Capital Contributions | Artificial intelligence and the intelligent space investor

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This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has always been a science ahead of its time. From Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, computers that can replace humans have been just around the corner for nearly 50 years. However, the technology has nearly caught up to the science fiction and investors have taken note. AI was one of the largest sectors for venture capital investment in 2016 and the pace of investment is accelerating with over $5 billion of capital committed to over 650 deals in 2016 alone.

Opportunities in space 

AI traditionally has two main investment theses, both of which are applicable to the space sector. The first is autonomous or semi-autonomous activities, such as operating machinery or equipment. This is classic robotics leveraging artificial intelligence and the ability to learn.

Obviously in an environment as harsh as space, these capabilities could be hugely valuable to space missions. The second investment thesis has to do with so called “deep” or “machine” learning. This is essentially the capability to take large data sets, structure them for relevance, mine them for insights and ultimately create predictive capabilities.

As I have previously written about in Capital Contributions, the space “mega-set” that is the collection of ubiquitous, persistent hyperspectral information could be a multi-trillion-dollar opportunity assuming AI and machine learning are properly leveraged.

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Several platforms are emerging that are based largely on machine learning and AI capabilities. These include those offered by firms such as Orbital Insights, EagleView (recent acquirer of OmniEarth), Planet and Cape Analytics. Investors can expect a healthy number of new start-ups leveraging AI, additional consolidation to take advantage of original integration of additional data, as well as additional scale economies. It is also possible that larger data-savvy companies such as Facebook, IBM or Amazon could directly enter the sector as they see the vast opportunity space-based data represents.

In addition to data and analytics, AI can play an increasingly large role in space missions themselves. Both Moon Express and Astrobotics leverage AI capabilities in their moon-based vehicles. Additionally, pitch books are circulating for start-ups contemplating Avatar-like capabilities for space-based repair work completed by Earth-stationed humans. In high-latency environments this becomes less practical and semi or full autonomous AI will need to be utilized. Regardless, the more autonomous robotics become due to AI capabilities, more types of missions will become practical.

On the horizon

If the pace of change within AI continues at its current rate, there will likely be employment disruption within the broader aerospace industry itself. Even design and engineering work could come into play. This could fundamentally impact the economics of the space industry as well as impact the largely jobs-based and cost-plus politics that the space sector has traditionally been based upon.

However, regardless of how disrupted aerospace becomes as a sector due to more advanced AI, the technical capabilities of the technology should put missions and projects in play that to date have only been contemplated in science fiction. This future should continue to create many new opportunities for investors.

Dylan Taylor is a leading Angel investor in NewSpace companies, including OmniEarth, Planet, and World View.