I was on holiday the day NASA lit up the engine on its Juno spacecraft and got it into orbit around Jupiter. I watched live feeds on the internet, and read minute-by-minute accounts of the proceedings from Mission Control. Call me a geek, but there’s something that makes me feel all tingly inside to think that something could be shot into space and travel for five years across almost two billion kilometres of emptiness to rendezvous almost to the second with its intended target, when I’ve still got the scratches on my car from miscalculating the size of a parking space.
Sometime this month Juno will start sending back the data it’s going to collect for the next couple of years, and we’ll gain an insight into how the planet was formed. In turn, we’ll learn something of the early life of the solar system and, by extension, ourselves. I think that’s pretty awesome.
At about the same time as Juno was approaching Jupiter, I finally got around to watching the TV series Vikings. In its early episodes Ragnar Lothbrok has been shown a way to reliably navigate to the west and back again. He duly builds a ship and mounts a raid to Northumbria, returning safely with loot and stories of much more there to be had. I think that’s pretty awesome, too, and a potentially great story is off and running (we’ll see how it goes).
Not everyone on holiday with me was equally enamoured of either Juno or Vikings. The general question seemed to be, “What’s the point?” Well, there’s the simple idea that in both cases it was simply “what’s next?” The entire history of mankind is basically an ongoing story about pushing the boundaries. I’m reminded of a line from the US television drama series, The West Wing:
“’Cause it’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west and we took to the sky. The history of mankind is hung on a timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next.”
Look around you now – almost everything within reach is the result of a process of continual improvement, of seeking new and better ways of doing things. That’s kind of how I’ve started to think about robo-advice, or as the head of the FPA called it the other day “automated product selection tools”. That’s what they are, sure, but not what they will become. Robo-advice today is to robo-advice in years to come as a bottle rocket is to Juno.
All advances have their detractors and opponents. Lothbrok’s chieftain forbade him to sail west. He sailed west anyway and the rest is – literally – history. NASA overcame technical hurdle after technical hurdle, put a man on the moon, visited Mars and left the solar system, and weathered the opprobrium of those who said it was spending too much money. In recent years its discoveries have made the human spirit soar.
One day robo-advice will be everything its proponents say it will be, and a lot more besides. It’s not to be feared or opposed; it should be embraced for the good it can do. It’s what’s next.