As we contemplate setting up permanent installations on the Moon and then Mars, one of the big problems is allowing the folks working in those extremely remote locations to stay connected to loved ones. The technologies that are used to keep these very remote workers connected will need to deal with the latency that comes with technologies like this, very limited bandwidth (no one is pulling fiber to the Moon or Mars) and the need for very high-quality video and voice capability.
In addition, the solution that is eventually chosen will have to develop new technologies and capabilities to deal with these problems in addition to hardening the solution for both the journey and for use in what will be a uniquely hostile environment. Cisco’s Webex got the nod for this effort and will be part of the Callisto Technology Demonstration which will be focused on other advanced technologies designed to keep this future group of space travelers emotionally healthy and productive.
Let’s talk about Webex in space this week.
The problem with interplanetary communication
We do not travel between planets yet, so we haven’t needed to develop technologies that will keep humans in those remote locations connected. Other trips to the Moon and the International Space Station have identified unique problems that communications platforms will have to address as we move into outer space.
Some of these problems, like latency, that we experienced in the early days of international phone calls were delays that created annoying problems like one caller getting frustrated with the lag and speaking over the other. This is exacerbated when you add video because dropped frames and packets can reduce the quality of that video to a point where it is more annoying than helpful, making it something that is far too annoying to use regularly.
But like in a submarine on patrol, space travelers and workers on Mars will be isolated for long periods of time, perhaps for the remainder of their lifetimes and—if they don’t have diverse outside contact—are likely to become depressed or mentally unstable because of this partial isolation. One or two people might staff remote outposts for years, leading to performance problems, loneliness and depression, and behavioral issues that could put the mission at risk.
What is needed is a solution that can work inside this extra-planetary effort to mitigate the issues surrounding isolation for longer than any other human in history to date. It is common with remote scientific teams for members to not mesh with the rest of the team and begin to exhibit behavioral anomalies, forcing them to be sent home. This becomes incredibly problematic for Moon inhabitants and even more so on Mars given there is no return contemplated for the first group to be sent there.
As a result, a virtual solution that provides a way to get these expedition members at least a temporary way out becomes critical to mission success.
Webex to the rescue
To address these unique problems and needs, the Webex team has stepped up to modify Webex for this opportunity. This unique solution must be able to address the isolation problem inherent in space travel, mitigate the latency and quality issues of extraplanetary communications, and be able to operate so reliably that replacement never becomes an issue. Returning a defective product from Mars and getting a replacement will not be just problematic, it may be impossible. To address the performance issues, the Webex team is building in AI to bridge lost packets to ensure noise-free video and to modify the audio buffers to keep latency to an absolute minimum. Until and unless we can get Quantum Entanglement to work with communications, some latency will always be a problem but at least the quality, bandwidth and performance of the call can be dramatically improved.
I expect, at least for the short term, that along with this WebEx solution, there will be communications practices like using the word “over” that will be critical in addressing the latency issue. I can even imagine using a modified version of Deep Faces to create an AI-driven avatar that could allow conversations to occur asynchronously. I expect this will come with an AI-driven companion capability so that these remote folks have a companion they can trust that is always with them. Think of this like Cortana is in the video game Halo.
We need to go into space but assure the mental health of those that we send to these very remote locations. These people will not be able to return home easily if at all, will not be able to get physical help quickly, and will be facing a variety of health and mental issues tied to the remoteness of their mission. We’ll need to find a way to connect these people reliably, quickly and securely with an experience like teleportation. It is interesting to note that at CES this week La Vitre and Portl both showcased a large screen video conferencing solution that might best address a wide variety of these needs.
The advancements created for these extremely remote use cases will, like many of the technologies created for the earlier Mercury and Apollo programs, also have benefits for planetary use and will cross-pollinate with the video conferencing learnings out of the pandemic.
This is all part of our move to interstellar travel and should eventually revolutionize how we interact both on and off the planet. Though, I must admit, I am looking forward to the first tech support call. I expect there will be a significant pause after the caller says they are extraplanetary. The solution will need some augmented and virtual reality elements to best deal with the variety of communications needs likely to result from a remote workspace.