‘Passengers’ provides a parable about ethics of tech and risks of space travel

‘Passengers’ provides a parable about ethics of tech and risks of space travel

It’s about time for Richard Branson and Elon Musk to report to their nearest movie theatre and take in one of the latest movies out of Hollywood “Passengers”.

When looking at the plot of this movie it’s not possible to do so without considering how humanity has become more reliant than ever on technology, how society is becoming ever more interested in commercial space travel, and the challenges ahead of the billionaires looking to develop and advance the space race of the modern era.

Passengers features two space travellers, portrayed by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, on board an intergalactic ship alongside some 5,000 other passengers. The movie could be a genre unto itself as a sci-fi-rom-com.

The movie takes place against the backdrop of a commercial space industry giving people the chance to hop to another planet as if it was as simple as just heading on a cruise or a flight. This is the future that many people are anticipating could be ahead of us and Passengers does a great job at looking at this potential future.

Given all the money that is currently being invested in space exploration, with over $120 billion invested in commercial space travel during 2015, the movie could leave people interested in taking such a journey with second thoughts.

Passengers challenges the idea that commercial space flight is giving everyone access to space travel to improve the Earth as a whole with the use of massive failures and technological problems. As it does this Passengers works with a number of themes that one could almost consider allegorical.

At the very least it functions as a cautionary tale the emerging space travel industry should pay heed to. Technology is found at the very heart of the plot; how technology and the trust of those who design it can really let people down when it’s needed the most. As the technology fails it also causes moral quandaries.

According to travel expert and CEO of Cariloha Jeff Pedersen, “The circumstances the passengers in ‘Passengers’ face showcase how automation may have its advantages, but it can also cause us to make decisions that will one day come back to haunt us even though they don’t seem so bad at the time. Automation sounds great at first but when you consider the long-term effects it suddenly loses its lustre. What would happen if there was no human around when an automated system failed? Would you trust an airplane that was flown entirely by autopilot? What if it breaks? Those are the kind of questions that Passengers makes you think about.”

Jon Spaihts, screenwriter of Passengers, Prometheus, and Doctor Strange explained that the movie shows a parable about the insufficiency of things. He said that while the technology of the modern age has made people comfortable, it’s not managed to fill every need that humans have. It just isn’t sufficient, and it may never be.


Passengers uses the expanse of space as a metaphor for human alienation, with human loneliness the key behind the controversial plot twist that moves the story into its final act and ultimate conclusion.

Spaihts talked to CNBC about how the movie was conceptualized as a love story that involved a story about survival and the moral quandaries of it.

Mr. Spaihts describes the spaceship in Passengers as a colonial enterprise that was underwritten by big corporations. Essentially it’s what you can expect from Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. These companies may be offering us fantastic options but there is a price attached to it. There are strings attached to these dreams.

Spaihts did say that the fear of artificial intelligence should be allayed by one of the bright spots of the movie. He also says that the movie shows that, as far as the question of humans versus machines go, there isn’t really such a thing as AI.

Artificial intelligence is nothing more than human intelligence inside of a machine rather than a human body. Spaihts points out that the characters in the movie ultimately need to rely on their human ingenuity to get out of their predicament even though there is a lot of automation around them.

Machines will only have as much intelligence as humans give them. There is something about humans that is so fundamental that it could never be replaced by a machine. So there’s no real need to worry too much about machines. Whether or not you need to worry about commercial space travel is something only the future can really tell. For now Passengers gives us a glimpse at a possible future.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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