Nasa astronaut Dan Barry makes a strong case for human power in a world where our transportation needs look increasing likely to be in the hands of artificially intelligent (AI) self-driving vehicles.

Speaking at the SingularityU summit in Christchurch, Barry captured the strong sense of optimism that is a common thread among the futurists and technology leaders at the event.

Barry is an engineer, scientist, and a retired NASA astronaut, wanted to go to space all his life and applied 14 times to NASA before they accepted him into the space programme.

"If you have a good idea and everyone tells you it's a good idea then it's probably just an ok idea," he told the 1300 audience at the Horncastle Arena.


"You don't need to worry about someone stealing a really good idea. If you have a great idea, and idea that's really going to change the world, expect everyone to tell you you're nuts. You're going to have to ram it down their throats."

Eventually Barry was accepted as an astronaut and flew three space missions - STS-72 (1996), STS-96 (1999) and STS-105 (2001) -Barry logged over 734 hours in space, including 4 spacewalks totaling 25 hours and 53 minutes.

He retired from NASA in 2005 and started his own company, Denbar Robotics that creates robotic assistants and devices for people with disabilities. In 2011 he co-founded Fellow Robots, a company that sells custom robots.

Barry described a future for aviation where drones offer personalised private flying cars and commercial aviation is entirely the preserve of AI pilots.

But he put up a strong case for human piloting skills in crisis situations.

Drawing on the example of US Flight 1549's Captain Chesley Sullenberger who successfully landed his plane on the Hudson River in New York after a bird strike, he argued that it was the human skills and intuition about the greater dangers of a crashing in a built up urban area that led to the right calls being made.

AI doesn't have all those skills yet, he said.

"I'm not sure I want to turn over to AI the decision about whose lives are more valuable."
But how long humans would have the edge was an open question.

Not every plane had a "Captain Sully" in the cockpit, he said.

"So do we need people in the cockpit? Yes. But in 5 to10 years maybe not."