Humans vs. Robots
Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.
- AirSpaceMag.com, June 27, 2008
NASA / WALL-E image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures /Pixar
The question of how best to explore space—with astronauts or robots—has never been settled, and is rarely even debated in a rigorous way. Each camp has passionate advocates and well-worn arguments. NASA, for its part, takes a neutral stance (“We need both!”), hoping that the controversy will go away.
In their new book Robots in Space, Roger Launius of the National Air and Space Museum and Howard McCurdy of American University breathe new life into the subject by examining its history as well as its possible future. They call for a new vision of human spaceflight—a “transhuman” program that takes into account current trends in robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and other fields that are rapidly changing the nature of both humans and machines.
The question of “humans or robots” may soon have to be settled: Astronauts and Mars rovers do, in fact, compete for scarce federal funds. One of the current U.S. presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama, has said he would consider shifting the balance between human and robotic exploration, while Republican John McCain has expressed support for NASA’s current plans to build a moonbase and send astronauts on to Mars. Before making any decisions, both candidates would do well to read this book. Launius and McCurdy recently sat down with Air & Space Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt to talk over some of their ideas.
A&S: Let’s start with what I think is an especially provocative quote from your book: “The dominant vision of space exploration, in which humans with the assistance of machine servants complete heroic journeys into the cosmos, is already outmoded. It may persist for a few more years, but it is technologically and culturally archaic.” What do you mean by that?
Launius: We mean that something happened that no one predicted at the beginning of the Space Age. Our technological capabilities in some areas far outstripped our capabilities in other areas—we were able to build robots that are massively more sophisticated than what we dreamt of in the 1950s. Humans have not had a similar increase in capacity, which is why [the current approach] is really outmoded. The vision as it is currently promulgated may persist for a few more years, but I believe that in the not-too-distant future, within 20 or 25 years at the latest, we’ll have to come to grips with this new reality.
McCurdy: If you go back and look at the [old] cultural concept of a robot, both in science fiction and popular science, it’s basically a vision of the robot as servant. The ultimate example is the robot that cleans your house or your swimming pool. In a way, it was the substitute for servants that began to disappear after the Edwardian era, when people who would have been servants got educated and didn’t want to do that work anymore. So how do we replace the cook? The answer is, you build a machine that does that work. Now that’s all changing, because the capacity of machines is quickly coming to a stage where that relationship is no longer viable. What we ultimately want to do in space—particularly beyond our own solar system—can’t be done with robots of the conventional mode. It can’t be done with robots as servants. It has to be done with robots that are as smart as human beings.
Launius: Or smarter.
A&S: Because of the distances?
McCurdy: Because of the distances that are involved. There was a wonderful television show we mention in the book called “Alien Planet,” which ran a year or two ago. Humans send a robotic probe to a nearby star, which has a habitable planet. When the probe gets there, it dispatches three smaller craft that are supposed to land and explore. The first one blows up on entry. So the other two have to conduct their own investigation to find out what went wrong with the first one to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That kind of problem-solving capacity has so far been restricted to human beings, but we’re going to need machines that have that capability. There’s a flip side to it: If humans go, they’ll need the endurance of machines. They’re going to have to be able to resist radiation to the same degree that machines do.
A&S: One of the points you make in the book is that if we just keep following the same script that Wernher von Braun and others laid out beginning in the 1950s—first Earth orbit, then the moon, then Mars—it’s essentially a dead end at Mars.
McCurdy: It doesn’t go beyond Mars. Even if you could terraform Mars into a new Earth over 1,000 years, maybe the dreams of some space pioneers will come true and it becomes a place that humans could live. And that would be fascinating—I’m certainly in favor of a multi-planet species. But it stops there. The outer solar system is not going to be very conducive to human exploration. That will largely be done by machines. If humans are going to go anyplace else, it’s going to be outside of the solar system. And that raises the question, “Well, how do you do that?”
A&S: Let me throw out a couple of the conventional arguments for sending humans into space. One is that “it’s in our DNA,” or maybe just in American culture, to “conquer frontiers.”
Launius: First off, I reject the premise. That’s not what defines America, and it’s also not a very attractive feature in many respects—displacing peoples who were subjugated in a brutal way in some instances, and pillaging the land and extracting from it all of the resources without any thought about the future. That’s not a very attractive metaphor for an expansion beyond this planet, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve heard lots of NASA folks say, “It’s in human nature to want to explore, to climb the mountain and cross the river and do all those sorts of things.” That’s one instance of exploration, but only one instance. One might suggest that the truest exploration you’ll ever undertake is an exploration of your own self-awareness, which might not involve physical movement anywhere. So, even if you think that exploration is somehow in our genes, it takes a variety of forms.
As a historian, I tend to look at these things with a long view. And if you look at American expansion and exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not because we were just seeking to explore. It was because we were in search of resources, in search of wealth. That seems to be one of the true problems with spaceflight thus far. We have not found those economic gains in space. We didn’t find anything when we landed on the moon that made us want to go back. Had we found it, we would have been going back over and over again. And that’s why it’s been such a tough sell since 1972.