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
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Launius: We’ve attached all these hopes and dreams to Mars from the very beginning. And we’ve modified those hopes and dreams, but not all that much. We’re still talking about Mars as a place where we can live, and we still think we’re going to find evidence of life there. We have these preconceptions about Mars that go back more than a century, to the canals and all the stuff that Percival Lowell talked about. When I was kid in the ’60s, my science book said almost as a certainty that there had to be life forms on Mars. Then Mariner 4 went there, and sent back pictures of craters. And it wasn’t that we abandoned our hope of finding anything intriguing. We just said, “Well, okay, we’re looking in the wrong place.” So the Viking landers were designed to look for signs of biological life. They found nothing. And, again, we didn’t abandon the idea altogether.
McCurdy: We just didn’t dig deep enough.
Launius: Didn’t dig deep enough. So now we’ll look for evidence of past life. Leon Festinger’s book, When Prophecy Fails, is about a millennial group whose prophet predicted the end of the world. Well, the date came and went, and nothing changed. Logic would suggest that maybe these people would realize this is all nonsense and leave. No, they didn’t! Not at all! They simply modified their beliefs slightly. You know, maybe they got the date wrong, or maybe the world did end and they just didn’t realize it. Any number of explanations. But they didn’t abandon their idea. And that’s what we’ve seen with Mars over and over again.
McCurdy: The idea of extraterrestrial life is very compelling on all levels, from intelligent life down to the microbial level. We would really like to know whether we’re absolutely alone. We’d like to know the answer to the question of whether or not Earths are rare. And then there’s the whole flying saucer thing, which has mystical and religious connotations that somehow there are greater powers more technologically advanced than we are. So at all levels, it is one of the most powerful social factors supporting the space program. Some of it’s pretty outmoded. But, like Roger says, if it’s outmoded, all you have to do is to change it slightly.
A&S: Let’s talk about a recent case where NASA compared the capabilities of humans versus robots in space—the question of how the Hubble Space Telescope could be repaired without jeopardizing the lives of astronauts. They asked a National Academy of Sciences panel whether robots could do the repair. And the answer basically came back, “no.”
McCurdy: We looked at the capabilities of humans and robots on a number of levels—distance traveled by rovers versus humans, and things like that. At the present time, humans are more efficient as explorers than robots. But, the gap was enormous 50 years ago, and it has closed considerably. If you just plot the trend lines another 30 years or so...
Launius: Robots are going to surpass humans...
McCurdy: ...it may turn out that robots have greater capabilities than human beings. But, right now, today—and the Hubble repair is very interesting because it’s one of the few missions where robots and humans go head to head—the robots are riskier, and just as expensive, if not more so.
Launius: This is kind of the bottom line in the book. Humans have great capability for problem solving and creativity. And when they’re faced with something that’s out of the ordinary, that they haven’t trained for or plotted out in detail, they can often figure out a way to solve the problem. That’s not true with most robots. Yet that may change. If [futurists] like Ray Kurzweil are correct, it’s going to change soon. But we’re not there yet.
On the other hand, humans are enormously fragile, and the space environment is instant death to us, while robots are quite hardy and becoming more so all the time. How do you combine the best elements of both? This is where we get into the cyborg stuff, the transhuman story. Maybe the best of both worlds is a merger of humans and machines to be creative and insightful as well as hardy and robust.
I was talking to a flight surgeon at a conference recently, who was dissing the moon program that NASA’s got under way. He was talking specifically about the radiation hazard that exists on the lunar surface. Obviously, you can build bunkers and have people live underground. We understand how to do that. But it’s not easy to do in a place like the moon. And he says, “The guys you see wandering around on the lunar surface in spacesuits? That’s not going to happen! We can’t allow them to do that, because they’re going to be toast.” So NASA’s now trying to build radiation-hardened rovers so the astronauts can drive someplace and send smaller machines outside to do work for them. And the flight surgeon says, “Well, why don’t we just go the next step, and have them drive the machines from their offices at the Johnson Space Center?”
A&S: To which the answer is...
Launius: That they don’t want to hear that!
McCurdy: Maybe for the first 50 years of spaceflight, there was a dichotomy between humans and robots. But the more things we want to do in space, the less of a dichotomy there is, and the more the two sides tend to merge.
A&S: The trouble is, NASA’s lunar base is still 20 years off. So we could get into the ridiculous situation of finally finishing our base for astronauts, only to find that the robots have been there for years.