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(NASA / WALL-E image courtesy Walt Disney Pictures /Pixar)

Humans vs. Robots

Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.

(Continued from page 5)

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: 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.

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