Humans vs. Robots

Which way lies our future in space? A discussion.

(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.

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