[ExI] To Boldly Go Nowhere, for Now

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Sep 20 10:49:06 UTC 2013


To Boldly Go Nowhere, for Now

Why we should hit pause on manned space exploration.

By Srikanth Saripalli|Posted Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, at 8:08 AM

NASA's Mars rover Curiosity's self-portrait combines dozens of exposures
during the 177th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars, Feb. 3,
2013. The rover is positioned at a patch of flat outcrop called "John Klein,"
which was selected as the site for the first rock-drilling activities by

Future space explorers should be somewhere between human astronauts and
robots like NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars.

Courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

We’ve been to the moon and just about everywhere on Earth. So what’s left to
discover? In September, Future Tense is publishing a series of articles in
response to the question, “Is exploration dead?” Read more about modern-day
exploration of the sea, space, land, and more unexpected areas.

On Aug. 20, NASA’s administrator formally welcomed the newest candidates of
the astronaut corps and released a space exploration roadmap that includes
robotic and human missions to destinations that include near-Earth asteroids,
the moon, and Mars.

But given the success (both scientific and in the popular imagination) of
Curiosity on Mars, we have to wonder: Is human space exploration really
necessary? Can’t we just send robots for exploration and let them do the
dangerous work?

Most of the arguments in favor of manned space exploration boil down to the
following: a) We need to explore space using people since keeping the entire
human race on a single piece of rock is a bad strategy, and even if we send
robots first, people would have to make the journey eventually; and b) humans
can explore much better than robots. Both these arguments are very
near-sighted—in large part because they assume that robots aren’t going to
get any better. They also fail to recognize that technology may radically
change humans in the next century or so.

The first claim is based on the assumption that placing all our bets on Earth
is a bad strategy. That is probably true. But there are already folks who are
willing to be vitrified so that they can be immortal by transplanting their
brain into a fresh (robotic) body. The Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov
hopes to do by 2035 or 2045. Cryonics, or the science of preserving human
beings, has been endorsed by numerous scientists. This is fringe science, to
be sure. But even if one does not believe that we will have fully robotic
bodies in the next 20 or 30 years, it is not far-fetched to think that at
least some of us might be a combination of robotic and human systems—yes,
cyborgs—in 100 years or so.  Researchers like professor Kevin Warwick of the
United Kingdom have been working on such brain-computer interfaces for the
past decade. Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity Is Near predicts that
human beings will soon “transcend biology” and traverse the universe as
immortal cyborgs. This has far-reaching implications for space travel: One
can imagine cyborgs (with human consciousness) that are able to explore
inhabitable planets such as Venus and Jupiter or can travel for centuries to
the furthest galaxies.

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send
robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a
certain way—we are best-suited for our planet "Earth." Future space explorers
will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these
environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and
maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those
planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves
such that we are habitable in those worlds?

The second argument in favor of manned space exploration—that human eyes can
be more thorough—is based on the past robotic and human missions to the moon.
Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have
produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is
true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all "autonomous" or
"intelligent" in any sense. They are complex machines that are controlled
carefully from Earth; each instruction and move made by these rovers on Mars
is first tested carefully and then uploaded. These are no different from the
industrial welding machines of automobile plants or the drones used in
Afghanistan. Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on
planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs
every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here
long before colonists take off for Mars.

A third argument that is rarely discussed, but that everyone agrees on, is
that human exploration of space provides a valuable public relations
opportunity. Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell
of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during
the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it.
Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we
can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

So what will the future space exploration robots look like? They will look
nothing like the rovers that are on Mars today. While NASA is interested in
sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future
robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this,
let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from
supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data
warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our
smartphones. The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will
transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small,
networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small "sensor
networks" that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a
self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also
organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new
vehicles for future exploration.

Astronauts may be able to capture the imagination better now than a
personality-less robot. But for humanity’s long-term goals of exploration,
science and eventual survival, the “evolving” robot may be the better bet.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State
University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the
ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more,
visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also
follow us on Twitter.
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