Are Robots the Future of Space Exploration?

Mashable recently posted about the upcoming We Robot 2012 conference and naturally I had to check it out to see if anything space related is included. Alas it’s not but it got me thinking about the future of space exploration in terms of robotics/artificial intelligence (AI). This topic is of course always hotly debated but one worth exploring nonetheless.

Naturally we’re already using robotics in space for things like lifting heavy objects (robotic arms), planetary rovers, automated scientific experiments, the existing NASA Mars exploration program, etc. What I’m talking about however are the more advanced concepts such as robot/humanoid manned space travel and exploration (or even planetary construction of colonies). Which is the best option – sending robots or humans to do the job?

I personally am inclined to lean towards robotic exploration and travel given our current level of technology. We obviously can’t place a price on human life therefore sending robots from that perspective absolutely makes the most sense. Furthermore, robots can venture into harsher planetary regions that would be harmful/deadly to humans. Additionally, robots have fewer requirements for sustained operation – they don’t require food, water, etc. These factors alone are reason to use robots for extended space exploration are they not? Check out this recent TED talk below that was recorded in February. One thing that caught my attention is when he discusses cooperative transportation and constuction. My mind of course went straight to colony building. Fascinating stuff. 

Over the long-term, I believe humans must venture beyond our own planet if we are to survive as a species. That being said, why not use robots to pave the way in the interim? There is important work being done in this area however we obviously have a long way to go. AI has not advanced to the point that robots are capable of conducting more efficient R&D than humans…hence the purpose of the International Space Station. In other words, robots don’t have the reasoning capacity that we do…yet. Perhaps this is the number one reason why sending humans to do the work for now makes more sense. During the Lunar and Planetary Conference this week in Houston, TX, perhaps John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science said it best when he stated, “We don’t send a rover to Mars so a rover can discover things, because it doesn’t discover things. You do,” he said. “It’s the human experience.”

Then of course there are the intangibles associated with human space exploration. The scientists of tomorrow are likely going to be more inspired by humans in space than machines. So this is another factor that must be weighed. As a child there was simply nothing more fascinating to me than the idea of exploring space. I’m not quite so certain I would have been as intrigued by the notion of robots in space (but I was an odd child so who knows).

To be clear, I’m in no way trying to demean or trivialize the important work done by astronauts that have ventured into space previously. They are heroes and it’s because of their efforts that a discussion such as this is even possible. I’m just wondering if now isn’t the time to consider letting machines take over to lay the groundwork for future human-based space exploration/travel until our level of knowledge and technology have advanced to the point that survival is virtually guaranteed. These are questions that aren’t quite so easily answered.

What are your thoughts on this subject? Should we continue with human-based space exploration or should our efforts focus on sending robots to do the exploratory work needed to advance our knowledge of the universe and/or explore different exoplanets for eventual colonization?

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  • Brett

    I’m in a similar position. We’re probably within decades of the point where our robotic explorers/spacecraft will be so good that they’ll both render human exploration unnecessary, while making human living in space easier. Think of a good assembling robot controlled by telepresence with a human operator down on Earth. You could use that both to replace human maintenance, and to build things like space colonies.

    As for right now, I think we ought to be focusing on trying to get the cost of getting stuff into orbit down, as well as developing more advanced forms of propulsion (orbital depots, solar electric drives, etc). Both of those will go a long way towards making humans inhabiting colonies off-world more likely, even if the manned space program goes moribund for a while (becoming little more than a tourist attraction and occasional scientific mission).

  • Excellent insights Brett! I particularly agree that we need to reduce the costs involved…very, very important in the years ahead. I think privatization will help this along in many ways. Hopefully there are a few brilliant minds collaborating in some dorm room or lab somewhere working on these types of problems as well. I believe entrepreneurs that capitalize on the amazing research coming out of NASA, ESA, universities, etc. can change this industry for the better. I for one can’t wait to watch as it all unfolds in the years ahead.

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