Space is for Robots

09/Dec/2023 18:56:04 • Audio • 05:54

I once heard Neil deGrasse Tyson say in an interview that we've explored all the planets in our solar system and what we've learned is that Earth is the best one. True enough, Earth is the best one and at least you know in terms of supporting biological life which includes us and we are very much a product of this biosphere. This is where we exist, this is the place and these are the conditions to which we are adapted and going into space for human beings is very difficult. Staying in space on a permanent basis is lethal. Space is full of radiation and the the churning of the molten metal core of our planet creates a magnetic field that protects us from that radiation. We get out into space and eventually that radiation is going to mess up your DNA and you are going to die a very unpleasant death. It might be a lingering death but it's coming. And so I say space is for robots. Right now there are two working rovers on Mars. I think they are Curiosity and Perseverance. Curiosity has been there and it has been active and doing scientific work since 2012. Eleven years it's been on the surface of Mars doing good stuff. Now a lot of the times it's just sitting there doing nothing, waiting for instructions or waiting for its batteries to charge or whatever. But 11 years. AI is moving quickly now and rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance they're just going to get more and more sophisticated and more importantly more and more autonomous in their ability to decide what's important in the moment given the context, their immediate surroundings, their immediate conditions and they won't have to phone home for every little detail. For instructions for how to do and what to do in any given moment. They'll be in a better position to know what needs doing and know how to do it and to be in the best position to determine how to do it. These devices are the product of human intentionality. They are a human will in action on Mars. What significant improvement would it be to send humans there, humans who have to spend a year or more in transit each way, who will spend very little time there, who will take enormous risks getting down to the surface and then back up again and who will suffer for the rest of their lives most likely the damage done to their body by years of weightlessness and exposure to radiation. They'll be a big hullabaloo, a big you know big party when some human makes a boot print on Mars but from my perspective humans are already on Mars. Science fiction author Charles Stross has a phrase that he used in the book Accelerando which I just love. The phrase is canned apes which is to say if you send humans into space you have to send a pocket of human friendly environment. It's got to have the right mixture of gases, it's got to be at the right temperature, it's got to be shielded from radiation, it's got to be at the right pressure, you have to have water for them, you have to have food, you have to wait have to have a way to dispose of their waste and you know if humans are going to live and work continuously in a tight little space with one another they have to be really really adept at getting along because you can't have a workplace feud with your buddy or your former buddy, your work mate, if you live in something the size of a Winnebago and you never get to leave it, you never get to leave their presence. That's just really unworkable to me. You know there's a big I guess a rivalry you could say between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Both men want to get humanity off the planet. Musk wants to establish a permanent human presence on Mars and Jeff Bezos wants to build space-based habitats. Now from my perspective space-based habitats are the better way to go because you can once you can build them you can perfectly replicate the conditions that we human beings as biological organisms are adapted to survive in which is to say the right mix of gases, right temperature, right pressure, radiation shielding, lots of water and ways to not just dispose of our waste but recycle it or turn it back into something useful which you have to do you know unless you want to be continuously dependent on shipments to and from Earth to support your space colony. But these things aren't going to build themselves and if they do get built I'm pretty certain that it's going to be robots that build them. Very smart robots, very autonomous robots, robots that either have in and of themselves or are controlled locally by some artificial general intelligence or artificial super intelligence. So the question is NASA is looking to send humans back to the moon. They want to build a lunar gateway station in orbit around the moon and from there launch a human expedition to Mars. What is the benefit beyond just the psychological hurrah moment of putting human beings on the surface of Mars that could not be accomplished with very autonomous and sophisticated robots that don't need to come back? What do you think? What is the value of human beings in space?


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Historically, this question was raised in 1970s, when the Soviet Union failed human race to the moon, and they changed the concept that only automatic robots to be sent to the moon. The approach was quite successful. They never managed to send a man, but it was much easier to send a robot, and all the information and samples required have been returned from the moon to the earth, and Soviet space program was focused on robots since they failed in human race to the moon to the United States.

I'll say right away that I don't know the answer to this question, but if I wanted to still man the argument of the colonizers, and I'm not one of them obviously, I don't understand why, well, let's just say that I'm in your camp, but if I wanted to still man the argument of the other camp, I would say that you can never know all the things that might be needed on location. You can never build robots that are versatile enough to do all those things, and therefore you may need to just bite the bullet and send somebody with them who will, you know, sort of manage those robots, but also do things that are unexpected and things that are just anything at all that might come up. So that would be the extent of my argument. Perhaps there are more technical considerations too, like not everything might be easy to analyze at a distance, so yeah, there might be some limiting factors, things that you may not be able to do without a human supervisor on location. But that said, I do think it's kind of a weak argument, the risks and the, you know, let's put it this way, the inconveniences that you described, they're definitely very serious and they probably outweigh all those limitations. So yeah, I think you're absolutely right, I think this is a false goal and we should be focusing on building a more sustainable robotic mission.