We should stop sending humans into space to do a robot’s job

We keep launching humans into space in the name of “exploration.” But what if robots could do a better job?
We keep launching humans into space in the name of “exploration.” But what if robots could do a better job?
Image: NASA
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Fifty years ago, humans left their footprints on the moon. Fifty years in the future, will there be footprints on Mars—or just more robots?

Mars is the only planet in the solar system solely inhabited by robots. In fact, for all of our forays beyond our own atmosphere, there are more machines in space than humans. There is a deliberately made crater on the comet 9P/Tempel. There are landers on the Moon, Venus, Mars, Titan, the asteroid Eros, and the comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Then you have the increasing number of probes both across and outside our solar system, as well as the huge network of satellites that span our visible horizon.

Yet we keep launching humans into space in the name of “exploration.” Why? What if robots could do a better job? What if space isn’t meant for us, but for the machines of our creation?

Why do we put humans in space?

Space isn’t a suitable place for a squishy species like us. Humans are adapted to a narrow range of conditions. A bit too much or too little pressure, oxygen, water, temperature, radiation, or acceleration, and we die. In fact, most of the Earth’s surface is largely uninhabitable unless we surround ourselves with protective clothing and technology.

Still, space beckons. And we heed its call. After all, we are not going to survive as a species if we are not distributed across different biospheres; we’ll have to leave this one at least when the sun turns into a red giant.

But what if we sent robots to do the exploring instead?

Whenever we take ourselves to space, we need to do so in a controlled environment, hermit-crab style. To have longevity off Earth, we need to learn how function in conditions that we have not evolved for at all. All our ancestors lived with gravity. All our ancestors had reflexes and intuitions that were adequate for Earth’s environment. But this means that in space our reflexes and intuitions are likely to be wrong without extensive retraining, and likely in deadly ways.

What doesn’t need pressurized suits or pesky oxygen supplies? Robots.

Robots avoid the whole mortality thing. They can be designed to not require life support and have reactions suited to the space environment. Machine learning allows robots to learn from their experiences, and if a body breaks down or is lost, another copy of the latest robot software can be downloaded. Not so with humans.

Our relations to robots and artificial intelligence are complicated. We worry about them misbehaving both because they are too much like us and too alien. We’re sentimental about our favorite space probes and rovers, and are emotional about their fate; I did not weep for the end of Opportunity, but I did shed a tear for Cassini. For time immemorial, we have imagined making artificial servants or artificial minds, subservient to our human needs. But if the needs of humans are too great to survive in space, what if AI is what is meant to live on Mars, not us?

Current robotic explorers are rare and hence extremely expensive, motivating endless pre-mission modeling and careful actions. But robotics is becoming cheaper and more adaptable, as are the ways to hurl them beyond our atmosphere. As space access becomes cheaper, we should therefore expect a more ruthless use of robots.

So should we leave space to tele-operated or autonomous robots that report back their findings for our thrills and education, all the while patiently building useful installations back on Earth for our benefit?

My thesis is this: We want to explore space. Space is unsuitable for humans. Therefore, we should explore space using robots and telepresence.

AI has all the fun

But why does that feel deflating? It’s because we don’t want exploration in the thin sense of knowing stuff—we want exploration in the thick sense of being there.

That’s the reason MarsOne, the company aiming to establish a human settlement on Mars, got volunteers despite planning a one-way trip. That’s the reason we’ll keep sending astronauts (at fabulous expense) to the International Space Station to do experiments, despite the fact that robots will increasingly suffice.

Basically, we’re getting space FOMO. After all, scientific research and global communication networks are not the only reasons we go to space. If practical pursuits were they the only reasons to explore the solar system, it would be about as glorious as marine exploration.

There’s just something about space. It’s inconceivably harsher than any terrestrial environment, but it is also fundamentally different. It is vast beyond imagination. It contains things that have no counterpart on Earth. In many ways it has replaced our supernatural realms and gods with a futuristic realm of exotic planets and—maybe—extra-terrestrial life and intelligence. It is fundamentally The Future.

Were we only interested in the utilitarian and scientific use of space, we would be happy to automate it. But astronauts are not worried about their job security. The value gained from having people present in space goes deeper: It is aspirational, not just in the sense that maybe one day our grandchildren could go there but in the sense that at least some humans are present in the higher spheres. Getting glimpses of our planet from above and touching the fringe of the Overview Effect is healthy for our culture.

A sceptic may wonder if space exploration is worth it. But humanity seldom performs grand projects based on a practical utility calculation.

And maybe it should. But the benefits of building giant telescopes, particle accelerators, and the early internet were never objective and clear. A saner species might not perform these projects, instead reserving their energy for fulfilling the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Yet this species would likely never have discovered astronomy or physics, the peculiarities of masonry, or managing internet networks.

This is why so many are unenthusiastic about robotic exploration. We merely send tools when we want to send heroes.

Maybe future telepresence will be so excellent that we can feel and smell the Martian environment through our robots; feasibly, it could one day be indistinguishable from actually being there. But as evidenced by the hordes of museum-goers cramped in front of the Mona Lisa or lined up toward the top of Mount Everest, we put a premium on authenticity. Not just because it is rare and expensive, but because we often think it is worthwhile, maybe even sublime.

As AI advances, those tools may become more like us: They could look like us, act like us, and even one day think like us. But it will always be a hard sell to argue that they represent us in the same way a human would.

I can imagine future AI having just as vivid or even better awareness of its environment than we could, and, in a sense, being a better explorer. But to many people, this would not be a human exploring space, just another (human-made) species exploring space; it is not us.

So while robots would likely do a better job at exploring the outer edges of our universe, we’ll also keep sending humans out there. Though Mars should be destined for more and more track marks, moonboots will eventually step foot there, too. Vacuum, radiation, and extreme temperatures will prevent us from ever experiencing space first-hand, but the sheer challenge of this affront will make us keep striving to be more like the robots we send to its depths.

The main motivation that will keep us exploring is that it is hard: It is a very human thing to want to do the nearly impossible—and to be there when it happens. It might benefit the AIs to learn that absurd, beautiful mind-set.