Monday, 5 August 2013

Humans vs Robots, in Space!

I noticed a couple of stories popping up over the weekend.

First, there was this one, about a Japanese robot that is heading to the International Space Station as part of a study to see if talking robots can provide emotional support to astronauts on long missions.

The second story was Chris Hadfield's official retirement, and the angst this prompted about the future of Canada's human spaceflight program, which is set to be overhauled soon.

It seems like there's something about the humanoid shape. After all, there are tons of robots in space; there's a giant one crawling around Mars right now (that just celebrated its first birthday there!). Given that almost any human-less space probe fits the definition of "robot", robots have done by far the bulk of the space exploration to date. But now that we're sending a human-shaped robot into space, well isn't that something?

The angst over human spaceflight is also a little puzzling. After all, there is the aforementioned giant robot crawling around Mars. There have also been high-profile missions to Jupiter and Saturn in the past few years. Looking at the enormous recent progress in miniature robots and the interfaces we might use to control them, and the nascent rise of private space flight, and it's tempting to conclude that we're on the cusp of a golden age of space exploration. The angst is understandable for those people who have dedicated their careers to getting bodily into space, but for the rest of us the future looks exciting.

Perhaps it's a narrative failure. After all, we have all kinds of stories of the intrepid space pilot piloting their intrepid spaceship (more than a few times the stories have even gone so far as to name the spaceship "Intrepid"). Not so much with the autonomous robot probes.

It's worth noting, though, that the intrepid space pilot largely came out of a piece of government propaganda. As Tom Wolfe notes in The Right Stuff, when NASA originally looked for people to send into space, they weren't looking for pilot skills. They knew better than anyone that whomever they sent up needed primarily to be able to keep their cool and occasionally press the right buttons; there was no actual flying involved. The decision to pick astronauts from the test pilot ranks was due to simple expedience: the test pilots had already signed up for dangerous work, had already passed security checks, had already passed fitness checks, etc. Once that decision was made, then the government started putting it around that these were the best pilots on earth, and that they were chosen for their supreme piloting skills.

As for the humanoid robots? The main reason to tell stories about them is the technical issue that it's a lot easier on a TV or movie screen to portray a sentient robot by putting makeup on a human actor than by creating something guided by ideas about what functional future robots might actually look like.  Humanoid robots really only make sense in a limited number of situations--like if they have to operate in an environment designed for humans. Floating freely in space, or even crawling, flying, jumping, or swimming around an unknown world, opens up possibilities for form limited only to the imagination. 

So given that astronauts never actually needed mad pilot skills (well, except for landing the Shuttle, but that's a whole different kettle of WHY!?!?!), and robots don't need to look like humans, maybe it's time to build some new narratives. Unless the structure of space, time, and energy is very different than what we now think it is, non-humanoid robotic exploration is the future. I refuse to believe that we as a species might have the imagination to build machines to explore the cosmos, but not the imagination to put them in a compelling narrative.

So bring on the robot stories!

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