Space Exploration in the Age of Homo Sapiens 2.0

Discovery_chan_id1_04aWill the future of space exploration evolve into a hybrid of human and robotic expeditions, one which may change the face of humanity in space?

The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved in Africa. Is the human species entering another evolutionary inflection point? 

Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science and Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, says in his new book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be AI-empowered machines. Not only are machines better able to endure extended exposure to the conditions of space, but they have the potential to develop intelligence far beyond the capacity of the human brain.

"I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of the universe," Davies writes. "If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature."

Before the year 2020, scientists are expected to launch intelligent space robots that will venture out to explore the universe for us.

"Robotic exploration probably will always be the trail blazer for human exploration of far space," says Wolfgang Fink, physicist and researcher at Caltech. "We haven't yet landed a human being on Mars but we have a robot there now. In that sense, it's much easier to send a robotic explorer. When you can take the human out of the loop, that is becoming very exciting."

While Fink is encouraged by the progress made by missions such as the Mars Phoenix and its robotic arm, he emphasizes that the link between human and robot needs to be eliminated, allowing robots to make their own decisions on what science needs to be carried out. In reference to the Phoenix's robotic arm he said, "The arms are the tools, but it's about the intent to move the arms. That's what we're after. To have the robot know that something there is interesting and that's where it needs to go and then to go get a sample from it. That's what we've after. You want to get rid of the joystick, in other words. You want the system to take control of itself and then basically use its own tools to explore."

The physicist said he envisions a time when humans send out intelligent probes to explore the far reaches of the universe and send information back to Earth – without having to send people on excruciatingly long and dangerous space missions.

"In the old Star Wars movies, especially in the Empire Strikes Back, the empire was sending out probes or floating robots," said Fink. "Those were ideal robotic explorers because they floated over planets and had sensors and communication capabilities. Once you venture out to other planets, you need something that can operate on its own. You can't monitor and supervise every single step. You want to deploy something that, on its own, can start a reconnaissance of the area and report back."

The key attribute robots need to possess is the ability to recognize something of interest, such as a rock or crater, something that a human mind would see as a scientific opportunity. At Caltech, Fink and others are working on programs that use images for robots to distinguish colors, textures, shapes and obstacles. Once artificial intelligence has the ability to do this, if the programming is complex enough, the robot can notice something that is out of place, or a region worth investigating (such as a strangely coloured patch of Mars regolith that a Mars robot will decide to dig into).

The researchers also are working on a wish list of sorts for the spacecraft. The list would include things that NASA and university scientists would like the robot to investigate. "It's very difficult to teach a spacecraft," said Fink. "When a geologist goes into the field, they can tell you if they see something that sparks their interest. Based on that interest, it triggers more refined research. But the problem is if you encounter something that scientists had not foreseen, then you run the risk of not detecting it We'll equip it with a database and a wish list, along with the ability to flag an anomaly."

Fink said NASA has shown some interest in their work. And that makes sense since NASA is planning an unmanned mission to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, around 2017. The CalTech physicist explained that an orbiter would most likely release a balloon-type vehicle that would float above the surface of the moon and send its findings back to Earth.

"It takes more than hour to send communications back and forth to a space probe at Saturn or Titan," said Fink. "It is not a problem so much if you are dealing with a Lander, which is immobile, or when you're dealing with a rover which is not moving too fast. It becomes a significant problem if you deploy a balloon or air ship on Titan, let's say. They are floating so you need a much quicker reaction time. If there's a mountain or hill coming up, you need to make a decision right there and then.

The main question is will robotic missions trump our basic human desire to explore space via manned missions?

Posted by Casey Kazan.


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