With the success of Curiosity everyone is calling for manned missions to Mars by 2030, but I take the opposite view – let’s do more sophisticated robot missions. Is having some people walk around the most ambitious thing we can do? Or is having a really powerful AI robot explore for us the most ambitious and most useful? Which will have the most bang for the buck here on Earth?
Space missions are expensive and there is no money, in our now diminished and small-minded politics, to pay for them. Right now in the glow of the success of Curiosity many are pointing out how these accomplishment “inspire” us (and they do) but it’s unlikely we’ll tax the rich just for some inspiration, esp. when science is under attack today by religion. Those who try to justify the missions from a practical POV always bring up “spinoffs”, IOW, spending 2.5B$ to put something on Mars created right-here-on-earth economic opportunity. Fine, I think this is over-hyped (is Tang all we got from moon landings?) but in fact now let’s go all in. Build a rover that can drive itself, decide for itself what to look at and analyze, get itself out of trouble when it gets stuck or at too steep an angle. Program it to figure out the best way to climb a mountain or descend into a crater.
I’m thinking of the DARPA contest for self-driving cars. In the first year the cars were awful and none finished the “race”. But in the second year multiple cars did finish and even under the required time. That accomplishment has practical spinoff applications, which in fact Google is even exploiting in a limited way. Imagine the fortunes that can be made from self-driving cars. The interstate highway system opened up modern transportation but it’s time for an update. Imagine how we can unsnarl the traffic jams and save countless deaths by replacing this now-antique technology.
Robotics is not a poor substitute for human exploration, it is a superior way to do exploration. The technology we’ll have to develop for robotic missions is more sophisticated and I’ll argue, more useful, than sending people there. And because it’s cheaper we can do more of it. Just look at the progress in Mars surface explorers – Viking, Rovers, Curiosity. These were just the start, let’s keep it going. A true very smart AI rover on Mars or on Titan or in the oceans of Europa is a bigger challenge and a more useful one to accomplish.
In the early days of the space program it was decided people had to be the explorers because that gave a human dimension to space exploration and thus the public will be thrilled by “heroes” and support the program. That was probably true. But it’s 2012, not 1969, and now with millions of people excited by Curiosity, following it through Twitter and Internet video streaming, that didn’t even exist in 1969, it’s clear we’ve changed. We can get very excited about an SUV-sized robot rolling around and telling us what it found just as much as we can about Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Sending people does have a certain of drama (primarily because the public likes crashes, which is the appeal of NASCAR) but we can also be excited by a machine, built by incredible human ingenuity that can go where we can’t.
Let’s let the human body excel at what it can do, amazing Gold medal feats and let’s let our minds explore the universe.