Robots In Space

“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,” writes Paul Davies, a British-born theoretical physicist, cosmologist, astrobiologist, and SETI scientist at Arizona State University. “If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature.”

Regardless of your views on the possibility of extraterrestrials traveling through space, the case that any possible extraterrestrials would be “post-biological” robotics in space is fairly compelling. Without a spacesuit, a biological human can only survive for about 90 seconds in the vacuum of space. While you won’t explode or instantly freeze — and your blood won’t boil (because of the containing effect of your skin and circulatory system) — you still won’t last long. You’ll lose consciousness quickly after your body has depleted the supply of oxygen in the blood — not unlike drowning. If exposed to direct sunlight, you’d get a very bad sunburn from the ultraviolet radiation. The human body simply didn’t evolve to survive in such an extreme environment.

Enter robots in space. NASA and General Motors announced this month that they plan to send a humanoid robot to the International Space Station (ISS) to work alongside human astronauts. Dubbed Robonaut 2 (R2), it weighs about 300 pounds with a head, torso and two fully functional arms. In a joint news release, John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office, said, “The partnership of humans and robots will be critical to opening up the solar system and will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today.” Here’s a short video showing R2 (not to be confused with the fictional R2-D2 of Star Wars fame):

Also this month, the United States Air Force (USAF) announced plans to launch its first robotic X-37B space plane on a unmanned mission that may signal increased used of robotic pilots. Here’s a video showing an earlier version of the X-37:

The X-37B orbital space plane looks like a mini-shuttle and will be placed into Earth orbit for an unspecified period of time. It will then reenter the Earth’s atmosphere for an autopilot landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (or possibly at neighboring Edwards Air Force Base depending upon air traffic and weather conditions). According to the USAF press release, a second mini-space plane is already under contract and is expected to be launched next year.

Perhaps a brain implant linking us to our robots would be the next step in space exploration.

While NASA clearly recognizes the importance of robotic systems in space, NASA engineers Greg Schmidt and Mike Hawes — in an article published on The Astrobiology Web — emphasize that both robots and humans will be required to take the next steps into space. “It would be tempting to extrapolate our recent successes in designing ever more capable and intelligent robots to think that we, flesh and blood humans, won’t have a place in the search for life in the universe,” they write. “The important thing for all mission planners to remember is where the skills of human-based intelligence and machine-based intelligence best apply — and to be able to make the right decision when picking the appropriate technological approach.”

President Obama’s recent speech announcing the eventual use of commercial contractors for the transportation of astronauts to the space station following the space shuttle’s retirement continues in the tradition of President Kennedy: put more biological men (and women) into space. Justin Kugler, who works at NASA Johnson Space Center in the ISS National Laboratory Office comments: “Interestingly, President Obama indicated that his ultimate goal is to build a virtually indefinite human presence in space with the United States at the lead. He set milestones of heavy-lift rocket construction beginning in 2015, manned long-duration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (perhaps to an asteroid) by 2025, and manned missions to Mars orbit in the 2030s.”

Kevin Warwick with his second cyborg impant. This implant, connected to the median nerve in his arm, allowed him to send and receive signals by computer. Image credit: University of ReadingAn article in Space Daily suggests that perhaps a brain implant linking us to our robots would be the next step in space exploration, “greatly reducing communication time across the vast expanse of space. For instance, depending on where Mars is in its orbit, it takes between 3 to 30 minutes for a radio message sent from Earth to reach Mars, and then an equally long time for us to get the response.” Harnessing such thought-controlled communication – whether using lasers or some other as-of-yet undeveloped technology – is still a ways off, but thought itself consists of electrical impulses that travel near the speed of light.

So, if “we” humans ever do make it to Alpha Centauri and beyond, will we look like Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation? SETI scientist Paul Davies suggests in his book The Eerie Silence that any aliens exploring the universe will be machine hybrids. He points out that such hybrids will likely be better able to endure extended exposure to space, and will surely outstrip our limited human biological intelligence. Of course, “we” — or our human-robot descendents — will be the aliens visiting Alpha Centauri.

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