Spirit’s view of Mars. Image credit: NASA/JPL. Click to enlarge.
Unless something goes terribly wrong with human civilization, our descendants in the near and distant future will explore and colonize our solar system. As we venture further into our celestial neighborhood, the number of worlds that are decidedly alien and hostile to human astronauts only increases.
As the distances increase, communications between controllers on Earth and any place much past the Moon can take minutes to hours for a two-way relay. For a robot probe, this time-lag, plus an unfamiliar and dangerous place, means that the exploring machine must rely on sophisticated, independent programming to keep itself safe and conduct complex and serious science.
A group of scientists in Spain has been working for that day with the development of a computer system designed to assist future astronauts on Mars looking for signs of life in the rocks of the Red Planet.
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Patrick McGuire and Jens Ormo of the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid and Enrique Diaz-Martinez of the Geological and Mineral Institute have developed a wearable computer and video camcorder system that they are using to test and train a computer-vision system which will enhance astronauts as they explore alien worlds.
In 2004 and 2005, the team conducted field tests with the system in Rivas Vaciamadrid and northern Guadalajara. They examined certain rocks that resembled locations explored by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in Meridiani Planum.
Approaching a rock face, the investigator uses the device to examine the surface for anything unusual, which appears to the computer system as a larger amount of pixels than normal. The computer takes in the data and makes a judgment about whether these spots are organic or not.
In the second survey, the conclusions of the Cyborg Astrobiologist matched those of human geologists 68 percent of the time in northern Guadalajara, a definite technological improvement over the first survey. The computer’s ability was quite useful in helping the geologist sort out what was termed “false positives” in the rocks.
If the artificial intelligence part of what is called the Cyborg Astrobiologist can be enhanced ? as it must ? to eventually determine on its own what is and is not living matter on some extraterrestrial globe, will the human element of the astronaut be required? Transporting humans across deep space is expensive and requires far more support than any machine. Plus the potential for loss of life in distant and dangerous realms of our solar system make a smart robot look all the more appealing.
At present, humans brains can still out-perform the most sophisticated computers on Earth. However, by the time humans are scheduled to be sent to Mars, perhaps in the 2030s, will the AI and other space robot technology have reached a point where they could do just as well as any human, and with far less need for excess supplies and a higher ability to survive any dangers?
Having actual people aboard spacecraft journeying to other worlds has an appeal and a romance that no current or near-future machine can muster, especially when it comes to catching the attention and the support of the general public. I grew up with the manned Apollo missions to the Moon, so I certainly understand this. But I also recall how quickly the interest faded once astronauts did walk on the Moon and returned safely to Earth. Just view the 1995 film Apollo 13 to see what I mean.
Apollo lunar missions happened in a matter of days. How long will the public majority care about a crewed mission to Mars lasting several years at the least? And imagine how long it will last when other manned missions follow to the Red Planet. I for one would be excited, as would others, but the public wants Star Wars and Star Trek, which is just not the reality of space exploration.
While I certainly applaud what is being done by the Spanish team and think it goes a long way to helping us search for life on Mars and other worlds, I also think that how this technology can best be used and where the state of space exploration will be in the coming decades needs to be seriously considered. Perhaps the public and the governments footing the bill will be more enthralled by having humans at the forefront of the exploring and “seeking new life”, but will they be the best way to conduct real astrobiological science? Already the current Cyborg Astrobiologist is showing real progress in detecting life from non-life. Just imagine what can be done and by what in thirty years or so, when the first manned Mars missions are supposed to take place.
If going back to the Moon and on to Mars is more about politics than science as much of Apollo really was, then it should be stated as such, rather than let it drain away from real science missions that may be better served and cheaper with automation.
I have no doubt that humans will colonize the solar system and beyond one day. But for now to make that happen, we need to seriously explore and understand our celestial neighborhood. If robots with advanced AI are the more sensible and less costly choice, then this is how we must proceed. Otherwise our overfocus on getting humans “out there” may end up either delaying the process or stopping it altogether.
Written by Larry Klaes