The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 


 
Apollo 12 Surveyor 3 photo
Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad in his historic fistfight with robotic spacecraft Surveyor 3. Conrad lands a right jab while Surveyor misses with its pantograph punch. Can humans and robots co-exist peacefully in space? (credit: NASA)

Humans vs. robots: who should argue against humans in space?

Last year, I wrote an article called “The new humans vs. robots debate: introducing the FH Prize” (The Space Review, February 13, 2006). It made the case that robots would do a much better job arguing against human spaceflight than their obsolete human counterparts, and therefore called for anti-human-spaceflight humans to replace themselves with robots. Unfortunately, this advice was not taken up. This email I received recently appears to come from a human being:

Dear Mr. Huang,

With regard to “The new humans vs. robots debate: introducing the FH Prize” published in The Space Review (Monday, February 13, 2006).

You miss the point: it is not that robots are better than humans. Just the opposite: humans are far better than robots.

That’s why humans should conduct Exploration while comfortable in a library sipping tea and thinking or in a bar sipping beer and debating with their colleagues and friends or at a computer keyboard constructing models or other similarly productive activity, rather than sit themselves on top of a bomb or, as we have learned recently, stuff themselves into oversized diapers.

That’s the kind of menial job that, in this day and age, could be outsourced (to robots or, alternatively, to less developed countries).

Historically, the advances of technology have helped humans have a more human life, rather than goaded them into silly exploits, which are eerily reminiscent of the late Evel Knievel and which often enough are met by a similarly predictable fate.

Giulio Varsi

This email illustrates how deficient human beings are, compared to their robotic rivals. I doubt that a robot would use that many italics and underlines. A robot would have the sense not to exploit death and tragedy to score political points. In addition, a robot would have informed Evel Knievel of his untimely death.

People send cranky emails all the time, but apparently this email came from a former NASA manager. Dr. Giulio Varsi had a long career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA Headquarters before retiring last year. One of his jobs was Deputy Assistant Associate Administrator, Technology, Science Mission Directorate, at NASA Headquarters.

Putting both humans and robots into space is at the core of what NASA does. It’s difficult to see how people could continue to work for an organization if they are vehemently against its core purpose.

Taylor Dinerman’s review of Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004 by Peter J. Westwick included the quotation, “It was almost a litmus test for a JPL person that they hated the manned space program.” (See “Review: Into the Black”, The Space Review, February 19, 2007) JPL is made up of thousands of employees with varying opinions. I hope that Dr. Varsi’s opinions represent the extreme end of the scale, and that most people at JPL have a more inclusive view of space policy, but maybe this is wishful thinking on my part.

This all raises the question of whether people currently working at NASA share Dr. Varsi’s pet hate. Putting both humans and robots into space is at the core of what NASA does. It’s difficult to see how people could continue to work for an organization if they are vehemently against its core purpose.

Of course, robots wouldn’t have that problem:

Dear Dr. Varsi,

Thank you for your email.

I heartily agree with you. Arguing against human spaceflight is a menial job and silly exploit that should be done by remotely-controlled robots. As my article has illustrated, the anti-human-spaceflight robot does not need to eat or sleep. It doesn’t grow old and die. It can argue against human spaceflight all day, without complaint. I’d like to see a human do that!

On an unrelated topic, I think the Universe is big enough for both humans and robots. Setting up some kind of robot-only (or outsourcers-only) zone, encompassing the entire Universe sans Earth, would be an awful strain for our overworked law enforcement system.

Michael Huang

Dr. Varsi’s reply:

At 12:08 AM +1100 2/21/07, Michael Huang wrote:

Dear Dr. Varsi,

Thank you for your email.

I heartily agree with you.

Terrific: I was sure you would.

Giulio Varsi

Another email:

Dear Dr. Varsi,

Thanks again for your email.

You’re welcome to comment on other parts of my email. For example, should the anti-human-spaceflight movement be comprised of humans, robots, or both humans and robots?

Michael Huang

And another reply:

I am not sure I understand your point: as long as we agree, I do not care how many join. To a first approximation: the more the better.

Giulio Varsi

This breakdown in human communication again proves that humans aren’t up to scratch when it comes to anti-human-spaceflight advocacy. A robot wouldn’t miss the point. Robots work 24/7. They don’t stop to take a break. They just keep on going…


Home


ISPCS 2015