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Mars dull like Tetris?

My friend Nathan read the space story Sunday and writes, "Do any of these people fixated on Mars realize that ... there's nothing fundamentally new about a Mars mission? It's sort of like the next level in Tetris, where the blocks fall faster and more often. But still the same exact thing as level one: same shapes, same screen, even same music. Very dull."

It's funny you mention a computer game (that's what Tetris is, right??), because it reminds me of something Bob Park said: That young people today don't make a distinction between machines and people the way the older generations do. Park was making the point that we don't need to send people to Mars, we can send robots, and that will be just as exciting. I think Park's view offers some balance to the rah-rah talk you hear from NASA, but the robots need to get a lot better before they'll be able to replace Neil and Buzz. The gap could close over the next century. If you could put a robotic explorer on Mars with a fair bit of artificial intelligence and a good camera, and then let ordinary people on Earth participate in the exploration -- voting, for example, on what hill to climb, what crater to explore, etc. -- or even joysticking microbots as they bounce around the surface [what am I talking about??] -- then you might not need to go through the cost and danger of sending human beings, and still produce exciting, thrilling science. But the gap between robotic and human intelligence at the moment is enormous. No robot has as much brainpower as a cockroach.

By Joel Achenbach  |  May 18, 2005; 9:27 AM ET
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Wow, that could really bring reality TV to a new level, if we could live vicariously through robots exploring Mars. Voting on which Martian crater to explore would sure beat voting for your favorite contestant on "American Idol."

Posted by: Dreamer | May 18, 2005 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I vote we send the cockroaches to Mars.

Posted by: Karen B | May 18, 2005 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Here's an extension of that idea - how about the various space powers send BattleBots (anyone remember the various "Robot Wars" TV shows from a few years ago?) to Mars and let 'em duke it out there, on live (ahem) TV.

The victor gets to raise that country's flag. "Sweet! Mars is OURS!"

The name of the 'bots and the location of the flag can be determined by call-in and/or internet voting by each nation's populace.

Each country could have playoff rounds do determine which representative(s) gets to represent that country at for The Final Battle for Mars, at the Summit of Olympus Mons.

The next wound of voting would be for what to do with the planet. I vote for the Terraforming to begin - starting by redirecting iceball comets at Mars, and broadcasting the impacts on TV (hosted by David Letterman, of course).

We can "explore" the entire solar system this way - "The Showdown for Saturn (air battles, of course)", "The Melee for Mercury!", "The Tussle for Titan!", etc.


Posted by: bc | May 18, 2005 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Mr Achenbach,

I'm the last guy you took a question from on the chat. Thanks, for answering my question by the way.

You raise a good point that we're nowhere near a decent AI. This is one of those things that will be happening "in 20 years", but people have been saying that for the past 25, so call me skeptical.

The thing is, humans need to do really inconvienet things like breathe and eat. So you have to pack your ship to the Moon (to say nothing of Mars) with lots and lots of compressed air and freeze-dried food. Also humans need to exercise to fight off the low-gravity issues and we have a habit of getting bored, loney, and discontent. Robots don't have to deal with any of that. Plus, we can just ditch them on whatever planet we send them to, which is a huge deal because we won't have to lug all that extra rocket fuel out of Earth's gravity well.

The costs of space exporation have to be minimal. I agree that humans are smarter and more flexible. But rather than train a human to do 10 tasks, it sounds like it would be easier and cheaper to send 10 robots, plus a few extra for when stuff goes wrong and the robot can't be controlled from Earth.

And appropos of nothing: that moon in Saturn's ring is pretty groovy.

Posted by: Last guy from the chat | May 18, 2005 10:58 AM | Report abuse

A computer can only be as smart as the one who is using it.... that being said, imagine a mars-cam, or even a space-cam, dodging the rings of saturn! That would make a great web-site boredom killer at work, instead of just blogging all day.

Posted by: lizlips | May 18, 2005 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I'm a planetary astronomer and all I do is remote observations of stuff, including Mars. That's my starting position for philosophizing about robotic vs. human exploration.

Robots are a wonderful supplement to human exploration, but I don't think they replace exploring on our own, in person. For whom, exactly, are we doing all this exploring? To make it possible for ourselves to go farther and to understand more, or is it for the benefit of robots? An intelligent robot seems like a replacement for me, not an extension of me. I'd like to do the work myself (to the extent possible), take the risks myself (to the extent that is survivable), and have a reason for continuing to exist. There's no good practical reason for ANY individual person to go to the effort of becoming a scientist, like me -- we could leave that effort to other people and become stock swindlers instead. We do it because it's what we're able to do and it's what gives us a reason to breathe. I'm not prepared to give that up to a robot.

The problems that we become good at solving are the problems that we try to solve. If we seriously try to solve the problems of human spaceflight, then I believe that we will solve them and will make it a practical reality (although I have my doubts about whether the current plans constitute a serious try). If we only work on solving the problems of making more and smarter robots and getting them into space instead of ourselves, then those are the problems that we will solve. Following that plan, eventually there will be no need for us to explore at all, the robots will do the whole job. If we make truly intelligent robots that are able to design and build the next generation of robots, then it's not too outlandish to conclude that there will be no need, eventually, for us to exist as either the creators of robotic explorers or as the consumers of the information they gather. They'll be doing it by themselves, for themselves. They won't have to do away with us in some nightmare scenario, we will simply make ourselves irrelevant.

We continue to explore and to do science for the same reason that artists continue to paint and photographers continue to hold cameras in their hands. There are automated camera mounts and automated photographic systems that can create a more-accurate representation of objective reality than any artist or artistic photographer would hope or want to produce. That's not the point. The point is the conveyance of a human vision that guides the creation of images and the exploration of ideas that matter to human minds. We can use robots to help us do that exploring, but let's not make ourselves obsolete by handing over the reins to the robots.

Posted by: Science Tim | May 18, 2005 11:15 AM | Report abuse

Mr Achenbach,

I am one of the guys whose question you did not answer, but thanks for taking the time to reject it.

I just want to add that it would be a VERY bad idea to send robots to Mars.
The very hot tall bi Martian alien babes that live there would be extremely offended that we were too lazy to make the trip ourselves and could very well decide to wipe out all human life. Mercury has no fury like a hot bi amazon alien Martian Chick spurned.

Hope it helps.


Posted by: AVRAAM THE POISONED | May 18, 2005 11:21 AM | Report abuse

The difference between those who say we should explore robotically and those who say we need to go there is thus: Those who want to explore with robots dont want to go there. The point of exploring space is not to increase knowledge per se, but to make space a new environment for human habitation.

Posted by: Joe | May 18, 2005 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I think people want to Mars for the same reason that people climb mountains. You climb a mountain to get to the top, not really for the view once you get there. Hillary climbed Everest just for the challenge of climbing it. So, to justify the enormous expense and risk involved, everybody makes up reasons to go - science, beating the other guy there, etc. The fact is, the only thing we will really want to do once we get there is spend 5 minutes looking around, pat ourselves on the back, take a picture or two standing in front of some rock formation of some kind, and then turn around and come home.

Posted by: ahab | May 18, 2005 11:48 AM | Report abuse

The "joysticking robots" is from an early sci-fi novel concerning the first manned mission to Mars, but I cannot remember the title -- did Heinlein write it?

Age is nibbling away at my memories.

Posted by: Pogostick comment | May 18, 2005 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The robotic suggestion was raised last year at a JPL townhall meeting:

My account of that was:

"- Someone else suggested that looking at computer images was just as good as listening to an astronaut give a first-person account of their experiences of exploration/other planets. Most people in the room disagreed in a reserved way."

I think the problem is that we all want to go. I'm 28, I've used computers all my life. I don't want to send my laptop - it's just a tool - I want to go.

Posted by: Kevin Parkin | May 18, 2005 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Your friend Nathan is remarkably dismissive of a *WORLD*. Neither its geology and geological history... nor its meteorology and climatic history... nor (conceivably) its biology and evolutionary history are "the same exact thing" as those we know.

I suspect Nathan must be bored with the earth, too. I mean: seen Mt. Mansfield, why bother with the Himalayas? Seen Lake Michigan, why bother with the Pacific? Seen Rock Creek Park, why bother with the Amazon basin?

Posted by: Reader | May 18, 2005 1:47 PM | Report abuse

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