Are Humans or Robots the Future of Space Travel?

Robonaut and astronaut faceoff.

Robonaut and astronaut faceoff.

On February 20 I participated in a NASA “Social,” an event for space observers who tweet, blog, and otherwise electronically communicate to the world about what they see. I talked about the two robots we have in the National Air and Space Museum exhibition, “Moving Beyond Earth.” These include NASA’s Robonaut 1 and DARPA’s ARM cognitive robot. My comments were captured in the this article from Business Insider: “Space Robots Aren’t Even Close To Being As Capable As Humans.”

Among other things, I said: “We individually have a lot more capability than they do. We are a long way from the terminator, or the matrix.” Check out the full story here.

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2 Responses to Are Humans or Robots the Future of Space Travel?

  1. Dan Lester says:

    Hi Roger –

    I saw this article in the press, and felt compelled to comment a bit on it. Thanks for the invitation to excerpt the e-mail I sent you here. I’m disappointed that this article comes across as one of those naive and tired humans-versus-robots screeds. I suspect this was the result of the naive and somewhat tired interpretation of the author, and not your intent, but there are still some points that can be made to you about it.

    The word “robot” is a sad one, in that the meaning has popularly turned into an almost entirely Asimovian one. I hope you saw my essay from a while ago in The Space Review on this. See The Asimovian definition of that word is one of a self-aware being, and really doesn’t correspond to any contemporary machine. We don’t have anything close to a machine that would pass the Turing test. Is that really a surprise to people? I suspect not.

    That being the case, the association of a device like Curiosity with such a definition is really misplaced. No one believes that Curiosity is any more than a tool that humans use to explore space. Curiosity is a marvelous example of human space exploration, because the humans in Pasadena designed it, and are making it do what it does. Is Curiosity any different than your car, which is a mightily important robot for your transportation needs that follows your every whim, expressed competently by you in the drivers seat commanded by a steering wheel and pedals? Yep, cars are robots that can’t think for themselves. So should we long for the day when we send humans to walk from DC to New York, because cars can’t figure out how to do it themselves?

    I think a better way of expressing this subject to the public is not that humans are better than robots, but that robots can be wonderful extensions of humans. Whether or not those humans have to travel in order to be best extended. I’ve actually been getting comfortable with an idea, which I think is rather profound, really. This is that as our technology increases, to the extent that we can make electromechanical surrogates for human hands, eyes and feet (not that these hands, eyes and feet are in any respect self-aware) the ultimate purpose of human spaceflight is putting people close enough to them that the communication delays are small, so they can act as real-time extensions of us. Because then, human spaceflight really becomes a matter of putting our presence, if not even quite ourselves, at new places. Historical explorers never had that option that we have now.

    So the point you’re reported as raising, that robots aren’t anywhere near as capable as humans to serve the future needs humans more than robots, is pretty narrow. This is a judgement on the capability of robots to be self aware, and not on their capability to be extensions of ourselves. When you consider that we have robots all across the solar system right now, and yet we have humans no farther than a few hundred miles, I have to smile at how incapable robots are accused of being. If they’re that incapable, how come they get to go places where we can’t come close to figuring out how to send humans? I call that enormously capable.

    Best regards,



  2. michel says:

    humans for a better future


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