Early this morning, an economy-car-sized robot called Curiosity began sending back messages from a wasteland as distant and remote as any in our mythology: the cold, windswept desert of Mars.
Last night, an integrated network of machines, working autonomously from their human creators, executed a complicated landing on the red planet.
At one point, a rocket hovered over the surface, lowering its sibling on a cable.
Meanwhile, earlier this summer, another robotic explorer, Voyager 1, reached a point roughly 11 billion miles from earth where it appears to be leaving the vast “heliosphere” that encompasses our solar system.
For the first time, Curiosity’s cousin is extending our awareness not just into interplanetary space, but into the interstellar void.
As we watch this drama play out — this is a literally unprecedented expansion of human knowledge — it’s also important to note that we may be seeing the first clumsy steps of humanity’s children.
What I mean is that we have learned during the last half-century of the space age that the universe beyond our tiny planetary bubble is almost inconceivably vast and horrifically treacherous.
We may dream of permanent colonies on places like Mars, but in fact that world’s surface is more toxic than Chernobyl and Love Canal combined.
Place those industrial waste sites in the arctic and you get a sense for just how inhospitable the red planet is for biological life that looks anything like us.
Voyager 1, to reach its current outpost at the edge of the solar system, has been journeying for 35 lonely years. Anybody care to sign up for that expedition?
But what we have also learned is that our mechanical envoys don’t mind the cold, or lush deadly radiation, or the endless trickle of time. Curiosity and Voyager 1 are literally superhuman in their ability to overcome their creators’ natural limitations.
What’s missing, of course, is intelligence.
So far, our mechanical offspring are little more than puppets at the end of very long electromagnetic strings. They have limited capacity to think and make decisions.
Curiosity is, in fact, not curious at all about its surroundings.
But I suspect this immaturity will change rapidly. Very soon, efforts to create artificial intelligence will produce computers capable of at least simulating a human level of wonder and excitement.
It’s not difficult to imagine a probe burrowing into the ice-sheathed surface of Europa — perhaps before the end of this century — that will possess at least rudimentary abilities to assess risk, reason its way past obstacles, and make choices about things to explore.
If developments in robotics and computing continue to accelerate, we may see machines in our lifetime capable of carrying something very close to human-style sentience (call it “human descended” sentience) out into the cosmos.
Some scientists have speculated that in the end, we fragile biological parents will be left behind by our off-spring.
Self-repairing and self-replicating machines, hopefully carrying important parts of our spirit and ambition in their digital DNA, might eventually populate the stars in ways that we never could.
They might be the first emissaries to encounter other biological intelligence, other smart lifeforms like ourselves that are trapped by time and distance on faraway rocks.
Last night’s landing on Mars is, of course, only a first toddler’s step in that journey.
But I think it’s probable that someday soon the probes that we send out will be able to talk back to us, at least in a kind of baby talk, telling us the story of their odysseys.
I for one would love to ask Curiosity a thing or two.
What does it feel like where you are? What does the thin Martian air smell like? Is the emptiness beautiful? Is it lonely? And then there’s that question that all parents ask: Do you miss us?