Baby steps on Mars

Photo distributed by NASA, taken by Curiosity.

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?





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18 Comments on “Baby steps on Mars”

  1. I assume NASA’s on Mars because they’ve abandoned the search for intelligent life on Earth.

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  2. Bob Falesch says:

    A beautiful piece, wow.

    Your points reflect many of the established, powerful themes already expressed in more than a couple movies, much literary fiction, and in philosophical circles. But, Brian, upon reading this lovely reflection from your pen, one which normally deals almost exclusively with “terrestrial” subjects (I mean that both literally and figuratively), I’m especially moved.

    (regarding your optimistic — depending on one’s point of view — slant on artificial intelligence, I’d like to know what you have in mind here; if there’s a particular project or research offering such hope. My knowledge in AI is no longer current, but I’ve been under the impression that the field has not delivered anything close to the promise claimed in the 1960s-1980s, to the point nowadays when AI practitioners have seriously reeled in their predictions)

    Your final paragraph playfully anthropomorphizing the robot Curiosity is utterly perfect and leaves one with a smile in support one’s need to ponder this stuff more deeply.

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  3. JP says:

    I, for one, welcome our new robotic overlords.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    I think this was a great accomplishment and fitting to take place during the Olympics.
    I do question the idea of artificial intelligence because human intelligence itself is a bit artificial. How so? If we are so intelligent, how come we keep killing each other and wrecking this beautiful planet?

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  5. Mervel says:

    Its really interesting and cool.

    However I think we are always going to want to go there as humans in all of our physical weaknesses and limitations. In the end I think it will still be about a human being not a mechanical being, existing on mars and the next planet etc.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  6. Kathy says:

    At 12 years old, I was glued to the TV upon the first lunar landing and recorded it in my diary.

    Needless to say, the successful landing of Curiosity thrilled me.

    Great article, Brian.

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  7. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    Brian 12:08PM:

    I believe it was Hobbes who had determined that there was intelligent life “out there” based upon the fact that they hadn’t tried to contact us.

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  8. oa says:

    Bob Falesch,
    There’s a school of thought that AI is closer than we imagine…
    Not sure if I buy it, given my company’s computerized expense report system, but this Kurzweil fellow in the above link is a lot smarter than I am.

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  9. Walker says:

    “However I think we are always going to want to go there as humans in all of our physical weaknesses and limitations. In the end I think it will still be about a human being not a mechanical being, existing on mars and the next planet etc.”

    Mervel, it’s 35 years to get there, and 35 years to return. Think about it. And there’s a whole lot of universe further away than that.

    After all, we’re already starting to fight our wars without actually being there in person. Makes much more sense in space exploration. And it’s way cheaper.

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  10. Brian Mann says:

    I used to be a big believer in manned space exploration. I grew up in a culture where space travel was often compared to sea travel in the age of sail. Slow and difficult but manageable.

    But there is really no comparison. Space, to bend a phrase, is nasty, brutish and big. Mars is actually a really, really temperate place by the standards of outer space — and really near at hand.

    And yet you would be far healthier spending your vacation in a factory ash pit than on the surface of Mars. And you wouldn’t have to spend half a decade getting there and back.

    I’m afraid that this stage of our evolution (the part that is biological and squishy and intensely time-sensitive) is pretty much stuck here in our bubble.

    It’s also worth pointing out that even if we manage to create a manned space program capable of visiting really far-off objects, 99.9999% of humanity will still be watching from the cheap seats.

    Would it really make much difference for the rest of us to get a long-distance call from Gliese 581c from a human who left earth a couple of centuries earlier?

    Or would it be just as well hearing back from a really articulate, and hopefully thoughtful, machine?

    –Brian, NCPR

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  11. It's Still All Bush's Fault says:

    We are getting hung up how long it would take us to reach a certain destination based on our current propulsion systems. FTL propulsion systems, while not yet developed, would drastically shorten these trips. Let’s keep an open mind.

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  12. oa says:

    Why the negative rating on Bob Falesch’s comment? What he ever do to you, UFO (Unnameable Fail-judging Ostracizer)?

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  13. Mervel says:

    For me I think we need both.

    The robotics would go first and be far far less expensive and go much farther with current technology.

    But if you want to engage humanity in this process we need to be looking at human exploration, as bush said above we don’t know what technologies will come on line to radically shorten these time frames and costs.

    Some of the physics, which I know is way way out there, is pointing at actual manipulation of time/space etc.

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  14. Mervel says:

    Also given what is going on with people like Richard Branson etc, we may end up being far less than spectators in the cheap seats quicker than any of us realize.

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  15. Brian Mann says:

    One wrinkle here is that we may see a diminution of our sense of what is ‘human’ and what is ‘mechanical.’ I have several family members who are hardwired with a lot of gear, everything from heart regulators to hip replacements. Meanwhile, computer intelligence could begin to seem more and more sympathetic and approachable. My son often interacts with his smart phone in ways that are bordering on the social, looking to it for companionship, entertainment, etc. By the time “grown-up” robots go exploring for us, the line between “us” and “them” could be very thin indeed.

    -Brian, NCPR

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  16. Walker says:

    And while thorough-going machine intelligence may be a good deal further off than optimists believe (after all, we’ve been thinking it was just around the corner for forty or fifty years now) it’s a safe bet that something like it will arrive well before faster than light travel, which is fairly likely not to happen at all.

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  17. oa says:

    Wow, somebody really hates the idea of AI. Or something. Weird neg ratings.

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  18. mervel says:

    I wonder what kind of mind-body technology will develop in the next ten years?

    If we could project our senses real time into a hologram or into a robot, and that robot could move as I moved a couple of light years away, I think that would be awesome. Like flying drones now only much more.

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