Following up his first article at the Huffington Post, Richard Garriott has posted a second article asking, in its title: why human space travel? And while he illustrates the article with a leading picture of the Apophis asteroid, the bulk of his argument concerns something other than the need for humanity to migrate to the stars in order to ensure its long-term survival against even extinction-level events. No, good Lord British instead argues that human space travel needs to both remain on the table and in fact advance because, as he puts it, no “robotic agent [is] able to have anything close to the perception and judgment of a human explorer.”
…Robots are far lighter, cheaper and expendable. So whenever possible, robots can and should be used! Humans need complex and heavy life support systems, so many might ask, why even consider the prospect of sending humans to space as robotics and computers continue to rapidly advance?
The answer is important. We are still very far from a robotic agent being able to have anything close to the perception and judgment of a human explorer. And that is a very critical distinction. To demonstrate this I can cite historical facts as well as personal experience.
A great example of this important difference came when Jack Schmitt became the first geologist to walk on the moon. Knowledge of the moon’s geology including how and when it formed gives us important data about when and how the Earth finally cooled down and developed its rocky crust. This in turn gives us deeper understanding of tectonic plate movement which is the cause of earthquakes around the globe. Clearly predicting and protecting against earthquakes is essential science for those who live in Japan, California or other earthquake prone areas!
Before Jack Schmitt walked on the moon, the probes and test pilots who preceded him, had done their best to find valuable samples, but only Jack’s deep geological understanding and direct human perception allowed him to quickly find rocks on the moon that turned out to be from the primordial crust formed when the moon first solidified from a molten state. This find allowed lunar formation science and thus Earth formation science to advance greatly.
To be fair, he does devote his closing paragraphs to mentioning Stephen Hawking’s contention that humanity must take to the stars to ensure its survival against asteroids, gamma ray bursts, and suchlike. The merits of such endeavours are up for debate, of course (either that, or playing Mass Effect 3 as an essentially Paragon character has me wondering, yet again, what’s so great about humanity that it should require so much sacrifice on the part of so few good people to save, and is it even worth the effort?), though the logic itself is sound. There is nowhere else for humanity to hide, at present, from the many and terrifying hazards of the Universe, and it would be trivially easy for an errant chunk of space rock — or a too-large, too-close star exploding — to reduce mankind to a historical footnote. Such is the inherent vulnerability of any planet-bound species, and the only remedy for it is to become a species not bound inextricably to just one planet.
But in his main argument, I think he has a very strong point to make. Robots are analytical tools; data in is processed algorithmically, and certain outputs are generated therefrom. Robots can’t necessarily correlate seemingly disparate points of data to reach a different conclusion than what their algorithms are designed to compute; an adding machine can compute 15 as the result of the addition of two integers, but it has no ability to detect or comment on the aesthetic similarities of 6 and 9. Humans, on the other hand, come by this sort of thinking naturally, and it is this ability to think abstractly that has driven much of human innovation and discovery. Robots may one day be able to simulate, mimic, or even possess these same faculties…but I think Lord British is quite right when he notes that the day when this becomes a possibility is still a long way off. A human colony on another celestial body, however, may yet be something we here live to see.