That Irreplaceable Human Brain

>> Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Man is still the best computer that we can put aboard a spacecraft -- and the only one that can be mass-produced with unskilled labor.
-- Wernher Von Braun
It always amazes me when people say that robots will replace humans, that robotic missions are as good or better as human missions in the world of spaceflight.

Not that I want to knock robotic missions. Nor say that humans are better suited for everything. When it comes to monitoring information or repetitive tasks or going in first into a hazardous environment, I am all for robotics.

But nothing quite replaces people. What triggered this line of thinking? I read this article at the NYT yesterday. It was about "hunches" and how they were a bigger factor in the soldiers' success at avoiding danger than our sophisticated gadgets and equipment.

Now, I have no trouble with the concept of intuition but I know many of the science-minded see such things as simply a subconscious perception of minutia, an internal ability to take in diverse data and, without conscious thought, reach an accurate conclusion.

People have a tendency to get excited about automated responses to disaster. And for good reason. But it's a mistake, in my opinion, to think one has to decide which is better. Each have their uses. It shouldn't be an either/or situation. An autonomous response is great for those situations where you can predict cause and effect.

But no one can predict everything. Robots and autonomous equipment are limited by what the developer could imagine, what the developer judged would be the right reaction in an unknown situation.

But it's not the same as having people in the situations, up close and personal. On Apollo 17, the crew had already been ordered back, but they stopped and took some samples of rocks unlike any they'd seen and found actual orange soil. On Apollo 11, if the lander had been programmed to land autonomously with no alternatives, they would have fallen over because the landing site had big boulders. In both cases, human judgment provided for success.

To be frank, I don't think we'll really have explored anywhere until someone with a human mind has walked it, his (or her) breath quickening, using his or her mind to do what no robot, no matter how clever can do: react to what was never expected, what was never foreseen, figuring out problems no one predicted.

We're not quite obsolete just yet. It's expensive to carry something so precious into space. They need life support, protection from vacuum, radiation, thermal extremes. And, of course, we got to return 'em.

And it's still worth it.

(P.S. here's a solar eclipse using the earth from Apollo 17. How cool is that?)


  • flit

    I really am going to have to start printing your blog off for Ross ... he's always really interested in what you have to say - but he spends next to no time on the computer, so he misses some of it

  • Jeff King

    i am stuck between two thoughts here.. on the one hand sending robots/machines into space is cheaper and safer and offers us just as much Intel as sending humans if not more because they go where we can't... and if it blows up on launch or landing then it was not another death of an astronaut.
    but your explanation of a humans thought process and ability to overcome obstacles is valid. and it would not be a human achievement if we send only robots to do the job...

    i feel a good mix between the both is a sound idea and should be the norm... sending robot ahead to makes sure everything is safe and gather Intel so we can prepare for the human adventure...

  • Stephanie B

    Agreed, Jeff. I've always thought it a great shame that people think we have to choose between robotics and human spaceflight when the two complement each other extremely well.

    And thanks, flit.

  • Mike

    Very cool image! Thanks for sharing an interesting post - there will always be a place for 'humans' in space exploration. There are things that automated / robotic missions can do, however, the best is when we can explore and visit.

  • The Mother

    I like the "can be reproduced with unskilled labor" part. Although that does tend to imply that humans are a bit more dispensable than I think our ethics would like to believe.

    Of course, down through history, this was absolutely true. Especially in wartime, when the untrained,generally peasant infantry always took the brunt, so the horses could be preserved.

  • Stephanie B

    I think I'm going to continue on this topic today and use this comment as my thieving Thursday topic (unless I have another good comment) because this fascinates me. I meant to add, as I was writing this, that part of the difference is that we have never, not under the best of circumstances, been able to duplicate sensory inputs that a human has. You can't get that level of minutia (and evaluate) it without ungodly amounts of software/hardware that makes human beings seem like a bargain.

    There was an interesting letter at NYT today that was also pertinent. If I don't write more about this today, I'll be writing about it tomorrow.

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