Will machines serve as our surrogates on other worlds?

Science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke died Wednesday, March 19 at the age of 90. A visionary who foresaw the advent of the telecommunications satellite, Clarke inspired generations of space enthusiasts and changed the public attitude toward space exploration. In his memory, we post a personal tribute from ScienceBlogger GrrlScientist and this article from the Fall 2004 issue of Seed.

Three months ago, on his 90th birthday, Arthur C. Clarke reflected on his life, expressed his hopes for the future, and discussed how he wants to be remembered.
Front page image: An artist’s rendering of Huygens landing on Titan. Credit: Craig Attebery, ESA, NASA. Thumbnail photograph of Arthur C. Clarke, credit: Amy Marash.

Around December of this year, the much-heralded Cassini mission will speed past Saturn’s enormous, planet-like moon Titan and deploy the Huygens probe. The clam-shaped device will then careen through Titan’s murky atmosphere to land and gather data on what’s now an unknown surface. Is it solid? Liquid? Oceans of oil? Nobody really knows, but secretly, everyone’s hoping it’s oil. The only thing certain is Huygen’s fate: If the probe can survive the traumatic entry and landing, it will stay on the surface long after the mission—until its power runs out, its signal fades, and all systems go cold. Ideally, Huygens will commit mechanical suicide in a blaze of astronomical glory on a planet far from home, all in the name of science.

Now, logical minds have likely already started howling: “Suicide? Glory? It’s a machine, jackass.” True on both counts, but Huygens would not be the first probe to embark on a suicide mission. Most recently, NASA engineers and tacticians weighed the benefits and costs of sending the Mars rover Opportunity on a “suicide mission” into a crater it probably can’t get out of. Fact-gathering entered the equation, but also at issue was the notion that the rover could be destroyed on the initial descent if the grade was too steep. All of this in spite of the fact that the Mars research team considers Opportunity’s primary mission complete. Is it so hard for us to believe that members of the team on Earth had genuine emotional concern for the well-being of a nonliving extension of itself stuck on a remote rock?

Maybe it shouldn’t be. Among his other prophecies, science fiction guru Arthur C. Clarke has surmised that as our thirst for exploration grows, we’ll rely more and more on probes, satellites, robots, and other mechanical innovations to serve as our surrogates on other worlds. Over time, they will become so advanced and perceptive that our desire to send men afar will wane; these mechanical representatives of ourselves will become capable of conveying the richness of the beyond without the human risk. They will be nearly human, and infinity will come to your living room.

But Clarke’s ideas bump up against an ugly and little-known conundrum called the Uncanny Valley. In 1978, the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term when he noticed that the more humanlike his robots became, the more attracted people were to them—but only up to a point. If they became too realistic and lifelike, those feelings of affection and empathy immediately bombed and transformed into revulsion. This is the reason why C-3PO, a crude approximation of a human, seems cuddly and approachable, while the more realistic and emotive Sonny from I-Robot is creepy enough to induce vomiting. R2D2 trumps both, of course, and he’s just a blippy trash can with trapezoidal tank treads for feet.

But until the day NASA develops humanoid space probes modeled after Al Roker, our affection for these assembled bits of wires, composites, and silicon will rise. After all, they carry our hopes and aspirations in the far-flung places we dream about, and they mirror our triumphs and failures with theirs. The tendency of these probes to break down at crucial moments, or fail altogether, only increases the attachment. No one feels the bond more acutely than the scientists in their company: To avoid contaminating the Jovian moon Europa, project leaders for the long-running satellite Galileo conceived of a “death drop” into Jupiter’s superheated atmosphere. Hundreds of scientists gathered to witness the final minutes before the probe’s disintegration, and many of them reflected on Galileo as if it had been a member of the family.

“It’s almost like having a troubled child that ends up graduating from law school,” said Claudia Alexander, Galileo Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “You’re so happy that it was able to overcome the difficulties, and it gave us a fabulous return.”

Originally published March 19, 2008

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