Saturday, July 20, 2019

We'll Keep Earth

The robots can have the rest of the universe.

The Apollo 11 aniversary is upon us, a wonderful achievement and fond memory. But it did not lead to the hopeful new-frontier future that has been peddled by science fiction for decades, for what are now obvious reasons. Saturn V rockets do not grow on trees, nor is space, once one gets there, hospitable to humans. Earth is our home, where we evolved and are destined to stay.

But a few among us have continued taking breathtaking adventures among the planets and toward other stars. They have done pirouettes around the Sun and all the planets, including Pluto. They are our eyes in the heavens- the robots. I have been reading a sober book, Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence, which works through in painstaking, if somewhat surreal, detail what artificial intelligence will become in the not too distant future. Whether there is a "singularity" in a few decades, or farther off, there will surely come a time when we can reproduce human level intelligence (and beyond) in machine form. Already, machines have far surpassed humans in memory capacity, accuracy, and recall speed, in the form of databases that we now rely on to run every bank, government, and app. It seems inescapable that we should save ourselves the clunky absurdity, vast expense, and extreme dangers of human spaceflight and colonization in favor of developing robots with increasing capabilities to do all that for us.

It is our fleet of robots that can easily withstand the radiation, weightlessness, vacuum, boredom, and other rigors of space. As they range farther, their independence increases. On the Moon, at 1.3 light seconds away, we can talk back and forth, and control things in near real time from Earth. The Mars rovers, on the other hand, needed to have some slight intelligence to avoid obstacles and carry out lengthy planned maneuvers, being roughly 15 light-minutes from Earth. Having any direct control over rovers and other probes farther afield is increasingly impossible, with Jupiter 35 minutes away, and Neptune four light hours away. Rovers or drones contemplated for Saturn's interesting moon Titan will be over a light hour away, and will need extensive autonomous intelligence to achieve anything.

These considerations strongly suggest that our space program is, or should be in large part joined with our other artificial intelligence and robotics activities. That is how we are going to be able to achieve great things in space, exploring far and wide to figure out how we came to be, what other worlds are like, and whether life arose on them as well. Robots can make themselves at home in the cosmos in a way that humans never will.

Matt Damon, accidentally marooned on Mars.

Bostrom's book naturally delves into our fate, once we have been comprehensively outclassed by our artificial creations. Will we be wiped out? Uploaded? Kept as pets? Who knows? But a reasonable deal might be that the robots get free reign to colonize the cosmos, spreading as far as their industry and inventiveness can carry them. But we'll keep earth, a home for a species that is bound to it by evolution, sentiment, and fate, and hopefully one that we can harness some of that intelligence to keep in a livable, even flourishing, condition.