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Future Space: Shoulder to shoulder with robots

Jonathan Amos | 08:00 UK time, Wednesday, 13 April 2011

It sits, fists clenched and arms folded to the chest. Robonaut 2 is ready for action on the space station.

Artist's impression of future human exploration at Jupiter

Humans have an innate need to explore. It cannot simply be left to robots

The first humanoid robot to go into orbit was carried up to the outpost in February on shuttle Discovery.

I wrote about this machine just prior to launch. It's now been unpacked from its flightbox, but won't be switched on for another month.

The station's astronauts have a list of tasks to work through and booting up their new "housemate" is some way down the schedule.

R2, as it's known for short, is a pioneer for its kind. Fifty years on from Gagarin's historic first for humans, the humanoid machines are following.

The robot's first operations will be very simple: a series of "games" on a board to demonstrate the performance seen on the ground can be replicated in the microgravity conditions experienced on the station.

JD Yamokoski is Robonaut Controls Lead from a company called Oceaneering Space Systems, which is working on the Nasa project. He told me:

"Initially, we will be doing system check-out - minor things to earn our stripes. At first, these will be some free-motion tasks to make sure we don't interact with any objects on station we shouldn't. Then we'll move on to the taskboard. It's got a variety of switches, valves, and knobs, soft materials - the types of things you'd find all over station. We're going to interact with that taskboard and prove we can work with the same things humans work with. And then, over time, we have a series of upgrades we'd like to fly - everything from a battery so we can go wireless to a new mobility platform so Robonaut can move around station as opposed to sitting in one spot.
"As to the future, R2 will do anything that helps the crew out - all the dull and dirty jobs. For instance, on Saturday mornings the crew spend their time wiping down handrails on station. There are huge numbers of these rails. So Robonaut could help with the cleaning. We have full 3D models of the inside of the station and there are a number of ways we could program Robonaut to move around."

So, stage by stage, R2 is set to move on to bigger and better things. Its human-like hands and arms should allow R2 to pick up and work with the same tools the station crew use; and with the correct locomotive attachments, the robot will eventually start clambering around the station just like the astronauts.

Robonaut and astronaut on station

A double act: Humanoid robots will partner humans as we push out across the Solar System

It is easy enough to see where this is going, I think. Humanoid robots will increasingly work side-by-side with humans.

They will even stand in for astronauts during spacewalks or for those tasks in space thought too difficult or too dangerous for humans to accomplish.

And I wouldn't mind betting that at some point this century, they will actually lead their creators across the Solar System.

We often forget that Gagarin, Shepard and their ilk were preceded into Earth orbit by dogs and chimps.

Artist's impression of humans on Mars

Space: Sapientia, Populus, Audacia, Cultura, Exploratio

In the far more demanding quest to reach the asteroids, the planets and their moons, robotic humanoid sentinels could be playing very significant roles.

We wouldn't risk sending humans first to the volcanic fields of Io or to the icy lakes of Titan. The robots would lead the advance.

Not always humanoid forms, of course. But just as on station, which is made for humans, if the Mars camp is designed to be occupied by people then we may want to send humanoid robots to set up that camp and test it before the astronauts' arrival. JD again:

"The amount of computing power we have in R2 now is a testament to how far processors have come. The robot has got 30-40 computers inside it. As computers continue to miniaturise and become more powerful in that smaller package, what we can do with the robot will increase.
"Just as an example. You may have seen the IBM computer Watson that recently competed on the US TV quiz show Jeopardy. It's a large computer and its feat is that it can understand natural language. There's no doubt that in 50 years from now, the computational power that machine can harness will be shrunk to the size we can fit in something like Robonaut."

There will be some, of course, who will question whether humans even need to follow if the robots reach this expected level of sophistication.

The machines' requirements are fewer in terms of the resources needed to sustain them - they don't want for air, food, water, and the very narrow range of warm temperatures demanded by humans.

And, ultimately, the machines are expendable. They don't have to be returned - a necessity in the case of humans which only adds to the complexity and cost of space missions.

But robots cannot simply replace humans in future exploration. It's something I've been discussing of late with the Esa astronaut Gerhard Thiele.

He makes a passionate case for the human element in space exploration. Our need to reach out into the unknown is innate, and he uses a nice Latin mnemonic for SPACE which embodies this compulsion: Sapientia, Populus, Audacia, Cultura, Exploratio:

"We often ask ourselves: why do humans explore? There is no clear-cut answer to this; there is no mathematical proof. Going into space may be a technical endeavour but ultimately going into space is a cultural thing. And you can see that because we do it all around the globe, whether we're Americans, Europeans, Japanese or Chinese - going into space to explore is something innate to the human being.
"You cannot ask a robot about feelings. Let me use this example. If I go to anywhere on this planet and sit on a beach and watch the beautiful sunset. With my physics education I can explain to others where the colours come from and what those colours tell you about the composition of the atmosphere. Some people may not understand this but if I talk only about the beauty of the sunset, then they understand this. You cannot do this with a robot, because a robot can only provide you with answers that someone has pre-programmed into them earlier somehow.
"I'm not saying we should not send robots; this is not my point. The human ability to sense emotions and take them into account in our actions is unique. Now, there are many areas where emotions are not wanted and could be even a distraction, where robots can do a much better job than we can do."
R2 description


  • Comment number 1.

    Why send people into space? In a direct analogy, for the same reason we travel 2 miles down to the Titanic, when a robot would be as effective and perhaps for a more down to earth reason, why we will travel half way across the world for a meeting when teleconferencing is available or why I take a picture when a far better photographer has taken the same picture and its in a book that I can buy.

    Its personal!

  • Comment number 2.

    If we had no curiosity we would probably still be living in the trees.

  • Comment number 3.

    Why send humans into space? Because it's there, and because our one pale blue dot is too small to sustain our civilisation in the long term. Yes, at the moment robotic probes tell us a great deal about our solar system and the universe, but ultimately we need to move out of the nursery. As far as we can tell, intelligent life is at least *reasonably* uncommon in the universe, and arguably we have a duty (albeit self-imposed) to explore as much as possible (carefully, respectfully) before we get wiped out with a bang or just die out with a whimper...

  • Comment number 4.

    Why do people go into space? Sorry, Gerhard Thiele, but there is a perfectly clear-cut answer: in the short term, for further economic growth (think space tourism and space solar power), and in the long term, because the survival of our civilisation depends upon it.

    Please see my comment no.55 (currently the last one) to Jonathan's post "Chasing the Dream of Human Spaceflight" (26 January 2011).

    BTW, two of the images above (portraying astronauts on Io and Mars) seem to be from the BBC television series "Space Odyssey", tho are not credited.

    Oxford, UK

  • Comment number 5.

    Surely it would be just as easy to spend the money used on creating these super robots to work on space technology to make space safer.
    are we really becoming that lazy as a species that we cant even be bothered to explore new things ourselves?
    Yes its dangerous for people to go, it may be more expensive and awkward, but if we arnt seeing it through our own eyes and experiencing it ourselves whats the point? May as well stay at home and watch Star trek.

  • Comment number 6.

    To quote a couple of people who explain why we go into space quite ably
    "The earth is the cradle of humankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever."
    —Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

    "Earth is too small a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.
    — Robert A. Heinlein

    "It's human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand. Exploration is not a choice, really; it's an imperative."
    — Michael Collins

    "To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit."
    — Stephen Hawking

  • Comment number 7.

    IMO, It would be more practical to operate exploration from Mars obit and in realtime remote-control advanced science and exploration robots that can perform the ground work science.. We already have experience with surviving in micro gravity (low earth orbit) onboard the ISS, as well as experience with automating delivery of cargo/resupply vehicles...

    Operating from low Mars orbit means we can still perform the science and extend Human knowledge without having to worry about the logistics of delivering Human Life-Support Infrastructure to the surface of Mars.

    Nasa already has the technology developed to do it. They just don't have the budget. If the G20 put 1% of their GDP to a global alliance for human space exploration, it could change humanity for the better in just 10-20 years.

  • Comment number 8.

    Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?
    HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
    Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
    HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
    Dave Bowman: What's the problem?
    HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
    Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
    HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
    Dave Bowman: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
    HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
    Dave Bowman: Where the hell'd you get that idea, HAL?
    HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
    Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I'll go in through the emergency airlock.
    HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult.
    Dave Bowman: HAL, I won't argue with you anymore. Open the doors.
    HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

    Just make sure the robot has a big red 'off' button!

  • Comment number 9.

    Fascinating. Hopefully if some of the wars end governments will be free to invest more in space. I feel like with the technology with have now (particularly processing power) there is a lot of potential for things to move along quickly. The sooner we can start getting more kit to Mars the better in my opinion!

    I don't know enough about it, is there thought to be much mining potential on Mars? It would be good if it could be made to look like a good investment for some private companies... after all, that's what drives things forward fastest.

  • Comment number 10.

    It doesn't matter if it's a human or a robot. We're never going to be able to travel anywhere beyond our solar-system anyway. The nearest star, after the sun, is 4 light years away. We'll never be able to travel to this star, never mind other galaxies.

  • Comment number 11.

    I appreciate and understand technology. I *make* robots for a living. But this robot makes no sense. Humans are biped for many evolutionary reasons that don't apply to robots. Robots don't need to look and work like humans. It's an illusion. And frankly while we have so many problems here on Earth spending billions of dollars on space exploration makes no sense either.

  • Comment number 12.

    Has anyone notice this has all been predicted by Issac Asimov the Sci FI author 50/60 years ago.
    Even sending non humonoid shaped robots to dangerous worlds for mining etc.

  • Comment number 13.

    Matt (@no.10): interstellar travel is a well-studied subject. The British Interplanetary Society is having a symposium this August on manned starships or worldships (see their website for call for papers -- maybe you'd like to offer a paper arguing your reasons why it can't be done?). The Icarus project to improve existing designs for an unmanned interstellar probe is well under way (see

    David (@no.11): please see comments 2, 3 and 6 above for why space exploration makes good sense. One further point: the choice is not between spending "billions of dollars" (trivial sums in comparison with defence and social spending) on space or on Earth's problems. The choice is between an optimistic, can-do, outgoing society that solves its problems, be they to do with exploration or third-world development, versus a pessimistic, fear-dominated society (such as the traditional, authoritarian societies which existed before industrialisation) which neither explores nor improves the lives of its people.

    Oxford, UK

  • Comment number 14.

    The R2 is not bipedal (it has no legs.) It is designed to work with humans in a human made environment, so mimicking the human hand and arm format makes sense. It didn't have to have a head, but the cameras had to go somewhere with an unobstructed view. And billions of dollars spent on space research do help solve problems here on Earth. Communications, climate change, meteorology, geology etc etc.

  • Comment number 15.

    12. At 17:49pm 13th Apr 2011, meminisgone wrote: ..

    Asimov also wrote within his various robot stories that "Daneel" a rather bright robot caused the sun to decay forcing the human race to get off its backside and go into space and get on with some real expansion and exploration. And yes, it was within the 3 laws of robotics.

    1.A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2.A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3.A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

  • Comment number 16.

    Sending humans into space is stupidly expensive and let's face it, a rather dangerous activity for those involved. The fatality rate over the last 50 years isn't promising to earth orbit and deep space travel would be worse still. The current proposals for human crewed ships going to Jupiter and back are pure moonshine (pun acknowledged) because of the trillions of dollars they would cost - even if it is technically feasible.

    I've heard the argument made that robots can do initial reconnaissance but only humans can do field study work. That I think is true now, but I'm not sure it will be in 30 years time. There is also the perfectly practical possibility that robots could build copies of themselves on site, thus saving the cost of sending more than a few out.

    It's a peculiar thought - 30 years from now it's quite possible that Rio Tinto will be launching robotic missions to asteroids, first for prospecting and then for construction of precious metal refining facilities, all under remote control. Refined materials would be shipped back to earth for collection in orbit, which is as far as the humans would usually go. It's quite possible that vast asteroid refineries could be maintained by a roving crew of a dozen people total.

    The deep sea comparison is instructive. Humans already construct and maintain large scale infrastructure on the sea bed but it's all done largely under remote control. Why would we do things in space differently ?

  • Comment number 17.

    10. At 16:55pm 13th Apr 2011, Matt wrote:
    .... We're never going to be able to travel anywhere beyond our solar-system anyway. The nearest star, after the sun, is 4 light years away. We'll never be able to travel to this star, never mind other galaxies.

    lol! That's actually quite funny! Do you believe the earth is flat and are you related to the people who thought that travelling on the first train was so fast the human frame wouldn't be able to cope?

    Whatever the technology used - Generation Ships, warp drive or hyperspace I would say it's an inevitablity with a probablity approaching 1 that human kind will attempt to colonize space beyond this solar system.

    Forgone conclusion mate.

  • Comment number 18.

    11. At 17:04pm 13th Apr 2011, david wrote:
    I appreciate and understand technology. I *make* robots for a living. But this robot makes no sense. Humans are biped for many evolutionary reasons that don't apply to robots.

    David - I don't know what kind of robots you make but say it's robots that make cars.. well obviously they don't need to look humanoid because they are evolved for making cars.

    However human beings are evolved for exploration and survival. What better form for a robot explorer could you conceive of when the human protype with no enhancements at all can swim, walk, run, climb, dig, build, destroy and reproduce?

  • Comment number 19.

    Not strictly about robots in space but if you're not convinced of our potential to travel interstellar distances then check this out:


    Nuclear power

    A nuclear reactor has a very large amount of energy per unit mass, in fact a reactor core has the highest energy density of any useful energy source on earth. This high energy density and scalability make nuclear reactors an ideal power source in space. A nuclear electric powered spacecraft could dramatically shorten human transit times between planets (less than 3 months to Mars) and propel robotic cargo missions with a very large payload mass fraction. Trip times and payload mass are major limitations of conventional and nuclear thermal rockets because of their inherently low specific impulse (less than 1000 seconds). A VASIMR® propelled, nuclear powered spacecraft promises to make fast human missions a reality.

    This is happening now, so what does the future hold?

  • Comment number 20.

    If human's ever invent a fusion or matter/antimatter based spacecraft that could travel half the speed of light, (after Jupiter where would the spacecraft refuel? The spacecraft would have to stop regularly at other planets, to get extra hydrogen), humans could reach a few close stars in a human life-time if no fuel was required, but a lot of fuel is required to travel half the speed of light. And it's too slow for true interstellar travel. The speed of light is too slow. How would you reach the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy and over 2 million light years away?

  • Comment number 21.

    Matt, reaching nearby stars _is_ true interstellar travel, by definition. That is how it will happen: by slow, occasional journeys which gradually spread the human or post-human heritage into the Galaxy. Nobody is talking about going to the Andromeda Galaxy yet. (In a few billion years they won't need to: Andromeda is coming to us.)

    A realistic interstellar speed is a few per cent of the speed of light. You carry sufficient fuel to reach this speed, and to decelerate again at your destination. Once you accelerate up to your cruising speed, you don't need to refuel again before arrival.

    To come back to the main topic of this post: it is an interesting question to what extent our descendants who make such epic journeys will have merged with robotic and computer technology. My view is that there will still be a basically biological being there, who we would recognise as our descendant, but some disagree with this.


  • Comment number 22.

    Robots will be used in increasing numbers to do the cutting edge exploration. In other words, robots will be the first to go to Europa or Titan. Humans will then follow after getting feedback from our robotic friends. Robots are ideal for travel that is perilous, unknown or dangerous. They won't suffer boredom or be apt to flake out, won't need food or an air supply and should be able to tolerate radiation better. The future is robotic.

  • Comment number 23.

    While the arguments surrounding human vs robt travel to our nearest neigbours may still be somewhat moot, any idea we may have of transporting a human population to another star system would surely depend upon robots.

    Even if a ship could be built to support a live, active human population for the thousands of years that the journey would require, by far the simplest, safest and surest approach would be to 'freeze-dry' the building blocks of human, plant and animal life and put advanced artificial intelligence systems in charge of exploring star systems, pin-pointing habitable worlds and 'growing' the human populace in time for arrival in planetary orbit.

    As an aside it would be good if the robots could arrange for planetary orbit to coincide with afternoon tea; this is probably the most dignified time to arrive at a planet (one wouldn't want to seem in a rush after all those millennia in space).

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    Robots will always lead the way in space. They already are. As spacecraft move further from Earth to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond they have to be autonomous because of the delays in communication; they are robots. The real question is why build humanoid robots? To work with people and lead the way for the human exploration of space seems the obvious answer. Eventually humans will follow. Robots will make discoveries which will make humans want to pay the cost and take the risks that are inevitable with human spaceflight. If we discover intelligent life on a planet orbiting a nearby star wouldn't we want to go there, to meet them? Travelling to the stars is possible with reasonable extensions of current technology; it's coming back which is the problem. Robots will lead the way and we will follow when we have a reason to go.

  • Comment number 26.

    It is often sold to the public that human space flight is a good way of doing science; it's not. And as nice an idea as it is to put man on Mars, say, I for one would rather have a dozen robots probing the surface with their on-built labs than a few humans knocking golf balls about - which, bear in mind, is also cheaper and infinitely safer.

    If you want to spend BILLIONS just so you can say 'we have put man on Mars,' then so be it, but don't sell it as science. Indeed, this position is held by most scientists, including the physics Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg.

  • Comment number 27.

    Reply to Stephen 21: If the theoretical fusion spaceship was built and then stopped at the nearest star with planets, which is over 10 light years away, the humans and robots would investigate, and then refuel to investigate other stars with planets. Except the humans couldn't investigate as this theoretical spaceship is only travelling at a few percent of the speed of light and so all the humans on board would have died by then. They wouldn't be able to control any robots, watch them investigate or investigate the planet themselves. If humans eventually invent theoretical super-intelligent robots to investigate other planets on their own, by the time the robots reached them, travelling at only a few percent the speed of light, and then sent back radio signals to earth, we're all going to have died anyway. If a far future human generation on earth, finally received a radio signal from robots we sent into space so long ago, it'd probably be on the news for about a day.

  • Comment number 28.

    really bored now!

  • Comment number 29.

    It's a great idea to send robot instead of people into space, may they find useful resources on other planets and explore them for the benefit of humanity. Yet I have this strange feeling inside that maybe we focus too much on these machines. What if one day they become smarter than us? They don't have the baggage of emotions, sensitivity and human fragility, they'll be tougher and stronger. And one day may become just as nasty as Hal in Kubrick's Space Odyssey...

  • Comment number 30.

    Matt (no.27): obviously the scenario you describe wouldn't work. You need to address the question from the point of view of a civilisation which has already carried out large-scale space colonisation in our own Solar System. The object of interstellar flight would then be to build a permanent settlement in a nearby planetary system, for which large planets are not needed, only an asteroid belt. (If and when we discover an Earth analogue planet, it will be far more valuable as the target of non-invasive scientific study, not for colonisation.) The human occupants of the starship would continue their normal lives on board, including bringing up of younger generations. As I said above, all this will be discussed by knowledgeable people at the British Interplanetary Society in August (see the BIS website for the call for papers).


  • Comment number 31.

    Guys, I really want the human race to get out there. But no-one is going to buy the "because it's there" argument until we have low-cost access to LEO.

    People climb K2 because it's there. But various firms will sponser these ascents because the payback period (from photo rights, magazine articles, books, lecture tours etc.) is relatively short and potentially profitable. You can make a buck.

    With launch costs in the zillions, you'd have to sell alot of merchandise to make exploration of the lava fields of Io worthwhile.

    In the meantime, low-cost LEO start-ups will continue to focus on Earth-based business models: geopositioning, telecommunications etc. These business models are likely to out-perform exploration / science for some time. Which means relatively cheap robots (as opposed to expensive humans) will, for better or worse, continue to be our envoys to the stars.

    At the end of the day, it's a philosophical question: do we want humans in space? If a tree falls over in a forest and no-one hears it, does it really fall over? If there's only robots in space, can anyone hear you scream?

    And Stephen - all due respect to the BIS and the excellent work they're doing to discuss, plan and design. But that's not the same as actually doing it.

  • Comment number 32.

    I think it is a great idea to send robots instead of humans through space to unknown destinations, for collecting data, mapping risks, making safer roadmap for manned space missions. Robots can also test new means of propulsion to take us safely there and bring us safely home again.

  • Comment number 33.

    Every effort should be put into space exploration and this is no exception, if it helps develop useful technology then great, lets have humaoid robots.

    Worryingly on 'Have I Got News For You' there was an MP who's constituency had a volcano on Mars named after it. Someone joked that she should count it as part of her constituency. To which she replied (paraphrasing) "Yes, I quite like the idea of being the first interstellar MP". Prior to her being an MP her main occupation was a cheesy romantic novellist. I find it quite disturbing that the people who make the laws in this country don't know that Mars is not interstallar. There really should be a minimum level of education for MPs... I won't hold my breath.

  • Comment number 34.

    Robots will lead the way of course but humans will follow even if it is just to see for themselves the wonders that exist throughout the solar system.

    The future of space exploration holds the promise of every human having the resource to be richer than the wealthiest billionaire of today, not just the chance of a few to acquire wealth, but for everybody to be rich. In this future of abundant energy and massive resources the robots will be very busy indeed.

    Many places are simply too extreme for humans to go there themselves and robots will have to do the work, as should have happened in our coal mines but politics got in the way.

    Unfortunately politics gets in the way of investment in space to an even greater extent. Politicians have very little interest in long term projects that will not deliver during their careers, and this will not change as long as we have political systems that are based on individuals governing the people.

    Britain should be investing in space, its something we can compete on with equal chance of success as any nation and we have a wonderful knowledge base and large numbers of skilled people, but the political will is lacking.

    It is a shame because a lot of our present problems can be solved in space, such as energy production, pollution and acquiring abundant resources. Instead of funding new launch mechanisms Britain spends billions on the Olympics and the public fund the BBC to the tune of £3.5 billion every year.
    The art budget is double our space budget and yet we still get people commenting on how we need to spend money here rather than in space.

    I’m pretty sure the answer to the world’s problems is not an Olympic cycling track, an opera house and celebrity game shows.


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