Skip to content

Raising robots

February 19, 2021
Illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars. Image NASA ID: PIA23764. Date Created: 2020-03-05.

Yesterday (18th Feb 2021) we landed a new rover on Mars. I say we because the human race as a whole can make a claim for this success. Perseverance, who I think I’ll call Persi, is the creation of the finest of human capabilities – our incomparable brains, our command of logic and our mastery of physics. No sweaty meshing of body parts went into its conception, no bloody and painful birthing chambers for this baby. Persi was carefully engineered in a giant white hangar by people whose inconveniently dirty bodies were entirely encased in white suits.

Persi followed a string of siblings (some still-born, some now dead) including Mars 2, Mars 3, Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity. It shares the planet with Curiosity (Curi) and will soon be joined by Tianwen-1 (Ti), currently in orbit. More are planned. I like to think of Persi, Curi and Ti frolicking together on the red planet, although they are unlikely to meet.

These children of humanity carry our intellectual DNA, a collective heritage that spans human history and the globe. Philosophers asked the questions and engineers, inventors, mathematicians and scientists worked to find the answers, painstakingly adding pieces of the puzzle over the past 3000 years. I know I feel proud.

Our little robot offspring were conceived with the same hope that parents everywhere invest in their children. The Surface Mission Team are preparing to nurture Persi through its days on Mars, adjusting their sleeping patterns to fit and nervously checking on it, far too often. The robot kids may not grow individually, but each contributes to the next one, as we continue to develop improved models. Persi is interesting because, not only is it mobile, it also shows more signs of independence. Persi chose its own landing site by looking at the surface, and landed itself.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, Perci has other siblings, less mobile but developing mental capabilities. Other siblings are becoming adept at engineering, taking raw materials and turning them into the stuff that robots are made of. Put these capabilities together and it won’t be long before the robots are able to learn and grow just like humans. While for some, this is a frightening prospect, I am an optimist. Just like the enormous pleasure to be had from raising a child, even though it is scary, developing these robots will bring satisfaction and delight.

When I look at Persi up there on Mars, I am struck by its advantages over its human parents. Persi can withstand the thin atmosphere and the cold. Persi and the generations of robots to come will be comfortable on planets and in space, places that humans can’t go without the support of technology barriers to shield our feeble flesh. This is when the power will shift, when the meaty sires of robots will find themselves depending on their offspring.

I am reminded of a sobering evening I spent in the emergency department of a large public hospital watching an elderly couple being patched up. They had been assaulted by their adult son. It made me realise that children who are small and weak grow to become larger and more powerful than their parents and made me think very carefully about the kind of parent I wanted to be.

We need to be really sure that we raise well-behaved robots, and treat them well, if we want them to take care of us in our dotage. Figuring out what it means to be good parents to these creatures is the next project and it too requires the collected wisdom of our species, only this time we may need to turn to somewhat different fields of knowledge. If we do this right, the robots we are creating will support us to explore the universe, as well as to improve life here on Earth.

The thing that surprised me most about being a parent was how much I learned (and still learn) from my son. Our robot offspring are likely to bring us unimagined learning. They are already teaching us better ways to make decisions, better ways to share information. They may be able to teach us better models of collaboration and co-operation. Perhaps, in time, they will even teach us better ways to balance power. Now that would make me proud.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: