Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Apollo - Human vs Machine

In much the same way as atheists debate the merits of an accomodationist versus confrontational strategies on matters of religion and science, space enthusiasts debate the merits of sending humans into space or sending machines.

The machine enthusiasts argue that we can do a great deal more science with a machine than we can by sending a human – for the same amount of money. Each lunar probe costs between $50 million and $500 million. A lunar base is so far expected to cost over $100 billion. So, for the price of one lunar base, we can send, just to us round numbers, 400 unmanned missions to the moon.

The human enthusiasts argue that you can never program a machine to make judgment calls that will truly do the best science. That requires a human scientist on the field.

Against this, the machine enthusiasts counter that it is a false analogy to compare a human mission to a machine mission. We must compare a human mission to 400 machine missions, each built by humans who look at the data received from one mission in designing the next.

I think that the human enthusiasts are being fundamentally dishonest in arguing that humans can do better science than machines – and in suggesting that this is what motivates them to pursue human space flight. They are not only being dishonest with the machine enthusiasts and the public at large when they give these arguments, they are being dishonest with themselves.

The real reason to send humans has nothing to do with “doing good science”. It has to do with the romantic element of challenging oneself on the frontier. It is a sense of adventure, not a sense of scientific curiosity, that drives this interest.

The next time a machine enthusiast points out that a machines can do more and better science than a human, ask her about her last vacation. Where did she go? Hawaii? Greece? Yellowstone park?

“Now, why did you waste all of that money visiting that place yourself? If you wanted to learn about the place you could have done so by logging onto the internet, finding some videos and pictures and reading about the area. In fact, this is what you should do. However, in addition to the interest in learning the facts about a place there is a drive to go there and actually experience the place.

This is the actual, honest motivation behind human space flight. It is not to ‘do better science’ – that’s a senseless rationalization. The real interest is in being there, to see and feel and experience the place.

There is nothing wrong with this reason.

The only value that exists is value is in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires. Curiosity is a good desire and one that we have reason to promote through praise and condemnation. That is to say, people who are eager to learn deserve our praise, while those who turn up their nose at the idea of learning deserve our contempt.

The desire to explore is also something that we have reason to promote. Without this desire, humanity would still be huddled in some valley in Africa unwilling to look outside the boundaries of one’s own home. Ultimately, this drive to explore will save the human race, if acted on and encouraged, as more and more humans leave Earth and build homes for humanity elsewhere.

Assuming that nature gives us enough time, and we take advantage of the time we are given. The former element, of course, depends on pure chance. Whereas the latter element depends on our own success at recognizing the value of the desire to explore and properly nurturing it and helping it to grow.

It’s counter-productive to try to defend human space flight with phony rationalizations that are transparent to most people anyway. It is best to stay with the facts.

Why send humans into space instead of machines?

Because it is there.

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