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The End of Astronauts—and the Rise of Robots

The End of Astronauts—and the Rise of Robots

How much do we need humans in space?  How much do we want them there?  Astronauts embody the triumph of human imagination and engineering.  Their efforts shed light on the possibilities and problems posed by travel beyond our nurturing Earth.  Their presence on the moon or on other solar-system objects can imply that the countries or entities that sent them there possess ownership rights.  Astronauts promote an understanding of the cosmos, and inspire young people toward careers in science.

When it comes to exploration, however, our robots can outperform astronauts at a far lower cost and without risk to human life.  This assertion, once a prediction for the future, has become reality today, and robot explorers will continue to become ever more capable, while human bodies will not.  

Fifty years ago, when the first geologist to reach the moon suddenly recognized strange orange soil (the likely remnant of previously unsuspected volcanic activity), no one claimed that an automated explorer could have accomplished this feat.  Today, we have placed a semi-autonomous rover on Mars, one of a continuing suite of orbiters and landers, with cameras and other instruments that probe the Martian soil, capable of finding paths around obstacles as no previous rover could.  

Since Apollo 17 left the moon in 1972, the astronauts have journeyed no farther than low Earth orbit. In this realm, astronauts’ greatest achievement by far came with their five repair missions to the Hubble Space Telescope, which first saved the giant instrument from uselessness and then extended its life by decades by providing upgraded cameras and other systems.  (Astronauts could reach the Hubble only because the Space Shuttle, which launched it, could go no farther from Earth, which produces all sorts of interfering radiation and light.)  Each of these missions cost about a billion dollars in today’s money.  The cost of a telescope to replace the Hubble would likewise have been about a billion dollars; one estimate has set the cost of the five repair missions equal to that for constructing seven replacement telescopes.  

Today, astrophysicists have managed to send all of their new spaceborne observatories to distances four times farther than the moon, where the James Webb Space Telescope now prepares to study a host of cosmic objects.  Our robot explorers have visited all the sun’s planets (including that former planet Pluto), as well as two comets and an asteroid, securing immense amounts of data about them and their moons, most notably Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus, where oceans that lie beneath an icy crust may harbor strange forms of life.  Future missions from the United States, the European Space Agency, China, Japan, India, and Russia will only increase our robot emissaries’ abilities and the scientific importance of their discoveries.  Each of these missions has cost far less than a single voyage that would send humans—which in any case remains an impossibility for the next few decades, for any destination save the moon and Mars.

In 2020, NASA revealed of accomplishments titled “20 Breakthroughs From 20 Years of Science Aboard the International Space Station.”  Seventeen of those dealt with processes that robots could have performed, such as launching small satellites, the detection of cosmic particles, employing microgravity conditions for drug development and the study of flames, and 3-D printing in space.  The remaining three dealt with muscle atrophy and bone loss, growing food, or identifying microbes in space—things that are important for humans in that environment, but hardly a rationale for sending them there. 

Russia’s Killer Drone in Ukraine Raises Fears About AI in Warfare

Russia’s Killer Drone in Ukraine Raises Fears About AI in Warfare

A Russian “suicide drone” that boasts the ability to identify targets using artificial intelligence has been spotted in images of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Photographs showing what appears to be the KUB-BLA, a type of lethal drone known as a “loitering munition” sold by ZALA Aero, a subsidiary of the Russian arms company Kalashnikov, have appeared on Telegram and Twitter in recent days. The pictures show damaged drones that appear to have either crashed or been shot down.

With a wingspan of 1.2 meters, the sleek white drone resembles a small pilotless fighter jet. It is fired from a portable launch, can travel up to 130 kilometers per hour for 30 minutes, and deliberately crashes into a target, detonating a 3-kilo explosive.

ZALA Aero, which first demoed the KUB-BLA at a Russian air show in 2019, claims in promotional material that it features “intelligent detection and recognition of objects by class and type in real time.”

The drone itself may do little to alter the course of the war in Ukraine, as there is no evidence that Russia is using them widely so far. But its appearance has sparked concern about the potential for AI to take a greater role in making lethal decisions.

“The notion of a killer robot—where you have artificial intelligence fused with weapons—that technology is here, and it’s being used,” says Zachary Kallenborn, a research affiliate with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START).

Advances in AI have made it easier to incorporate autonomy into weapons systems, and have raised the prospect that more capable systems could eventually decide for themselves who to kill. A UN report published last year concluded that a lethal drone with this capability may have been used in the Libyan civil war.

It is unclear if the drone may have been operated in this way in Ukraine. One of the challenges with autonomous weapons may prove to be the difficulty of determining when full autonomy is used in a lethal context, Kallenborn says.

The KUB-BLA images have yet to be verified by official sources, but the drone is known to be a relatively new part of Russia’s military arsenal. Its use would also be consistent with Russia’s shifting strategy in the face of the unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance, says Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russia’s military with the defense think tank CNA.

Bendett says Russia has built up its drone capabilities in recent years, using them in Syria and acquiring more after Azerbaijani forces demonstrated their effectiveness against Armenian ground military in the 2020 ​​Nagorno-Karabakh war. “They are an extraordinarily cheap alternative to flying manned missions,” he says. “They are very effective both militarily and of course psychologically.”

The fact that Russia seems to have used few drones in Ukraine early on may be due to misjudging the resistance or because of effective Ukrainian countermeasures.

But drones have also highlighted a key vulnerability in Russia’s invasion, which is now entering its third week. Ukrainian forces have used a remotely operated Turkish-made drone called the TB2 to great effect against Russian forces, shooting guided missiles at Russian missile launchers and vehicles. The paraglider-sized drone, which relies on a small crew on the ground, is slow and cannot defend itself, but it has proven effective against a surprisingly weak Russian air campaign.