NASA: robots will search for life in the Solar System

"Humans are too delicate": NASA is working on intelligent spaceships, able to search for life beyond the solar system

It seems that NASA has definitely broken the hesitations: today we talk more and more openly about extraterrestrial life and search for life in space, from how to communicate the possible discovery of alien life to what tools to put in place to search for it in the depths of the universe.

And it seems that the U.S. Space Agency has a pretty clear idea of who will be sent beyond the confines of the solar system in search of life: the dear old spaceships, which will soon be "curious" and know where to look, will take care of it.

They'll know how to look for themselves

Steve Chien is head of the Artificial Intelligence Development Department at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: that is, he's the person who is defining how the non-human intelligence we'll send in search of life beyond Earth should behave.

In a recent interview with New Scientist, Chien reveals that astronauts won't be the ones traveling to Jupiter's moons and beyond in search of signs of life.

"Humans are too delicate, too heavy and require too many resources to live," Chien says: when it comes to exploring space far beyond the solar system, "it makes much more sense to send machines."

Unfortunately, machines don't have the innate curiosity of humans, and it wouldn't be surprising to see a machine programmed to photograph a planet quietly continue to take its pictures even in the face of unexpected contact with an alien life form.

That's what Chien and colleagues at JPL are working on: the goal is to turn spacecraft into real explorers, capable of figuring out what to look for and how.

Chien considers the kind of intelligence that drives, for example, Perseverance, among the most advanced rovers ever, a form of "relative intelligence" - still far from the goal.

Perseverance can do many things, identifying targets based on shape, color and size cues given by NASA, like other state-of-the-art instruments capable of searching for specific dust or phenomena.

That's not enough: "robots have to learn to search for themselves," Chien says.

New horizons in space exploration

They will be intelligent spaceships like those that converse amiably with their human commanders in the classic sci-fi tradition, perhaps.

Surely the robots that will go searching for life in and beyond the solar system, starting perhaps on the Jovian moon Europa, will be able to detect recurring patterns and patterns in the human way.

The enormous effort required to send people into low Earth orbit clearly indicates, according to Chien, that getting back to the Moon or Mars is one of the most difficult missions to plan.

"And we're talking about places where we're certain there's no life," Chien adds: in addition to the incredible amounts of radiation and other possible effects on human health, the next trips into deep space could present an even more frightening "danger," such as a close encounter with an alien life form.

Much better to develop an artificial intelligence that would allow spaceships to think in much the same way as a human commander would, and to do so autonomously, because one of the unresolved problems of travel beyond the Moon is that communications are very, very complicated beyond a certain distance from Earth.

When people talk about artificial intelligence in space they tend to think of characters like Data from Star Trek, something capable of interacting with humans on a variety of subjects, just as people do, perhaps even capable of feeling.

In reality, Chien argues, "we don't really need that in space," but a specialized intelligence capable of interacting with science and scientists.

A foretaste of what is possible with AI implementation of space assets is in the splendid example of the New Horizons mission, which somehow guided itself autonomously all the way past Pluto.

The next step is to equip this AI with a nice dose of curiosity, allowing it to act practically like a scientist: according to Chien, between 5 and 10 years from now we will be able to send our own robot explorers into deep space.