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Should Robots, Instead of Humans, Go Into Space?

They might be better at life in space than humans. But could they be counselors too?

Are we here to re-create ourselves as robotic humanoids? In a recent podcast, Robert J. Marks discusses what robots can do for us with retired internist and author Geoffrey Simmons. In his most recent book, Are We Here to Re-Create Ourselves?: The Convergence of Designs (2019), Simmons argues that in creating artificially intelligent robots, we are trying to recreate the human being. But can we really recreate everything about ourselves? For example, they discussed, can robots be counselors? Should robots go into space instead of humans?

As a writer, Simmons has found audiences for both fiction and non-fiction. For example, he wrote Z-papers (1976), a medically based crime thriller in which “In a Chicago hospital, the U.S. Vice Presidential candidate lies perilously close to death, poisoned with a mysterious substance by an unknown assailant.” It sold 350,000 copies and was Detective Book Club’s book-of-the-month. His science fiction novel The Adam Experiment has an even more don’t-read-this-just-before-bedtime premise:

Cortney is having a baby. Deep in space on an orbiting laboratory, she is both scientist and mother in a dramatic experiment that turns into nine months of terror when the Alien arrives.

It waits. A starblind horror, studying, dissecting and discarding humans in a hideous experiment of its own, preparing to possess what it came to claim: the first human child conceived and born in space!

But Simmons also writes non-fiction, including Common Sense and Disaster Preparedness (2011). He is Board-certified in disaster preparedness. He also wrote Billions of Missing Links: A Rational Look at the Mysteries Evolution Can’t Explain (2007), focusing on the many structures and systems of life on Earth that appear to have come about “all at once, entire… with no preceding links, no subsequent links, no ‘sideways’ links.”

From the transcript: (Show Notes, Resources, and a link to the complete transcript follow.)

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a science fiction writer (though perhaps not surprisingly for a doctor internal medicine, Simmons doesn’t think humans should go into space. Send robots instead, he advises:

Geoffrey Simmons (pictured): I’m a biologist, I don’t think humans are ever going to be able to do this. They’re going to have to come up with some other technology that is not evident at this time. I don’t think we can have a human go into suspended animation for 20, 30 years on a trial basis to see if it works and if they come out alive on the other end. Indeed, 20 years into it, everything will change so much that they’ll probably just abandon the experiments if you wake up.

So, I can’t see the experimentation happening. I just don’t think we’re going to go, unless we get the speed of light or wormholes or some technology that we can’t think of. I can’t see us ever having the time to get to something that’s a million light years away, whereas robots, sure. And you don’t have to put them asleep, you just turn them off, I guess. So, I think what we’ve done is, we’re recreating ourselves and to go to outer space, why not look like us and why not sound like us? And why not do things like us if we’re going to have them represent us? And so, I see that as an absolute thing to happen in the future.

But we also, as you know, you’re an expert in this area of robots and computer science, but all the drudgery works. You can’t get people to want to do those. All the nuclear power plants cleanup, especially the one in Japan that was destroyed. You have to have non-humans doing this. And sometimes it takes something that looks like and acts like a human. Sometimes it’s just something rolling with arms. Or you can manage with a radio. The police need robots for the future with bombs and all kinds of accidents. Firemen can use robots. It goes on and on, the benefits of having robots.

Again surprisingly, he thinks that robots could possibly be counsellors… and there Marks disagrees.

Robert J. Marks: You really think that counseling can be done well by artificial intelligence?

Geoffrey Simmons: Yeah. It’s going to be a challenge.

Robert J. Marks: I’m skeptical.

Geoffrey Simmons: Yeah. I’ll tell you what they can do because they’re already doing some of it. It’s basically checking off of boxes and if you get so many boxes, seven out of eight or something, you’re depressed. And then you make sure they’re not suicidal. If they’re not suicidal, you prescribe this medication. It’s a recipe. But a lot of people who are needing psychiatric care, just need someone to talk to. And so they can fulfill that role probably. Can they understand some of our emotions? Probably not. I mean, they may be able to fake it, but I don’t think they can understand our emotions. Can they show compassion? Well, I don’t think so.

Robert J. Marks: I don’t think so either. I think they can fake compassion but I don’t think they can actually feel any sort of compassion.

Dr. Simmons also discussed a dangers of space travel for humans that is not widely known:

Robert J. Marks: You mentioned robots and space. Come to think of it, we’ve had robots on Mars already. So, I think your prophecy is already been fulfilled, except you’re thinking more about deep space exploration. Something I learned in your book, Geoff, was about “space brain.” I’d never heard of that before as a deterrent for human flight. That’s amazing. Tell us what space brain is.

Geoffrey Simmons: Well, it’s a new documented phenomenon. They can actually see changes on MRIs in astronauts where they’ve got pinged in some way with cosmic rays or the like. And I think if somebody’s in outer space for extremely long periods of time and they only have the protection that we know of at this point, there’s likely brain damage and another reason not to go to deep, deep space.

Robert J. Marks: So, space brain is due to cosmic rays. We’re wonderfully designed according to Guillermo Gonzalez, so that our atmosphere and our magnetic poles deflect these cosmic rays and they actually go around the earth instead of to the surface. And so we escape all of the negative things that happen from cosmic rays. But when you’re in space, that doesn’t happen and I think that’s what you’re saying happens to the brain as we go into outer space. That is really fascinating.

Geoffrey Simmons: think we’re designed to be here.

Note: A study of 34 astronauts published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 found “striking” brain changes in the 18 who logged prolonged time out in space:

“The brain scans revealed that most astronauts who participated in long-duration missions had several key changes to their brain’s structure after returning from space: Their brains shifted upward in their skulls, and there was a narrowing of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) spaces at the top of the brain. (CSF is a clear liquid that flows between the brain and its outer covering, and between the spinal cord and its outer covering.) However, none of the astronauts on short-duration missions exhibited these brain changes.”

Rachael Rettner, Here’s How Space Travel Changes the Brain” at LiveScience (November 1, 2017) The paper is open access.

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Show Notes

  • 00:24 | Introducing Dr. Geoffrey Simmons
  • 02:07 | Are we here to re-create ourselves?
  • 04:11 | A purpose to our design
  • 05:41 | Ray Kurzweil and Singularity
  • 06:21 | Why write?
  • 07:40 | Sending robots to space
  • 10:05 | The possibility of robot therapists
  • 11:52 | Space brain
  • 12:49 | Perfecting artificial intelligence
  • 15:15 | Are animals conscious?

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript for Download

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Should Robots, Instead of Humans, Go Into Space?