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August 6, 2013

Robots in space

As the first ever robot companion blasts off into orbit, we take a look at the idea of robots in space, and whether they really can replace a human.

By Cbr Rolling Blog

Robots and space have lived in a symbiosis for a long time. From the early concepts sci-fi authors had in the 1920s, to C3PO and R2D2 helping save the galaxy in Star Wars, all the way to the Shuttle’s robotic arm aiding astronauts with their tasks, robots have helped humankind in its endeavor towards the frontier of space.

Kirobo, Japan’s new talking android that’s been sent on a mission to keep astronaut Koichi Wakata company while he commands the ISS, is just that next step closer to achieving what’s been portrayed for years: a real-life robotic companion in space.

Think Marvin the Paranoid Android. Well, almost, just the other way round.This little fellow is designed to help Koichi battle lonliness in a study into whether a robot can actually help the human mind when confronted with distance, isolation and mental fatigue.

Friends for the elderly

Taking away those cute publicity shots though, could Kirobo have non-orbital uses that help out its creator, mankind?

Perhaps as friends for the elderly or lonely in care homes, or for the troubled youngster who finds it hard to make friends. This is definitely a step in the direction of those classic ’60s sci-fi robots (not the evil ones!)

It might still seem science fiction to some, but so was landing on the Moon to people 50 years ago, but we still did it. If there’s a talking robot up there in space right now just imagine what we could have in the next few decades.

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So is Kirobo a harbinger for manned or unmanned space exploration in the future…

As NASA struggles to justify human space exploration, and with resources now funneled away from human missions, we are looking at a scenario where more and more advanced robots are taking over from humans in space, and perhaps pushing the boundaries even further.

Obama told us to "not just assume that human space exploration, actually sending bodies into space, is always the best investment."

In other words, we don’t have the money to keep putting humans into space, and we sure can’t afford to keep risking it either.

On the frontier

At the root of the human spaceflight argument is just the simple fact that throughout human history there has always been the belief that mankind can better itself by pushing the frontier. This argument has been used to make many cases for exploring and settling in space, with von Braun himself putting humans at the centre of space exploration.

However, I don’t think any of the early advocates of human space exploration established just how expensive spaceflight could turn out to be, especially without the financial backing of the Cold War’s space race.

Many of the basic missions that are now being carried out in space can be carried out by machines for a fraction of the cost. Just look at the Mars rovers. Is there only a need for humans in space when it comes to boasting national prestige?

Well one argument that remained true in defence of human space exploration up until this weekend was the fact that all these ‘robots’ in space lacked autonomy. They were all human-controlled or programmed, hence not really robots as such at all.

But with Kirobo, this has all changed.

The future of interstellar travel may well be rested in the hands of these robots – little android thinkers that roll the efficiency and longevity of robots with the imagination and innate intellect of humans into one.

"Open the pod doors Hal…"

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