Until recently, it seemed that robots would never be able to reason and think like humans. Now it is clear to everyone that they can. It is only a matter of time before AI is joined by an adequate humanoid robot that can do everything like a human. Will there still be a justification for sending humans into space? There are many areas from scientific research to building solar power plants in orbit. I am a very big supporter of human missions. If we ever want to colonize space, there has to be some good and economically viable reason to send those people there.

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    $\begingroup$ Very much related space.stackexchange.com/a/6362/26356 $\endgroup$ Commented May 25 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, but it's 10 years old. Everything has changed since then. $\endgroup$
    – Saturn V
    Commented May 25 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ I realize that saying "everyone" is a figure of speech, but even using "most" or "many" people, is it really "clear" to most people that robots (meaning computer chips) can "reason and think like humans? Is it more accurate to say that "many people think that computers can now (or will soon) reason and think like humans", because whether they can or ever will is a subject of debate similar to whether other intelligent life exists in our galaxy (or anywhere). It seems if your assumption is correct that they can or will reason and think like humans then you have answered your own question. $\endgroup$ Commented May 25 at 10:44
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    $\begingroup$ It is certainly far from clear to me that AI will ever ‘think’ or ‘reason’ like a human. LLMs that string words together are a mere parlor trick compared to thinking. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 25 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ In my judgement robots cannot reason and think like humans at the present time. In my opinion the premise of this question is incorrect. Let's see a human-equivalent robot on Earth first, not a person dancing in a silver suit. $\endgroup$ Commented May 25 at 14:47

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The role/rationale of human spaceflight has been a constant debate since the dawn of spaceflight. People way back in the 1970's were having debates about this exact topic, and it's very complicated. Here, for simplicity's sake, I will be using the terms "human" for the pro-human side and "robot" for the pro-robot side--for now ignoring that there are other positions.

AI can replace humans?

As you point out, one of the classic human debating points is "there are mental capabilities that humans have, which robots can't match like problem-solving or improvisation" and the closely related point of "human manual dexterity and flexibility cannot be replicated by machines outside of extremely specific and tailored use-cases".

With the development of "edge" AI systems (AI which runs "in the field" rather than in a large supercomputer), space missions will become more autonomous. We have already seen the limited implementation of AI systems in spacecraft, like the path-finding on the Perseverance Rover, and there are a couple new-space startups currently working on making the first actually autonomous satellites that independently make decisions on-board rather than being remote controlled from the ground.

Humanoid robots loaded with a near-human-level AI that can run locally and where the chassis has near-human-levels of physical capabilities is a different beast entirely and optimistically a minimum of a decade or two away. I suspect that in the near- to mid-term future we will see a lot more AI in space, such as vision systems that automatically select optimal landing sites or calculate how to grip an oddly shaped rock properly for sample collection, but I don't think that these scientific tasks will eat into human spaceflight in any way.

In fact, as these systems ostensibly make acquiring scientific data cheaper, this could enable more "bang-for-buck" and leave more budget open to human spaceflight.

Why even do human spaceflight?

Your position that space exploration only serves scientific purposes is very "robot" when, in fact, there are many arguments/goals for human spaceflight that aren't just "do science" and can't be done well by a machine. For example:

  • People think it's cool. You discount this in your question, and say that there needs to be an "economically viable reason" but that's not true. We do plenty of economically nonviable things, just because we want to. Like, "going on vacation" is economically "nonviable": you are spending money on hotels and flights and rental cars when you could just not but people do it anyways.

  • Human spaceflight creates heroes. People who've gone to space, walked on the moon, or achieved something similarly out-of-the-ordinary are something that we, as humans, have always desired. Storytelling and mythology and "great men" have always been part of human culture, and what else is human spaceflight if not the continuation of a species-long obsession with adventure, adversity, and the unknown? In more concrete "fiscal" terms, if it costs me a 100 million dollars to put someone in space, but then this person ends up inspiring tens of thousands of children to dream big and pursue, for example, careers in science and engineering, is this not a worthwhile investment?

  • Human spaceflight is an expression of national pride. The space race and the Apollo program weren't really about science; they were about beating the Soviets and demonstrating, on the world stage, that the USA was unrivaled in technology, economy, and general capability. You can plug in the JFK quote here about doing things "not because they are easy, but because they are hard" and just because we could send a robot to collect the sample for less money, doesn't mean that sending a human would send an entirely different message to the global audience

  • Human spaceflight is where the future of humanity is. Granted, this is a bit of a more "abstract" point and something of an opinion, but if we want to transition into being a truly space-faring species, colonize space, etc, we've actually got to go to space and learn what it takes for humans to survive, build, and thrive in space. At the end of the day the "why?" for the scientific questions we are asking are in service to the two big questions--"Where are we from?" and "Are we alone?"--and human spaceflight serves to answer the question "Where will we go next?".

In summary, while the development of AI and more advanced robotic missions will doubtlessly reduce the need for human spaceflight to accomplish goals that a robot can accomplish, there are many goals and justifications for space exploration and development that are intrinsically linked to human participants.


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