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SYFY WIRE Artificial Intelligence

An AI Powered Robot Just Figured Out How to Make Oxygen on Mars

Get cranking, buddy! Mars isn't going to oxygenate itself.

By Cassidy Ward

Robots and artificial intelligence are an increasingly common part of everyday life. We have them designing new medicines, answering questions (sometimes incorrectly), and serving as our own personal digital assistants. Given enough time, they might invade every part of our lives from empathy to exploration. Just ask M3GAN, a state-of-the-art Model 3 generative android designed to be your best bud.

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M3GAN's first theatrical at-bat ended in bloodshed, which might be why the latest artificial intelligence-powered robot to come out of real-world labs is destined for the Red Planet. Recently a team of researchers led by Jun Jiang at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei demonstrated an AI-equipped robot capable of making oxygen from scratch using only Martian materials. The results from this mechanical chemist were published in the journal Nature Synthesis.

Finding the Recipe for Making Oxygen from Martian Dirt

As we push toward the next phase of human space exploration, there’s a lot of focus on using local materials at our final destination. Anything we can find or make on the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere is something we don’t have to launch out of a gravity well and carry on our backs. And there’s nothing more useful than oxygen.

Visualization of an artificial intelligence making oxygen on Mars

The robotic, artificially intelligent chemist takes the shape of a large box about the size of a refrigerator turned on its side. A robotic arm sticks out of one side, allowing the robot to manipulate materials. Researchers gave the robot five meteorites which either came from Mars or had compositions mimicking the Martian surface, then they stepped away.

The robot used acid and alkali to break down the Martian ore and analyze its contents. Once it knew what it had to work with, it searched through 3.7 million possible combinations looking for an oxygen-evolution reaction catalyst which would release oxygen from water. Importantly, it worked through the entire process – preparation of Martian material, catalyst synthesis, characterization, testing, and searching for the optimal formula – without any input from people.

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The team estimated that their robot could produce 60 grams of oxygen per hour from a single square meter of Martian dirt. Of course, this isn’t the only Martian oxygen production experiment in progress. NASA’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), aboard the Perseverance rover has already produced oxygen from Martian air on the Red Planet. That said, when you’re off Earth, there’s no such thing as too many oxygen production tools.

AI-powered robot

Moreover, the same robotic chemist system that cracked the recipe for oxygen from Mars dirt could be used to create all kinds of catalysts and compounds. The strength of the system isn’t in its ability to produce oxygen but in its ability to find a path toward any target compound with whatever materials are available. Provided, of course, that a chemical path exists.

It’s the chemical equivalent of asking a trained chef to make a pizza out of the odds and ends in your pantry and at the back of your freezer. Mars is painfully lacking in breathable oxygen, but it has plenty of water ice at the poles and a near-endless supply of Martian rock everywhere else. Provided you have an artificially intelligent robotic chemist at your disposal, those are the only two ingredients you need to make all the air you could ever breathe. We just have to hope that this robot doesn’t turn homicidal when we need it most.

Look for the warning signs in M3GAN, available from Universal Pictures.