Robots might make you think of anything from insecure droids like C-3PO to metal machines of mass destruction, but NASA’s idea of how artificial intelligence will rocket into the future is nothing less than mind-blowing.
Spacecraft that can autonomously decide which celestial bodies are worth zooming in on or what is worth studying on exoplanets light-years away will be the successors of the AI born of both Earth and Martian missions. The agency already has Robonaut 2 at work, which can flip switches and perform a few more tasks to assist space-station astronauts, and its Earth-Observing Satellite which was part of the Autonomous Sciencecraft Experiment (ASE) just completed its mission after years of scanning Earth’s surface for potentially dangerous phenomena (think hurricanes and volcanic eruptions) and beaming down alerts to scientists who could then spark the public into action.
NASA’s ongoing AI experiments include the Intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (iPTF), which scans optical wavelengths for supernovae and other phenomena in the sky. iPTF was able to prove the existence of gravitational waves when the absence of a supernova made LIGO unable to see them last year. V-FASTR, meanwhile, predicts pulsar pulses, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, and other radio transient events that release insane amounts of energy as they change at warp speed.
These bots are just tangles of wires compared to what will be flying into space in the future. More intelligent robots will eventually be able to point out any number of celestial objects that should be of most interest to scientists. Advanced bots that land on Mars could zoom in on what is hiding beneath that red dust and choose which samples are worth putting under the microscope. Think the Mars 2020 rover, which will not only scope out targets of interest on its own but also be able to determine how to best extract information and even rearrange its schedule on the fly.
NASA even has plans to have a robot ride a comet. Its Comet Hitchhiker project, fueled by funding from its Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, could actually streak into the outer solar system in a flash of light on the back of a so-called shooting star.
The next destinations NASA has its telescope lens on are icy moons like Enceladus and Europa, whose surface ice and possible liquid oceans can be probed for biosignatures and alien life. Its upcoming Europa Clipper mission has multiple flybys of the frozen moon planned to observe the plumes of water gushing from its geysers. NASA is looking to eventually land a bot on the ice or even plunge a submarine into those vast unexplored oceans.
By the way, if you recently saw anything on your feed about Facebook shutting down an experiment involving two bots whose brains told them to start communicating in some sort of shorthand, any rumors that they started speaking in robot on their own were really just sci-fi extensions of the truth. They had really just rerouted their methods of communication for efficiency since they weren’t rewarded for using English. Even bots can misbehave.