Space probes of the future will have artificial intelligence, and it's kind of creepy

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Jun 24, 2017, 11:48 AM EDT (Updated)

When you think of artificial intelligence, you may think of Lt. Commander Data or C-3PO, but this AI will actually be the spacecraft rather than on board.

Exploring space has some far-out challenges—and this is after we’ve sent robots to Mars and all manner of probes and orbiters to other planets, including Venus and Saturn. Future missions will venture deeper and deeper into unexplored star systems and galaxies that have only been observed via telescope. This is easier dreamed than done. Too many unforeseen obstacles could cause a craft to glitch or break down hundreds of thousands of miles away, which is why scientists developing these future missions need to be paranoid.

Space scientists Steve Chien and Kiri Wagstaff of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory suggest that programming probes with advanced artificial intelligence will largely eliminate the need for prompts from the home planet that would have increasing difficulty reaching out to them the further they ventured into space. Not to mention that probes on more daring missions will have to be able to think for themselves, because they even more of them will be required and they will probably not be able to receive any intervention from Earth. It gets creepier with the realization that the capacity to learn will need to be wired into their computerized brains to make them adaptable.

"The goal is for A.I. to be more like a smart assistant collaborating with the scientist and less like programming assembly code," said Chien, who collaborated with Wagstaff on an article recently published in the journal Science Robotics. "It allows scientists to focus on the 'thinking' things—analyzing and interpreting data—while robotic explorers search out features of interest."


AI could make sending a probe Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our solar system, possible .

Autonomous probes should be able to function on a hypersensitive level that includes understanding and carrying out mission requirements, recognizing geological phenomena and identifying differences between what passes for normal planetary conditions (depending on the planet) and extreme space weather. They should also be able to reprioritize if they eye something spontaneous, like ocean plumes erupting on watery worlds similar to Enceladus. Advancing the science of AI enough may even make them able to use their findings for future studies. Not having infinite fuel means the robo-brains will also need to make the call on which regions are worth delving into the most.

AI is already being prototyped for the Mars 2020 rover and could someday make once-impossible endeavors, like a mission to Alpha Centauri, possible, but even the researchers themselves admit it still has to level up.

"For the foreseeable future, there's a strong role for high-level human direction," Wagstaff said. "But A.I. is an observational tool that allows us to study science that we couldn't get otherwise."