Landscapes by Remote Control

One of many interesting things I’ve been reading this month is the new book by William J. Clancey, Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery with the Mars Exploration Rovers.

[Image: Curiosity pokes its heavily instrumented “head” around the Red Planet; photo courtesy of NASA and U.S. taxpayers].

Clancey’s look at the “robotic geologists” humans have sent to Mars over the past decade explores the strange phenomenon of science-at-a-distance, pursued, measured, recorded, and analyzed by human controllers located on another planet.

This is, in Clancey’s words, “a unique human-robotic enterprise,” by way of “teleoperated robots” or “telerobotic tools.”

[Image: Curiosity looks back at the “Morse road” it has created; photo courtesy of NASA].

The book is very much academic—i.e. it is not a New Yorker-style profile of mission scientists in their lab at Pasadena—but it nonetheless reveals the bizarre methodological requirements of working on another planet through remotely controlled machine-surrogates. From altered sleep-patterns (to keep pace with the longer days on Mars) to darkened window shades (to enact on Earth the darkness of the Martian nightfall for rovers), the actual practices of the scientists come to the foreground of Clancey’s study.

It is through these practices that the humans can engage with and control—or at least efficiently keep track of—these radically off-site prosthetic extensions, the rover now understood as “a mechanism that can be ‘acted through,’ an extended embodiment of the human eyes and hands of the people who control its actions from Earth.”

It is a remotely operated surrogate sensory apparatus—organs without a body.

[Images: Curiosity on Mars; photos courtesy of NASA].

Yet, even as these deliberately chosen images show—images taken by me from NASA‘s website, not from Clancey’s book—it is hard to resist what Clancey himself takes critical issue with, which is the personification of these “robot geologists” as they trundle around the Martian environment, peering at things, laser-zapping rocks, craning their heads—”heads”—around like ostriches and setting off across the landscape afresh, solar-recharged, every morning.

[Image: Curiosity on Mars; photo courtesy of NASA].

Emotionally identifying with the Mars rovers not only leads to the use of anatomical metaphors, such as those present in the previous sentence; it also, Clancey argues, clouds the notion of what it means to do science at all. “These inspirational descriptions have a place,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “but we must understand this new technology and articulate how it has worked so well if we are to know how to use and improve it.” Overarching questions about how humans and robots might exchange their roles in this undertaking—whether it’s the phrase “robot geologists” or a reversal of this situation with computer-guided “human tools” more like the astronauts in 2001—are, he writes, “technically and philosophically confused.”

The obvious benefit of non-scientific attachment between humans and their charismatic machines is that it is exactly these identifications that catalyze public enthusiasm for extraordinarily expensive scientific expeditions. But debunking myths of robot charisma is only part of Clancey’s purpose, as his book begins, instead, with a more or less anthropological study of the Earth-bound laboratory and the constantly changing teams of human beings within it, as they deploy and operate long-distance geologic tools, naming the terrain, mapping the landmarks, coordinating survey information, and chemically sensing the Martian landscape through surrogate “bodies” of complex instrumentation.

In other words, we might be busy anthropomorphizing machines, but the humans actually engaged with these off-world robotic tools are themselves realizing how they must adapt to the needs of the devices, to the tools’ own scientific and sensory limits, and to what these instruments can and cannot do in as distant a location as Mars.

[Image: Curiosity on Mars; photo courtesy of NASA].

In any case, Clancey’s book is worth checking out if this sort of thing interests you. However, it seems worth noting here briefly that this could also be put into the context of, say, art historian Barbara Maria Stafford’s 2001 essay on “devices of wonder,” or the interpretive machines and intermediary technical instruments that “not only constrain what it is possible to see but also determine what can be thought” by those who use them; as well as the idea, mentioned previously, of the “prosthetic imaginary,” or “a more metaphorical notion of the ‘prosthetic’ as an extended tool that becomes a proxy, or a substitute for experience.”

3 thoughts on “Landscapes by Remote Control”

  1. Curiosity looks even less friendly than the evil Imperial Probe Droid in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). At least the droid didn't leave messy tracks all over everything.

    Is this any way to send a human robotourista to another planet? Perhaps we should reconsider the first impression our mechanical visitors might make on the local population (if any). We are guests, after all, and interplanetary wars have started over less.

  2. I understand the "robot geologists" which are the topic of this post include the previous Mars rovers.

    While "landscape afresh, solar-recharged, every morning" makes for nice imagery in general but when all the images themselves are of the Curiosity rover I feel some cognitive dissonance.

    Curiosity is powered by the decay heat of plutonium, not light from the sun. It's energy harks back to the ancient supernova that created the plutonium and other heavy elements.

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