The robot instead of man in space? 'We're still a long way from that' according to Thomas Pesquet

The robot instead of man in space? 'We're still a long way from that' according to Thomas Pesquet

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are transforming many professions in the banking, construction and trade sectors, where certain specific tasks can now be performed by robots. While three astronauts – Italian Luca Parmitano, Russian Alexander Skvortsov and American Andrew Morgan – took off, this Saturday, July 20, 2019, aboard a Soyuz towards the International Space Station (ISS), could we ever imagine that one of these men will be replaced by an intelligent robot at the R2-D2 of the “Star Wars” saga?

Asked about this by Business Insider France, on the sidelines of the Mooon event held this Saturday at the Grand Palais, in Paris, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first steps of Man on the Moon, the French astronaut Thomas Pesquet replied that “we are still far from it in space, because we need technologies that are very reliable, that is to say that we can not take the risk that it does not work”, specifying that “a risk that it does not work, it is not a risk of 50, but a risk of one times ten power minus seven. Which means that we have rather old technologies in general, whether for communication or for propulsion. But we still have a modernization that is accelerating with many private actors in particular.”

Also read — What the Earth would be like without the Moon

The engineer-by-training, who carried out a 196-day mission to the ISS between November 2016 and June 2017, explained that man and machine are already working together in space exploration, citing the example of rovers on Mars like Curiosity — this small walking NASA laboratory is able to take photos, drill into rocks and take different measurements. However, Thomas Pesquet pointed out that “there is no opposition between rovers and men as people like to say, it’s wrong. At the European Space Agency (ESA), these two activities are in the same department, so there is no war for budgets.”

‘Not in a sci-fi scenario yet’

As for the alarmist scenario of man vs. the machine, mentioned among others by SpaceX founder Elon Musk — he believes that AI represents the “greatest risk we face as a civilization” and that humans could be reduced to “domesticated cats” compared to superpowered computers —, “we are not there yet in space, man against the machine. Will it ever happen, I don’t know, but not for now,” the ESA astronaut said.

Whoever dreams of going to the Moon and Mars explained that astronauts and rovers are complementary, that it is “just a distribution of roles: for what is dangerous or that does not necessarily require improvisation, we send rovers. We have some on Mars at the moment when we are not able to land humans there, but the limitations are there: Curiosity is doing 50 meters a day. so it’s not at all the same scientific return” that a human could make. By the way, “these rovers are the product of human intelligence and are controlled by scientists at the control center, so behind there is still human,” he recalled.


In the cockpits of airplanes or spaceships, “there are already sensors that can anticipate faster and that produce alerts that we could not see manually, but they are not personified” as an R2-D2 could be in Star Wars, said Thomas Pesquet.

The latter finally explained that intelligent systems are starting to develop, like CIMON, presented as the first robot with AI to have been sent into space. Equipped with a microphone and an infrared camera, CIMON must recognize the voice and face of the German astronaut Alexander Gerst, who was on a mission aboard the ISS.

But CIMON “is rather seen as psychological support, not to help [ndlr : les astronautes ] for everyday tasks,” said Thomas Pesquet, before concluding that “we are not yet in a sci-fi scenario where there would be a deeper integration of these things. This is really just the beginning.”

In fact, we are still a long way from being able to “build a very intelligent machine,” as Yann Le Cun, Facebook’s chief AI scientist and one of the AI pioneers at The Verge, had said. AI systems today are capable of performing very precise tasks such as image analysis and voice commands, planning, playing go…, where the information is fairly uniform (for an image, these are pixels, for speech comprehension, sounds etc). But “when you have to integrate all kinds of heterogeneous information and synthesize it to make a decision, it’s much more complicated and we’re still a long way from that,” Joelle Pineau, director of Facebook’s AI research laboratory in Montreal, said on the sidelines of an interview with Business Insider France.

Thomas Pesquet is scheduled to leave for a mission to the ISS in 2020-2021, although the exact date has not yet been set. He would likely do so aboard either SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule or Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, the next two spacecraft expected to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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