The Little Robot That Could

July 19, 2010

We grew up with stories of little engines that could climb that hill, or tugboats that could handle that big ship.

We have always personified vehicles, naming ships and trains, but their spirit was really guided by the a human hand on the controls.  Now we have cruise control, auto pilots, and heat seeking missiles. But their autonomy is very limited.

On Mars we finally have two actual  autonomous rover robots.  Their mission was to last only a few months but they have struggled on all alone in an alien landscape of dust storms and extreme temperature conditions for several years. They have only a primitive self-awareness, enough to navigate around obstacles and terrain, to plan routes, to maximize their energy gain from solar power and utilize it’s energy in the most efficient way. They must protect themselves from loss of power and damage from terrain. I think this is a form of life, maybe not organic, but life all the same. One of them finally became trapped, two of it’s wheels locked, probably by the fine sand from the huge windstorms. Not long ago, their programming was updated to give them more autonomy in selecting which rocks and features they photograph and explore.
The rover that is still mobile is on a long lonely journey across the plains of Mars that will take years to get to it’s goal, it has been travelling there for two years already. Their exploits have been so heroic that two asteroids have been named after them. I wonder what thoughts if any go through their cybernetic synapses as they crouch in low power mode waiting out the Martian storms.