I received an e-invite a few days ago to participate in an online event that suggested participants will be “exploring the ocean without leaving the shore“. Of course this peaked my interests, so I followed some web links around and arrived at the statement, “Just imagine Neil Armstrong never leaving his desk in Houston yet still exploring the moon for the first time“. Fascinating…how can it be?
This idea of telepresence technology has been with us for some time, pioneered principally by Dr. Robert Ballard.
His work in ultra deep exploration of everything from shipwrecks to thermal vents is of course highly valued and widely regarded as the best of the best in ocean exploration.
Now, I don’t for once question the value of such exploration, nor do I question the value of reaching out and engaging students, educators, and the public with these efforts – that engagement is a critical component for all of us who explore this planet’s last frontiers, and beyond. My challenge to those promoting these programs is in reconsidering the proposition that removing the human element is better or equally effective. Certainly, there remain environments where (at this point in time) humans cannot visit with any routine continuity – however recently demonstrated that this very well could change with James Cameron’s solo plunge to the deepest point on our oceans. Though, consider the vast reaches where humans can set foot in oceana incognita – the full expanse of our continental shelf, and possibly just over the edge, beyond the shelf margins.
The question becomes – should people go there, or not [since we have remote vehicles than can do this without human risk]? As a matter of personal opinion, I would advocate that we continue to support humans pushing the frontier limits, and the reason is this; to truly engage, and draw in a genuine concern and create a sense of need, those viewing the exploration need to identify with the explorers themselves – not necessarily with the environment or the vehicle first. We (humans) are drawn to such endeavors because we can identify with the people that are out there on the edge. We care about these people. Perhaps not personally as though they are a family member, but rather as a fellow human being on this planet. We know what its like to be human, we can anticipate the emotions that the explorer might face, we appreciate their challenge, we can applaud their achievements, and we share sorrow in their failures.
In just recent history, the entire world followed Felix Baumgartner‘s skydive from the stratosphere because each and every one of us (myself included) felt what it was like, for just a split second,when he took that leap of faith, and then felt our blood pressure drop as he made a safe landing. The same was true when James Cameron took the plunge to the Marianas trench…we imagined ourselves sitting alone, in the dark, spending hours peering through a small window seeing an alien frontier for the first time. Because we are human; because we care; we were able to put ourselves in Cameron’s seat for just a split second. And of course, the world watched Armstrong land on the moon, and have celebrated that achievement for half a century because he did it – not because a robot did it.
That human element – of caring and feeling compassion for another human being through their experiences – is why we explore, and why humans MUST forever take those bold steps to redefine frontier limits. That is what drives the evolution of our humanity.
I believe strongly in the complimentary use of robotics and humans for ocean exploration, and for meaningful work underwater. Both tools are essential. Likewise for work in space. Certainly, it has been exciting to see robots operating on Mars over the last several years, but does it keep every kid in school on the edge of his or her seat every day?…frankly, no. Put a colony on Mars (or on the seafloor), and every kid exposed sees a future in math, science, engineering, and EXPLORATION to do it all over again, and do it bigger, and better. That’s inherent in human nature.
So, for ocean exploration – we need to take the plunge, and get wet – not do it from the couch. We are at a point where we know where we can and can’t go – the doors have been opened. It’s time to redefine what’s within our reach, and take that one small step over the threshold for humanity.