Space Robots

An interesting report has just been published by the Royal Academy of Engineering about the social legal and ethical implications surrounding autonomous machines.

I have yet to read the report, being far to busy finishing my thesis, looking after my daughter, and trying to find something to do post thesis – hence the lack of activity on my blog.

The topic is interesting though. As devices get more autonomy, get better at learning for themselves, how will people come to regard them. Will we start to see machines as having agency in the sense of being responsible for the things that they do. If fact we often have a tendency to regard inanimate objects as having agency, particularly when the won’t do the things you want them to! How much easier will it be to blame the machine when it appears to be operating under its own volition?

I suspect that many people will vary in their opinions of autonomous machines. When they do things we don’t like it will be the machines fault for acting like that but when they do things that are strangely human like we might want to dismiss it as just part of their programming.

I imagine that the advances in machine autonomy might also bring some fresh perspectives on how we perceive our own apparent autonomy and our ability (or not) to make responsible decisions.


The first photos from NASA’s latest moon mission have just arrived and show some of the Apollo landing sites in just enough detail.

This one from the Apollo 14 site shows a bit more detail than the rest but they were all taken with the sun low on the horizon which means that the landers stand out because of the long shadows they cast:


The spacecraft is still in an elliptical orbit which means the photos from different sites show different detail, averaging about four feet per pixel. When it achieves its final orbit height of 31 miles it will be able to achieve a resolution of around twice what it is getting at the moment.

Could the controversy over NASA’s allegedly faked Apollo moon missions soon be over? NASA’s latest moon mission is the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which includes as part of its instrument package a special camera. It is actually a collection of cameras, two of which provide a very narrow field of view and, if I understand their website correctly, can work at a resolution of 0.5 meters per pixel – which basically means that each of the pixels in the images it takes of the moons surface equate to a 50cm square. This should be easily enough to resolve objects the size of the Apollo landers on the surface of the moon and NASA plan to do several flyovers of the Apollo landing sites.

The interesting question will be whether this puts the conspiracy theories about faked moon landings to rest? Unlikely in my view, firstly people can simply claim that these photographs are just another set of fakes, but it also doesn’t resolve one version of the conspiracy theory, which is that NASA really did go to the moon but they faked the first event to give themselves some breathing room and to avoid a potential public disaster if it all went wrong.

Of course it is also the 40th anniversary of the moon landings so NASA is making a noise about it. The Guardian are also doing an anniversary special which includes a short piece debunking some of the conspiracy evidence.

A previous Japanese spacecraft also took some photos and other measurements of the moons surface. The SELENE spacecraft didn’t have a powerful enough camera to spot the Apollo landers directly but in one photo you can kind of make out the blast pattern caused by the landers ascent vehicle when it lifted off from the surface. What was most interesting was the radar system they used to create a complete topographical map of the moon. With this data they were able to overlay photographs of the surface onto their three dimensional map and then take virtual photographs of the surface from precisely where the Apollo astronauts (allegedly) took their photos.

The results can be seen here and they are a pretty good match. If NASA really did fake the landing then they needed detailed knowledge of the moons surface back in the 60’s that we are apparently only just getting now – or of course the Japanese are part of the conspiracy!

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