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NASA’s reminder that science can inspire

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The fact that there are some things computers and robots do exceptionally well, far more efficiently than any human could, has for decades led to both triumph and concern for people the planet over.

As time marches on and technology progresses, examples of both are likely only to increase. Short of a “Walking Dead” level of post-apocalyptic backsliding, what could possibly turn back the clock?

Zombies are fiction. Computers and robots are real and becoming more advanced and omnipresent by the day, meaning we’re stuck with the (mostly) good or (at times undeniable) bad they bring to the table.

Thanks to the ability of humans to harness technology, we were able to witness, earlier this week, the landing of the latest in a growing line of exploratory probes sent to Mars.

Guided by preprogrammed onboard computers — the time-lag between here and Mars makes remote control impossible — the InSight lander negotiated a treacherous descent through the Martian atmosphere and settled near the bullseye NASA was aiming for, a plain called the Elysium Planitia.

Watching the flight controllers at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sweat bullets during the descent dismissed any notion the operation was routine — but we have been here before. Whether in space or cyberspace, technology has given people the ability to make science fiction science fact, a new reality — one in which a computer pilots a spaceship to another planet.

So how can technology be harmful? Many of our current worries on that front are still in the theoretical stage, involving questions about whether and how fast true artificial intelligence is developed; how robotized our economy and world can, or should, become; and how people navigate their way through what feels like an important, transitional time in terms of technological advances.

If human beings can devise a computer that pilots a spacecraft to the surface of Mars, how complicated could most of what happens on Earth really be in comparison?

How far are any of us from being effectively replaced (or controlled?) by a machine?

Are people already being influenced by automated systems that, if considered carefully, might frighten most of them?

The answer to that last question is, “Yes — but not that well.”

A likely next example of that dropped last week, when Facebook announced it would launch a new service aimed at aggregating news and information regionally. Quoting the Associated Press, “The move comes as Facebook tries to shake off its reputation as a hotbed for misinformation and elections-meddling and rather a place for communities and people to come together and stay informed.”

Problem is, it seems the platform will approach content the same way it always has. From the same AP story: “The posts … are curated by artificial intelligence; there is no human involvement.” The piece also notes that, “How Facebook’s algorithms decide what to include is an ongoing process.”

We all know how that ongoing process has worked out so far — mostly providing examples of how limited technology is when it comes to determining what is or isn’t real. So this should be interesting.

Meanwhile, it’s a good thing we have NASA around to remind us of how science can still inspire. The InSight lander was sent to Mars to conduct many different experiments — a mechanical mole will burrow into the surface of the planet to measure its internal temperature. A seismometer will gauge Martian quakes, if there are any; and other machines will determine the makeup of the red planet’s core.

NASA has landed successfully on Mars eight times now, an incredible feat. Information gleaned from the previous missions and now InSight’s are all adding to an effort that will, eventually, culminate with landing human beings on Mars — likely within the lifetimes of many of us. I hope it’s within mine.

While science and technology branch off into countless directions, with some inspiring, some worrisome and many somewhere in between, what NASA did last week is a reminder of what got human beings into this technological advancement ballgame to begin with: actually being able to see, and eventually understand clearly, what’s out there in the dark.

John Dilmore is editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at editor@rdrnews.com. The views expressed in this column are those of the author.