Man vs. Machine: what is best for ocean exploration?

By February 19, 2013 Ocean News


Robert Ballard, the famed scientist that discovered hydrothermal vents aboard the Alvin, argues that manned submersibles are unnecessary. He says that, from a scientific perspective, the video screen does just as good or better at showing what is seen out the window of these submersibles. On the other hand, Sylvia Earle, Her Deepness, disagrees and believes that there is no better way to explore the oceans than actually being in the submersible and experiencing it first hand.

As a graduate in Marine Biology with hopes of someday exploring the depths of the ocean using submersibles, the news that funding was being cut across the board was heart breaking! Almost every dive to a new area in a submersible has shed light on new to science, species and even entire ecosystems! Had it not been for deep sea exploration, we would not know about hydrothermal vents, cold seeps, and the animals that inhabit them; some of which resemble their shallower water cousins, but have adapted to not only survive, but to thrive in these harsh conditions. Traveling into the deep sea is like experiencing evolution first hand!

nereus_main_n1_119653Could a machine do just as good of a job at making these discoveries with a scientist or group of scientists on the other end? Sort of an extreme version of an RC car, but capable of collecting data and exploring areas humans are not capable of reaching yet. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute has demonstrated this concept with their hybrid ROV Nereus (left), which traveled deeper than any human in 2009 and brought back samples for the scientists to analyze. Of course machines can do the work, probably more efficiently and cost effectively, but what can a machine share with the average person? How many people reading this were aware of these record breaking dives when they occurred?

If I have learned anything in the past couple years, the most important lesson is that without education and public involvement, there is no conservation. This is something that Sylvia Earle excels in. Her explorations were covered by media and helped to raise awareness, as well as increase the knowledge of the scientific community. In order to spread awareness about the ocean and what we can do to help protect it or the many wonders that still await discovery, scientists need to share their stories with the world. It is hard to share a story if you have not experienced it first-hand.

In my opinion, having a voice for the discoveries of the deep is necessary because the deep sea is so disconnected from the average human being. I agree that at a scientific standpoint, the unmanned submersibles make more sense. They allow the scientists to discover areas that would otherwise be out of reach, and  maybe even make it home for dinner like a normal job. On a conservation standpoint, however, they lead to the dehumanization of new discoveries, and will make the fight to protect the oceans more difficult in the long run.

3man productsThe only way the unmanned submersibles could help conservation is by glorifying them like the first walks on the moon. Footage from the ROV/AUV should be actively shared through visual media and the average person should be able to experience these trips into the unknown depths.  Until this happens, there should still be a human voice for the voyages into the deep.

What do you think, are wo/men or machines better for ocean exploration and conservation?


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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Hector R. Leta says:

    I do not agree with the title Man Vs Machine in order to elucidate what is best for ocean exploration. Even though machines like the unmanned subs do a perfect job we have to bear in mind that scientist and other technicians are in control and executing different programms. If we speak about benefits one of great importance is safety. I do not have to risk myself on board!. I can be confortable watching the screen, recording data and picking up samples smoothly by a remote control. Regarding the question what can a machine share with the average people? I believe a lot. Just imagine a big “average people” audience watching a one or a half hour TV or cable programm showing the results of any of these deep dives. That would be a great approach in order to wake the average people awareness up about the ocean and what could they do for the conservation of those great masses of water.

  • Brianna Ordung says:

    I agree, I believe until a mass media broadcast of deep sea dives is used then people should still be exploring it in the submersible to tell their stories. Once the media grabs hold and realizes these expeditions are the closest thing we have to walking on the moon, then only having the machine down there would be perfectly fine. The main concern with this debate is losing the voice of the deep sea.

  • Sylvia Earle says:

    Both are vital, robots to survey and monitor, humans for astute\observing, exploring, refined research and relating human perceptions no machine can match.

    This is not about one approach or another. Love robtos! Love AUVs! Love being there most of all! We need them all. . .now.

  • Sylvia Earle says:

    Both are vital, robots to survey and monitor, humans for astute\observing, exploring, refined research and relating human perceptions no machine can match.

    This is not about one approach or another. Love robtos! Love AUVs! Love being there most of all! We need them all. . .now.
    Check out James Cameron’s February Newsweek essay.

  • […] Indiana Jones and the booby-trapped tomb isn’t as much of a Hollywood invention as it appears. Early 19th century ‘archaeologists’ were  explorers and geographers before they were modern-day scientists and, yes, sometimes they did explore ‘weird’ tombs, and encounter falling rocks and undiscovered treasure. But their experience was quite unusual. They were exploring a small number of intact structures built by powerful ancient civilisations unfamiliar to them, often in remote and inaccessible locations. This won’t be the experience of most archaeologists, but could be the experience of a manned exploration of an alien civilisation (should one exist). There’s a question over whether all future exploration will be done by robots, but yet to be resolved. There’s ongoing debate about whether ocean exploration should be done by unmanned or manned submersibles with some marine scientists believing manned exploration is essential to create first-hand human stories, … […]

  • Phil Sharkey says:

    There are times when the premium required to install a life support system is worth it … when you want other people to be interested in what is being done, or when you need a sensor that is capable of reacting with surprise and then reprogramming the dive on the fly. There are other times, esp. for routine monitoring, that the premium is not worth it.

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