August 8, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich
Seeing like the Mars Curiosity Rover
In my last blog I talked about metaphor as ‘the mind’s eyes’, as metaphors make us see something as something else, which enables us to think about something in novel ways, extend our knowledge and in the process shape both science and society. In this sense metaphor can be said to be a mental technology (metaphorically speaking) that lets us explore the world and use our imagination at the same time. The images beamed back from Mars by the Curiosity Rover made me think about rather more real or physical technologies of seeing which also change and shape our understanding of science and society, and, as one blogger put it, let our imagination soar.
A few days before Curiosity safely landed on Mars (a spectacular achievement in terms of science, technology and engineering), a geologist involved in the Mars mission wrote a blog entitled ‘Seeing Mars through the eyes of a geologist’. He tells readers about him and his team making trips to Death Valley, a terrain supposed to be quite similar to the one over which Curiosity now roams. He points out: “Once the rover — nicknamed Curiosity — touches down [which it has now!], the crew will see the landscape through the machine’s eyes only. These trips into the forbidding desert help them to develop a gut sense of the Martian terrain and to start thinking a bit like a Mars rover themselves.” In another article I read that the “rover’s equipment also includes the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) – a robot version of a geologist’s magnifying glass”.
Anthropomorphising rovers and technomorphising humans
This reminded me of a 2008 study by Janet Vertesi. ‘Seeing like a rover’, devoted to an exploration of robot-human interaction linked to NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, which arrived on Mars in 2003 (this study has just come out in Social Studies of Science). During the many years that the team members worked with the two Rovers they told stories about how they ‘learned to see like a Rover’. They developed an embodied relationship with their distant robots which both anthropomorphised the robots and technomorphised the team.
Interestingly, the language also morphed in response to this seeing something as a rover would do. And this is where metaphor crept in yet again. As Vertesi points out: “For example, the Panoramic Cameras are regularly referred to as the Rovers’ ‘eyes’, the hazard cameras aimed a the wheels show ‘what’s under our feet’, while the Instrument Deployment Device (IDD) is ‘the arm’, and its four instruments are described as ‘fingers’. The Rovers ‘talk’ to Earth via communication antennas, ‘sleep’ at night, ‘wake up’ and ‘take a nap’ at certain times, ‘stare’ or ‘look’ at targets on the surface regularly throughout the day”, and so on. Given that the Curiosity Rover is much more complex and has many more instruments, for observing and analysing, zapping and digging and many more activities, this language will evolve even further. This can all be called ‘anthropomorphising the rover’.
However, the parallel technomorphising of the research teams involved in the Spirit and Opportunity missions is also noteworthy. Amongst many other things, they had to learn to see like a rover, which meant adapting to the fact that, for example, the rovers could not see the world in colour but could see parts of the spectrum that humans can’t see. The researchers therefore had to use visualisation technologies that helped them see the surface of Mars in human terms. They also, of course, had to learn to ‘move like a rover’, ‘touch like a rover’ and so on, and interestingly, all the team members were being brought together in the body of the rover; so, many minds and bodies become one. Things will be similar for the teams operating Curiosity, although Curiosity can now see in colour and even in 3D, unlike its older predecessors, or, should we say, ancestors?
We and the world
What does this mean for us? We have always seen the world through something else, be it language, cave paintings, lenses of various sorts, and now through robots. We have in this way extended our vision and our reach and our understanding. We can now see the infinitesimally small, the extremely large and far away and the extremely complex (say, human networks and interactions), using an ever-expanding array of imaging and visualisation tools, from microscopes to data visualisation. You can therefore also gaze, if you want, at an infographic representing all Mars missions. But who is ‘we’ (is it just homo sapiens?) and what is ‘the world’? On the one hand, the world that we see seems to be expanding ever more rapidly. On the other hand, we and the world are also moving or morphing together ever more closely through and with the technology we use to explore it.
Our world and other worlds
Using science, technology and engineering, we can see all sorts of worlds, but imaging and visualisation tools also provide us with the opportunity to see ‘our world’ in very different ways, from very different perspectives. Look for example at these beautiful pictures of earth from space and appreciate their beauty (and the images tweeted by Chris Hadfield). The images that Curiosity is beaming down are beautiful too. They should remind us, however, of how fragile our earthly beauty can be.
Added April 2013 nice piece in io9 on Curiosity as female and fiction
Added May 2013 Nine months on Mars with
@MarsCuriosity: a view from the front left hazcam timelaps of all photos HT @TrueAnomalies
Added July 2013 Amazing image of Curiosity as a “pale blue dot” http://www.uahirise.org/ESP_032436_1755; thanks
@Sci_Phile and @Eric Sawyer
Added July 2013: A rover’s eye view of driving, scooping and drilling during Curiosity’s first year on Mars
Added July 2013: Seeing Mars through Instagram!
Added August 2014: Article on how to drive the Mars Curiosity Rover
Added September 2015: A blog post by an ethnographer/sociologist embedded in the Mars mission – ha, it’s Janet Vertesi!
Added August 2016: And here is how Curiosity celebrated his fourth year on Mars! Quite emotional
Image: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter sees Curiosity landing, wikimedia commons
With regard to anthropomorphising the rover, it’s interesting to see that it (he? she?) has a twitter account @MarsCuriosity with getting on for a million followers. The latest tweet says ‘My head’s up’…
Ah yes, completely forgot about that. I am actually ‘following’ ‘it’ on twitter!!
This reminds me Thomas Kuhn introduction to a lecture at a workshop intended to science students. He was expected to teach the students how to be innovative and creative scientists. In his introductory note Kuhn said that the organizers of the workshop might be disappointed with what he was going to lecture. Contary to what the latter expected [teaching students the future -innovation], Kuhn said that ‘a convergent thinking is as relevant to innovation as divergent thinking’: to see or imagine in new ways the scientist must first master the classics.
My point is that ‘this moving or morphing together ever more closely through and with the technology we use to explore it’ was only an expression of an antique technique. In Greek philosophy ‘the ruse of reason’ was a technique for mastering (knowing, transforming) the world. the ruse of reason [or French la ruse de l’intelligence] consisted in the process though which the researcher take the form of what s/he wants to know; only when this intimity is achieved the researcher can better grasp the problem. isn’t this also a challenging fact to some social sciences which promote less intimity as a way of knowing?
This is a nice point of a rather philosophical nature that deserves some thought! Are you referring to Hegel’s ‘List der Vernunft’? Which is sort of similar to one of my favourite concepts, the invisible hand process, whereby the intentions of the many ‘unintentionally’ create a social object, such as a footpath across the University Downs…So are you saying that what I described as a morphing of ways of seeing the world (in the sense of understanding it) with ways of seeing the world (technologies that provide new ways of seeing) could be characterised as a ruse of reason, the outcome of which would herald….[drum rolls!]… what Martin Rees today described rather daringly I thought as a ‘post-human era’ (Martin Rees, ‘People who are alive today will walk on Mars’, The Times, 9 August, p. 21 [pay wall I am afraid!]?
[…] … metaphor as 'the mind's eyes', as metaphors make us see something as something else, which enables us to think about something in novel ways, extend our knowledge and in the process shape both science and society. […]
What I am saying is that the learning of the scientists to see like a robot, being the best way to capture the code of the robot on their environment (i.e. interact), can be viewed, as an expression at the technological level, the greek technique of knowing called ‘ruse of reason’. According to this technique, neither natural nor humans are expository a priori. as objects of knowledge they all tend to escape from the curiosity of the one who endeavours to know them. the technique consists not in taking some kind of distance, as some social sciences promote it, but by trying to ‘behave’ like the object of knowledge: i.e. to take the form of the latter. a summary of the idea is here (sorry for those who do not read french)
“La mètis des Grecs – ou intelligence de la ruse – s’exerçait sur des plans très divers mais toujours à des fins pratiques : savoir-faire de l’artisan, habileté du sophiste, prudence du politique ou art de pilote dirigeant son navire. La mètis impliquait ainsi une série d’attitudes mentales combinant le flair, la sagacité, la débrouillardise… Multiple et polymorphe, elle s’appliquait à des réalités mouvantes qui ne se prêtent ni à la mesure précise ni au raisonnement rigoureux.
Engagée dans le devenir et l’action, cette forme d’intelligence a été, à partir du Vème siècle, refoulée dans l’ombre par les philosophes. Au nom d’une métaphysique de l’être et de l’immuable, le savoir conjectural et la connaissance oblique des habiles et des prudents furent rejetés du côté du non-savoir.
Reconnaître le champ de la mètis, ses marques ” en creux ” aux différents niveaux de pratique et de pensée de la société grecque – de la chasse à la médecine, de la pêche à la rhétorique – c’est, pour les auteurs de ce livre, réhabiliter une ” catégorie ” que les héllénistes modernes ont largement méconnue. ”
Detienne & Vernant Les ruses de l’intelligence: La mètis des Grecs
Ah oui, je comprends – PRESQUE. Je dois redécouvrir mon français! As I can see from surfing around a bit on wikipedia (sorry!) the origin of the Greek term is linked to a mythological figure, but what wiki says about that is really interesting, almost symbolic interactionist: “La mètis consiste en particulier à « se mettre dans la peau de l’autre », à adopter un instant sa « vision du monde » pour imaginer ce qu’il ne va pas voir, ce qui va lui échapper.” I really have to explore this further with relation to the topic of the blog!
Great! It would be also useful to extend it on Methods in Social Sciences. In addition to this topic of the blog I am happily discovering, I have always thought that there was something wrong with methods in social sciences, especially anthropology. When anthropologists talk about ‘reflexivity’ they mean a kind of ‘introspection’, i.e. strongly concentrated on themselves. What is require, really, is the ‘ruse’, this technique and process consisting a « se mettre dans la peau de l’autre », à adopter un instant sa « vision du monde » pour imaginer ce qu’il ne va pas voir, ce qui va lui échapper.”. the consequence of this process for understanding a social problem or (a problem in general) is that the researcher who managed to do so would be almost sure for having a higher congruence between his/her interpretations and the object of the interpretations. Being ‘objective’ does not consists therefore in an ‘introspective’ process, but a process leading to a consideration of the full saillence of the problem at hand. and this is an external process, which is only meaningful in relation to the problem to be studied. if vous vous ‘mettez dans la peau de l’autre [it could be also any kind of problem, metaphorically speaking], it means that you are not therein confine to one part of this ‘peau’ but the ‘whole’ being of him/her/it. It ensure more congruent interpretation, thus ‘objective’, than a mere personal introspection. >what is interesting here, is that, constrary to the usuall understanding and interpretation of what could be obstacles for understanding a problem in the research process, is not so much the researcher’s own background, as considered so far, but the ‘object’ of the understanding, i.e. the problem to be studied; and the effort should be oriented towards penetrating this ‘object’ of study, than to retaining one’s cultural or whatever background which may emper en ‘objective’ interpretation. for those who would say that preconception or theory is still necessary to this process, and that its choice is biased, they should get it here that dispite this unavoidable fact, the concentration, the focus, on particularly the object make the original concepts only means for entry, which the intimate involvement with the object of study can help ajuste> AND THIS REMIND ME YOUR POST (ON YOUR DOOR SOME TIME AGO) ABOUT THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PROBLEM AND THEORY, AS VIEWED BY SOME OF THE OUSTDANDING SCIENTISTS (EINSTEIN…..). Some of them think that problem should be modified to fit theory, others support that it is instead the reverse; theory should be modified to fit the problem. the present discussion is closer to the latter position, because the former means reducing some dimensions of the problem…….[In this last case if the researcher does not say that it has trunkated some dimensions, and just generalise he/her findings, as if he/she studied the whole, such conclusion does ultimately a disservice to science because it is not congruent with the working of the object studied. And if he/she make his reduction known, it means that there is soming wrong with the theory in relation to be problem studied, and that he/she forced the ‘object’ of studied to be what he/she expected to see: the highest reflexivity, as introspection, cannot prevent such interpretations to be highly biased. AND THIS SEEMS TO ME THE CURRENT LOT OF ANTHROPOLOGY, in particular. there is a need for a more extended notion of ‘reflexivity’, which make personnel introspection only incidental, if not secondary in the research process.
just as the ‘Golem’ of Collins
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