Monday, February 4, 2013

Manned Versus unManned submersibles: The wrong question to ask

Recently, there has been a bit of a tussle in the deep sea science community. Three of the most recognizable names in marine science, Robert Ballard, Sylvia Earle, and James Cameron, are having a bit of a disagreement: should unmanned submersibles take the place of manned submersibles in ocean exploration? Should manned expeditions be scraped in favor of an increased underwater "telepresence"? Will a lack of manned vehicles save families? Will unmanned vehicles mean kids no longer want to be explorers? (the last two seem ridiculous but are actual parts of the debate)

The last two questions show that there is a lot of emotion involved in this debate. Robert Ballard, the discoverer of many cool things underwater (only one of which was the Titanic), argues that the future of deep sea exploration is unmanned exploration. According to Ballard, manned submersibles are expensive, absorb too many resources, and receive and transmit no better information than unmanned submersibles. In an interview, he recalls an epiphany about this during diving: 

"What are you looking at?" Ballard remembers asking. 
"The monitor," the colleague said, referring to the video screen inside Alvin. "It's better than what I'm seeing out the window." 
That's when he realized, as he puts it today, "There's no benefit to having a human body down there." It "wastes money" and "ruins families" and "raises bad kids." all without a return for science.

James Cameron, the director of Titanic and an amateur marine scientist who won the race to the bottom of the Marianas trench, has several concerns about Ballard's proposal. You can read them all here, but there are a few big concerns: the first, and I think the most relevant, is that (according to Cameron) Ballard's plan does not shift money already earmarked from manned submersibles to unmanned. It's not about "saving money" because almost all funding to manned submersible programs has been severely cut in the last 10 years (for reference see my previous post on Alvin upgrades). Cameron's second issue is that a lack of unmanned submersibles means a decrease in children wanting to explore.According to Cameron, "No kid ever dreamed of growing up to be a robot.  But they do dream of being explorers. And inspiring young minds and imaginations is one of the most important things we can be doing if we want a future supply of engineers and scientists insuring our lead in innovation." 

I have some issues with the viewpoints espoused by both Ballard and Cameron. Ballard suggests that there is nothing that manned submersibles can add to science. But this is not necessarily proven:  Chris German at Wood's Hole suggests that the human eye can pick up nuances underwater that cameras cannot. Another researcher compares the view through a camera to the view through a pipe. If the human eye is really that much better than a camera, and if humans can spot interesting organisms more quickly than cameras, could there be scientific value in these manned missions? Of course, one might ask the question: is first hand accounting something researchers can offer as scientific data? Or will they eventually offer only technologically garnered images as data? If so, what does first-hand viewing "do" for "science" as we have learned to define it. For example, take a look at my favorite deep water exploration video of late- the new video of the giant squid. 

When the explorers finally locate a giant squid, they view the organism through glass, and then through a video camera. Although they could offer first-hand accounts of their experiences inside the submersible, the researchers on the surface can only go by what they in turn see, and that is the footage (what Bob Ballard considers 'telepresence') In the end, does it matter that the human eye is more accurate than video if the video is what researchers must constantly refer?

Both Cameron and Ballard offer very personal reasons that deep sea exploration be performed in a given manner. Ballard makes it clear that he feels that exploration tears families apart for little scientific value. This argument is hard to combat without suggesting that it is far too personal to Ballard. If a researcher feels that their work is worthwhile, far be it science to tell him to go home and repair his family life. Who can say if exploration actually tears families apart? And who is Ballard to suggest that this is a valid reason to stop manned ocean exploration? Cameron, on the other hand, states that children cannot be inspired by robots. If humans aren't in submersibles, then eventually no one will want to go underwater ever again. This argument is equally ridiculous in my opinion. Cameron has repeatedly conflated deep sea and deep space exploration over the years- comparing them in interviews and movies. How then, does he suggest that deep space exploration has managed to attract so many interested engineers, researchers, and child advocates (children who advocate for space research- they're a huge lobbying group)? Some of the most interesting space footage is being sent via unmanned vehicles (i.e. Mars Rover, Hubble, and Pioneer 11).  Of course, both deep sea and deep space exploration are suffering from a loss of funding these days, but it would seem that it is from the economic downturn, not because kids (who grow up into Congresspeople) feel no affinity to robots. 

In the middle of the debate is Sylvia Earle. Earle, one of the earliest proponents of S.C.U.B.A. in scientific exploration, is mystified by Ballard's outlook. Much of Earle's arguments for manned submersibles are personal. She feels an affinity to the ocean when she is diving. But Earle also offers a middle ground- there is room for both manned and unmanned exploration in marine exploration.

 This seems to be a great middle road, but there is a problem: 

There is little money for either. Most funding for manned submersible work has been cut recently, and although Ballard does have some money for his unmanned submersibles, it is not a robustly funded program. In this light, it seems that these researchers are asking the wrong questions: not unmanned versus manned submersibles but how can our work be perceived as relevant to the wider American public, economy, and environment? One thought would be to make it much less personal. All three of these researchers describe their work, and their underwater dives, in highly personal terms. Yes, the ocean means something very special to them. It's important to them. But how can we make the marine environment accessible and important to the wider public? Could unmanned submersibles be useful for drawing in a wider audience? Cameron points to the amount of interest in his dive versus a similar dive of an unmanned submarine. But he doesn't seem to account for his previous fame before his dive. Manned dives by regular researchers don't get as much publicity as Cameron. How can we make it so that regular researchers have access to an audience? What can we do?

If marine explorers can't figure out this conundrum, it won't matter if they decide on manned versus unmanned submersibles- there will be no more ocean exploration. 

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