Alone At Sea

Bluefin-21.
Bluefin-21.
Remus 6000.
Remus 6000.

Last month, the search for floating debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was called off. No trace of the wreckage was found.
But efforts to locate the missing jet haven’t been shelved. The ever-shifting search area will only widen, but it’ll be a purely underwater operation, spreading across an area of 23,000 square-miles, combing which could take up to a year.

The families of the passengers, housed, so far, in Beijing’s Lido Hotel, awaiting word of their loved ones, have been asked to go home. My heart goes out to them.

Yet, I can’t also help feeling sorry for a non-human, who’s been toiling night and day to ferret out a scrap of the ill-fated plane that remains determined to remain hidden: the Bluefin-21. A bright yellow, cigar-shaped marine robot, it’s been deployed in the search for the aircraft because it can go deep into the ocean and produce a 3D map of the seabed with sonar.

In its hunt for MH370, it has had to dive into a dark, desolate, and dangerous watery terrain, three to five miles below the surface, a region of Earth we know very little about.

It could be said that this is the job it was born to do. Not quite. It wasn’t made to work in such a harsh environment. This assignment has stretched the limits of what it can do.

On day one, it had to quit six hours into the perilous task. A built-in alarm sent it scampering to safety as it’d swam past its operating depth limit of about three miles. It was then reprogrammed, and thrown back again, into the rolling waves. Each of its subsequent journeys have lasted 20 long hours, of which two were spent descending; two, in climbing back up; and 16, in roaming the murky deeps.

It has completed 18 such missions, uncomplainingly. If it could make its voice heard, it’d have grumbled at its inhuman workload. Worse, it may have panicked at the thought of trundling in an area, not reached even by sunlight.

The next phase of the search will enlist the service of its stouter cousin, Remus 6000, built by Hydroid. There are only six of them in the world, four of which are owned by the U.S. Navy; one is stationed in Germany; and another is parked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

“A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings,” asserts Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics. In that spirit, Blufin-21 has performed its duty superbly. But there’s a Third Law that states: “A robot must protect its own existence.”

After all, why must robots alone attempt to find an object that a few incompetent humans lost? (Air traffic controllers in Ho Chi Ming and Kuala Lumpur reacted to the disappearance of the flight an appalling 17 minutes after it fell off the civilian radar screens.) It’s time a crewed submersible pitched in.

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2 thoughts on “Alone At Sea

  1. I find your question to be intriguing: should robots be asked to risk their “lives” for mistakes made by humans?

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  2. But then again, on second thoughts, the mistake has been made by Malays, not humans per se. Not to suggest that Malays aren’t “humans” but to understand that the technologically advanced part of the world is paying steeply for errors of judgments made by Malaysians.

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