Human capability, exploration, and Charlton’s hypothesis

Bruce Charlton, Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham, puts forward the provocative thesis that:

“human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.”

He argues for this based, among other things, on the fact that humans have not been to the moon since 1972. As he continues:

“I presume that technology has continued to improve since 1975 – so technological decline is not likely to be the reason for failure of capability. […] But since the 1970s there has been a decline in the quality of people in the key jobs in NASA, and elsewhere […]. And also the people in the key jobs are no longer able to decide and command, due to the expansion of committees and the erosion of individual responsibility and autonomy.”

This may be true – that the quality of people at NASA has declined since the 1970s for a variety of reasons, and that the increase in bureaucracy has made it more difficult to carry out missions like sending people to the moon. I’m not qualified to judge.

My objection to this particular example, however, is simple: the difference is exactly about the advance in technology, but for a reason opposite to Charlton’s correct assumption that technology hasn’t declined – rather, it is precisely because technology has advanced that sending humans becomes outmoded. That is, we no longer send humans because robots do a better job relative to cost, and this now includes setting down and exploring on the ground. It is the advances in robotics and computerization since the period Charlton looks back on that have made robots a better choice for this kind of exploration.

It is true that after the 1970s, there was a significant period of time where the U.S. did not send robots to the moon. This ended in 1994, and again in 1998. The U.S. isn’t the only country to have recently sent robots to the moon: Japan, Europe, China, and India have all sent robots in the 200os.

Not only has the U.S. sent robots to the moon since the 1970s, it has sent robots that have touched down and then actively explored the surface of Mars. This includes the Spirit Rover and the Opportunity Rover, the latter of which is actively exploring the surface of the red planet.

If relevant technologies get better, then robots get better and better as choices for these sorts of missions. Humans may not return to the moon in the near future, but an explanation for this is at hand outside of the reasons Charlton gives.

3 thoughts on “Human capability, exploration, and Charlton’s hypothesis

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