The Autonomous Science Machine

Landing on a comet is a remarkable achievement. Even though the Rosetta mission had its problems we will still learn a great deal about comets, the solar system, maybe even about life on Earth. We can also use the Rosetta mission to comet 67P as a way to examine science itself.

To do that, I want to look at Philae (ie the piece of equipment that landed on the comet) and a garish shirt.

To start with the shirt. Project scientist Matt Taylor gave an interview to the world’s media wearing a shirt with pictures of hypersexualised semi-naked women on it. What followed was a “shirtstorm” or “shirtgate”. One side argued that the shirt was indicative of an environment within science which made women unwelcome. The other side argued, it’s just a bloody shirt for chrissake.

My own particular take on this is that in trying to avoid reproducing one discourse (about scientists as boring geeks) Taylor helped to reinforce another discourse (about women as sexualised objects). Both sides in the row were actually in agreement in saying look beyond the shirt – either look beyond to the amazing science or look beyond to the unwelcoming discourse about women.

In effect, the shirt becomes an object lesson (in the original sense of a lesson around an object) in where the boundaries of science get drawn. So let’s take our lead from those who were saying that the shirt was a distraction from the remarkable achievements of the mission and take heed when they say “don’t look at the shirt, look at the science”.

OK, so what am I supposed to look at? If it’s not the shirt then is it the guy in the shirt, or the man in the suit, or the woman in the jeans? I guess not, because they are people who reproduce different discourses with their decisions about clothing, and there must be something else otherwise science is just something that people do.

I think we can all agree that the Rosetta mission is (some how, somewhere) “science”. It is about as sciencey a science thing as you can get, but what can you point at when you say “here is the science”?

Maybe Philae or one of the Mars rovers can help us. After looking for signs of life on extraterrestrial objects, phase II of their mission is to return to Earth to look for signs of science. The results would make great television. After David Attenborough’s magnificent series Life on Earth we are still waiting for a similar series for Science on Earth with similar attention to the details of development, habitat, social organisation, behaviours etc. (If any TV production company is interested, email me).

Would these sophisticated probes be able to zoom in, dissect and eventually pluck out something, point at it and say “here it is, this is the science”? Is there anything that is not embedded in material culture or embodied in human actors? And if we accept that science is embedded and embodied then our vision would need to encompass the technology, the books, the computer files, the institutions, the committees, the money, the people (and that shirt).

Maybe this is asking too much. Maybe all we can do is find evidence for science rather than science itself. If we see science as a body of knowledge we could point at data, results, theories. If we see science as an approach to the study of the world we could point at examples of hypothesis, experiment, measurement, data collection, prediction, or testing predictions.

None of this needs people.

Philae landed awkwardly and needed to move so that it could get more sunlight on to its solar panels. We can easily imagine that it could survey its position, take relevant measurements, and make predictions about what might happen if it should move a leg, start its drill, or fire its harpoon. Collecting evidence and making a prediction – is Philae doing science?

Philae is just a small example of what could be a much bigger project.

The Autonomous Science Machine would do everything that we think science does. It collects, classifies and sorts data. It conducts experiments and collates the results. It is programmed for pattern recognition to look for regularities. It compiles its findings and passes these on to other Autonomous Science Machines. Science: pure, clean, unsullied by human hand.

The Autonomous Science Machine, doing science so you don’t have to. You don’t even need to peek inside. It is doing science. Science is being done. What more do you want?

Or do you prefer your science to be more human? Do you want to reclaim science for humanity? This is our science. This is our understanding of the world. This is how we make sense of things…….(remember this when you talk to historians of science or the STS community)

And one final twist.

For most people the Autonomous Science Machine is not a philosophical fiction. It is what science looks like anyway.


Karl Schroeder sees automated science research as a possible successor to science. What he terms thalience would be “an attempt to give the physical world itself a voice so that rather than us asking what reality is, reality itself can tell us”. This automated science would, no doubt, produce models of the world different to our own. A second aspect of thalience would then be for us to choose “among multiple successful scientific models based on which ones best satisfy our human, aesthetic/moral/personal needs.”

See also: “Could a computer ever do science?” elsewhere on this blog.


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