Humans have only explored an estimated 1% of the ocean floor even though oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As crazy as that seems it’s not entirely surprising given how volatile the environment can be. Although, the benefits we could reap from knowing what’s in the depths of our oceans are vast. If it was possible to do a lot more research beneath the ocean’s surface, the insights that would provide could be life-changing! It could even improve our understanding of climate change, lead to the discovery of new medicines, or help researchers identify endangered species.
Which is why scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences plan to construct a research base deep in the South China Sea that will be run entirely by artificially intelligent robots. The researchers involved in the project (called the Hades project) told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that the base could be the “first artificial intelligence colony on Earth.”
China’s unmanned submarine vehicle Qianlong III as an example of what may happen soon: a subsea exploration program run by submarines like it that will collect and bring samples to an AI colony on the South China Sea bed. Photo: Weibo
The Hades Project would make the Chinese the pioneers of underwater robotic research. President Xi Jinping told the scientists that China was a big ocean country with vast claimed waters, and they should “march into the ocean to accelerate the build-up of maritime power”. Xi Jinping enthusiastically said: “There is no road in the deep sea, we do not need to chase [after other countries], we are the road.”
President Xi Jinping has urged scientists and researchers to dare to forge new territory under the sea and do what no country has done before. Photo: Xinhua
The base will be constructed at a depth of 6,000 to 11,000 meters (19,685 to 36,100 feet) below the South China Sea’s surface. The exact location is yet to be determined. The Manila Trench is a possible location for the Hades project. “It is the only place in the South China Sea with a depth exceeding 5,000 meters,” Professor Yan Pin, a researcher at the Key Laboratory of Ocean and Marginal Sea Geology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Guangzhou, told the SCMP. Chemicals from as deep down as the Earth’s mantle are carried up by thermal vents and they could contain geological information.
However, that location is in a politically sensitive region. But, Yan believes that it’s not impossible that the unmanned subsea base could be built near the shoal. Since it is an earthquake-prone zone the base could potentially detect a tsunami right as it’s about to happen and warn everyone on land. Yan said:
China and the Philippines should sit down and discuss it. A tsunami [warning] is a big selling point. Data collected by the station would benefit all countries in the region. It could save many lives.
The underwater base will have docking platforms similar to a space station. Robotic submarines will leave the base to conduct exploratory missions, surveying new areas and collecting data about marine lifeforms. The base will be capable of autonomously analyzing samples of minerals collected by the submarines while on exploration missions. Electricity will be provided through cables running from the base up to a ship or a platform at the surface.
Of course, creating such an impressive “AI colony” will not be easy and it definitely won’t be cheap. Those involved in the project estimate it will cost $160 million to complete, and that’s on a very tight budget. However, the discoveries the place could yield would make it well worth the investment. Much of the budget would be used to develop technology and materials, for example, sealing materials for the docking platforms must be extremely strong yet flexible.
China’s experience with subsea drones like the Hailong 11000 will facilitate the development of the Hades project.
The challenges of making such a complex project a reality would also give China a huge technological lead. “It is as challenging as building a colony on another planet for robotic residents with artificial intelligence,” said a scientist who has taken part in the project. “The technology can change the world.”
Dr. Du Qinghai, an associate researcher at the Hadal Science and Technology Research Center at Shanghai Ocean University who is not involved in the project, said:
It can be more difficult than building a space station. No other country has done this before. The project will make China stronger, more advanced. It will boost the material sciences, stimulate innovation and make Chinese manufacturing more competitive. It will make China a world leader in some critical areas.