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Jim and Star II descend a hundred feet per minute, divers photograph in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Oahu Island, Hawaii; Photograph by Al Giddings

Dancing With an Octopus, or Why We Need Human Exploration

Introducing Way Finding, a new column about our sense of wild places

A few months ago, I needed to talk to someone about failure. Not failure generally, but a specific form of human failure. I was thinking about how we—meaning, I suppose, humanity—had given up on ourselves by offloading certain vital, very human work to machines.

Most of this offloading is inevitable and, if not completely OK, then probably to be expected—the march of progress in the name of efficiency and all that. But a certain situation was nagging at me. Where once we would have sent humans out to explore and see with their own eyes certain desolate patches of Earth and beyond, then report back to the rest of us, we now send robots. Robots can be inspiring and the pictures they send back lovely and fascinating. But they aren’t the same for reasons that—well, I wasn’t totally sure of the reasons. I’m no explorer. So I called one.

“Hello,” says Sylvia Earle, a legendary researcher, protector, and champion of the oceans and the first female head of NOAA. Nicknamed “Her Deepness,” Earle has explored more inhospitable, hard-to-reach subsurface regions of this planet than maybe anyone. She’s surely someone who knows, intimately, exactly what I’m worried about. And she does.

“There are things that humans bring to the equation that no instrumentation can bring,” she says when I tell her what I’m calling about. What she means by “things that humans bring” is that although a machine will always beat out a human for sheer information, measurements, and hard numbers, there’s a real danger in our shift toward big data over more subtle forms of observation. “You go to a fine restaurant, you sit down, have a good meal, have good wine, you know what it’s like,” Earle tells me. “You could take a picture of it, but the experience is not the same.”

We know this intuitively. I’m not alone in my gut worry about technological creep edging out human intuition. Even businesspeople in glassed-in offices, the opposite of explorers, understand—you can tell because they routinely favor expensive in-person meetings over teleconferences. Something essential gets lost in the machinery, “a sensitivity,” Earle says, “that a robot simply cannot appreciate.” Machines don’t have curiosity or a sense of humor or the same judgement. They make decisions, but they’re entirely rational. “When you see something that’s a little different, it surprises you—but you can’t surprise a machine,” she says.

Surprise is essential, maybe the essential human quality for exploration. Earle says that when we encounter new, unfamiliar territory, we enter a state of heightened awareness. We’re ready to be surprised. A trained mind in this state can quickly identify what’s out of the ordinary. It gets hunches. It says, Hmmmm, what’s that? What’s around that corner? We might deploy an instrument to follow our hunch—and often we do—but until we get out there, says Earle, “Where can our hunches even come from? From numbers, which aren’t good for hunches. Numbers often confirm what we already want to know. We bend them.”

This happens all the time, this bending. Earle describes the case of the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer, which had a happy ending—not happy happy, for us or the ozone, but happy for science, because it was correct: There was a hole. But the discovery of the hole took a long time because of scientists’ reliance on expected numbers. They were throwing away the data that didn’t fit their conception of what the atmosphere was supposed to look like and had, in fact, looked like before the hole. Now that the hole was there, well, their instruments must have been faulty.

Her point is twofold: that numbers are just numbers, and we can ignore and bend and shape them to our wills; and that eventually you need a human mind to interpret the numbers, to grasp the meaning of the data. “To see,” she says, “that the thing that doesn’t fit is more than a fluke—that it is maybe the most interesting part.”

Earle describes most ocean scientists as “blue water.” They work from ships and stare into the deep via feeds from robotics. She wants, she says, to see more people getting wet—not just scientists but everyone. If you get out there and see what’s under the surface firsthand, you have a stake in it, you’re a bit closer to it, and you can, perhaps, begin to understand the devastation of our seas, which is so extensive and relentless and out-of-sight for most that it can often seem incomprehensible.

Until you crack the surface, it pretty much is incomprehensible. And even after you crack the surface, the fact that most of life on Earth lives in constant darkness, in waters too deep for us to peer into or dive down to without significant mechanical assistance (like a submarine) makes most of the ocean appear unknowable.

But we can know it, because humans have been there—Sylvia Earle has been there. Not to all of it, not by a long shot, but some of it, and she’s brought back stories that will give you goosebumps.

Before she hangs up, she has one to share with me. It’s about exploration, certainly, but it’s also about that very strange and human thing we do: sense when there are other intelligent beings around us. That feeling, when you know you’re being watched, is an ancient one, and it applies deep in the sea too. Earle felt it in the waters off Hawaii, when she was alone in a tiny sub nearly 1,500 feet down. She saw something tiny, just a flash, out of the corner of her eye—“something even the wide-angle cameras on the sub would have missed. And I felt that feeling, like someone was behind me, watching me, so I turned the submarine and was there, eye to eye, with an octopus nearly as big as the sub. It was watching me, I was watching her—it was a female, she had eggs attached to her—and as I moved the sub she moved with me. For the next hour we watched and moved and floated, and we were dancing—just dancing, me and a giant, intelligent octopus. And I struggle to think what that would have been like if it had just been a camera and not me there. We wouldn’t have danced, certainly.”