Glossing over the technological implications of interstellar travel, what sort of human labor might still be required in a future where we are capable of setting up nigh-fully automated endeavors on faraway planets? For example, a commercial mining outpost on a faraway planet operated by mostly autonomous robots?

Some number of personnel would be need to oversee the outpost of course, tweaking algorithms, trouble shooting, etc. while remotely operated robots could be used to deal with on-site problems necessitating physical intervention, it could be argued that due to the communication delay over huge interstellar distances, that even for remote control some people would be needed to stay on-planet.

The idea I'm working with is a hastily fabricated quasi-city in the middle of a habitable planet where a corporate venture has dropped off about 1000 workers to oversee an army of automated machinery. The plot is somewhat self-contained, as all these people have died and all the machinery is dead -- but to understand the layouts based on the needs of these people, what sort of jobs would these people have had? Is 1000 just ludicrous? I would love some help thinking through this, even if through regrettable reverse engineering, to avoid as much handwavium as possible in the final product.

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    $\begingroup$ Just from curiosity, are you rewriting Alien? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:17
  • $\begingroup$ haha not at all -- though in its absolute broadest strokes, disregarding the actual narrative and characters and specifics of the setting beyond "mining colony", I can see why you'd ask, even in jest. Btw, it's Aliens, not Alien, that has the modular terraforming colony Hadley's Hope. $\endgroup$
    – Delirium
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ Aliens mainly, true. Otherwise, a great source of inspiration about roles/jobs - just look at all that equipment there, see what functions would it perform and think what specializations the people that operate them should have. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:52

4 Answers 4


It depends on:

  • The value of human life/labour in your society
  • The travel time to/from the nearest civilisation

Offshore oil rigs require ~50-200 people and are probably your closest comparison in the modern world: they run 24/7 crews, have multi-week shift patterns and are isolated from civilisation. The people who run them are skilled, well-paid and generally 'valuable', so relatively few jobs are routinely manual. If you had multiple sites, on a planet; it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect each site to require a similar number of workers.

Oil rigs are largely automated except for the jobs that would be too expensive/difficult to automate, which is where the value of people comes in. If 'people are cheap' then it's probably not worth automating too much, why pay 10kcred for a robot if the hourly wage is only 1cred? Why bother with safety rails if you can just ship in a new batch of prisoner-workers each week when the previous ones fall in the volcano?

The second consideration is distance from civilisation. Not only do you need to refresh your crews periodically and to ship replacement parts (long journey == harder to source parts == more problem solving == more people), you also need to consider what the crew will need. If travel home is not practical on a regular basis (travel >1day) then people are there semi-permanently, for months/years at a time, and they'll want something to do; a pub, gym/sports grounds, holodeck, religious temple; and people to run them. 1000 people is easily enough for a small village, so you can expect one to form if there's enough money flowing through it from miners salaries. Think gold-rush prospecting towns or starship enterprise.

Side note: The oft overlooked part of rig workers jobs is not just actually drilling and running maintenance, but continuing to explore/build the rig. You don't just build a rig and then leave it static forever, there's a constant workflow of new nearby exploration, additional platforms, new well heads etc.


Look at IC factories, where as much as possible is automated since humans are simply the main source of pollution for those environments: there are still human jobs, and those are mostly related with service, maintenance and upgrade.

Same jobs I expect to be present on an automated mining outpost.

That amount of people sounds about right for something the size of a continental office on Earth, covering several production sites located on the same continent/large nation (e.g. USA, China or Europe).

Especially in service, they would work in shifts to ensure presence 24/7, with the needed rest days between shifts. You want the site to be up and running as much as possible, any second spent on a down costs your investors a lot of money.

Add to those security: you don't want any unauthorized entity to access or leave the premises without clearance.

  • $\begingroup$ Same jobs I expect to be present on an automated mining outpost. That and collecting aliens on their faces (i.e. prospecting for unusual things the robots won't know how to deal with) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:13
  • $\begingroup$ Medical officers? Bartender/shrinks? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:22
  • $\begingroup$ @AdrianColomitchi, maybe, but those can be automated. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ I see you took the role of the Weyland Industries representative/manager on that planet :grin: $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ Security is less of an issue on a faraway planet. You don't have to worry about strangers wandering into the facility. Look at Antarctic bases. There may be some physical access restrictions to critical systems but there isn't a security presence. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Commented Apr 21, 2020 at 12:53
  1. prospectors
  2. company representative
  3. medical officer
  4. harsh language masters (aka security)
  5. nuke power specialist
  6. transportation: pilot, driver, loader - class 2 rating
  7. comms
  8. personal trainer (balls)

Maybe you need:

  1. bartender/shrink

If the AI is sufficiently advanced I don't see why you need any humans. It could be done even if the only advancements from our current technological level are in software. Remember we've only been making software as a species for less than a hundred years. Imagine the first hundred years of written language and how far it's come since then. In a few hundred years the source code of the future will make our current source code look like scratches in dirt. Software is built in layers, and as a species we're building layer upon layer of new software, working our way up abstraction layers. In a few hundred years a program for a computer is going to look like:

1. build some space ships
2. go to this star system
3. bring back hydrogen and lithium

And the computer itself will be sufficiently smart to do what's needed.

Now, can the AI deal with unknown problems on its own? Adjust its own priorities based on new information, unanticipated by its programmers? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you need a few humans along to make changes to the logic of the robots based on events that unfold. Now maybe you need humans to support the other humans. Maybe you need a committee of experts to make decisions, or maybe just one person could do it. But the labor will be done by the robots.

Or, maybe the robots are sent out without any humans. Maybe they're just given instructions to ignore anything they don't understand, or return home immediately in certain events, like encountering alien life etc. Or maybe they're sent out with only the three lines of logic as above and the human society that sends them just treats them as disposable and builds a total fleet loss risk into it's decision of how many fleets are required to gather the needed materials.


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