This morning, I was telling Sally about an xkcd cartoon where the Spirit rover is doing its work on Mars, counting down the days until its mission is over. The rover is seen thinking about the day when it can come home, then starts to question what it did wrong as the days and months pass. Eventually, humans return to Mars, long after Spirit had “died”. In the final panel, there’s a domed city on Mars, and Spirit is in the middle of a park dedicated to the little robot.
As I told her this, Sally was making fun of me because I was obviously getting sentimental about the story. She claims I was getting teary-eyed. She pointed out that it’s just a machine and that I was anthropomorphizing the robot. I tried to argue, as I worked to get my emotions under control, that it was different because the rovers were an extension of ourselves, way up there on Mars.
“What about your car?”, she asked.
That’s different, I argued. The car really isn’t the same type of “extension” because we use the car to get to the place which we will then experience directly. In that respect, the car is more of a tool. We don’t experience anything through the car. Sure, some people give their car names and treat them with kid gloves, but that’s not the same as imbuing the machine with personality. So, what’s different about Spirit, Opportunity, Voyager, and all those other machines that, unlike us, have gone where no one has gone before?
Maybe it’s because space exploration is so important to me, but somehow, that’s not all there is to it. I don’t feel the same way about the space shuttle or the Saturn rockets. I love them in a techno-science geek kind of way, but I don’t “feel” for them. There’s something else. The closest thing I can come up with is that the rovers, and robots like them, are partly autonomous machines. They have to be in order to negotiate some of the the things they’ll run into, so far from home. See, I’m doing it again — assigning the concept of “home” to a machine.
The rovers are different because they move around under their own power. They look around, analyse their environments, examine the landscape, and they make decisions. They are, in a distant sort of way, alive. In giving these machines the ability to “reason” for themselves, we’ve given them something akin to a quality we humans revere, the freedom to act independently according to the demands of the moment. We’ve given them a kind of limited free will. And free will is a quality we associate with life. More importantly, we associate it with sentience. With thought.
So, maybe that’s the real reason. Silly or not. The rovers, like Spirit, are kindred spirits, however different they may be from us, their creators. At least, it feels that way.
Feel free to argue with me, and feel free to make fun of me for getting teary-eyed over a robot.