Robots get a pretty bad rap in the press. Unflatteringly portrayed as the source of mass job losses, creepy humanoid interfaces, or racist customer service chatbots, robots are now also lumped in with a faceless entity otherwise known as AI—squillions of lines of invisible code, often working against human interests.
This is a far cry from the affection elicited by other, more three-dimensional robots in our pop culture. R2-D2 is beloved by generations of Star Wars fans, with K-2SO considered a breakout star of the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Robots inspired our imagination as far back as Frankenstein's Monster, as mirroring human qualities, although not quite—just a wide enough gap that we can make them outcasts, or our servants, or our militaristic disposables.
A new opportunity with The Opportunity
This week's story about NASA's decision to pull the plug on the Opportunity Rover, after 15 successful years roving the surface of Mars, was met with an outpouring of grief and support worldwide. NASA last heard from Opportunity on June 10, 2018, after a dust storm encircled the planet, blocking the rover’s solar panels, and it has been unable to communicate since.
I just love the idea of communal social media mourning of an inanimate object. I admit, when I read the news, I was sad too, in a way I hadn't expected. There's something so hopeful, and yet so hopelessly romantic, thinking about NASA engineers wildly seeking signals from a creature of their creation, which has spent 15 lonely years in outer space.
Why do we love Opportunity Rover? Why don't we love AI and other 'bots' in similar ways? What projections are we bringing to these machines that make us treat some with empathy and affection, and others with derision?
Being 'cute' has something to do with it, no doubt. But being the unrecognised potential for human limitations must play a role too.
Scientists, science communicators, and science fans have being posting on Twitter about their favourite memories of the rover and the nearly 15 years it spent exploring Mars. NASA last heard from Opportunity on June 10, 2018, after a dust storm encircled the planet, blocking the rover’s solar panels.