WARNING DANGER THIS COLUMN CONTAINS PATHOS, ANTHROPOMORPHIZATION, AND RAMPANT SENTIMENTALISM. If that bothers you, turn back now.
I feel a great pathos for robots.
Not just any robots, mind. But explorer robots. Brave little space robots. Voyager and Venera and Curiosity and Beagle robots. Spirit and Opportunity robots, possibly even more than all the others.
I think, honestly, most people do. We personalize the brave little toasters. They have twitter accounts and show up in completely heartbreaking xkcd strips. We root for them, pull for them, and appreciate their triumphs, tribulations, and traumas.
Scientists are still learning new things from images of Jupiter taken by Voyager I in 1979, when I was eight years old.
Eight. Years. Old.
We made a robot the size of a car, and we fired it into space, and it's never coming home. It's going to zoom around out there for-functionally-ever. Someday, a squintillion years from now, when we're long gone, there's a tiny possibility that some other people might find it and stare at it and know that we once existed.
It's a gigantic "Fuck you," to the Drake Equation. It's futile and beautiful, and it matters desperately.
That emotion right there? That thing you just felt, if you are anything like me?
That was sense of wonder.
And that is also what the word "humbling" means.
Brave space robots literally make me misty. And it's not just because they serve as a proxy for the East African Plains Apes millions of miles away, at their controls. In fact, I think most of the time we forget that our speciesmates are back there (back here!) on Earth, fiddling with joysticks and flipping toggles. Or tapping away on keyboards and puzzling over ambiguous shadows in photographs.
We say, "Curiosity discovered--" after all. We even construct gender for her and her and her sister Martian rovers--they're female, a pack of brave, adventurous Girl Scouts out there earning merit badges and drilling in to rocks.
I may have shed a tiny tear when I stayed up way, way too late to 'watch' her land. I was certainly rooting for her with as much ferocity as I've ever rooted for a Bruce Willis character, and considerably more than I could muster for WALL-E. (That'll be my unpopular confession for this column.)
It's interesting to me that we can individually haul up this emotional connection, this strength of empathy, for a machine that--objectively speaking--is just a machine. Not a living creature with feelings and agency; nothing with an object position of its own. More than that, that that empathy is easy for us.
Collectively, we seem to have a hard time summoning that understanding, that complex imagining of the other, for beings who are far more similar to us than these brave space toasters. Who are separated only by a gene controlling pigmentation, or a religious or political belief structure. Possibly it's because brave little robots are so alien. We don't come with any installed stereotypes or unexamined prejudices, and they're not exactly competition. Maybe it's because robots don't have political opinions, or a convoluted and shared history of competition and oppression.
In any case, maybe it's a good sign.
If we can learn to care about robots, maybe we can learn to care about less alien but more strange creatures, such as each other.