Humanizing robots is a topic that has attracted and repelled mankind from the earliest days of robot development. The android, Commander Data, from StarTrek probably epitomizes human ideas of what a robot might be and what a robot’s ambitions could be. However, we have some recent evidence of human emotions generated by robots that is, perhaps, somewhat surprising.
It’s January 2004 and NASA is about to land on Mars, twice. The twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity (Oppy for short) are scheduled to arrive on opposite sides of the Red Planet within weeks of each other, and a lot can go wrong. The descent involves each lander plunging through the Martian atmosphere, deploying parachutes and bouncing across the rocky landscape encased in giant airbags.
What seemed like minutes later, and seemingly against the odds, NASA had done it. The two rovers were safely on Mars. But, as they began to explore their surroundings, something extraordinary was happening back on Earth: The humans commanding the rovers started to treat them differently. Spirit and Oppy were no longer six-wheeled machines with solar panels, cameras mounted on a stalk and a mechanical arm, but sentient beings. They became our avatars on an alien world. The scientists were humanizing robots.
“It sneaks up on you,” says Doug Ellison, a rover engineer. “You find yourself, especially when you’re doing mission operations, putting yourself inside the rover and you start moving that crazy suspension system with your arms or you start moving the mast and you end up feeling like you’re a little piece of that robot.”
What makes this transition even more fascinating is that it happened naturally. There was no deliberate public relations campaign to anthropomorphise the rovers. Spirit and Oppy even gained pronouns. No longer “it”, the engineers (most likely, it seems, in the tradition of ships) started referring to them both as “she”. “I don’t think anyone consciously went, ‘I can do a better job if I think about this thing as my cuddly pet robot’,” says Ellison. “But you learn to sympathize with it and learn to feel like you’re a part of it.” Definitely humanizing robots!
The journey of the twin rovers across Mars is chronicled in a new documentary film, Good Night Oppy, released this week (23 November) on Amazon Prime. Using archive footage, original interviews and impressive new CGI, the movie packs an emotional punch. When he began to talk to potential interviewees the film’s director, Ryan White, realized how attached scientists and engineers had become to the rovers. “What we found really interesting and surprising was how much these human beings projected their own human emotions onto these robots,” White says. “Some of the engineers have a photo of them up on the refrigerator right next to their own children. That’s how closely they feel to these robots.”
“It is so strange that identical twin robots also ended up with different personalities,” says Ellison. “Spirit was a tough, hardworking rover, she had to fight for every scientific discovery she ever made – the landing site was harder, the science was harder to find.
Two years into its intended 90-day mission, Spirit was in trouble. What had now become known by some engineers as “the blue-collar rover”, had broken one of her front wheels. After much deliberation (and comparison with faulty supermarket trollies), mission controllers decided the only option was for Spirit to drive backwards, dragging her broken wheel behind her.
Not only did this elicit a great deal of sympathy, the injury also led to one of Spirit’s greatest discoveries. As the rover limped along, her broken wheel dug a trench in the Martian soil revealing almost pure silica. On Earth, this kind of silica usually exists in hot springs or hot steam vents, a home for a rich diversity of microbial life. Now, thanks to Spirit, scientists think that could be a possibility on Mars as well.
By May 2009, only four of Spirit’s six wheels were functioning and she was stuck. “When the Spirit Rover got stuck, we had this whole Free Spirit campaign with people sending in get well soon cards,” says Ellison. But despite the goodwill, Spirit was going nowhere, her mission over.
Oppy carried on. Every day she travelled another few metres across the Martian surface. And, just like the humans she represented, Oppy was ageing. When her flash memory failed, the engineers likened Oppy’s diminished capabilities to dementia and worked out new ways of keeping her mission alive. But almost 15 years – and 28 miles (45 km) into her mission, Oppy’s life was coming to end. In June 2018, after a severe Mars-wide dust storm, Oppy sent a final communication from (the aptly named) Perseverance Valley.
JPL engineers made more than 1,000 attempts to coax Oppy back to life, but none worked. On 12 February 2019, ground control sent the rover one final message – beaming Billie Holiday’s heart-breaking ballad I’ll Be Seeing You across the expanse. The lyric, posted by a NASA scientist on Twitter went viral.
I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the Moon but I’ll be seeing you.
“It sounds ridiculous, but if we could just have one more day with Opportunity, just take a couple more pictures…” says Ellison. “There was something truly special about those rovers and I still miss them even to this day.” Maybe, even within our lifetimes, astronauts will get to see the rovers again. “I sure hope so,” says Fraeman. “Wouldn’t it be so cool if we could have footprints in the rover’s wheel tracks? I would love to walk Oppy’s traverse and see it with my own eyes. “Sometimes, you know, in my dreams, I imagine I’m doing that.”
Can you fall in love with a robot? It’s beginning to look as though that might be possible!