Robots & Tears

Yesterday and today, reading about the final minutes of Philae’s adventures on Comet 67P, I got to wondering again about the way we anthropomorphize these machines we make.

I want to be cold, logical, and cynical enough to realize that they’re just machines! Yes, people involved with these projects spend years and years designing, testing, building and launching these machines. I can see how they would form an attachment to the project, with the actual robot / probe / spacecraft / machine being the obvious symbol that represents all of that. I get it. But you and I aren’t part of that team, we’re just bystanders watching on television or Twitter. (If any of you ARE on one of those teams, can we talk?)

Yet we do it anyway, form emotional attachments, thinking of the robots as brave little soldiers, sent out into the cold and dangerous depths of space on a one-way suicide mission. They do their best to struggle on against all the odds, getting those last little bits of data for us before they expire.

If we pull ourselves out of our mourning and grief, we know that they “struggle on” because they were built solidly and the engineers who designed and built them were thorough and did an excellent job of anticipating different conditions and problems and building in ways of coping. Even when the spacecraft 300,000,000 miles from Earth runs into something unexpected, the engineers down here at ESA or NASA or Roscosmos or JAXA or ISRO or JPL are very clever at coming up with ways to work around it. The robot, the machine, the spacecraft is just doing what it was built for and what it’s programmed and commanded to do.

Yesterday the end came for Philae, which isn’t really “dead.” It’s more like “sleeping” or “hibernating,” since it can reactivate itself should something change on the comet which would allow sunlight to reach its solar panels. (For those who haven’t been following, it bounced on landing, ending up someplace against a cliff or in a canyon of some sort, where it gets very little sunlight.) The mission was designed to last 56 hours or so on batteries, and despite some problems in landing, Philae still carried out 100% of its science mission, getting data from every experiment, taking all of the pictures it was programmed to take, and sending all of that data back to Earth before the batteries died. It’s an overwhelming, spectacular, amazing success!

Yet we get teary-eyed when the end comes.

There are many examples of similar things in movies, but I wonder if the movies are training us to act this way in the real world or if the movies are simply reflecting the zeitgeist of our age. I remember being embarrassed on a date in high school by being so emotionally involved with Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the three small robots in “Silent Running.” We all consider R2-D2 and C3PO to be primary characters in the Star Wars films. (All three Star Wars films!) We worry about Wall-E. We know Johnny-5 is alive. When the Iron Giant sacrifices himself to save everyone else, I’m a puddle. I can watch “Blade Runner” all day long and root for Roy Batty & Pris. The list goes on.

But that’s entertainment, and we know the difference between it and real life. (Don’t say it — just don’t!)

Last night, this was real life, and it left me feeling like I had just shot Old Yeller:

I got it. I understand. It’s just a machine, doing an extraordinary job of doing what we designed it for. I know that the “@Philae2014” is a Twitter account being created by some human being at ESA.

But I dare you to read that and not put it on a par with our best human tales of triumph mixed with tragedy.

Finally, on a related note, even two years after I first saw it, this (damn you, Randall!) will tear me up every time:

© Randall Munroe at xkcd.com

(Go buy his new book, now a #1 New York Times Best Seller!)

 

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