Last week, NASA announced the conclusion of the Opportunity rover mission on Mars, after the rover, the longest-serving in NASA history, became unresponsive.
Online, people were sad about this.
ME [reading an article about how sad people are]: People are getting way too emotional about the quote-unquote death of the Mars Opportunity rover, a hunk of remote-controlled computer equipment that was neither conscious nor alive.
ALSO ME [still reading the same article]: My heart is forever shattered by the death of the Mars Opportunity rover, the gentle pet of science.
ME: I mean, obviously it’s human nature to anthropomorphize objects. But there’s something kind of sinister about the ease with which we can trick ourselves into feeling grief for a remote-controlled space drone, even one that remained operational on the surface of a hostile planet for far longer than its specified mission parameters.
ALSO ME: She was supposed to make it only three months, yet she bravely endured dust storms, cold, and isolation for almost 15 years—never complaining, always holding her camera-array mast high and exploring the surface on her six cleated wheels, which were just like little legs.
ALSO ME: “My battery is low and it’s getting dark.” Could there be a more poignant expression of the existential twilight we all face in these times?
ME: It never said this! Mars rovers don’t communicate in English sentences! Opportunity’s sensor stack transmitted a bunch of routine code that included its battery voltage and a light-level reading, and that code was then absurdly paraphrased into this statement of noble stoicism purely because the rover happened to get caught in a massive dust storm afterward.
ALSO ME: The fierce winds shrieking … the knives of red sand lacerating her sides … unimaginable darkness descending as the storm swallowed the whole sky … and Oppy never crying out, never uttering a single sound of protest, as silent as the bird in that D.H. Lawrence poem who never feels sorry for itself even as it freezes and falls off its branch.
ME: It was a camera on a skateboard and it had no feelings.
ALSO ME: She sacrificed everything to push the frontier of human knowledge forward just a little. She gave her whole being to win a few more inches of light for us against the universe’s all-encompassing darkness. It’s because of Oppy that we have our best evidence that there was once water on Mars—she found sedimentary rock and veins of gypsum, both signs of conditions that might once have been hospitable to life.
ME: I’m all for knowing what the weather’s like on Meridiani Planum, but it’s obscene to spend emotional energy mourning an extraplanetary thermometer while ignoring human suffering on Earth.
ALSO ME: Space may be our only hope to alleviate much of that suffering, and Oppy was our proxy in space; it’s not wild to say that in mourning her, we’re reinforcing a commitment to the mission she represented, and to the fragile optimism of that mission. Also, I feel feelings when I look at her little face.
ME: What disturbs me about all this is that right now, we are standing on the threshold of a massive onslaught of robotics, AI, and tech that wants to blur the distinction between humans and machines. Maybe some of this will work for the benefit of humanity, but you would have to be delusional to think that’s the real motive of the tech companies. Most of it is going to work to police us, spy on us, take our jobs, and sell us stuff. Our innate tendency to relate to machines as if they’re alive is something these companies will exploit—and are already exploiting, every day—to make this easier. I don’t begrudge NASA its branding, but we are at a moment in history when we need to be thinking very, very carefully about the relationship between humans and machines. We need to be interrogating our vulnerabilities to manipulation and control. The reaction to Opportunity’s death may seem like harmless social-media emo-spatter, but it’s exactly the sort of uncritical, indulgent, thoughtless sentimentality that we need to be on guard against, because it conditions us to think in ways that will lead to bad twists down the road. It’s a slippery slope: Accepting that a cluster of scientific instruments on Mars is a person because it can move around on wheels is going to make it that much easier to believe in the authority of some future Boston Dynamics kill-bot. People thought Facebook actually cared about them until a couple of years ago.
ALSO ME: But that’s an argument for protecting humanity by denying human nature. I feel empathy for Oppy because I have a human imagination that naturally extends my feelings into the world around me; if it sometimes does so in ways that don’t make sense, well, welcome to life as a human being. If the point is to be a person, then it’s not “sinister” to look at the world through human eyes, even if the view is full of contradictions. I know Oppy wasn’t sentient, but when I read that her right front wheel had a damaged motor, so she had to spend much of her time on Mars driving backward, I still choke up a little. Oppy is every bit as real as Jane Eyre or a Pixar character, but you’d never argue that people should stop having feelings about literature and art because the tools of literature and art can be exploited by brand narratives. We need to be more alert to the ways in which tech works to dehumanize us and cheat us, sure. But that means being alert to moments when those things are actually happening; it doesn’t mean cauterizing every human quirk that’s susceptible to being preyed on by Silicon Valley.
ME: OK, but that’s an awfully ironic position to take when what’s at issue is basically science, isn’t it? “Let’s embrace an obviously irrational part of ourselves in order to honor the quest to expand rational knowledge.” If you know your mind is susceptible to an error, you try not to commit the error; you don’t commit extra hard to the error and then brag about how human you are.
ALSO ME: Yes we do! We do it all the time! Have you ever even watched college sports?
ME: Well, enjoy your RoboCop hell world of authoritarian algorithms and twee corporate serfdom.
ALSO ME: Enjoy your soulless utopia of freedom from imagination and wonder!
ME: When you say this stuff, how tempted are you to add “mash that like button, folks”?
ALSO ME: RIP, Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, MER-B, we thank you for your service and remember you as you pass into the great shadow beyond.
ME: My battery is low and it’s getting dark.