Why we love humanizing space robots
NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover captured this selfie on September 10, 2021.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Humans have sent many robotic vehicles to study Mars, which is nearly 34 million miles from Earth.
Six-wheeled rovers have two cameras that act like eyes and a pole that looks like a neck.
Robots take on “personalities” through their experiences and social media accounts from a first-person perspective.
When a Mars rover sends back a selfie, the mission’s ground-based engineers and scientists feel like they’re being FaceTimed by a friend they haven’t seen in a while.
We know that mars rovers are robots, but they are feeling such as friends or pets. Why do we feel so connected to them?
Those who work closely with these robotic emissaries – as well as the public – tend to humanize them, or endow these inanimate robots with human qualities, and insiders said it could help the general mission.
“All NASA missions make people feel connected to the vehicle, whether it’s a rover, orbiter or lander,” said Janet Vertesi, a sociologist of science and technology at Princeton University and an ethnographer at several robotic space missions by NASA, insiders said.
“The robot is the thing that brings a whole community together – it’s like a symbol for the group.”
We are programmed to react emotionally to cute robot faces
Even scientists and engineers cannot avoid attributing human characteristics to space robots.
“That’s how rovers are designed,” Abigail Freeman, the assistant project scientist for the Curiosity rover, told Insider. “Our brains are programmed to make faces out of things that only vaguely resemble faces.”
The first selfie taken by NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover.NASA/JPL-Caltech
Take the twin golf cart-sized rovers Spirit and Opportunity that landed on the red planet in 2004.
Both rovers are just over 1.5m long and have exceeded their expected life of 90 days exploring and collecting data on the surface of Mars.
Like many modern rovers, the twins have a camera pole that looks like a neck.
“It really does look like a face, and that’s scientifically intentional,” Freeman said. “We have two cameras placed about the same distance apart as the eyes.”
Rovers also have robotic arms designed to function like a human geologist.
“We live in an alternative way through these robotic explorers,” Emily Stough, an engineer for NASA’s Insight lander, told Insider. “Dix friends going on a great adventure and taking all these amazing photos and you can join from the comfort of your own home.”
Her ability to take selfies on the surface of Mars makes her look confident
NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover took this selfie in front of Mont Mercou.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
Rovers can use the camera attached to their robotic arm to capture epic selfies of the Martian surface.
“There’s a certain confidence behind taking a selfie, and I think we can transfer that to the rover,” Katie Stack Morgan, deputy project scientist for the Mars 2020 rover, told Insider.
“Of course we are the ones who tell him to do it.”
Perseverance surrounds her robotic arm.NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
“What has always struck me about selfies is how a subtle tilt of the pole can convey a different human emotion than a direct frontal view,” she added.
The robot’s “personalities” are formed by addressing the challenges on Mars
As a mission involving a six-wheeled rover ages, the robot’s “personality” emerges.
Spirit and Opportunity were two identical rovers. But based on the different places the rovers landed on Mars, they ended up having two very different experiences.
“The Spirit got that personality where he was a kind of worker, really down in the dirt he rubs. She had to do a lot harder work,” said Freeman.
Opportunity, meanwhile, was known as “Little Miss Perfect” after landing on geological evidence of liquid water.
Faithful models of three generations of Mars rovers, including the Sojourner rover (center), twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity (left) and Curiosity (right)NASA/JPL-Caltech
Then there’s Curiosity, a car-sized rover that landed on Mars in 2012. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory affectionately called him George, according to Stack Morgan, who also served as a geologist for the Curiosity rover mission.
The resilient robot had to overcome several problems during its mission.
“You feel like the rover is taking on challenges, and doing very human actions,” Stack Morgan said. “Through the ups and downs of operating a spacecraft, you really start to build that emotional connection — you really start to see them as a friend and partner fighting with you. We are doing the Earth side and the rovers are doing the Mars side.”
Not all members of the mission team welcome this measure of attributing human characteristics to a literal robot.
“For some people, anthropomorphization goes too far because it removes the pressure to really care for the robot,” says sociologist Vertosi.
The public can interact with first person accounts on social media
“The scientists have a way of interacting with the rovers that really brings them to life. But it’s not the same as the public,” said Vertesi. “NASA really encouraged this because public involvement is incredibly important to publicly funded science. I think that’s why we see so much of this encouragement of anthropomorphism in the public domain.”
It began with LiveJournal entries for Spirit and Opportunity, each credited with their own personality. Now many of NASA’s missions have their own social media accounts written in first person perspective.
Rover, lander and orbiter can even send heartbreaking goodbye messages thanks to their dedicated social media team.
It’s hard to say goodbye to a friend
For the teams of hundreds of engineers and scientists working on the Mars spacecraft, the end of a mission means the loss of a key team member.
“It is also the loss of a team that I worked hard and intensely with for decades,” said Vertesi, while adding that she was involved in several “robot funerals”.
On February 12, 2019, mission leaders at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, sent the final commands to ask NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity to call home.NASA/JPL-Caltech
To say goodbye to NASA’s brave Opportunity Rover in 2018, mission staff at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory decided to play Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
“It’s like an awakening,” said Vertesi. “It’s a celebration of life and a final surprise for the team, as well as a way to mourn and process the loss of the robot they cared so much about and dedicated so much of their lives to.”
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