On the Death of Robots: Who Gets to be Human?

ai-artificial-intelligence-astronomy-73910I’ll admit it: like lots of people, I’ve shed a tear or two over the “death” of the Opportunity Rover, which spent far longer recording information on the surface of Mars than it was ever supposed to. After seeing dozens of cartoons and tributes, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize a machine that embodied so much of our humanness, our striving to know more about the universe we live in.

The story of Opportunity and the response to its “death” showcases the best of humanity: our curiosity, our ingenuity and ability to create technology that satisfies that hunger for knowledge, and our empathy, which is so vast that we can anthropomorphize a data-collecting robot, endow it with human characteristics, and mourn its loss as if it were one of us.

As a species, we take my breath away. We are amazing.

At the same time, the machines of human ingenuity churn away here on earth – answering questions, solving problems, and at the same time destroying the very planet we live on, the air we breathe and the water we drink. The creativity that sent Sojourner, Opportunity, Spirit and now Curiosity to Mars has not, so far, been channelled towards making our own planet a fit place for our great-grandchildren to inhabit.

Nor has our incredibly capacity for empathy and imagination enabled us to humanize the creatures who are being endangered and made extinct by our rapacious greed – or even our fellow humans who suffer from floods, desertification, wildfires. We weep for a dead robot and ignore dead animals, dead fish, dead human children.

As a species, we take my breath away. We are horrible.

We can look at robots, at animals, at fictional characters in books, and make them human by the power of our imagination – care about their fates as much as those of our fellow human beings. But our empathy has limits.

We anthropomorphize dogs and cats, celebrate them as our best friends and make them the heroes of books and movies. But an insect in the Amazon rainforest that a whole ecosystem depends on? We can’t imagine it as human, so we ignore its extinction.

Those who work in conservation are familiar with this paradox. Here in Newfoundland, we were subjected for decades to cries of pity for big-eyed harp seal pups, which were never endangered, but which looked so cute they were easy to humanize. The far less adorable northern cod, which really was endangered, didn’t make a good conservation poster, so trawlers dragged the ocean floor and depleted its stocks to the point that they will probably never fully recover.

We can’t even imagine all our fellow human beings as human. The Other: the foreigner, the refugee, the illegal immigrant child in a detention centre, the homeless panhandler on the corner. If we really saw them as human – even as human as our dogs or our Mars rovers – could we ignore their suffering as we do?

(This lack of imagination is not limited to one side of the political spectrum. Even as I write this, I’m reminded that my pro-life friends would be quick to point out that I, as a pro-choice progressive Christian, might not be capable of imagining a human fetus as fully human, either, until it passes a certain arbitrary cut-off point. We see each other’s failures of empathy more clearly than our own).

We cannot yet travel to Mars, but we can send our emissaries there to do our work, and invest in them our imagination, our hopes, even our empathy. They represent us, and so we imagine that they are us, in some small way.

Yet we will never solve the problems of this planet – the problems of a changing climate, of poverty, of terrorism and violence and inhumanity – till we broaden our vision of who – and what! – deserves our empathy. Until everyone gets to be seen as human.

I honestly don’t know if we will. But a species that can send Opportunity to Mars and fall in love with it – that species certainly can do all that and more.

3 Replies to “On the Death of Robots: Who Gets to be Human?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: