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Mike's Blog: It's 2019 and mourning robots is totally normal

Feb. 26, 2019
You may have seen that on Feb. 13, NASA declared its Mars Opportunity rover officially dead, following more than a thousand unsuccessful attempts to revive the craft from the hibernation mode it entered during a planet-wide dust storm last June. NASA made one final communication attempt on Feb. 12, to no avail, and the record-setting rover’s mission was declared complete one day later.

Planned for 90 sols of duration activity, Opportunity landed on the Red Planet on Jan. 25, 2004. Through continuous battery recharging with its solar panels and hibernating during dust storms to conserve power, NASA was able to extend Opportunity’s operation by more than 14 years for a total of 5,111 sols—55 times its designed lifespan. Through its last transmission to earth on June 10 of last year, Opportunity had traveled just over 28 miles from its landing site.

In the days leading up to and after NASA declaring Opportunity dead, there was an outpouring of sentimental gratitude for the rover through social media, blogs, and editorials in major news outlets. I had seen other farewells and thank yous given to robots before, but nothing on this scale. Celebrities and space geeks alike shared their goodbyes to the 400-pound rover that will now likely become buried in dust over millennia

Literally, Opportunity is merely a very expensive collection of metal, circuitry, instruments, and solar panels that no longer function. But metaphorically, it was so much more. To many, including myself, Opportunity represented exploration, ingenuity, and longevity. It was also a great representation of engineering. In an age when everyone complains how appliances and new technology don't last like they used to, Opportunity proved that we can keep technology operating 33.9 million miles from earth for 15 years.  

“The rover isn’t just some hunk of metal on a distant planet," Bill Nelson, chief of the Opportunity mission's engineering team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told Mashable last June after ceased communications with earth. “It’s like a family member. We don’t talk about it—we talk about her.”

So, is this normal? Should it be? What's the ethical implications of mourning robots?

It's definitely normal. Pop culture has instilled the idea of mourning robots since before we saw Hal be disconnected in 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Movies constantly remind us that robots can be friends of humans and that we should be sad when they 'die', whether that's Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator voluntarily lowering itself into molten metal in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991); The Iron Giant (1999) sacrificing himself to stop a missile; Wall-E's memory being wiped upon being repaired (2008, it came back, but I'm still counting it)

Thanks to social media, we've rapidly humanized robots. Opportunity had its own Twitter account, as does the Curiosity Rover and InSight Rovers currently on Mars (I follow both), presumably run by some member of NASA's social media team. Keeping up with their daily activities makes it easy to get attached to these robots in at least some fashion.

That all sounds good and harmless to me, so I'm all for it.

On the other—and drastically more morbit—hand, a Japanese start-up has begun to market its Digital Shaman Project, which puts 3D-printed mask of a deceased person's face onto a humanoid robot in efforts to help the grieving process after a loved one's death. While alive, people will interview with an artist and have their physical characteristics and verbal messages recorded. After they die, a 3D printed mask of the deceased is placed upon the robot. After installing the subject's program into the robot, the robot is able to mimic the deceased's personality, speech, and gestures, including head and hand movements. The program is set to last 49 days, which is the period of mourning in Japan. So, it lets you 'stay' with that person for 49 days after their funeral.

While that project's heart is certainly in the right place, it sounds downright creepy to me. In Netflix's Black Mirror series—in which episodes frequently are based around the frightening potential of technology—a 2013 episode ("Be Right Back") is based on essentially this same concept, where a company allows people to 'grow' a synthetic clone of their deceased loved one. It was indeed creepy. But is it only that way because it seems so foreign right now? If the Digital Shaman Project ends up successful, perhaps it, too, will become normalized.

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