This past week NASA’s most popular Mars rover, Curiosity, celebrated its 6th year as the red planet’s sole inhabitant. Since its launch in 2012, everything about this rover has been breathtaking – from the results of experiments it’s been conducting on our planetary neighbour, to the photographs it’s been beaming back to Earth, but there’s something that stood out over the last 6 years that has not been limited to the scientific. The relationship humans have built up with this collection of circuits and wires has been nothing less than fascinating to observe.
From the moment of its launch this little robot has drawn comparisons to Pixar’s adorable robotic protagonist, Wall-E, and Curiosity has gone on to surpass the animated character to become The Internet’s (if not Earth’s) favourite little robot.
Due to the strange nature of this creator-creation relationship, this mechanical device has shown us a remarkable amount about human nature and our ability to love.
Throughout our time on this planet, we as humanity have shown our tendency to anthropomorphise left and right. That is to say, we attribute human traits, emotions, or intentions to animals and inanimate objects. Think of a young child, who can paint a face on a rock and love it like a pet. Or perhaps a student, who proudly drives around an old “skedonk” and affectionately refers to the car as “he” or “she”.
This tendency is evident in one small tweak to Curiosity’s programming.
After spending one year on the red planet, back in 2013 the team at NASA decided to manipulate its systems to make our robot buddy sing itself Happy Birthday!
This had absolute zero scientific purpose or intent. All they wanted to do was celebrate this little robot and what it had achieved on Mars.
Another example would the internet’s reaction to hearing about this stunt.
The internet reacted in sadness! People painted this image of a lonesome robot, wandering the red wastes of Mars, humming happy birthday to himself – and everyone just wanted to give this bucket of bolts a hug.
If this ability to love ANYTHING doesn’t make you admire humanity, perhaps this next image will: imagine some of the world’s greatest minds, huddled together around a birthday cake in a small control room listening to a little electronic box of wires and circuits millions of kilometers away, sing happy birthday to itself.
I can’t think of an image that better captures two great aspects of humanity: curiosity & love.