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We Fall in Love With Space Robots Because They Act Like Animals

Like pets, wires and chips can appear to act with intention

Philae's ancestor, the original Apollo lunar lander. (© ANDRZEJ WOJCICKI/Science Photo Library/Corbis)
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When Philae powered down for a nap, it felt a little bit sad—and not just because of the mission cost (well over a billion dollars) or the loss of potential data. Over the days in which Rosetta approached comet 67P and launched Philae onto its surface, it was easy to develop an emotional attachment to Philae. If you’ve been following the Rosetta mission, the lander’s "nap" might feel reminiscent of the time your childhood dog was sent "to a farm."

Christoph Bartneck, human-robot interaction researcher, explained to Wired how robots' actions can foster a special connection between us and a hunk of wires and computer chips: 

"Robots show intentional behavior, which we otherwise only associate with animals. Hence, we encounter a situation in which robots appear to be alive and only our rational thinking tells us that they are not," says Bartneck. "But our rational thinking is the weaker part of our brain. I think that we will have a similar relationship with robots as we have today with pets."

Just look at the way that we talk about Philae: the robot takes a journey to the comet; to get out of a jam, it hops and cartwheels and improvises. And even under the tough conditions, Philae “performed magnificently,” says Lander Maneger Stephan Ulamec.

If Philae is animal-like, though, it is a particulary smart animal. (Your dog might be intelligent, but does it fetch data?) It's also controlled by humans.

ESA’s PR team* has cleverly and adorably capitalized on humans' ability to emphathize with Philae and Rosetta. Both have Twitter accounts, and they chatted with each other until Philae went dead. But even robots without spokespeople convey intention and loyalty: researcher Julie Carpenter found that soldiers sometimes hold funerals for fallen robots. In warfare, that attachment is a bug, not a cute feature: in life-or-death situations, it is important to consider a tool a tool, not a living thing. 

But, if you're feeling sad about the end of Philae, fear not. There are more robots to root for. The New Horizons spacecraft, which has been in hibernation on its long journey to Pluto, is scheduled to "wake up" soon

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly cited NASA's PR team, not ESA's. We regret the error.

About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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