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Empathy for Robots in Space (Veronica Vold)

March 2, 2010

I’ve often imagined what it might be like to be alone in outer space: the loneliness, the vastness, the un-homeness of it. Perhaps this is why the recent xkcd comic, “Spirit,” affects me so deeply. Cartoonist Randall Munroe gives NASA’s robot thought bubbles and the capability to hope. A feeling of loss radiates through these bursts of robot voice: his confusion and despair at being abandoned recalls Dug the dog in Up (“I was hiding under your porch because I love you”). Yet it’s his silence in the final panel that really evokes the sadness of dislocation for me; Spirit is alone, embedded in the alien landscape of Mars. And: he’s still out there right now! Munroe’s conception of Spirit makes me think of Wall-E; why is it so easy to identify beings in machines that are initially meant to be dutiful drones? Such robots cross a boundary to become cyborgs of emotional depth, capable of friendship and companioning with people. Reading Munroe’s comic, I want to step into this foreign landscape, look into Spirit’s goggles, and tell him to come home: we’re all waiting.

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