Love in the time of Robots

Hank - min

It is easy to forget Tank. Easy, that is, until you are walking down an empty corridor one day and a smooth, low voice says ‘Good afternoon’ and you look up and realise you are not alone. Tank watches you with large eyes as you walk past, face in calm repose.

 

Tank is certainly not the only receptionist around campus capable of locating professors in a hurry. He is not even the only robot. (Although he is the only robot receptionist.) There are many mechanised residents of Carnegie Mellon, from the tall thin Cobots that roam the computer science building on wheels to the roombas that fight it out every semester, their innards gutted and re-wired to battle their brethren.

 

I remember stealing candy from the Cobots at halloween. Every one of them trundles along at a steady speed slightly faster than a human stroll so the candy nabber has to keep up a lively jog and work for that Mars bar or two. The trick to this I only discovered much later, one needs only to corner the Cobot against a wall and watch it stall in confusion as the program attempts to discover an alternate route that avoids bumping into the human. The robots are all surprisingly considerate.

 

Baymax caused quite the sensation in CMU. Modelled after an inflatable robotic arm made in the university, he received much adoration, and that uncanny resemblance to a sentient marshmallow did not hurt either. For a while, images of Baymax would gaze out at us from any number of office windows and display boards.

 

In many ways, Baymax is the perfect example of a robot. He does exactly what his creators made him to do, as incapable of causing hurt as showing compassion when it is not part of his program. When I think about it more, he is surely the representation of all the Tanks and Cobots and fighting roombas out there in the world. He is the robot emissary to the human populace to explain how machines think – experiencing no pain, no happiness and following instructions with an almost single-minded loyalty.

 

Yet some of us humans (yours truly) insist on anthropomorphising these robots. It is easy to unquestioningly accept that Tank is calm and the Cobots become confused but sometimes I cannot help wondering about the robot mind. There is the word of learned scientists to argue that a robot executing lines of code cannot really be calm or confused. After all, emotions are the natural-born right of our conscious humanity, Baymax’s self-sacrifice might move me to tears, but is it really loyalty when it is built into the heart of a program? (And here I realise I say ‘heart’ as though robots have a heart, as though they are not wires and metal ingeniously put together by human hands.)

 

Perhaps the answer is ‘no’, perhaps we are mistaken when we speak of robots as though they have feelings of any sort but I will like to think that even if we are wrong, our willingness to accept robots as man-like entities tells us something about ourselves. We learn about Braitenberg’s vehicles in psychology. They are little cars outfit with sensors, simple contraptions whose behaviour was described as love and hate, logic and aggression – even half a century ago, we have been looking for ourselves in our robots.

 

This could all just be the result of one too many surprised encounters with Tank, or the effect of dwelling in the presence of robots: I think of us as a lonely species hurtling down the empty corridor of our little quadrant of space, waiting for the unexpected ‘Good afternoon’.

 

And while we wait, we make robots in our image and send them out to the planets and then the stars, bearing names like ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Curiosity’ because these words mean something to the spirit of Man. And somewhere far out from earth, there is one intrepid robot named Voyager carrying a golden record of human life for alien eyes to one day see. A “bottle into the cosmic ‘ocean’” as Carl Sagan calls it, perhaps robots are mankind’s emissaries too.

Grace Guo

Grace is a second year student at Carnegie Mellon University who spends her time fretting over her houseplants: Francis II and Francis III.

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