On February 13, 2019, NASA announced that the Mars rover Opportunity was dead – an announcement that came nearly eight months after a Martian dust storm silenced the rover. NASA originally intended for Opportunity to explore the plains of Mars for only 90 days, but the incredible rover ended up working for 15 years. During its "lifetime," the rover traveled approximately the distance of a marathon, providing scientists with numerous up-close pictures of Mars and greatly increasing our knowledge about the surface and makeup of the planet.
After years of exploration, the rover was silenced by a huge dust storm in June of 2018. Scientists at NASA tried repeatedly to reconnect with Opportunity, sending the rover approximately 1000 signals – but to no avail. Despite NASA's hopes that the rover would resume functioning once the dust storm had passed, they never heard from Opportunity again, prompting NASA to finally announce the "death" of the rover and the end of its mission.
The news of the rover's death sparked an outpouring of emotional messages on social media from people struck by grief at the loss of the robot. One person tweeted in all caps, "I cried when I heard the news," admitting that even though he/she is almost 20 years old, he/she "still cried about [an] inanimate object." Another person posted, "Is it weird that I may be mourning a little?" Yet another social media user referred to the "death" of Opportunity as "a very heart-saddening event." One writer tweeted, "I never imagined I'd be sitting at my computer crying over a last message from a robot on Mars, but here I sit wiping away tears." Many people took to creating emotional, beautiful artwork of the rover and posting it to platforms such as Tumblr. Even the scientists at NASA played Billie Holliday's song "I'll Be Seeing You" as a heartfelt way to sing the rover to sleep.
When I heard about these social media posts/messages, I found myself both deeply touched by the depth of these people's emotions and relieved that I was not the only person who felt this way. Ever since hearing the news about Opportunity, I have felt strangely sad and melancholic. Even though I know that it was just a robot that was never "alive" in the true sense of the word, I truly do feel as if a real death occurred, not just the breakdown of a piece of machinery.
This led me to wonder – what is it about this rover that tugs on people's heartstrings and causes them to respond to its "death" in such a grief-stricken manner? Why do we care so much about a machine? Why does the loss of it make us any sadder than if one of our kitchen appliances stopped working?
Indeed, others have noted how remarkable it is that so many people have been so deeply touched by the rover's passing. For instance, actor Tom Holland tweeted, "The strange potential of human being's [sic] future relationship with machines, [sic] is evident in the response to the Opportunity Rover's death."
We aren't sad about the "death" of Opportunity just because we lost a piece of machinery that provided us with valuable photographs and data from Mars. Our grief comes from the fact that, despite knowing that the rover was a mere robot, we feel a sort of human connection to the poor, lost rover. While we know that Opportunity was not a person, we still feel empathy for it and love it because it was something that we humans created. And when we create something, we tend to pour not just our time and energy, but also our emotions, into whatever it is we're making - an emotional investment that becomes stronger the more human-like our creations are.
Indeed, the robots that we build are probably the closest we'll ever get to "creating life." In a sense, building robots is our way of playing God by creating living beings, and we often form these robots in our own image, endowing them with faculties like speech, thoughts, "emotions," and senses (as much as we possibly can). Our robots will most likely never fully possess life in the same sense as humans and animals do, but perhaps we feel a strong connection to our robots because we give them human-like characteristics and "bring them to life" (in a sense). Consider this: we also build and make other types of technology/machines, including things like microwaves, cars, and forklifts, yet none of these are purposely given human-like traits like artificial intelligence is - a key difference that perhaps reveals why the death of Opportunity saddens us more than a broken microwave does.
While Opportunity was certainly not the most humanoid robot ever created, even it exhibited human-like qualities that kindled empathy and grief in the hearts of people everywhere. In the rover's final moments of life, it sent back these heartbreaking words to scientists at NASA: "My battery is low and it's getting dark." Simple as these words are, they convey a sense of loneliness and fear in the face of impending death.
We may know deep down that the rover experienced no emotions like fear or anguish as it passed away, yet these words break our hearts because they seem like the final, plaintive mourning of a doomed being who is crying out to the universe in despair, perishing alone on a cold planet surrounded by millions of miles of emptiness and cut off from any being like it. The rover could communicate with humans, and our hearts broke at the emotions its words conveyed. Indeed, death is part of our reality, and perhaps we recognized our own mortality in the passing of Opportunity. We saw experiences and emotions that we could relate to, and we felt as if it were the real death of a loved one.
It seems crazy that we humans could become so attached to a machine that we would mourn its passing – but maybe that's just who we are. Perhaps we saw a kindred spirit in the form of Opportunity, and our inner humanity awakened to feel a connection to and sympathy for this being. We cried. We sang her to sleep. We gave her the cute nickname of "Oppy." Perhaps our reaction speaks volumes about not just our relationship with machines but about who we are as humans.