The mind-beagle-ing concept of adorable rovers

Oppy is skeptical of her fictional competition – by Tess Devine-Hercus


For some context, check out my previous post: my love letter to the Opportunity rover. (Of course, we don’t live in a totalitarian society, so you can do whatever you want, but if you’re after some Gwen Stefani references mixed in with your dose of #SciComm, you should give it a read)

Now that we’re all nostalgic and emotional, let’s unpack the relationship with our not-so-furry friends.

In my last blog post, I quoted a statement from NASA: “We are pulling for our tenacious rover to pull her feet from the fire one more time. And if she does, we will be there to hear her.”

Note the use of the she/her pronoun when referring to a rover that is 50 million kilometres away. What is it about our robot friends that makes them so loveable? Why do we feel such a sense of connection with a robot that was sent by an organisation to collect data on a different planet?

Assigning genders and personalities to robots, and engaging in anthropomorphism (whereby human traits are applied to non-human objects) is an interesting concept.

But maybe it isn’t a case of anthropomorphism by definition?

Take the robot characters in Star Wars.

BB-8 is essentially two spheres stacked on top of one another – the furthest thing from bipedal (if you meet a human with this body shape, let me know), but judging by the sheer amount of merchandise, is still adorable, and very much capable of eliciting an emotional response.

There’s a really interesting graph titled the ‘Uncanny Valley’, which has been creatively interpreted by yours truly on a 30-minute bender on Microsoft Word.

Oppy makes her way up the graph of emotional response against human qualities – by Tess Devine-Hercus

With emotional response tracking up the vertical axis, it takes a massive dip when we get too close to the human form. In comparison to BB-8, C3PO probably sits somewhere along this valley. And Sofia, the social humanoid robot, sits right at the bottom due to her ‘uncanny’ human-like qualities and mannerisms that are off-putting precisely because of their likeness.

So maybe our response to Oppy isn’t so much a case of applying human qualities to the rover, but instead lies in the assignment of the concept of a pet dog or a puppy?

Social media is a vital part of this discussion.

The twitter account for the Curiosity rover tweets about Opportunity, referring to the latter as ‘her’, with an affectionate pet name of ‘Oppy’. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of rovers being best friends with each other warms my heart, but maybe that’s because it’s meant to.

It’s great to feel a sense of community investment in something bigger than myself, and as NASA is, after all, a government organisation, some might say it’s their obligation to make people care about their projects. (After all, space exploration isn’t really considered “cheap”)

With all this support, the marketing team at NASA has jumped on board. Over three thousand people have sent postcards to the Opportunity rover (myself included), under the umbrella of the #WakeUpOppy and #OppyPhoneHome campaigns that have been running since Opportunity’s last message in June this year.

A postcard to Oppy – by Tess Devine-Hercus (originally by NASA)

My favourite part about it is the irony that exists within the “I am not a robot” test. After all, it’s a gatekeeper in the online form to send a postcard to a robot.

Regardless, it’s adorable, so here’s the link to send your own postcard to Oppy. Remember, positive messages only, and no expletives – she needs all the optimism in the world.

2 Responses to “The mind-beagle-ing concept of adorable rovers”

  1. Tess Devine-Hercus says:

    Thanks for reading Sally! Me too! It’s just such a hilarious considering that the rovers are “tweeting” about each other!?

  2. Sally Jenkins says:

    Love this post Tess! The postcard part made me laugh out loud. The poor robots can’t send messages to other robots 🙁