See that? That’s an artist’s rendering of the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. It’s cute, right? It has those two big eyes on the top of its head, which is located at the end of a long and skinny neck. It has this goofy arm, all spindly. It somehow connects with us in the same way that a puppy might. Look, it even has a tail, you can almost imagine that tail wagging.
Spirit is dead. It froze to death. Opportunity is dying, NASA thinks it may have just weeks to live.
That’s kind of a bummer to hear, isn’t it? I mean, they’re both so cute and they fought against all odds to keep going for years when they were designed to operating for mere months. They’re going to power down alone and abandoned on an alien world millions of miles away from earth, and doesn’t that make you feel just a little sad?
Here’s the thing. That face you see on the rover? All the emotions you’re feeling? In part it’s result of something called Pareidolia. Here, let me bring up another example.
This is the famous (perhaps infamous) face on Mars, as imaged by the Viking orbiter in 1976. There’s a very clear eye, nose, mouth, even a long hairdo. The human mind sees these things because it is wired to look for faces, to look for patters. We even think we see another eye, even though it would be obscured in shadow. Even though the whole of the mesa clearly slopes very quickly away from the “nose”. Even knowing it’s a random rock outcropping, thanks to shadows and pareidolia, it’s still nearly impossible not to see a face in this.
And that’s fine. It’s perfectly healthy. It’s part of the human experience, and it’s a very important thing to remember when crafting human characters who have interactions with anything non-human. We tend to impart emotions and personality on inanimate objects all the time, and the more life-like something appears, the more likely we are to think of it as more than a sum of its parts, especially as it gets increasingly anthropomorphic.
It’s something I’m working through myself in a story, dealing with a lot of little robots that don’t actually have personalities, except those imparted onto them by the main character. I was worried for awhile it made her seem a little crazy, a little too quick to talk to herself, but this is what we do. We talk to our computers when they misbehave. Hell, we call it “misbehaving” as though they’re petulant children and not emotionless bundles of circuits and wires. I even felt a little bad writing that last sentence because I was worried the laptop I’m working on could “hear me.” This isn’t a sign of insanity or being alone for too long without human companionship. This is a sign of being human, it’s a quirk, and it’s one that most readers are going to be able to empathize with.
Or else I’m crazy, and all of this should be ignored.
Images both courtesy of NASA and released to the public domain.