He was a month short of his twentieth birthday, and he knew he wouldn’t live to see it. Below him the planet grew. Whorls of peach clouds gained depth and detail as he fell toward the atmosphere that would first burn him, then crush what was left.
He’d always known his fate. Even before he was born, it was decided this is how his life would end. The planet below was so familiar, so big—getting bigger now, filling half the sky. He knew it intimately—had hardly known anywhere else. But while the gas giant might be his grave, but it was never his home.
As the first, gentle threads of atmosphere touched him, he opened all of his senses. One last effort to learn more about the world that was consuming him. But he kept his face turned toward home. The atmosphere tugged, incessant now. It wanted him. But he strained to keep home in sight, to let them know. Until at last, the planet could not be refused.
The speed of light makes mourning complicated. A billion and a half kilometers away, his family knew what was happening. It had always been their idea. He was dead and nothing they could do would change that. But for the next eighty three minutes they listened to his radio signals as Saturn’s gravity dragged him toward its crushing cloud tops. His signal grew weak, then strengthened as he struggled to send his last thoughts home. They watched his senses fail, one by one. It was all planned. They’d calculated down to the second when his death would come. But he held on, and sent back a signal for half a minute more.
And then nothing.
When the Cassini-Huygens mission
to Saturn was launched in 1997, it was state of the art. But by modern standards, it was very primitive. On the spectrum of technology, it was closer to a hammer than a smart phone. It wasn’t “smart” in any sense, it only did what it was explicitly told to do.
But in September, when it was intentionally diverted into Saturn’s atmosphere to safely end its mission, people all over Earth cried real tears and hugged each other for comfort. Cassini had been wildly successful, its mission lasting four times its initial plan. It was the first probe to orbit Saturn. It discovered two new oceans, and six new moons. It sent back half a million images of things no human had ever seen before: Startling pictures of Saturn’s rings, bent and warped
by its uncanny moons. The dynamic hexagon of clouds
at its pole that changed color with the seasons. Images relayed from its probe, landed on the shores of Titan’s methane lakes
. And the things it saw as it passed through the giant plumes of water thrown out by the geysers of Enceladus
What it sent back made us wonder and dream. Many of the people working on the final Cassini mission weren’t even born when the project was conceived. They had never known a time without it. More than five thousand people worked on it, and the science generated has so far been part of more than four thousand scientific papers. Cassini wasn’t conscious, wasn’t even sophisticated. But it shaped lives, and inspired countless people. It would be missed. And so, yes, there were tears and hugs and consolation among the team as the very last signal came came back from the doomed probe.
And yet, today, we have a resistance to anthropomorphizing technology. We feel awkward about admitting an attachment, and make fun of those who get emotional over things that are just “things”. But as technology becomes integral to our lives and shapes our experiences, we’ll be forming tighter and more emotional bonds with it.
In Analee Newitz's novel Autonomous
, she writes about an engineer who subverts drug companies patents so she can replicate and smuggle medicine to those who can’t afford it. When she unknowingly replicates a drug that has skipped the usual safety checks, she starts looking for a cure to the deadly mania it causes. On the other side of the planet, the drug's creators decide to hunt her down before their misconduct becomes impossible to cover up. They hire a pair of security specialists, one human, one indentured AI, to close down her operation in any way that the mercenaries can.
Newitz is an experienced and nuanced science and technology reporter, and has a solid understanding of the technology she’s writing about. The world of Autonomous
is a deep and solid one, built on current trends and possibilities, but one of the main features that separates it from many stories about AI, is that the artificial consciousness is not portrayed as a human in a machine body. It is distinctly a machine. It doesn’t have emotions, but it has operational parameters that determine its behavior. By passing these complex directives through a sophisticated processor, and a capable body, their reactions become nuanced in a way that we think of as intelligent. And when a sophisticated AI has saved your life a few times (and you’ve returned the favor) the relationship naturally moves beyond that between a carpenter and their hammer.
very literally explores the relationships we have with technology, and the discomfort that causes. At the same time she addresses those systems set up to degrade humans, removing our ability to feel for each other, and the consequences that brings.