Nature Future Conditional

Guest post by Emily Eckart: the story behind the story

This week’s Futures story marks the debut in our pages of Emily Eckart. In The left hands of lovers, Emily explores the sometimes fraught relationship between humans and robots. She very kindly agreed to provide an insight into what inspired this tale. You can read more of her fiction at her website and you can keep up-to-date with her activities via Twitter.

 Writing The left hands of lovers

My job at Harvard Kennedy School Library has exposed me to several interesting books on politics and warfare that I otherwise would not have read. One in particular stayed with me: Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century by P. W. Singer, which deals with the use of robots on the battlefield.

Advances in robotics have resulted in machines that can detonate IEDs or land mines. This might seem like an obvious good, one that can prevent needless death.

But there’s a problem: humans anthropomorphize everything. Soldiers grow attached to the machines that save their lives, attributing emotions and the capacity for friendship to their robots. Singer writes about how intense the feeling of attachment can become: “When one robot was knocked out of action in Iraq, an EOD soldier ran fifty meters, all the while being shot at by an enemy machine gun, to ‘rescue it.’ ”

A further phenomenon was also intriguing. Studies of artificial intelligence have suggested that soldiers complete missions more effectively when interacting with a robot that has a friendly, relatable personality.  But this too can become problematic, increasing the risk of attachment. As Singer commented, “[T]he military may want robots with ‘a slightly aversive personality.’  In other words, robots that are social, but just annoying enough so that fellow soldiers won’t feel bad when they get blown up.”

What’s going through the mind of a soldier who risks his life for a machine — the very machine that was created for the purpose of sparing him? What if his robot is too friendly and likeable, setting him up for failure? These are the questions I set out to explore in The Left Hands of Lovers.


  1. Ron Crossland

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    Ron Crossland said:

    Enjoyable short story by Ms. Eckart. The continuing understanding of how humans relate to non-humans is fascinating and important to our future. I have been thinking lately that our “anthropomorphizing” bias needs some injection of social neurology research. It can be argued rather well that “I” am as much a product of my meaningful social interactions as “I” am of my own homeostatic, internal processes.

    The fact that we form attachments to fauna, flora, machines, and other homo sapiens is influenced by how we perceive their interaction with “I.” (My dog loves me, because it “eagerly” greets me when I come home). Soldiers attempt to save robot agents coupled to their safety in a stressful environment. Roomba vacuum cleaners are not sent to the manufacturer for repair when broken (“ill”) – owners request technician (doctor) house calls.

    When robotics achieves rudimentary levels of adaptive environmental sensing (cars that brake when too close to objects) – how much more needs to be granted to “them” before “we” feel some care and special “human” consideration be afforded “them.” And if the machine becomes a learning, adaptive machine, “it” may become attached to humans (seeking alliance with those environmental entities that help “it” maintain its survival adaptability).