Someone has released a fleet of self-driving cars in my neighborhood. Not a human in sight. This morning on the way to work, a white one was stuck. Two lanes needed to merge, and in the right lane, the driverless car just sat there. All the boring regular cars like mine pulled around it. No one honked. Perhaps they knew there was no point. At the next red light, I stared out the window at the rain and wondered what would happen to that poor car. I felt sad. For a robot.
I recently adopted a dog named Ginger. She weighs 90 pounds, has big brown eyes, and smells like a dirt road. The click of her toenails on the hardwood floor evokes a secretarial college typing class. She barks when the doorbell rings, or when a squirrel might be near, but mostly she is a quiet roaming presence. She greets everyone with a tail wag and half-closes her eyes if you rub her jiggly pink belly. She often looks forlorn which I’m guessing is mostly an evolutionary advantage, but perhaps also due to a recent change of lifestyle. Ginger’s previous owner died, so I’ve spent some time reading about grieving dogs. “While they may not understand the full extent of human absence, dogs do understand the emotional feeling of missing someone who’s no longer a part of their daily lives,” says one article. A stranger on the beach told me he could never adopt a dog who had had a loss like that. “It’s too sad,” he said, watching Ginger sniff a crow’s carcass before running back for a treat. “But good for you,” he called out over his shoulder as he ran to stop his goldendoodle from humping a terrier.
When Ginger knows I’m awake, she moseys over to my side of the bed to sniff my nose. And when I open my eyes, she wiggles her body back and forth in anticipation. I can see how some might dislike a dog’s dirty mouth in their face at the crack of dawn, but I love waking up this way, feeling loved and needed.
Does this dog love me? I don’t care. I get to feed her and take her to the park. I get to scrape the yellow goop out of her eyes and rub my finger along her gums. I get to try and bathe her, even though she’d rather smell like dead seal than step one foot in a bathtub. I get to love her and say she’s mine.
Years ago, when I was living in Perth, I recall sitting in the car, hearing a news story about robots and humans. I was in a parking lot waiting for my daughter to finish her field hockey practice. An ibis was raiding the dumpster. It was pouring rain and my daughter would soon need a hot shower and a snack. The story focused on whether robots would ever love us back. Some scientists had figured out how to make robots mimic emotions like anger, love, and jealousy by releasing artificial oxytocin. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the scientist saying that if you ask a human whether their partner loves them, they will respond that they feel loved. And the same goes for the relationship between humans and robots. In other words, if you feel loved, you are loved.
After work, I took the same way home. The driverless car was gone. Someone must have saved it.