The two hour delay meant that he could never have a synchronous discussion with his friends at home. Restricted by the speed of light, it took this long for a message to reach this far out into the solar system. Still, he was quite comfortable working alone. After his morning routine of cleaning up and recharging, he would set to his work. The mission was important to him and his work reflected it. He checked the instruments and although the equipment was well within mission parameters, he still made the minute adjustments required to get the readings as close to perfect as possible; after all, it was his ship and this was a matter of pride.
Today however, he was worried. Every morning at the same time a message would have arrived from home with mission updates. Today, there was no such message. Following procedure, he poured through the system error logs without avail. Telemetry showed that he was still on the correct course, so Earth should be in the right place in the sky. Finally, he checked the status of the radio antenna itself.
He typed some keys asking the computer to identify the status of the antenna. The screen went blank. This didn’t concern him since sometimes a diagnostic test could take several minutes so he waited. For 10 minutes he waited. Becoming frustrated, he decided to change his approach. If the diagnostics weren’t working, the only other way to find out what was wrong would be to go outside.
As he opened the hatch, he could feel fear begin to grip him. He knew how dangerous it was outside, but his pride pushed him on. Hand over hand he worked his way along the hand rail to the top of the ship. There at the top was a huge radio antenna pointed directly at Earth. At its base he could see sparks shooting wildly into space. They must have collided with a stray meteoroid. With a sense of relief and a clear purpose he set to work fixing the antenna. Another crisis had been averted.
Throughout recording his update for transmission to Earth his face and voice betrayed the emotional roller coaster he had just experienced; he was exhausted. So he washed up and got ready for bed. Then NORM-N, the emotional robot in charge of the extra-planetary research mission, switched off for the night.
For autonomous robots emotions can provide a great deal of flexibility around unexpected events. Algorithms and procedures can provide rules of behaviour only in response to known challenges. A robot that is to be left alone for a long period of time to complete a task is bound to run into an unexpected event. Even today, interplanetary robots have a rudimentary sense of panic. If an event occurs that is unexpected, many of these vehicles will immediately switch into a safe mode. This gives the engineers and researchers the time to understand and correct the problem. “Surprise means that a situation is not as anticipated, and that planned or current behaviour is probably no longer appropriate – hence, the need to stop and reassess” (Norman, p. 181).
“Animals and humans have developed sophisticated mechanisms for surviving in an unpredictable, dynamic world, coupling the appraisals and evaluations of affect to methods for modulating the overall system. The result is increased robustness and error tolerance. Our artificial systems would do well to learn from their example” (Norman, p. 169).