Hi, My Name Is Clark

A UV scrubber at Pittsburgh International Airport. Photo: Pittsburgh International Airport

Do you know those stand-on commercial floor cleaners that are commonly seen at airports? Of course you can’t know them, but you can be familiar with them. I don’t recall when I first saw one, but it seems like they’ve been a part of my airport experience for as long as I could remember. The operators usually whiz by going about their duties. I feel like they’re usually smiling. (The operators. Not the machines.)

Tuesday morning at the Pittsburgh airport, one of them whizzed by me. As my eyes made their way to where the operator’s eyes would be, I experienced some type of acute shock when I saw there was no person behind the wheel. The machine was operating automatically and as my head turned to follow its trail, I noticed a sign affixed to its back that said, “Hi, my name is Clark.” Can you know it now, if it has a name?

I felt devastated by this. It’s true that I am always more emotional when I am sleep-deprived, but my heart sank into my stomach. This sight, to me, was a portal into a sterile, automated future where more and more people are replaced by robots. Where our chances of passing people doing seemingly menial tasks are slim to none. Have we taken for granted what this position meant to not only the person behind the wheel, but to travelers?

The experience of this machine was so… anticlimactic. Disappointing. I yearned to see a person behind the wheel, as I always had. Not because they might jump off and have some lively conversation with me. Not because we might form a once in a lifetime connection. But because I had come to expect that we would share a glance and maybe a smile. That I would have the opportunity to imagine what they are experiencing. Often they look so concentrated, yet so free. Do they enjoy riding around on this machine? It’s always seemed like fun to me. I felt robbed of this experience.

It’s a uniquely human experience, to pass people and wonder how their day is going, to wonder what else they do in their lives when they are not behind that machine. I feel like that robot — or rather the decision makers behind the robot — have stolen that opportunity from us. I felt angry that they tried to fool us by giving it a name.

Of course, it’s not just that particular machine. It’s not Clark. But, the future it––he?––represents. When will a machine replace the baristas? The cleaners? The flight attendants? What happens to our body’s chemistry when we no longer have those chance encounters? Those human experiences that we all crave, in one way or another?

Have you been disappointed by a robot lately? Please share your experience (:

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