Mega Maladies

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

A world with sentient robots begins to blur our definition of “disease.”

Can robots experience disease? Webster’s dictionary defines disease as “an illness that affects a person, animal, or plant; a condition that prevents the body or mind from working normally.” It goes on to elaborate that it is “a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms.” In both of these definitions, we see that it seems to specify animal or plant, which would seem to rule out robots, artificial intelligences, and other forms of synthetic life. Not being an etymologist myself, I can’t say for certain whether this exclusion is reasoned and deliberate or whether it’s because our society doesn’t yet have artificial life forms sophisticated enough to qualify as suffering from illness. The word “alive” is a tricky one and countless authors have explored how the concept (and the even more difficult concept of sentience) applies to artificial life, and it probably really will be a major legal and ethical debate one day in our society some day.

I bring this up shortly after a recent run-in with Mega Man 10, the most recent game in the classic Mega Man video game series. In this game, a “virus” called roboenza begins to infect the world’s robots, initially incapacitating them and later driving them to become violent. Whatever roboenza is, it seems to be more than a mere computer virus; I’m not a great expert in Mega Man lore, but my understanding is that the robots of that universe are at least partly organic/biological, and the hints towards the end of the game that a human has contracted the virus suggests that it’s an actual infectious pathogen. The virus’ spread also argues against it being a “mere” computer virus, because there’s no indication that the robots of that world share any sort of data transfer or network or something, and yet the virus spreads between them, suggesting that it’s some sort of airborne plague or something (assuming it isn’t something more off-the-wall, like a memetic or sonic virus or whatever). The characters in the game also consistently state that they need “medicine” to cure the disease, and this seems to come in the form of an actual pill; I suppose that an antivirus program could be delivered by pill for stylistic reasons, but in other cases new software is specifically given to robots via implantable chips, so it seems as though the cure for roboenza is a genuine medication.

The funny thing about roboenza is its manifestation. Although the name of the virus is clearly a riff on the word influenza, the disease itself seem to have more in common with rabies. Like rabies, roboenza seems to begin with weakness and faintness and progresses to confusion, agitation, and abnormal behaviour. Like rabies, it can take more than a month to evolve from the weak and feverish stage to the dangerously homicidal stage. From a storytelling perspective, these symptoms make a lot of sense; characters with the early infection are weakened, so that the heroes have a challenge to overcome, and characters with the late infection become antagonists, to drive the story and provide a sense of urgency. From a pathological perspective, though, that doesn’t make any sense at all. How does a virus, computer or biological, cause weakness in a robot, whose body is presumably made of metal or plastic or other materials that don’t fall limp when tired? Of course, as the series shows us time and again, these are robots who can be knocked unconscious, who feel pain when wounded, and fall limp to the ground when they die as opposed to lock up or become paralyzed, so maybe it’s perfectly consistent that a sick robot becomes weak, feverish, and red in the face just like a human does. The other possible explanation is that, since the virus was deliberately created and unleashed as a weapon, it might deliberately cause apparent weakness, in much the same was as a real computer virus might deliberately slow down a computer’s processor. A virus that’s been deliberately engineered could obviously have whatever properties its creator – and the demands of the narrative – need it to have.