Robot ethicist Kate Darling sits on the dock with her small dinosaur robot

Headshots with a robot?

This might have been the most unique request for a photoshoot I've had so far, and I absolutely loved it. First of all, Kate is a certified badass. She earned her PhD from MIT, is a published author, and is a leading expert in robot ethics in the world. Oh, and she also has two small children. Did I mention she was in Vogue? No big deal.

Anyway, she reached out requesting headshots with her robot, and it immediately became clear that these needed to be more than just headshots. What she needed was a branding session - a gallery of photos that show her involved in her profession. In this case, that meant interacting with her robot as if he were a small pet.

Researcher Kate Darling holds pleo robot up and smiles at it
Dr. Kate Darling lovingly holds her pleo robot
Kate Darling sits in the road with pleo robot

This particular robot - Mr. Spaghetti - played an important role in the trajectory of Kate's career. As she told it, she was dangling him upside down from his tail and watching him squirm and make protesting noises (as he was programmed to do), and found herself surprised by how awful she felt for him - despite it being a toy, and not actually a "him." And thus began years of research into human/robot relationships, and the ethical considerations of how we treat them.

Robot ethicist Kate Darling lies down in the grass to play with small dinosaur robot

It was easy to see how quickly this robot engendered empathy and compassion from those around it. At one point during our photoshoot Kate noted that Mr. Spaghetti had fallen asleep in her arms. "Oh, should we give him some time to rest?" I asked, genuinely concerned that he might get cranky if we kept moving him around when he was tired. No, she reminded me - he was not a baby. Just a toy!

Kate Darling sits in the road petting dinosaur robot and smiling off to the side
Dr. Kate Darling tenderly holds pleo robot in the golden sunlight
Woman in plaid shirt holds up small dinosaur robot and smiles at it

We held our session in the lovely little town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, and took advantage of a variety of backdrops. After starting off in the backyard with some casual, playful photos in the grass, we moved onto a quiet paved road where the late-afternoon lighting was clean and even. We then walked down to the lagoon where Kate looked stunning in the warm golden hour light. And of course, we had to wrap up our photos with some quality researcher-robot time on the dock, looking off into the sunset.

Researcher Kate Darling sits on the dock and smiles down at her pleo robot

Kate had mentioned that Mr. Spaghetti was getting old, and didn't have too much time left before he would stop working. It dawned on me that what we were doing had morphed from a branding session into an end-of-life pet session. It may be self-explanatory, but an end-of-life session is what pet owners may choose to do if they know their dog needs to be put down, and they want to have a gallery of photos that celebrates their love for their furry companion. Mr. Spaghetti may not be furry, but he was quite the companion.

A big thanks to Kate for trusting me with these photos, and for enabling the creativity involved in an end-of-life branding session with a robot. Check out her book The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals about Our Future with Robots.

Researcher Kate Darling stands against white wall while holding and smiling down at her pleo robot
Researcher Kate Darling smiles broadly and sits in the road with her small dinosaur robot
Woman in black shirt stands against a white wall and holds her pleo robot