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Machine Empathy

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Scotty: Mister Spock, the ship feels wrong.
Spock: 'Feels', Mister Scott?
Scotty: I know it doesn't make sense. Instrumentation reads correct, but the feel is wrong. It's something I can't quite put into words.

Machine Empathy is the trope where a character can diagnose the state of a machine just by its "feel", such as how it vibrates or the noises it makes. Comparisons between the machine and a living person are often invoked. Unlike the Technopath, no supernormal abilities are involved; a character develops Machine Empathy simply from firsthand experience or knowledge of the hardware.

This is a popular talent for Mr. Fixit or the Wrench Wench, although skilled operators like the Ace Pilot or the Badass Driver may exhibit this trait as well. It's also a convenient excuse for why a well-placed smack instantly resolves the Plot-Driven Breakdown.

Contrast with Technopath, the phlebotinum-enhanced version of this trope. Also see Techno Wizard and Walking Techfix.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Both Herman Yandell and Elmer Snell from the second episode of MS IGLOO 2: The Gravity Front claim to have very temperamental machines (a tank and a Zaku, respectively) that break down despite regular maintenance saying they should still run. This seems to imply that the machines are empathic to their pilots, since it serves to tell them that the enemy they're looking for is not in the battlefield they were going to, and they want to save their strength for their fated encounter.
  • Lowe Guele invokes this in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray, going on to tell Rondo Ghina Sahaku that the reason the Gold Frame locked up on him was because the machine wasn't one for war.
  • Spike of Cowboy Bebop averts this, much to the disgust of the mechanic that gave him the Swordfish. He actually first reveals his insensitivity when he destroys a malfunctioning Betamax player by kicking it.
    Spike: My ship works when I kick it...
  • Eureka Seven has Eureka, who is in tune with the Nirvash's feelings. She also treats every machine as a living thing, implying this empathy extends to all machinery.
  • Souichi Sugano of éX-Driver has a knack of understanding automobiles. When Lisa first drove her Stratos without fully understanding how to control it, Souichi straight up says the car was "crying" being pushed by Lisa's driving.
  • Though he usually doesn't do repairs himself, Sousuke of Full Metal Panic! has a knack for quickly diagnosing mechanical issues an Arm Slave might have, a talent which he exploits to quickly get into Nami's good graces and secure a job. In a more literal sense, he's also learned to predict maintenance requests made by his Arm Slave's AI, Al (spelled with an L), comparing it to recognizing when your dog wants to go out for a walk.

    Comic Books 
  • Sin City: Characters often determine the state of the cars they're in, including the engine types, just by starting them.
  • Star Trek (IDW):
    • The mutated Gary Mitchell demonstrates this to Kirk and Spock, claiming that he can "talk" to the Enterprise (and has learned from it that its impulse power isn't functioning correctly).
    • Science Officer 0718 is also able to interface directly with the ship, especially since he was seemingly created by it.
  • X-Men: Forge sometimes exhibits this ability, depending on the writer.

  • In the live-action Speed Racer movie, Rex teaches Speed to "drive, not steer" by listening to the feel of the car. Speed later uses this ability to intuitively jump-start the Mach 6 in the middle of the final Grand Prix.
  • The Empire Strikes Back:
    • During the escape from Hoth when the Falcon is powering up. Han goes to the cockpit and the lights (and other power noises) die. A well-placed thump takes care of that.
    • Subverted. The Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive repeatedly fails despite Lando Calrissian's insistence that it's fixed. The subversion is he's right, the hyperdrive itself is fixed. An Imperial tracking device planted on the ship is interfering with its proper operation.
  • In Star Trek: Insurrection, Captain Picard detects that the ship's torque sensors are slightly out of alignment because "they don't sound right." Justified when we find out in the next movie that Picard once suffered from an illness that cranks up the sufferer's sensitivity to the point that every minor sound was agony. He got it cured, but it stands to reason that it left him with extremely acute hearing (by human standards).
  • Jake Holman from The Sand Pebbles feels more comfortable around machines than around people. Given the way he affectionately speaks to the ship's steam engine, it almost qualifies as Cargo Ship.

  • In Star Wars Legends, it is stated that many pilots turn down their Inertial Dampening so that they can get a feel for space flying.
    • Wedge Antilles is very, very good at this, as well as possessing Improbable Piloting Skills. These factors together make some people in-universe question the Normal part of his Badass Normal status. He can hear if his X-wing's engines have drifted out of alignment. (This may also have something to do with the Incom T-65's standard engines, which are mentioned in several EU sources as having a unique and almost musical sound — this being the case, perhaps what Wedge is noticing is that the engines have literally gone out of tune.)
    • In one of the EU novels the Millennium Falcon gets a complete overhaul by New Republic techs (estimating that they replaced nearly 20% of the ship). Han spends the next several hours going through the ship and loosening bolts, stripping wires and generally messing things up, because "Those rattling noises are how he knows he's pushing her too hard".
    • Zak Arranda in Galaxy of Fear has a measure of this... though he tends to overestimate it. At the start of The Swarm he causes the ship to become nonfunctional because he was messing around with the engines and connected something in a spot he thought would just improve thrust.
  • In Sandy Mitchell's Warhammer 40,000 Ciaphas Cain novel Death of Glory, a character born in the ship is able to tell something goes wrong from Cain's quarters, long before the alarm rings. Cain compares it to how himself instinctively "feels" an underground environment.
  • Part of the powerset of children of Hephaestus in Percy Jackson and the Olympians and The Heroes of Olympus.
  • In the Honor Harrington short story Fanatic the Chief Engineer of a Superdreadnought is able to tell that the ship is underway by feeling a vibration in the wall from the machinery that generates the impeller wedge. It's noted however that the cabin they are in is very close to the impeller rooms and even then he didn't notice until someone else bought it up (at which point he used the vibrations to confirm it).
  • Chakona Space gives us Chakat Goldfur, one of the Star Corps' best technicians. Hir Talent even gets lampshaded at different points. Hir abilities in this area reach for, but don't quite hit Technopath territory.
  • James Rollins introduces a character in the Sigma Force series who gives himself an artificial machine sense. A super tech nerd and hacker, he surgically implants tiny magnets in his finger tips connected to his nerve endings, which allow him to "feel" the electromagnetic fields that surround electronics.note 
  • BattleTech Expanded Universe novels often have pilots describing the 'feel' of their BattleMechs, though this is in part due to experience with a machine and partially due to the Brain/Computer Interface in the neurohelmet pilots wear. One pilot even describes being transferred to a new machine as akin to starting a new relationship; you have a basic idea of what to expect, but you won't get all the nuances until you've spent time interacting with it.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Scotty from the original Star Trek regularly invoked this trope.
    • As did Kirk, once. He claimed to recognize every noise the ship could make, even if damaged.
    • When Scotty appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation, he pointed out that he didn't like the Enterprise D because it doesn't cause the vibrations that his Enterprise had.
    • Picard did this once, too, able to tell by the sound when (insert TNG techspeak here) was off by three microns (that's really small.) However, it was revealed later that he'd had a genetic illness in which his senses were heightened to the point that every small sound was agony to him, presumably dealt with by Trekkian super-science later. You have to wonder if it's an intentionally-invoked Harsher in Hindsight moment - was it a captain's ship senses tingling, or do we know now that all along he's had this painful affliction that's less "gone away" and more "gone from agonizing down to just bearable?"
  • An implied ability of The Fonz, who could start or stop almost any device with a well-placed smack.
  • William Adama has a very personal relationship with the Battlestar Galactica, which goes beyond the relationship a captain has with his vessel. This is especially noticeable in the last episodes of season 4, when Adama refuses to use Cylon tech to repair the ship, not only because of the security risks involved, but also because it would turn the ship into something not entirely his — and not entirely hers; his comment on the matter is that "[s]he won't know what she is anymore."
    • Boomer's comments about the mechanics of a Cylon raider are obvious (to the audience) allusions to her own Cylon nature, but definitely fall along the vein of this trope. (Perhaps more naturally so than most, in fact; Boomer might well have Machine Empathy with the Raider because she's from the same 'family' of machines. Chief Tyrol, too.)
    • Chief Tyrol exhibits this in the season 2 episode, "Final Cut". Lt. Katraine (callsign "Kat") is anxious to get into her Viper again, but Tyrol refuses to release it from inspection even though it had been gone over twice, because "something doesn't feel right." His suspicions are confirmed when a hydraulic hose suddenly bursts on the forward landing strut.
  • In Firefly, Kaylee has a Machine Empathy relationship with Serenity; she can instinctively know just by looking, hearing or feeling what the ship is doing and what's wrong with it. The Captain Mal and the Ace Pilot Wash have expressed similar sentiments, as has The Empath River. Not for nothing is Serenity considered part of the crew.
    Mal: Know what the first rule of flyin' is? [...] Love. You can know all the math in the 'Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as a turn in the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she's hurtin' 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.
  • In the Farscape episode "Back and Back and Back to the Future", the following exchange occurs between Zhaan and Rygel. Though Moya is a living being, the fact that she's a ship means Zhaan would have to have a certain level of Machine Empathy to detect the problem.
    Zhaan: Rygel. You've been aboard Moya longer than anyone else except Pilot. You know her sounds and her rhythms. Just stop and listen to her for a moment.
    Rygel: Moya sounds fine.
    Zhaan: Does she? Not to me. Something feels... out of balance.
  • Dean from Supernatural seems to have this in regards to his Impala.
    • Not surprise, it's been the boy's literal home for many a year. In fact, this concept becomes very important as the show goes on.
  • Doctor Who The Doctor feels this towards his TARDIS (a.k.a. "You Sexy Thing"), of course, this is because the TARDIS is a living thing. The TARDIS felt the same way towards the Doctor. The Doctor didn't steal the TARDIS, it was the other way around.
  • In Top Gear, the presenters often have this for cars, even ones they've only just bought and driven for the first time. It's just experience with driving cars for a living, but they can tell because of whatever fault or engine noise that the car is broken in a very specific way.
  • On Young Sheldon Sheldon's older brother Georgie can do this with tires, finding holes just by holding them and listening to them. This is a Call-Forward to his appearance in The Big Bang Theory in which he runs a tire store chain called Dr. Tire. (A title he uses himself, which annoys his P.H.d brother to no end) Oddly, while he got his start in the business patching tires, his advice as Dr. Tire is, "Never patch, always buy new."
  • Blake's 7. Jenna (a smuggler and Ace Pilot) can tell the hyperdrive of the Prison Ship they're being transported on "needs restressing, by the feel of things." We see the ship's captain griping about the lack of proper maintenance, so she appears to be right.

  • The title character from Tommy, being blind and deaf, develops the ability to play pinball by feeling the vibrations the machine makes through the table.

  • Invoked in Data East's The Who's Tommy; at times during the game, Blinders block the player's view of the flippers, requiring him to "become part of the machine" to play well.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The trope namer is the Role-Playing Game Paranoia, where "Machine Empathy" is the name of a mutation that allows a character to influence how robots and The Computer react to him (though this ability falls under the Technopath trope). Since this could give a person undue influence with the all-powerful Computer, it's also the one mutation that, if found out, will get you and your clone family terminated and your gene template erased with extreme prejudice.
  • Presumably the theory behind the rule in one game that you get a bonus on vehicle operation rolls if you've been operating the same vehicle for at least two years. Not the same make and model, the exact same vehicle.
  • Implied with the Mechanic non-player character in the Shadowrun second edition rulebook. She is described as someone who prefers the "company" of machines over humans because they don't talk back and she understands them.
    • Come fourth edition and this becomes a playable archetype. A Technomancer is someone born with a strange ability that essentially allows one to use the rules for Magic to replicate the abilities of a Hacker... or a Rigger. A Technomancer is able to control vehicles, drones and computers with their willpower, compile artificial intelligences called Sprites, and even go into strange, unimaginable Resonance Realms. A Technomancer Rigger can have a genuine and intense bond with their vehicle, their weapons, and any other piece of machinery that enables them to perform far beyond what they ought to be capable of.

  • The "Loved" trait in the Serenity RPG - the crew of a ship has cared for and operated it for so long that they know its processes on a nigh-quantum level. This lets them spend their own Plot Chips on behalf of the ship.
  • In ApocalypseWorld, this is implied to be how The Savvyhead class fixes things - their important stat isn't Sharp, but Weird.
  • Games Workshop games:
    • In Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, the Endrinmasters are the greatest members of the Kharadron Overlords' Endrineers Guild, able to find and fix a single broken element in an aether-endrin on intuition alone.
    • Techpriests in Warhammer 40,000 can do this, by feeling the machine spirit's pain. It's theorized that Orks don't so much empathize with machines as just yell at them and beat them until they work.

    Video Games 
  • In Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, the Jedi Exile discovers they have this talent. Not only can they sense the presence of droids and ships through it's unique energy patterns, this allows them to immediately detect and diagnose any mechanical problem it's suffering.
  • Joker exhibits this in Mass Effect towards both incarnations of the Normandy. In the second game, he frequently gets into heated arguments with EDI over all the changes he implements whilst flying, which run contrary to the design specifications, simply because that's how "his baby" works best. Keep in mind, since EDI is the artificial intelligence operating the ship, he's effectively telling her he knows her "body" better than she does! Still, EDI only knows what her sensors tell her, and her definition of "best" may vary from Joker's. At the end of the second game, they come to the conclusion that the Normandy functions best when they work together.
  • This is a trait that Ratchet from the Ratchet & Clank games has, thanks to him being part of a species noted for being highly skilled with tech. In fact, it's probably how he was able to bond with Clank so quickly.
  • In Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Valdi, nominal commander of Colony 30, spends the majority of his time building and maintaining Levnises, which are the setting's equivalents to robots and tanks. He treats and speaks to his creations as friends rather than devices, and the main turning point that got him to turn on his colony's Consul was when said Consul hijacked a Giant Mecha that Valdi had been constructing, and used it to destroy Mechafriend.

  • In this Freefall strip, Florence mentions the phenomena as she listens to learn how the Savage Chicken sounds in flight.

    Western Animation 
  • The Venture Brothers: Brock Samson has demonstrated the ability to sense when someone's in his car even if he's not physically present. Hank, upon witnessing a demonstration of this talent (which, despite the presence of superpowers and magic in this setting, seems to be purely mundane), comments to another character "I've seen him do that from a continent away."
  • The Simpsons: At one point in "Realty Bites", Homer drives the Lil' Bandit, Snake's car, by Springfield Penitentiary, and Snake says that the car is "in pain" from the way Homer guns the engine. He also takes a whiff of the exhaust fumes as Homer drives away and is able to determine that Homer is using regular gasoline instead of premium.
    Snake: (sniffs) Hey, that smells like regular. She needs premium, dude! PREMIUM! DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDE!
  • During one dogfight on Star Wars Rebels, Hera scrapes the Phantom against a rock and can immediately tell that something was damaged, even though the instruments don't initially show anything wrong. A full diagnostic later confirms her suspicions.

    Real Life 
  • Truth in Television: it's possible to invoke this with a car or whatever that you're very familiar with, especially if it's a problem it had before.
    • After driving a car long enough you can simply feel how much to turn, how much brake you need to apply, etc. You become one with the car. (You also know, for example, when the electrical system stops working in a rainstorm, just how to tap the fusebox with your boot so the headlights, wipers, and instrument cluster all start working again.)
    • Anyone who is Driving Stick will end up with muscle memory responses to audio cues (when the engine sounds like that it's time to shift up/down, no thinking required), and vibrations picked up through the feet.
    • Whoever hasn't felt a surge of phantom pain when the car runs over a hard bump or a pothole, throw the first stone. Some people go as far as hissing and locking in place for half a second or so.
    • One of the easiest ways to diagnose certain problems with a car is to drive it around and make note of anything unusual or out of the ordinary. It might not tell you exactly what part is wrong, but it gives you a place to look. For mechanics paid to fix others' cars, this is also needed to verify the complaint, and makes a nice diagnostic tool even alongside the thousand-dollar scanners and gauges.
    • Can be inverted with when it comes to certain issues: it may be easier for another person to feel a problem that even the well-attuned owner fails to notice if the issue was caused by slow long-term wear and tear. A sudden problem is very noticeable to the owner while slow degradation can occur over a long enough time that the owner becomes accustomed to it. This is common with items like a suspension where the owner doesn't notice that the dampeners are dying until they are already at the end of their life, especially if they don't frequently drive or ride in other vehicles to compare it to.
  • The same goes for PCs; experienced users can tell the strain the system is under simply by the pitch of the fans, leading to many nerds obsessing over finding issues in systems that most other people would see as working perfectly, if slightly noisily. Another telltale sound is when a hard drive emits the frantic sounds indicating the computer's run out of physical RAM and is using swap space. Not as frequent in these days of solid-state drives, but those have whines and hisses of their own - it takes a finer ear (and very quiet fans) to know when a SSD's working hard, but it can be done with most models. Also, power bricks for laptops have different noises they make according to how loaded they are.
  • Musicians, specifically guitarists, bassists, keyboardists, and other instrument players, can usually tell when something isn't right with their instruments - most experienced guitarists or bassists can tell, for example, when they are going to break a string or if there's a short or the like - this is why you'll often see a guitarist or bassist change out their instrument mid-show.
    • A variant that involves someone else's instrument - or the someone else playing it in some unfortunate cases - is that a bassist or rhythm guitarist is often the first to notice that the drums are off for some reason or another, because he or she is the one keeping rhythm with the drums. If you're a drummer and your bassist or rhythm guitarist mentions you sound different/are off rhythm/sound weak, check your kit and sound, and possibly consider lessons and/or a doctor visit.
  • Also quite common for lab workers- at first all the lab equipment is just a noisy, humming, hissing, and beeping mess, but after a while you learn where each sound comes from and what to do when a sound stops or changes. Some critical equipment is even built to chirp every few seconds so that if it breaks you'll know right away- you learn to ignore the sound when it's working but it's very noticeable when the alert stops.
    • Manufacturing plants, too. You stand in the middle of the plant trying to place which "clunk" or "clank" sounds different or is not occurring. More experienced employees catch each other's eye and tilt their heads back and forth like dogs, while newbies watch, confused.
    • And sysadmins. Eventually, at least if you're fit for the job, you get good enough at it to notice how the background noise subtly changes texture when one fan out of sixty stops running. If you want to know which people at the party spend their days in a datacenter, bring something that makes a loud, insistent beep, and watch to see who squints and looks around every time you set it off.
  • Lifer light-aircraft pilots almost invariably develop this to the point of being contagious, even to people with no demonstrable mechanical knowledge.
  • Most fighter pilots will treat their planes like a loved one, as do most of their crew-chiefs (almost to the point of their being a love-triangle).
  • Any mechanic worth their tool box will develop this with enough experience on a given model—sometimes, to the point of being able to diagnose issues just from a sound video of the vehicle in question running idle.
  • The US Air Force has a special division nowadays with specific machines to listen to other machines, so this happens even without a human operator.
  • This is extremely noticeable with firearms. This is the whole reason soldiers and even some police train to death with one or two weapons, so they have this ability. Considering the raw amount of energy going through a firearm, its no wonder you're going to get some sort of tactile feedback.
    • Very important with guns. If the kick feels unusually weak or the bang sounds wrong, you really want to inspect the weapon before you pull the trigger again, in case there's a dud round sitting in the barrel or some other malfunction.
  • CRT televisions and monitors usually emit a very high pitched (or very close to the upper hearing range of humans) acoustic hum when turned on even with no signal due to the high-frequency circuitry used within them. Those who are or were around this sort of video technology a lot can sense when they are on, while many others cannot. People who grew up with this technology can "feel" a strange sense that a TV is on somewhere, and then go up two floors to see that an idle TV was left powered on in some capacity.
  • A fifteen-year-old from Houston experiences mirror-touch synesthesia with machines.
  • Summing up, just about any other reasonably complicated machine that can be customized by its owner (or simply needs repairing a lot) will have some form of this.