Last week, to celebrate our release of Hal – The Movie, we launched a contest to ask you to answer a pretty thought-provoking question: Do you think robots will ever be able to feel human emotions? Our contest is still running for one more week (get your entries in!), but we’ve gotten some awesome responses so far, and we wanted to highlight some of them—and to hear an expert weigh in!
Hal revolves around the unexpected love story between a human dealing with the loss of a loved one and a robot trying to understand human emotion. Although it’s a sci-fi anime film, it uses futuristic concepts and technology to tell a very human story, and it raises questions about our relationship with technology. Here’s a clip from the movie that helps to showcase the difficulty understanding human emotions.
Our contest is still running until September 9, but because of the amazing outpouring of passionate opinion on this topic, we thought we’d check in on the debate a little bit!
Since this is a rather heavy question that applies to lots of different academic fields, we asked an actual neuroscientist (and anime fan!), Twitter user @ultimatemegax, for his thoughts on the issue. If you’ve ever wanted a more in-depth look at how the sci-fi concepts of anime and manga can relate to the real world, check out his response!
In response to the question “Do you think robots will ever be able to feel human emotions?” my answer is a resounding yes. As a scientist studying the brain, the first question I ask myself along this topic is “what are emotions and how do they impact the brain?” While it’s difficult to objectively quantify such things (emotional studies may use a scale to try and compare within individuals as one way to counter that issue), it’s safe to say that brain areas are linked with emotional states. A study by Phan et al looked at this and found that certain areas respond to certain aspects of emotions. Knowing that certain areas respond to different aspects of emotions (visual stimuli that trigger an emotional response influence behavior of the visual cortical areas for example) allows us to put that into simple “yes/no” points that could be inserted in a “if/else” portion of coding that could theoretically be altered by the robot itself upon learning.
There is a breadth of research investigating motivation/learning/fear using animal models that do not have nearly the amount of neocortex we do (the giant amount of tissue covering most of our brain with the squiggly lines). While one may hesitate to call these emotions, they are individual feelings/information that occur through brain signals like the emotions we think of and examples of how neurons/brain areas respond give hope for eventual studies in more complex models (whether that is in humans/animals/modelling). Adding to our knowledge will help programmers better mimic our brains and program in emotions.
The other avenue of research we have is through the disease state of people as a disorder disrupts their emotional states. People with bipolar disorder may be good candidates to see the different brain states compared to normal age-matched samples. Other disorders affect different areas of the brain and research can be done to see what, if anything, is affected and what is preserved in order to better isolate how emotions are affected by disruptions from normal brains.
While it sounds complicated (believe me, you truly have no idea how amazing and yet frustrating our brains can be), I have faith that we’ll one day be able to replicate emotions through these (and other) types of studies which will only help our knowledge base and programming partners to better improve AI. I won’t say it’s anytime soon or even within our lifetime as the progression of science is hard to put on a simple timetable, but I do feel it’ll occur at some point.
What do you think? Since the complexity of human emotions comes down to signals in the brain, can a robot that replicates those responses perfectly “feel” the way we do? What’s the difference between a robot obeying its programming and a human following the instructions in its genetic code? It’s definitely a difficult question.
Here are some selected responses from both sides of the debate that we really liked. We haven’t chosen winners so none of these entries necessarily reflect who’ll get the prizes, but we hope their thoughts will spark some more discussion from you!
On the affirmative side: Robots will be able to feel emotion
From Joshua Knighten:
Absolutely. I think robots will, in the future, be able to experience human emotions. If you really think about it, the emotions that we feel are based off external stimuli triggering certain parts of our brain–I feel hurt when I touch something painful or I feel happy when I see something pleasant. In all respects, it’s not that much different than the way a computer works–external stimuli triggering a reaction; I press a key on the keyboard, something happens on screen–Cause and Effect.
That being said, I think that it will be a LONG while before robots can be able to develop intricate feelings and emotions like love or jealousy. Just like it took a long time for computers to go from punch-cards and floppy disks to touch screens and USB drives, it’ll probably take a lifetime before robots will be able to experience and articulate emotions. #HalContest
This question is definitely a psychologically complex issue and requires a deep understanding of what actually creates emotion. In my mind, the concept of human emotion still requires an extensive amount of research to fully grasp. I do believe that one day humans will be able to replicate our current understanding of emotions into an artificial being. The rate of technological advancements points to a future full of groundbreaking discoveries including finding ways to portray emotion in robots.
On the negative side: Robots will never be able to feel emotion
From Fliyen Phoenix:
Until we understand biological evolution, can map 100% of the human genome, and clone 100% of a human brain including thoughts memories and personalities, A.I. development should be limited to basic A.I.s with no emotion or free thought/will.
From Tim Timmeh Bahus:
No. They will only be able to process data into an algorithm that has been programmed by a human onto their hardware. For instance, if we as humans are subjected to a picture a lot of emotions can be felt by one person alone and these emotions obviously vary from person to person. Memories, the physiological integrity of our brains, personalities, etc all play a factor. It’s also important to note that our emotions come from both a chemical and electrical reaction in our human brains that are simply absent from any motherboard. Even if a programmer were to successfully create a machine able to process data and have any kind of feeling as an output, it would be strictly biased as to how the programmer created this algorithm and would not in itself, have a free mind capable of having its own feelings.
A third side: Maybe; it depends on your definition
From David Young:
Even if the most complex AI were to have been programmed, the “emotions” displayed are triggered from a complex set of algorithms, so no, the robot does not feel emotion as we would think of it.
But what is “emotion?” Human emotion is derived from firing neurons and chemical reactions, with influence of how the stimulus is perceived.
In a sense, we too have our own algorithms setting up the “emotions” we “feel.”
Do humans really feel emotion? We assume we can because our thoughts and body react according to what we feel.
An AI coded as I have described above would react in a similar fashion. Based off its algorithms, it would compute and take action in a way to express that “emotion.” Would there be any difference in the process of “feeling” and expressing “emotion” between these two processes besides the method the information is sent?
Thus, I suggest whether robots can “feel” “emotion” is a matter in perception and depends on the individual’s beliefs of human cognitive processing of emotion.
And if you haven’t chimed in yet, be sure to click here to enter our contest! One lucky grand prize winner will win a copy of the movie plus an autographed poster. 4 random runners-up will receive an autographed copy of the poster. Just respond to the following question in the comments below, or post your answer to Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr with the hashtag #HalContest.
Be sure to order your copy of Hal – the Movie today! Click here.
This release comes with 3 alternate DVD covers that double has mini posters!