Now that the issue of whether animals like birds have emotions has been settled, sort of, let’s push the envelope. Can machines display emotions? I can almost hear the collective derision: Whatever you have you been smoking, I’d like to get some. But seriously now…
Robots that show emotions
The first prototype robots capable of developing emotions as they interact with their human caregivers and expressing a whole range of emotions have been finalized by researchers. Led by Lola Cañamero at the University of Hertfordshire, and in collaboration with a consortium of universities and robotic companies across Europe, these robots differ from others in the way that they form attachments, interact, and express emotion through bodily expression. Thus, reports the online edition of Scientific Computing (Aug 10, 2010), which reads like science fiction.
The robots have been created through modeling the early attachment process that human and chimpanzee infants undergo with their caregivers when they develop a preference for a primary caregiver. They are programmed to learn to adapt to the actions and mood of their human caregivers and to become attached to an individual who interacts with the robot in a way that is particularly suited to its personality profile and learning needs. The more they interact and are given the appropriate feedback and level of engagement from the human caregiver, the stronger the bond developed and the amount learned.
The robots are capable of expressing anger, fear, sadness, happiness, excitement, and pride and will demonstrate visible distress if the caregiver fails to provide them comfort when confronted by a stressful situation with which they cannot cope or to interact with them when they need it.
This is the first time that early attachment models of human and non-human primates have been used to program robots that develop emotions in interaction with humans.
But are these real emotions? And does it matter?
No, not in the biological/psychological sense at any rate. But yes, the robots react as if they are emotional. But what is missing is the feeling behind the emotion; and this, in my opinion, cannot be programmed.
Does it matter? It depends. If you want to create another living, breathing, feeling, and emoting organism, it won’t happen anytime soon, or ever. But if the aim is to create a companion to human beings who could use the robot as their helper or an object of affection (a lá your teddy bear or Furby), then this is eminently doable. Human psychology is unfathomable; remember the time when people showered affection on their pet rocks?
But this research does not end with creating another cute toy. The researchers led by Cañamero at the University of Hertfordshire are now extending the prototype further and adapting it to develop robots that learn to be carer/companions for diabetic children in hospital settings.
And this, I maintain, is not only revolutionary, it is also worthwhile.