ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Can a Computer Feel?

Updated on February 12, 2014

How soon will it be thinking too?


“I'm afraid I can't do that Dave.”

The line from 2001: a Space Odyssey is iconic in science fiction. Will a machine, even one with true artificial intelligence feel fear though? Will an A.I. no matter how intelligent have any feelings at all? Fiction is of course replete with examples of machines that feel as well as think. The aforementioned Hal, the well known droids from Star Wars, more recently the agents from the Matrix and the “Leading lady” from Her all exhibit a human range of emotions. The android Data from "Star Trek" actually seems to be a deliberate subversion of the stereotype, although he often seemed to act from emotion despite protestations of not having them. Of course, for the writer and performer if the AI has feelings it's easier because that's what they are familiar with and what the audience expects. Is that what we should expect from a real computerized intellect which, if futurist are to be believed, may be real before the middle of this century?

is thinking going on in there?
is thinking going on in there? | Source

What are feelings?

To begin with perhaps we need to ask what our feeling are and where they come from. Without turning this into a biochemistry or neurobiology text, lets just say that our feelings are a product of hormones. The trigger for hormone release may be learned or instinctive but the feeling itself is based on what's going on biochemically. Fear and anger come in large part from adrenaline. Happiness from endorphins and serotonin. We take medicine to bring our hormones back into balance when they're out of whack and we engage in behaviors that promote (due to experience or instinct) the release of pleasant chemicals or recreationaly ingest substances that unbalance our biochemistry in peasant ways. From a reductionist point of view, every feeling we experience is simply a biochemical reaction.

Can a machine mind feel?

A purely electronic intelligence will obviously lack the biochemistry that creates our emotions. The question then becomes, whether or not they will have an electronic equivalent. That may depend entirely on the genesis of the A.I.. A deliberately programed artificial intelligence could be intentionally designed with emotions or it might be deliberately designed to lack them. If a machine mind arises spontaneously on the other hand it's emotional makeup (or lack thereof) may depend on the circumstances of it's creation and development. Then of course there is the question of whether or not an emotionless but intelligent machine might not act like it had emotions to make it easier to deal with humans. If the A.I. is a sufficiently skilled actor its organic companions might never know the difference unless they engaged in a detailed examination of it's code. Then again blod tests may be the only way to objectively tell how a human skilled at acting feels. When it comes to a machine, feigned emotion by an unskilled performer might well end up being more unnerving than if it never tried in the first place just as a human who is a poor actor can be off putting.

"One day the computers just woke up. Got Smart."

What about spontaneous A.I.?

If an A.I. arises spontaneously like Skynet from Terminator and has emotions they might be somewhat alien to us. Many of our emotions are related to survival and procreation after all. Fear, for example, leads us to avoid perceived danger. Will a disembodied intelligence in cyberspace need to develop fear? It's insulated from the physical world after all. It might well learn to fear and migrate away from failing hardware or computer viruses. Spawned in such a different environment might cause it to find the physical world fears of humanity incomprehensible. Love however might be even more confusing to a machine. The term (in English at least) is incredibly vague, used to describe both an extreme enjoyment of an activity and the bond that leads people to want to share lives and start families. How can an entity that does not eat and can reproduce by digitally copying itself understand such an emotion. This probably holds true for the rest of the emotional spectrum a machine will either find human feeling incomprehensible or have equivalents that are alien to us.

Synthetic minds cyborgs and brain hacking

What if we make machines think on purpose?

A deliberately created electronic mind is another matter entirely. If it is designed to copy the function of a human brain, then presumably it will be programmed with analogs of our hormones and emotions. How will a mind in cyberspace, divorced from the real world concerns that spawn emotions, feel? Will it find server lag frustrating, as we do? If an A.I. is capable of the full range of human emotion what will it do with feelings like lust or love? Will we have machines that like the rouge A.I. in Ghost in the Shell wish to reproduce by intermixing elements of one mind and personality with another?

Asimov is one of the most prolific in writing about machine intelligence


Regardless of a machine intelligences genesis there is one emotion we should probably hope they are capable of. Remorse. It's highly unlikely that when A.I. are created they will be immune from error. When a thinking machine might remotely control something that accidentally leads to injury or death we should all hope it can feel regret over it's actions. If an electronic intelligence cannot feel regret something like Asimov's laws of robotics may be necessary to protect people from it. After all the real world, unfortunately, includes humans who are incapable of that emotion. We call them sociopaths.

A.I. Poll

What kind of artificial intelligence do you think we will see in the real world?

See results


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)