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Can a Computer Feel?

Updated on February 12, 2014

How soon will it be thinking too?

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“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

Regret

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.

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