What Happens When Robots Start Falling In Love

September 9, 2018

 Over dinner with colleagues, we began discussing whether it is possible for robots to have emotions. Some said no, others claimed yes, because what are emotions other than chosen responses to stimuli, which can be learned & controlled (or so they claim!!). 


Note* this is a well-researched topic, one with differing definitions. For the sake of this fun blog post, I will use emotions and feelings interchangeably; however, some scientists argue emotions to be on a biological level, with feelings as our awareness/interpretations of them).


What do you think? Can robots feel emotions? Maybe it won't be the exact same type of emotion, but is it possible? What might it be like for robots to fall in love? Would they express joy? Fear? Would they be less productive (did you know that research has shown that when people first fall in love they are so full of joy, their productivity drops)? I somehow can’t see this happening with robots... 


I am of the perception that emotions stem from embodied reactions, that sometimes involve an evolutionary response (e.g. fear stemming from our reptilian brain, and limbic system, resulting in a release of cortisol or adrenaline), or a learned response (e.g. attachment and love to certain characteristics, resulting in dopamine or serotonin released in our brain). Emotions manifest in our bodies as aches, pangs, rushes etc., and they CAN be predictable and there can be common emotions associated with certain things (e.g. sadness during loss, joy when falling in love). 


In this sense, I think robots can learn to (accurately) imitate emotions, knowing and learning common triggers, outward signals or manifestations, what to say/think and express for different emotions. But is this the same as feeling the emotions? 


What about function? Humans’ emotions have evolved over time to propel us towards action (e.g. run away, you must survive). Robots would be pre-programmed for action, and their motivation to act would stem from completely different stimuli (e.g. I’m imagining terabytes of if,then statements). Their “fear” might emerge if they detect some sort of virus in their system, resulting in their action to mitigate damage and repair code. Would they also feel “fear” or go into fight/flight/freeze response if a human tries to shut down their system, unplug, or erase their data? 


Now, let’s move past basic evolutionary emotions, because I also ponder emotions that are not easily understandable, a few emotions occurring simultaneously, or emotions that are hidden below the surface, ignored by some due to feelings of guilt or shame (eg. relief or happiness during a loss, fear or sadness when getting married, etc.). These sometimes don’t make sense (or might not make sense to robots as they learn from us), they might even be buried deep within us, that we sometimes don’t allow it to surface. Would robots organically be able to tap into these complex layers of emotions (i.e. during training in emotion focused psychotherapy, we learned what psychologists coin primary and secondary emotions)? I doubt it. 


Emotions can be complex. Having them, and not having them (i.e. controlling them). Even the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss whether we can actually control emotions. Many might claim we do not know enough about the nuances and complexities of emotions ourselves, forget about controlling them. So if we (i.e. those who teach or program a robot) do not understand something somewhat intangible, unique to each person and varying in its manifestations, is it possible for this robot to truly experience emotions? 


As is evident, I don’t equate a robot’s potential emotions to be equivalent to humans, thus believe a new lexicon would need to be developed once we start integrating more AI into our society, but I’ll never say never. What I will pose is the question of do we even want or need robots to have complex emotions



If you enjoy reading about emotions, check out Dr. Sarah Thompson’s blog on Transforming Emotions. She is so knowledgeable (I was lucky enough to have trained with her for emotion-focused psychotherapy training), and engaging to read! As a tribute to her I will be vulnerable and share my own inner dialogue (you gotta check her blogs out for context)! 


Inner critic: this is a stupid topic. No one is going to read it, and you’re nowhere close to being an expert so stop trying to appear to be one. 


Self: (honest disclosure—this is taking me much longer to write) sure, I might not be an expert, but I have studied, learned, trained & my perspective is valuable. And the topic might be fun and relevant to some! I can’t please everyone, nor do I want to, so chill out. 



I also found a few other articles of researchers & psychologists talking about robots & emotions: 

1) https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/hot-thought/201712/will-robots-ever-have-emotions

2) http://www.inf.ed.ac.uk/events/hotseat/dylan_position.pdf



Stay tuned for my next blog post on the evolutionary basis for emotions, and what is more desired of a trait — to have, recognize & feel #allthethings or to control your emotions, not letting them interfere with your life. 


Feel free to reach out to me with your thoughts, opinions, or comments, and please share this with others if you liked it!


Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash 




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