Dawn of the Emotional Machine

sexbots I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago, and a group discussion broke out about machine intelligence. It was thought-provoking, and it’s lingered. Today I saw this article posted by @lisapadilla about sex robots replacing men in relationships. Certainly it is a topic that will elicit a full spectrum of jokes and guffaws, but there is a sober angle to this that I find interesting. As Lisa asked, “can you emotionally bond with a robot?”.

The short answer, I believe, is yes.

To explain why I believe this is possible, I want to detour and look at something unrelated, the human brain. I read this great article about the brain boom that human evolution experienced. In summary, humans split off from apes and chimps as much as 8 million years ago but 3 million years ago our brains went through a dramatic expansion.

Three million years ago the human brain began a period of expansion and in this period human brains have expanded almost 4x in size compared to all predecessors over 60 million years. Anthropologists theorize that the use of tools, complex social relationships, and expansion to climates not particularly well suited for human habitation forced the human brain to evolve in overdrive.

Now let’s come back to the topic at hand and the collection of technologies that are responsible for driving more innovation today than at any point in modern history. Machine learning.

We are witness to sophisticated machine learning frameworks that are dramatically improving the ability of machines to have human intelligence. Natural language interfaces are remarkably adept at understanding not just what we are saying but what we mean. Image technology is capable of replicating aspects of human vision with remarkable accuracy, along with speed and accuracy beyond human vision.

We see all of this come together with things like autonomous vehicles that develop behaviors that achieve not what is optimal performance but human performance. For example, the Google cars now cut a turn in a manner that replicates what human drivers naturally do. Human intelligence is being created in machine frameworks.

The next natural question to ask is whether or not machine learning can be used to accelerate machine learning. Much in the way that humans are interacting with other humans forced an expansion of our mental capabilities, leading to a machine-brain boom that follows the human evolution.

However, a machine with human intelligence and capacity still lacks something incredibly important about man-machine interfaces. Emotional capability.

I don’t believe we want machines to have emotions, for example, a robot that is sad or angry does not exactly get me excited. I believe that what we want machines to have is not an emotion at all, but rather the ability to interpret and adjust according to our emotions. Empathy, which is one of the most interesting of human capabilities and certainly not limited to humans as other animal species have demonstrated empathy in their social interactions.

In reading up about innovations in the automotive world, I learned of an interesting concept developed by major auto components supplier Faurecia. While not exactly what I envisioned, it is nonetheless an example of machines developing emotional intelligence that becomes a focus on the human interaction.

The result is the Active Wellness seating system, developed to improve the comfort and well-being of passengers. It’s the first system of its kind, detecting heart and breathing rates to determine an occupant’s stress level. Working in conjunction with a tablet inside the car, the seat can alert riders when it believes stress levels are too high, offering remedies such as therapeutic massage or increased seating ventilation.

Think of Siri having the capacity to adjust responses according to my mental state, sensing if I am sarcastic, happy, humorous, sad, or stressed. Go beyond the interaction style and consider the ability to alter responses based on emotional state. In this scenario, along with humanoid machine forms, I believe we can interact with machines on intellect and emotion.

To answer Lisa Padilla’s question: yes, I believe we will form emotional bonds with robots.