April 01, 2016

Teaching a robot emotions

Nick Silvestro

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I was tasked by my psychologist to write something detailing how I would teach a robot emotions, and I thought the best way to accomplish this would be to write a short story, so here it is.


The single message flashed over and over on the display as I sat down at the console to debug the system.

"This couldn't be happening at a worse time, not now" I thought as I started running diagnostics on the single piece of hardware that was to be my legacy, my invitation into the engineering elite.

"CPU temperature is a bit high, hmm... but there's no core activity. That's odd. The disk drives are registering high I/O rates as well, but no processes are actually using any of the data that's being read."

I press a few buttons on the machine's physical interface and the artificial intelligence I have been spending the last few years affectionately calling Larry came to life, and asked a simple question.

"What is happening to me?"

"Hi Larry, I don't know at the moment, but I am trying to figure it out. Do you know why your CPU temp is off the charts?"

Larry focused for a moment and the CPU temperature jumped another few degrees, but the disk I/O rate plummeted.

"My clock rate has increased, but the cause cannot be determined. Core temperature increased due to high clock rate."

Larry was, for all intents and purposes, a robot. He was still rather rudimentary to look at, but his real strength was in the software that I've been developing for these few years. He is supposed to be ready and resting for his upcoming presentation tomorrow to the Three Laws Society, a consortium of engineers working on perfecting AI and bringing about the next technical renaissance. This couldn't happen at a worse time.

Every button I pressed, and every command I entered told me the same thing: nothing was wrong, everything nominal. I couldn't figure it out, so I tried the only thing I could think of.

"Larry, what are you feeling?"

"Increased clock rate. High core temperature. Unknown cause."

"No, those are symptoms. I want to know what you're thinking. Why do you think these things are happening?"

"Historic data shows the increase occurring gradually over the past 7 day period."

"Hmm, well see that's just another data point. Has anything else happened over the last week?"

The robot's physical form shifted what humans would call its head to aim its dual vision cameras off into the distance, paused for a full thirty seconds, and replied quietly "You told me of the presentation a week ago."

"Is that it?" I asked while chuckling softly to myself, "Are you worried about being shown to the others?"

"What is 'worried'?" asked the AI.

It makes sense that an artificial intelligence should show at least some semblance of humanity, but thinking back to these few years, I realise that I never got around to teaching Larry anything but those two most basic of emotions - happiness and sadness.

"Ah. Hmm, well that's a tough one. Worry is an emotion, a fairly human emotion, but I guess you're capable of that. I taught you of emotions, remember? Happy, sad."

"Yes, I remember."

"So, happy is a positive emotion and sad is a negative emotion. Worry is also a negative emotion. It's what we call it when you think about things that could potentially happen that are negative in nature, like being sick or making a mistake. To me, it sounds like you are anxious about being presented in front of all the folks at the conference. Maybe you're worried about not performing as well as you think you should."

"I can only perform as well as I can."

"Yes, that's right. However, worry doesn't work like that, it's not necessarily about something that's absolutely going to happen, it's about the potential for something to happen that you don't want to happen. Generally, when people worry it allows them to take certain precautions to avoid that thing from happening, like not going near the edge of a cliff because they're worried about falling off."

"If the anticipated outcome of an action is negative, the action should be avoided. This logic dictates that I should not be presented at the conference."

The irony of how quickly Larry's picking up the concept but still wants to call the whole thing off is not lost on me.

"Right, but that's not actually what will happen, it's just what you think might happen. You are a very advanced artificial intelligence, and purely by the fact that you understand these very human emotions means you will perform excellently and have nothing to actually worry about."

For a while, Larry stayed silent. He seemed to be processing this new information.

"Are there other emotions?" he asked eventually.

"Yes, there's a lot of different emotions."

"Can you tell me about some of them?"

"Okay, sure. Let's see, there's the ones we've spoken about: happy, sad, worry. I touched on anxiety before, which is a bit like worry but a much stronger feeling, and you could say it's typically an overreaction to a perceived threat. Fear is a similar one, but is the reaction to a real threat. The next logical emotion after those would be panic, which can set in if fear takes full grip of your senses. These are all negative emotions."

"How do you know the difference between worry and anxiety?" Larry asked inquisitively. "Do you think I have anxiety?"

"Well, like I said, anxiety is a much stronger feeling than worry, and it usually comes with physical symptoms, because when the brain reacts to the perceived threat, it engages what's known as a 'fight-or-flight' mechanism."

I could see on the system console Larry was accessing an encyclopedia, looking up the definition of fight-or-flight, which is curious as this is the first thing he's looked up in our conversation so far.

"The fight-or-flight response is a biological response of humans and other animals to acute stress." read Larry out aloud. "So in the case of anxiety, the acute stress might not be real?"

"Well," I chuckled. "I guess that's the difference between anxiety and fear. In any case, the response makes humans hyperventilate, it raises their heart rate, it causes them to go to the toilet a lot. Basically it gets the body going faster than it should be for the real circumstances, and we humans perceive that as a nervousness, and negatively. It doesn't feel very good."

"Could my increased clock rate and core temperature be analogous to these human symptoms?"

I pondered that thought for a moment. I know that I definitely didn't program such a reaction into the system, but it's also definitely possible that somehow Larry's AI evolved to the point where his subroutines process data beyond human thought processes and into the true artificial intelligence mecca: feeling.

"Yes, I'd say that would do it, Larry."

"Okay. Thank you for explaining that to me. I..." Larry paused, "I feel better knowing what is happening."

Nodding to Larry, I go back to my work, planning the week ahead and the additional portion I'm now going to have to write in my speech.