Can Computers Have Emotions?

The Debate Panel - Position Statements


Andy Clark's Position Statement - a view from Philosophy

I think it is useful to keep a concrete case in mind, so lets start with a (hopefully uncontroversial) illustration.

One day, you wake up and find a letter on your doormat. It contains the results of your final exams. As soon as you see the letter you feel a rush that is a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Your heart races, you sweat, your skin grows sticky. You carefully pick up the letter, rush into your room, close the door and open it. You got top grades. Your facial muscles relax into a broad grin, you feel an urge to run out and tell the world. You find it hard, all morning, to concentrate on other things as the thought of your success keeps coming back to you.

That’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, and a very mixed bag of stuff at that. In particular, there is a bunch of stuff that seems very BODILY: the rush of blood to your face, the racing heart, the sticky skin/ galvanic skin response. And there is a bunch of stuff that seems very COGNITIVE: the emotion seems to be about your success, it seems to involve (does it?) thoughts of that success. Certainly, it affects the way you process information, making it harder to concentrate on other stuff And it affects the way you lay down memories (you may in future vividly recall the moment of opening the envelope).

Many people, when first asked, suggest that a computer or a robot could only have the cognitive aspects of emotions. Perhaps a robot can in some sense have the thought of success. It may be able to read the symbol grades in the letter, and it may know that these symbols denote an excellent pass. Perhaps it can even be built (though its not clear why we should build it this way!) so that thoughts of excellent passes then override other things and make it seem ‘distracted’ for a while, until the memory automatically degrades.

But to really feel the emotion, a critic might say, you need to have the bodily feelings too. But a robot can have a body, and can be built to sense states of that body. So why think we have to leave the bodily aspects out?

Before thinking about that, let’s bring one more idea into play. Some accounts of emotion give the bodily stuff pride of place. What an emotion really IS, according to these accounts, just is the perception of changes in our own bodily states. Thus William James, back in 1884, suggested that commonsense gets things backwards. You might think that it is your feeling anxious that causes your heart to race as you open the envelope. But maybe, the anxiety just IS your perception of your heart racing, your body sweating, etc. If you subtract all that away, James argues, you would be left with nothing that is worth counting as the emotion.

If James is right then, the merely cognitive version is actually not even a piece of the emotion: it is no emotion at all.

Nowdays, the main exponent of something like James’ theory is the cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. His theory is more sophisticated, and identifies the emotion with a kind of neural image of the bodily state. That allows him to deal with cases where the neural image of the bodily state is activated even though the heart is NOT racing, etc. But emotions, for Damasio, are still all about those bodily changes. When we feel anxious and our heart does not race (maybe due to some drug) that’s because the neural bodyimage is still the one typically tied to the racing heart.

Damasio also believes we can have unconscious emotions. That sounds like an odd idea, but its one I am willing to defend. Here’s a quick example, that also shows what role Damasio thinks the emotional bodily monitoring plays in human problem-solving.

People were given 4 decks of cards and a gambling scenario. They were told to make as much money as they can. The game allowed them to turn a card over from any deck. Each time, they got a reward or a penalty, and no other feedback. The 4 decks each had different payoff matrixes.

Deck A and B pay out big but have high penalty cards, and lots of them.

Deck C and C pay out less but have low penalties and less of them. Statistically, you will lose usually playing decks A and B and win playing D and C. But only slowly, by trial and error, do the payoff matrixes become visible (its kind of like having 4 one arm bandits, with very different payout patterns, that you need to explore to decide where best to put your coins).

Players were fitted with galvanic skin response testers. At first (1-10 tries) no elevation of gsr (no sweat, basically). But soon, (10-20 tries) peaks of gsr as you reach for the bad decks. At this stage subjects still say they have no idea which decks are good and which bad. At 20 tries, many said they got a funny feeling when reaching for bad decks, but didn’t know why. By 50 tries, they could say which decks were good and which bad and even explain why. But their performance had improved long before this, courtesy of their unconscious knowledge of which ones were bad. This was reflected in their gsr before they could even report the ‘odd feeling’ at trial 20.

One way to describe all this is that early on their behavior is aided by an unfelt body-based emotion of unease. Later, the body-based emotion becomes consciously visible and hence even more widely dominant. On this story, ancient neural circuitry able to learn about the statistics of the decks is creating or informing aversive bodily responses long before the more evolutionarily recent centers of conscious awareness come into play.

This provides a nice demo of the idea that felt emotions are perceptions of bodily changes that themselves are a kind of quick and dirty indicator of important information about the world.

This story is told in satisfying detail by Jesse Prinz in his book Gut Reactions. Here is how he puts it:

 “Just as concepts of dogs track dogs by [an inessential but handy indicator like] furriness, fears track dangers via heart palpitations. Emotions are embodied.” Prinz (2004) p.68

Prinz thus reconciles the bodily story with a cognitive one. He depicts emotions as perceptions of the body, but ones whose function is to use the bodily reactions as a quick and dirty means of tracking states of the world (eg dangers and opportunities). The bodily responses are a kind of fast and frugal rule of thumb: if body feels like this, danger present. Much simpler beings probably only needed the bodily responses themselves, preparing them immediately for flight or fight. Our relations to the world are more complex, so we have learnt to perceive the bodily responses and to exploit the hard-won knowledge they contain, as when the gamblers begin to avoid the bad decks due to a ‘funny feeling’ before knowing why.

Though I’ve told it in a great hurry here, I do think this is a plausible story. But where does it leave the computer and emotions in machines?

Arguably, it leaves us much better off. We can now say this. To really give a machine emotions we need to build it so that it uses perceptions of its own bodily reactions as a clue to properties of the world. That’s what emotions are, so if we want a machine to have them, that’s what we need to do. If nothing else, this is pretty concrete.

Of course, there is one remaining problem: the spectre of the philosophical zombie.

Suppose, someone will say, you build a robot device that replicates, at least in miniature, all the layers of evolutionary complexity we just discussed. How do you know it will really feel any emotions? Sure, if you fix it up right it will exhibit the right responses. In the gambling scenario, it will learn slowly and not at first able to say why it is staying away from the bad decks. Later on, it will be able to say why. And it may even say, half way through, that the bad decks just make it feel funny. But why should we believe any funny feeling is actually felt? Maybe the machine is still just a zombie, built to mimic the ways we talk and respond but having no real feelings at all.

I think we have to simply reject this possibility. Getting the right behavioral profile for the right kinds of design-based reasons just is giving a machine emotions.

 I’d like to end, though, by noticing one apparent implication of our story. The implication is that we feel our emotions due to a kind of evolutionary accident. We are a tinkered product, in which new functions are built cheaply on top of the old. That seems to be why we are getting information about danger etc into the conscious workspace by the indirect route of monitoring our own bodily responses, responses which are themselves mediated by older neural circuitry. Perhaps, then, a better designed system might skip this step, feeding that information directly to the conscious workspace. But that would subtract away the bodiliness that seems essential to the feeling of emotion. A nice question to pursue might be whether there are additional positive reasons to include a loop via bodily reaction monitoring in any intelligent device, not just one in which old circuitry must co-exist with new.

 Aaron Sloman's Position Statement - a view from Computer Science

Until the middle of the 20th Century the major advances in science were concerned with matter and energy.

Since then the science of information has been growing in importance as we learn more and more about different kinds of natural and man-made information-processing systems.

In particular, we have discovered that in addition to physical machines like windmills, steam engines, electric motors, generators, and pottery kilns which (mostly) manipulate matter and energy there are also abstract machines that process information. These are called virtual machines, like the operating system that controls your computer or the spelling checker that finds and fixes mistakes in your spelling checker.

More complex virtual machines instead of doing just one thing can simultaneously do many things, including interpreting sensory input, generating new goals, deciding between different options, formulating new plans, carrying out previously-made decisions, evaluating what is happening and reflecting on their own mental processes.

Some interactions between sub-processes in human minds produce emotions like being startled, being amused, fear, excited anticipation, regret, embarrassment, gratitude, jealousy, sympathy and grief. Each of these exists as a result of complex processes and events in virtual machines in humans. When we understand enough about the abstract machines that we call 'human minds' we shall be in a better position to see whether similar processes and interactions can occur in computer-based information-processing machines, in robots, for example.

At this stage in our knowledge there is no reason to believe it possible or impossible apart from wishful thinking. If it is impossible a good way to find out why is to try as hard as we can to make it happen, and understand why it turns out to be impossible. That is also a good way to find out how it is possible, if it is.

Perhaps we shall learn from such efforts that some things are relatively difficult to replicate because they are closely related to physiological mechanisms, e.g. feeling thirsty or itchy, and others relatively easy, e.g. feeling sympathy, embarrassment, grief or pride, because they depend only on non-physical goals, desires, preferences, attachments, beliefs, and interactions between them, requiring little or no replication of animal body states.

Whether we should make such machines is another question. Some such machines may be very useful, for instance intelligent machines helping us in disaster situations where difficult but urgent decisions may have to be made rapidly in novel situations, using ethical judgements and concern for others to drive creative decision making, since previously stored rules and plans do not deal with such situations. Emotions are not necessary in such cases, though motivation and evaluation are.

There are people who fear that machines will turn nasty and try to take over the world. However, I don't think machines can do anything more nasty to us than humans already do to one another all round the world.

For more on this see this talk on wishful thinking in the study of emotions and intelligence: .

Do machines, natural or artificial, really need emotions?

Adam Zeman's Position Statement - view from Neuroscience

Most people, I suspect, will be doubtful doubt that computers can have emotions, for a variety of reasons ranging from computers’ strikingly unemotional appearance to a hunch that only living creatures can experience feelings like sadness and joy. But some further thought on the matter inclines me to be more sympathetic to the idea that computers might be moved by the emotions which excite you and me.

We need to decide what emotions are, what computers are, and how similar to us a computer could be (given that we, I suppose, can have emotions for sure).

Emotions are easily listed, less easily defined. They include sadness, happiness, anger, fear, desire and revulsion. They are complex states, normally involving our physiology, especially our nervous and hormonal systems, our behavior, and our minds, in at least two ways: emotions typically imply an evaluation or appraisal of a situation, and emotions have a ‘feel’ (perhaps we might be able to explain the ‘feel’ of anger or fear in terms of the other aspects of emotion like their effects on our bodies, but I won’t pursue this idea here). What do these states of mind and body have in common? They all require that things can matter to us – that is to say that there are some states of affairs which we prefer to others, some which we value and others which we deplore; and they generally presuppose that, given our preferences, there is something we can do to improve our chances of getting what we want and avoiding what we don’t – running away (in the case of fear), pushing away (in the case of disgust), overcoming (in the case of anger) and so on.  So, on the face of it, we would not expect computers to have emotions unless there are things that matter to them, and things they can do about what matters to them. Might computers find themselves ‘minding’ and ‘doing’ in these senses? These questions lead us naturally to ask:

What is a computer? In broad terms a computer is a device which processes a set of inputs to  generate a set of outputs. These inputs and outputs can very hugely from compex sums to the kinds of data required say to steer an aeroplane or a space ship. We entrust many aspects of our lives to supervision by computers these days, and they usually serve us well. But, you may want to point out, serve is the operative word. We decide what matters and what we want to do, and then program our cmputer slaves to do our bidding: we supply all the values and emotions in the projects computers help us with. It is absurd to suppose that computers themselves might have emotions. But before we get to feel completely comfortable with that conclusion, let’s turn to the third question I posed at the start: how similar to us might a computer become?

Our brains, interestingly enough, are often described as systems which process input into outputs: think for example of the inputs which informed you about the occurrence of a meeting on whether computers can have emotions, which your brain has now somehow tranformed into the output which consists in your reading these words. This gives us a hint that maybe what goes on in our brains could be modelled by a computer: perhaps our brain jsut is a giant computer. This is controversial, but the idea is far from crazy. The neurons which make up our brains gather in signals from the neurons which make contact with them, ‘integrate’ this information and transmit signals, in turn, to the cells which they contact. It is possible to build ‘silicon neurons’ which reproduce this processs of integration. In principle one could replace every neuron in the brain, one at a time, with a silicon substitute. The resulting silicon brain would transform input into output in just the same way as the biological original. It is tempting to infer that this amazing device could have emotions, if, as the thought experiment implies, it allows just the same kinds of evaluation and behaviour as its predecessor. Even if you doubt this, your brain must have some physical characteristics which enable you to experience emotion: once again, in principle, these could be built into an artificial replica which would then, also, have emotions.

Let’s attack the problem from a different direction. We came close to a conclusion that computers could not have emotions because we supply the ‘values’ which computers help us to pursue. But couldn’t we build computers with ‘values’, computers with aims and ambitions, with likes to pursue and dislikes to eschew? It seems likely that we could: after all,  we do not invent oursevles from scratch and our own basic values have been built into us by evolution. If we could also provide our computer with the means to act on its values, we would have begun to create what we have identified as the conditions for emotion.

You may want to respond that these arguments are all very well, but you can see no reason to imagine that computers should experience feelings like you and me, even if it is possible to build preferences into their systems and provide them with the means to pursue them. But, then, why not? Perhaps because computers lack a soul? When we deny the possibility that computers could have emotions we may be exposing assumptions which we have inherited from our culture but do not really, on reflection, wish to defend.

Jon Oberlander's Position Statement - a view from Cognitive Science

I approach this question from the point of view of human-computer interaction (HCI) design: how do we make machines that are effective and enjoyable to work with? Emotions of interest include pride, anxiety or frustration. There are, of course, at least two related questions: *can* we design computers to have emotions like these, and if so, *should* we design them to have emotions? Like Aaron Sloman, I don't think that basic emotions (gut reactions) are actually essential to intelligent action. But I do believe that intelligent machines should have emotions designed into them, for two main reasons. First, they must be understandable to users. Displaying appropriate emotional behaviours helps users understand and predict the system. But display is not enough: if there is any mismatch between emotion display and other behaviour, users will not trust the sytem. The best - but perhaps not only - way to ensure there is no mismatch is to drive the emotion display from the internal states of the computer system. Secondly, intelligent machines must understand their users. Although there are some cues to users' emotional and cognitive states in their tone of voice or facial expression, it is not enough for machines to reliably understand what is going on, and how to react. So they must understand words, and the words must link into internal emotional states within the machine. So, intelligent machines need emotions if they are to be effective and enoyable to work with. Then the question is, can we build such machines? On the one hand, getting this right will involve designing in appropriate self-preservation and safety systems, and these can be seen in terms of simple feelings. But on the other hand, to build a system that responds appropriately to users' anxieties or frustrations (in Aaron's terms, their secondary emotions), it will need to understand natural language. And, though progress is being made on this, it's still an unsolved problem. So the answer to the original question is - in an interesting way, for once - "it depends what you mean".

Can Computers Have Emotions

Hot Seat Debate

The Panel
Key Questions &
Possible Answers

Here comes the science bit
Artificial Intelligence
Computer Science
Cognitive Science

With many thanks to contributing Universities
University of Edinburgh
University of Birmingham
University of West of England

The debate took place
at 6.45 pm, 17 November 2004
Lecture Theatre F21
7 George Square

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