As Human As Human

A man with a Dali mustache tells me that he can make robots feel empathy. He stands facing a scale model bust of Albert Einstein constructed from three Axis F/T Sensor modules, a 16bit microprocessor, a direct current motor and a compound, skin-like substance called “Frubber.” He looks to it and smiles. Albert’s false eyes inspects the man’s face with it's bared teeth, stretched lips and heavily waxed facial hair, and smiles back.  

“His perception of your emotional states is very important for a machine to become effectively empathetic,” says Dr. David Hanson, a man who has designed and built a collective of fully mobile androids, each capable of verbal and physical interactions with humans at varying degrees. During his lecture on robotic empathy for the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences, Hanson marks himself comic-book paranoid and points out the fact that machines are becoming more capable killers.

Having built a series of life-like humanoid robots, Hanson aims to integrate them amongst humans. They are able to see, recognize and communicate with humans as individuals. The current advancements in AI and the already outstanding destructive power seen within modern technology shows that Hanson’s fears are not unfounded. Therefore, one of the good Doctor’s many parallel goals is to give robots emotion, for those capable of emotion are less likely to kill in cold blood.   

Hanson’s own advancements in AI have helped to create Albert HUBO, the most recognizably advanced of his bots. With two sensor cameras (charge-coupled device [CCD] cameras) that can process images as a digital signal, Albert can accomplish visual recognition. Albert further computes the information through a cognitive framework based on algorithms in order to create hypotheses of the world and its surroundings, enabling the robot to decide upon courses of action it may take. This means that rather than just presenting information, Albert can form thought and take action upon it.

All of Hanson’s droids feature similar abilities, each with their own growing personality (his newest one apparently is a fan of punk rock). Although we are not to the point where these things are “more human than human,” Hanson’s point in developing a sense of ethics and emotion in his robots is understandable considering their advanced cognitive abilities. The latest element in their advancement is emotional empathy in its most basic of states – understanding and recognizing emotions in humans. “If they [robots] achieve human-level intelligences, or quite possibly, beyond human-level intelligence, this could be the seeds of hope for our future,” Hanson states to the TED crowd, a comment that makes Albert smile.

Integrating robots into everyday life is something that is currently underway, with most factories utilizing the beyond-human stamina of robotic workers. To socially connect with something that inherently has no sense of emotion but that can nonetheless think and act upon such thoughts is a code for disaster. A human completely detached from his or her humanity is by defintion a sociopath. By developing machines with near-human level cognition but without a sense of emotion, we find ourselves in terrifying territory.

These androids, although impressive, are still years away from complete sentience. However, something that is becoming much clearer to those in the robotics community is that before such a level of intelligence is formed in machines, a sense of emotion and empathy must be developed in tandem.

Sam Macdonald inconsistently posts about the Apocalypse and the music that will be played during it (it'd be Slayer) on his blog,

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