Robots in Love

I just stumbled upon this rather intriguing anecdote about AI research gone amusingly awry. What amazes me the most about it, is the fact that I would expect it to see it being a plot to a science fiction story, and not a news blurb from 2009. And yet here we are, reading about a robot programmed to love, who ended up loving “too much”.

Kenji was part of an experiment involving several robots loaded with custom software designed to let them react emotionally to external stimuli. After some limited environmental conditioning, Kenji first demonstrated love by bonding with a a stuffed doll in his enclosure, which he would embrace for hours at a time. He would then make simple, but insistent, inquiries about the doll if it were out of sight. Researchers attributed this behavior to his programmed qualities of devotion and empathy and called the experiment a success. (…)

The trouble all started when a young female intern began to spend several hours each day with Kenji, testing his systems and loading new software routines. When it came time to leave one evening, however, Kenji refused to let her out of his lab enclosure and used his bulky mechanical body to block her exit and hug her repeatedly. The intern was only able to escape after she had frantically phoned two senior staff members to come and temporarily de-activate Kenji.

If I didn’t know this was real, I would immediately assume this was a synopsis of a short story by Asimov, or someone who was inspired by his robot series. It absolutely blows my mind that researches are seriously working on this sort of thing right now.

On the other hand, I am a bit skeptical. After all, what is love? (baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more) I don’t we all agree on what exactly does love entail. Most certainly, we don’t think there is any empirical way to test for it. How can we program a robot to love if we don’t fully understand this emotion ourselves?

Art by  Rudy-Jan Faber

Art by Rudy-Jan Faber (click for artists website)

If we assume love is somewhat mechanical process where biochemical stimuli combine with social cues, interaction patterns, physical closeness and intimacy then it is easy to see how we would end up with creepily over-eager love bots like poor Kenji. But everything I have ever read on the subject suggests that love, as it is is more complex than that. It is something that requires the impressive abstraction linking quantum machinery that is a human brain to develop and act upon. That it stems not from a baser impulses, but from our slow, self aware frontal lobe area. As far as we can tell we are the only animals capable of love, because we invented it. It is purely a human abstraction and as such it is immensely dense, complex and difficult to untangle into an algorithmic representation or a procedural subroutine.

I guess what I’m saying is that before we can teach artificial intelligences about love we must first give them human level self-awareness. Getting them to fake their way through a Turing test is not enough. They need a genuine sense of self, and identify as a person before they can actually “love” another in a way that would meet any of our hundreds definitions of love. Otherwise, all we can ever hope to get is a poor imitation of love based on instinctive and learned behavior.

To put it in perspective, think about this: you can love your dog, but does it love you back? Surely what the dog “feels” is much simpler, baser impulses like pack loyalty, and borne in instincts to nurture and defend their kin. We like to personify our pets, but deep down inside we know they are not people. If they were, they would be almost comically sociopaths, selfish, rude and impulsive. Because they are fuzzy, cute and dumb we find those qualities endearing and funny – we know dogs don’t operate at the same high level of social interaction as we do.

Think about this – what does your dog do when you leave your house? It snivels, it whines, and it wants to go with you. How is this behavior different from that of Kenji? The researches who made him succeeded in making him “love” people at the same level as a domesticated pet does – a dumb, animal attachment devoid of complexity and nuance. I submit that that’s all we could ever hope for, until we figure out how to build self aware intelligences. And I do believe we are going to do that soon – or at least I hope we will.

FYI, the linked story is a hoax. It’s pretty easy to verify it’s not true – I just didn’t bother doing it before I hit publish. This is what happens when you queue up blog posts at 4am in the morning.
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5 Responses to Robots in Love

  1. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    How can we program a robot to love if we don’t fully understand this emotion ourselves?

    ‘Tis something that probably needs to be realised in more attempts at general AI – before we can code it, we need to make it non-mysterious (where “it” could be anything we want an AI to do).

    It’s either pointless or dangerous to charge in with a half-baked notion of what’s going on inside any mental algorithm that currently looks like a black box, and equally no use trying to arrive at a working model by some method that supposedly (magically) lets us get there without full understanding.

    Full-brain simulation might get there without the demystifying step, but once that’s done we’d still be shit-outta-luck for ways to improve on our own brains, and human brains are generally less expensive to make the ‘old fashioned’ way (even when leaving aside the fierce ethical implications of having a SimHuman inside a computer)

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  2. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Also, looks like the site you linked to is of the “spoof news” variety. Just sayin’

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Matt`:

    Yeah, this appears to be true. I saw this blurb linked in a few other places listing this site as a source. Meh, I guess this is a clear example of “didn’t do research” on my part. This is why I’m not a journalist. :)

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  4. Do you have a reference for when you say: “But everything I have ever read on the subject suggests that love, as it is is more complex than that.” I’ve actually been getting the opposite impression — that want we call love is just combinations of brain chemistry and hormones.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Shrutarshi Basu:

    No, I don’t think I can link anything of the top of my head. But yeah, I agree that romantic love in large part is exactly that – hormones, brain chemistry and etc. But “love” as a concept is a little broader than that. I guess it depends on where you draw the line at what love is. Or whether or not you agree that “love at first sight” is actually love and not merely lust/infatuation, or if you think that love can be built over time, or that you can “will” yourself into love and etc.. I honestly don’t know. It’s all semantics really and as a CS guy I feel a bit out of my depth here. I guess this sort of this is best left to cognitive scientists and/or poets.

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