Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Fascinating article in the FT's magazine today, by futurologist Michio Kaku. It looks at how researchers in artificial intelligence are realizing quite how far AI is from approximating the functionality of the human brain.

One of the big problems, says Kaku, is getting computers to feel:

Some people have even suggested that our emotions represent the quality that most distinguishes us as human. No machine will ever be able to thrill at a blazing sunset or laugh at a joke, they claim. Some say that it is impossible for machines ever to have emotions.

But to scientists working on AI, emotions, far from being the essence of humanity, are actually a by-product of evolution. Simply put, emotions are good for us. They helped us to survive in the forest, and even today they help us to navigate the dangers of life. For example, “liking” something is very important in evolutionary terms, because most things are harmful to us. Of the millions of objects that we bump into every day, only a handful are beneficial to us. Hence to “like” something is to make a distinction between the tiny number of things that can help us, compared with the millions of things that are harmful.

When robots become more advanced, they, too, might be equipped with emotions. Perhaps robots will be programmed to bond with their owners or caretakers, to ensure that they don’t wind up in the garbage. Having such emotions would help to ease their transition into society, so that they could be helpful companions rather than rivals of their owners.

Computer expert Hans Moravec believes that robots will be programmed with emotions such as fear to protect themselves. If a robot’s batteries are running down, the robot “would express agitation, or even panic, with signals that humans can recognise”, he says. “It would go to the neighbours and ask them to use their plug, saying, ’Please! Please! I need this! It’s so important, it’s such a small cost! We’ll reimburse you!”’

Emotions are vital in decision-making, as well. People who have suffered a certain kind of brain injury lose the ability to experience emotions. Their reasoning is intact, but they cannot express feelings. Neurologist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California, who has studied these people, concludes that they seem “to know, but not to feel”. He finds that such individuals are often paralysed in making the smallest decisions. Without emotions to guide them, they debate endlessly over their options, leading to crippling indecision.

Scientists believe emotions are processed in the “limbic system”, deep in the centre of our brain. When people suffer a loss of communication between the neocortex (which governs rational thinking) and the limbic system, their reasoning powers remain intact but they have no emotions to guide them in decision-making. While the rest of us might have a “hunch” or a “gut reaction” that propels us, these people feel no such thing.

As robots become more intelligent and are able to make choices of their own, they could likewise become paralysed with indecision. To aid them, robots of the future might need to have emotions hardwired into their brains, to set goals and to give meaning and structure to their “lives”.

But automatic or programmed emotional responses can go wrong. They can go haywire and become out of kilter with reality, like Hal, the paranoid android in 2001 Space Odyssey, or Marvin, the depressed robot in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

What I find truly remarkable about the human brain is its capacity for meta-thinking: its ability to become aware of how its emotional reactions have become irrational or disfunctional, and then its ability to re-programme itself so that its emotions function more effectively. This is basically what CBT does.

Critics of CBT say that this sort of approach to the human brain is too mechanistic, treating like mind like it was a computer dashboard, rather than a holistic entity. But this disregards the extent to which people who go through CBT therapy fit it into their own personal growth narratives. They effectively change narratives, from a 'I'm useless and no good' narrative, to a 'I'm beginning to get better and learning to conquer my mental demons' narrative.

So CBT can be integrated into a holistic sense of personal development, and indeed, it will only succeed if the individual makes it part of his or her personal life narrative. If they 'own it', in other words.

What does this have to do with computers? Well, that's another thing that computers lack - a sense of personal narrative, a sense of their existence in the past (or memories) and a sense of what their existence might be like in the future (or plans and dreams). This self-awareness, this ability to tell the story of one's life, is one of the essences of being human, in my opinion. But perhaps, as a journalist/story-teller, I would say that.