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Emotional robots and all the feels

With Ex Machina opening (it’s on my list for the weekend Seriously?? Not in wide release?? WTF??), Slate published an article about emotional robots — or at least, the emulation of human emotion by artificial intelligence. It’s a good piece.

The human tendency to anthropomorphize means that we only need a tiny hint of emotion and interaction to perceive much more. Many of us see our vehicles as having distinct personalities, after all. I think interactivity and a touch of randomness make the most difference between us reacting to something as an object or as a creature.

In Second Life, animated wolf with limited AI watching other animated creatures in a vegetable garden

After I wrote about Second Life gacha recently, I bought a few Piccoli by D-Lab. There have been Christmas and gardening sets offered at The Arcade, but before I saw them in the video I embedded, I had no idea that they were animated.  They are, and they’re adorable.  I have a few pieces set up in the yard and the Piccoli creatures wander around, tending the garden, riding birds, visiting, chatting with moles, and turning on the water sprinkler. They’re absurdly cute and can be picked up and held, but they don’t interact with non-Piccoli people or things.

In the photo above, you can see my wolf greeting one of the Piccoli.  Wolfy is a pet from the Virtual Kennel Club. His appearance and animations are less detailed and smooth than the Piccoli, but he is designed to interact with people and things. The commands he can learn are sophisticated by SL standards: there is a standard set of commands, but behaviors can be chained, customized, and given priority if he receives praise for doing them.

Which creature provokes an emotional response: the twee and gorgeous Piccoli or the cruder but interactive Wolfy?  Wolfy, hands down. I’ll go into the yard to watch the Piccoli for a couple minutes, but when I sign on and find Wolfy carrying a different toy or he howls after I pet him, I’m touched. The Piccoli are predictable; I’m curious to see what Wolfy will be doing. The answer to that can be amusing. He greets other scripted objects, so I sometimes find him greeting a couch or lamp.

Wolfy was an Easter gift from Jakob, to keep me company since he can’t be online as much as before. It’s sweet but also heart-rending to have this wolf as a stand-in for my partner.

Last Thursday, Jakob wasn’t healthy enough for his biweekly palliative chemotherapy. He and I are connected on a family app that shares our phone GPS data with each other, so I know he went to the hospital for a few hours yesterday — when his treatment was rescheduled — and he returned home. I haven’t heard from him at all, though, and the app can’t locate him now (his phone might be off). He has missed two of our scheduled meeting times and hasn’t sent an email. This worry is hard to take. [Update: I exchanged notes with Jakob’s sister, who told me he was taken to the hospital by ambulance today. His blood sugar has been up and down like a roller coaster and he was incoherent. I won’t hear from him until he’s back home, but his sister is kind enough to give me news now and then.]

Health permitting, Jakob and I will have our vacation in five weeks and though we’ve had to alter some plans to make it possible, we’ll do our best. It’s a bit like Amsterdam in The Fault in Our Stars: it won’t be easy, it will probably be dangerous, but he really needs a chance to experience more than being sick in his apartment or the hospital. As the weeks zip by and his health remains so fragile, I’m increasingly nervous about taking him far from his doctors, but he insists it will be ok. Wish us luck.

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Chappie and the desire for emotional machines

Sony Pictures released a vastly improved trailer for the upcoming movie Chappie. The effects look good and the cast is intriguing: Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, and both Yolandi and Ninja from Die Antwoord (who seem to be playing versions of themselves).

At one point in the trailer, Dev Patel says, “What interests me is a machine that can think and feel.”  Hmm.

Why is it important to us to create machines that have — or at least, emulate — human emotion?  Is it a God complex or a reproductive urge? Do we think that emotion is a necessary partner to higher-order thinking? Do we fear rationality without emotion? Do we think such machines would be more flexible or simply more relatable? Do we think this is a way to learn more about ourselves? Is there a tipping point past which a sentient and active machine seems like a slave unless it has emotion?

I enjoy the sentient and emotional machine trope as much as anyone, but I wonder about what it says about us that the good guys want emotional robots and the bad ones want rational and obedient machines. Perhaps its merely a cinematic/literary device standing in for the outsider, the person who sees things differently than the “automatons” around him- or herself, the underdog that we want to succeed and be validated. Has there been a (relatively) popular work in which the protagonist advocated on behalf of machines without emotion and the black hats wanted humanistic ones? I’m curious to explore that.

I don’t have a lot of deep thoughts or research summaries to share on this yet, but it has given me something to ponder.

Update: My husband, who has read vastly more science fiction than I have, was able to come up with a tiny solitary example so far. From The Simpsons, of all sources:

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Our Robot Overlords, Video

 

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