Can Robots Love Us?

Technology has shaped society in unforeseen ways. In the early nineteenth century, curious human beings began meddling with electrical current, passing it through wire and carefully noting the effects. One of the observed effects was magnetism, and through a cascade of experimentation and developments, electrical motors were created.

Do you think that these physicists were able to foresee the impact of their work? Some figured it could be used for an electric carriage, an ‘auto-car’. But many could not have possibly imagined the radical changes we can see today. Based on their work, tiny motors in hard disk drives give us the potential to store a nineteenth century city’s worth of books in a small metal enclosure. The digital world stored within has broken down barriers with dissemination of ideas, education, and even cries for help. What would the world be like without them?

On Monday 4th September, I present a programme called ‘Can Robots Love Us?’ (BBC iPlayer & BBC Three) that explores the potential future for a more human relationship with technology. As we introduce more robotics and artificial intelligence into the world, will we see a dramatic shift in how humans interact with technology? We have already become accustomed to sharing our emotions digitally online, will our relationship with robots become as emotional?

What if our twenty-first century robots then, are like the nineteenth century electric motors? At first they are novel and simple, making the menial tasks easier. But as they integrate into more and more aspects of our lives will society, and how we as individuals behave in it, be irreversibly changed?

In the programme, I speak with founders of an artificial intelligence start up whose goal is to open counselling and therapy to all sufferers of mental health issues. Their bots, Tess and Karim, operate by text message, reducing the access barrier of cost or wait times for therapy, compared to a human therapist. If they notice your issue becoming too severe the bots can alert the user to get help from appropriate services.

I speak also to Rochelle, who suffers from a mental health condition called cleithrophobia. It’s a fear of being trapped which disrupts her ability to be in enclosed spaces like cars, new buildings, tube trains and lifts. We travel to a clinic in central London that specialises in virtual reality therapy, to see whether bringing her body into a carefully crafted game-like world can change her emotional response to the real world, with astonishing consequences.

I talk to a scientist who has created a companion robot, with the body of a sex doll, that will only respond pleasurably once you learn how ‘she’ (it is designed to look like a human female) ‘likes’ to be touched. It raises worrying issues as a concept, but also a question: With the increasing complexity of AI and robotics, will humans start to fall in love with their digital companions? Its creator said they already have. With a little smile on my face, I recall the extreme case of a woman famously marrying the Berlin Wall in 1979. It’s common knowledge that ‘regular’ people project anthropomorphic qualities onto their cars, animals and even plants. In a world where funerals are held for Aibo robot dogs, and soldiers risk their lives for lovingly-named bomb-disposal robots, it’s surely inevitable that the more human-like robots become, the more complex of a situation this will become for all of us. I meet Jo, a researcher at a ‘robot house’, who experiments with systems that might assist robots to care for our ageing population, and Bill, 83, who lost the love of his life Eileen 7 years ago. He talks to me about how his elderly peers can have very little human contact for days or weeks on end. As Bill interacts with the robots of the house, researcher Jo tells me that although humans might bond with robots, that they are just machines, and any perceived care they have for you is not real.

Jo’s opinion seems completely valid at first glance, especially, as we see in the film, when octogenarian Bill and the robot struggle even at basic communication, but what about when robots become more complex? Will robots ever be able to feel emotions – can they genuinely care for us?

To answer that question we have to examine ourselves. What makes us feel? What separates us from them? We are after all just biological machines.

The desperately frustrating thing is that experts and theorists cannot agree on what makes feelings have that intangible quality. Right now all they can agree on is that our brains are so electro-chemically complex that how we store and use information must somehow form consciousness. If we don’t know what intelligence or emotion is, then how can we emulate it inside of a computer? Even if we accidently make conscious machines, we likely wouldn’t be able to tell if a robot actually felt emotions, or was just a system complex enough to trick us into believing it.

So, can robots love us? The only way we can answer that question, is by asking another one, ‘Do you think that your robot loves you?’.

Can Robots Love Us? is available on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer now.

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