I’ve long loved the sci-fi trope of robots with feelings. Whether it’s Dave Lister teaching Kryton to swear in Red Dwarf or Sonny from i-Robot talking philosophically, this is a trope I will come back to time and time again. And I’m not the only one. Writers simply love robots.
This trope isn’t just prevalent in film and TV either. It exists in gaming too. Androids were recently used as a metaphor for racial inequality in Quantic Dream’s Detroit: Become Human, a game where the player literally gets to watch their robotic characters develop emotions, find friendships, and fall in love.
It may come as no surprise that I’ve been working on my own robot with feelings story. My story is focuses on a group of children who have found a parental figure in an AI.
As I was developing the characters, I kept asking myself why this dynamic existed. It’s easy to imagine that we can fall in love with a robot. I mean, a lot of us fall in love with fictional characters on the daily! (And good thing too, I’m trying to make a career over here!) As children, we love our pets, our toys, our favourite chairs. I had no problem developing this dynamic from the perspective of the human characters. But what of the AI?
Can a robot love us back?
This is the exact question posed in the 2017 article “Can a robot love you back?” It talks about a prototype robot developed by Dr. Samani, director of the Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Technology Laboratory in Taiwan.
According to the article, the robot adjusts its digital hormones in response to external stimuli and this changes its behaviour, much like in a person. These behaviours can be interpreted as emotions. It can show high levels of excitement and other behaviours. Essentially, it is a robot that has a similar means of developing its emotions as we do. Wouldn’t that mean that, in this case, the robot is fully capable of love?
We are obsessed with being loved. We want our friends to love us. We want strangers to love us. We want our pets to love us. We see a dog’s tail wag and we think aw, it’s happy – though any animal behaviourist will tell you that its not as simple as that. Regardless, we know animals have hormones that affect their behaviour. Most of us don’t doubt that animals can feel emotions, so could a robot feel on the same level as a dog? If so, can we soon teach a robot to feel to the same extent as a person?
I wish the article went into a little more depth about the AES. I was dabbling with the idea of giving my AI physical senses – touch, smell, taste etc. – so adding an endocrine system was just a perfect fit!
Likewise, the article doesn’t answer how or if the robot genuinely loves, or how we would measure that. It’s not difficult to program a robot to say ‘I love you’ but that doesn’t mean it truly loves you. Instead, the article talks about how the robot makes people feel. It’s how people respond to the robot that matter.
In this case, Dr. Samani has created a robot that makes a person feel loved. This isn’t the same as a robot with the ability to love a person. Or is it? This has led to some very interesting questions to explore in my story: Does the AI love her children or do the children just feel like she does? How does this impact the children’s lives, especially that of my protagonist Makaila? If the AI genuinely does love the children, how would they ever know?
In truth, how do we ever know if someone genuinely loves us, other than by how we feel when we’re around them?