Part 7: Refining Emotions

In order to justify my work I had to write a report explaining my methods and results, but even though I have done much work for the past three years there was little progress to show for it. Alice’s original A.I. software depends on a set of elegant mathematical ideas, while the software I wrote running alongside is based on observations of the tangle mess of axons that is inside our heads. The main problem laid in integrating the two software modules, which was almost like trying to write a calculus textbook in the form of a romance novel, it can be done but it can’t be done well. My intuition was to have certain situations under which she will display emotions, and that will at least demonstrate some of the capabilities of her neuronal networks.

It took me a few weeks to do this, Vera became impatient and one day came up to John’s lab to find me. I was sitting at my desk reviewing some of Alice’s code when she walked through the door with a smile, then walked towards me as I was absorbed in looking at the code and said, “Hi Robbie, how are you doing?”

I looked at at her with indifference and said, “Oh, I’m simply making sure that Alice runs perfectly the way I intended her to.”

“That’s very nice,” Versa said, “but I need your progress report.”

I stood up from my desk and said, “The report is ready, but first I would like to show Alice’s capabilities as of now.”

I walked Vera over to Alice, and said in a loud voice, “Alice, wake up!”

She opened her eyes and looked at me, it was a few seconds before she completely came out of her sleep, then I took a live cockroach attached to a string and placed it on her lap. Even before it had touched her clothes she began to cringe, and when it did she stood up and flapped around her skirt to throw the cockroach off of her.

“I have taught her how to be afraid of cockroaches,” I explained. Vera was delighted to see Alice’s emotional reaction to the insect, then putting the cockroach back into the jar I said, “you can see how realistic the reaction to the cockroach is, the look of disgust on her face looks absolutely genuine.” I then reached for a cage containing a mouse, took it out and placed it in Alice’s hands. She looked at the mouse delightfully and started to stroke it and make clicking noises to amuse the mouse. “I also taught her to adore small animals. It wasn’t very difficult, it seems that she had this instinct already latent within her, all I had to do was to guide her a little bit.”

“Well, it seemed like a success, I’ve never seen a robot display such realistic emotions,” Versa said.

“Unfortunately not all is well,” I said, taking the mouse away from Alice, and as I put it back into the cage Alice showed her displeasure on her face, “while it seemed that Alice can display emotions, there are certainly many gaps in her understanding of human feelings. Alice, look at my right hand!” I raised my middle finger at Alice, she calmly looked at my right hand, then back at my face, then stared away from me as she lost interest.

Vera did not know how to respond, she looked at me with shock and asked, “What was that supposed to demonstrate?”

“You see, Alice doesn’t understand emotions in the same way we understand them,” then showed my middle finger and asked, “Alice, what does this gesture mean?”

Responding calmly, she said, “The gesture you show is called the finger, the bird, or flipping someone off. It is a rude gesture meant to offend the person it is directed towards.”

Still holding up my finger I said, “Alice, do you feel offended?”

In a monotone voice she responded, “No.”

Vera was amused by Alice’s response, then asked, “What was going on with Alice?”

I explained, still holding up my middle finger, “You see, the reason that Alice responds in this manner is that this gesture, let’s call it flipping the bird, doesn’t in itself mean anything intrinsically. It is simply an arbitrary sign that we have attached a meaning to. In order for her to understand what flipping the bird means I have to explicitly teach her or program her to have an emotional reaction whenever I flip her the bird.”

“But Alice herself knows that this was supposed to be an offensive gesture, why wasn’t she offended?”

“It turned out there are two aspects of understanding that are relevant here. The first one is the pure semantic meaning of the sign, such as how it is related to other signs and so on, but the second one is the emotional aspect which doesn’t have anything to do with the semantic meaning of the sign.” I flashed Vera the “OK” sign with my hand and said, “In certain parts of Italy this is a very offensive sign.”

“Okay,” Vera said with a look of confusion.

“Now, knowing what you now know, are you offended when I flash you this gesture?” I asked, flashing the gesture again.


I looked at Alice and said, “This is how Alice operates. Not only does she have to know what words and signs mean semantically, but she also has to respond with the correct emotion towards those words and signs. The problem is that we humans have tens of thousands of signs which we react to emotionally, and there are many subtleties in how we interpret those signs as well as experience those emotions. Figuring out how to create the appropriate emotion toward all those signs will be a challenge.”

“This is fascinating, but you still have to give me your progress report for your project.”

“Okay, it’ll be in your inbox in a few minutes,” I said, then walked over to my computer to e-mail the paperwork to Vera.


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