Ana Viseu on Fri, 7 Jun 2002 12:20:59 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> building emotional machines

[Published in Mindjack, April 22, 2002 
<>, republished with

Building emotional machines

What is an emotional machine? Usually this term is applied to a 
machine--soft or hardware--that is able to recognize, express and perhaps 
even 'have' emotions [1]. The objective of these machines is to better 
understand their user and model their behavior accordingly, in order to 
provide a smoother and more intuitive interaction. Think, for instance, of 
a computer that detects that you are nervous and actively starts providing 
tips on how to perform the task at hand. Or the robot that knows you are 
tired, and brings you a bottle of beer as soon as you sit on the couch. 
(But don't think of the Microsoft paper clip).

Research in emotional machines resembles, in many ways, research applied to 
building intelligent machines. In fact, the two are intimately related, as 
it is currently thought that a machine can only be truly intelligent if it 
is sensitive to human emotions. One of the main inspirations for the 
current boost in this line of research is António Damasio's famous book 
Descartes' Error [2] in which he transforms the famous dictum "I think 
therefore I am" into "I feel therefore I am". The basis of consciousness is 
no longer exclusively thought, but also emotions.

The goals may have changed, but the methods have not. The procedures for 
making an emotional machine are strikingly similar to that of classic 
artificial intelligence (AI): First, dissect human emotions, cut them in 
their minimal slices. Then, model them into the machine.

This simplistic and individualistic approach is as likely to fall short 
here as it did with AI. Human beings are complex beings, in constant 
dynamic interaction with their environment and with others, (re)acting to 
minimal changes in either. An individual-centered, dissective approach 
cannot capture these variables, nor can it capture the "immediate coping" 
[3] that accounts for most of our actions.

The dream of creating intelligent emotional machines certainly reflects 
advances in technology, but it also reflects the culture of their creators. 
In Western cultures, emotional machines are mainly being created to better 
serve us. The ultimate dream, at least since the industrial revolution, 
though stories of the "Golem" point to much further back, is one of human 
leisure assisted by working robots.

But the Western way is not the only way of thinking about the issue. In 
Japan, for instance, different way of thinking about emotional robots is 
prevalent, one that  escapes the master/servant relationship, and is open 
to different ways of thinking about technological life forms.

Machiko Kusahara, an Associate Professor of Media Research at Kobe 
University, Japan, recently gave a talk on this issue, as part of the Art 
Creates Change series sponsored by the Ontario College of Arts and Design 
and Critical Media. In her lecture Machico described what is best 
summarized as Japan's cultural attitudes towards technology. They are 
strikingly different from ours.

Japan is world leader in the areas of research and development of robots. 
In 1999 it was home to 55% of all industrial robots in the world [4] and an 
even larger percentage of recreational robots. From Japan came the first 
robot-pets, be it the bygone Tamagotchi(tm) or the brand new Aibo(tm), a 
dog with adaptive behaviour. These inventions co-exist with large scale, 
business-oriented applications, such as Honda's Asimo(tm), a 4-foot, 
95-pound, humanoid  robot; and with a series of robots that defy 
classification, such as the healing-robots, robots whose only goal is to be 
looked at for therapeutic purposes of relaxation, for instance jellyfish 
robots [5].

In fact, the proliferation and acceptance of robots in Japanese culture is 
so large that when Sony first released its Aibo, it sold out so quickly 
that Sony was flooded with letters begging for more! The demand was so 
overwhelming that Sony decided to do some research into Aibo's target 
group.  Sony found that it was constituted mainly of two main types of 
consumers: young men who like new gadgets and/or who are interested in 
computers (robots as a way to enjoy science and technology), and people who 
genuinely enjoy having a robot as their pet.

Aibo's proud owners dress up their puppies (although this is not 
recommended by Sony) and teach them personalized tricks that help them 
develop their own personality. The connection between owners and their pets 
is so strong and personal, that "that at one Aibo get-together, owners were 
able to distinguish their pets from other Aibo dogs" [6].

The differences become apparent here: Japanese industry invests heavily 
into the recreational/leisure robots that seem to nourish emotions in their 
users (rather than trying to create robots that decipher their users 
emotional states). These users, in turn, are open to think of these robotic 
pets as intelligent and emotional living beings (rather than considering 
them mere machines to serve us).

The robot industry is years away of creating the perfect Jeeves butler, the 
servant that cares for its owner. However, the technology to create a robot 
that is "merely" a friend is already in place. Pets like Aibo, or the older 
Tamagotchi, are good examples of this. These robots do not strive to 
understand their owner's emotional state, although Aibo will "understand" 
when its owner is angry and pats him (or it?), but they do have the ability 
to create emotions in their owners.

In fact, rather than aiming for absolute perfection, in Japan, a commonly 
used strategy is to use failure as a way to increase the realism of the 
robot. (This is only possible given its entertainment oriented goals.) For 
instance, one famous traditional Japanese automata, the "Bow and Arrow Boy" 
(yumihiki doji), a doll that shoots 10 arrows, is programmed to fail at 
least once for each set [7]. Aibo is also programmed to ignore its owner 
every once and then, giving it an attitude.

By releasing thousands of 'friendly' robots into the commercial market, 
Japanese robotic industry progresses not only by getting feedback from 
users, but also because these robots have to get adapted to a variety of 
people, situations and environments. The knowledge learned here can then be 
applied to the creation of more sophisticated, business-oriented 
applications. There is a continuum in the progression from entertainment to 
"serious" enterprises. But it does more than this, it also helps people get 
acquainted, and sympathetic towards, different life-forms: The robot as a 
friend that needs attention and care.

But, why are robot pets such a mass phenomenon in Japan, whereas in the 
West, they are regarded suspiciously?

In Japan, says Machico, robots are deemed considerate and friendly. They 
are said to have thoughts and souls. This concurs with Japanese religious 
beliefs (Shinto and Buddhism). While in the Christian view of the world God 
created only people in its own image,  in Japan it is believed that all 
things in nature have a spirit, there is not clear distinction between 
human beings and other life forms. As a Japanese saying goes, even a 1 inch 
worm has a half inch soul.  Once you extend this line, how do you 
distinguish between life and nonlife?

Think, for instance, of the old Tamagotchi that died when it wasn't fed 
properly or simply when it didn't get enough attention and caring. The 
consequences of Tamagotchi death were so serious and emotional for many 
owners that cemeteries were created for them. When a Tamagotchi has this 
kind of reaction in its owner, and when the boundaries between humans and 
others is not clear cut, clearly the "life" category has been extended to it.

Not all has to do with culture and religion of Japan, the particular 
socio-demographics of Japan are also at work here. In Japan's overcrowded 
large cities it is mostly forbidden to own pets in apartment buildings. 
Having a robot-pet, or a relaxation 'healing-robot', is then the perfect 
solution. A whole generation of Japanese youngsters is now being brought up 
with artificial rather than real pets, and in years to come it will be 
interesting to see how this affects them.

As Japan's population ages the demand for robots also increases. Many 
Japanese seniors feel isolated and lonely, and the company of a robot-pet 
helps them through the day. In addition, as these robots are increasingly 
endowed with communicational capabilities, they start to fulfill a 
surveillance/monitoring aspect. Besides keeping company, they can also 
alert others if something goes wrong (for instance, if the pet owner does 
not talk or move for a certain period of time).

Defining our machines says as much about the machine as it says about us. 
The stress on the hierarchical asymmetry between humans and machines has 
more to do with our Western conception of ourselves, than it has to do with 
the characteristics of the machine. By placing a totally different set of 
hopes and fears in the emotional machines of our creation, by fomenting 
very different types of human/machine interactions, Japan is in effect 
creating a different type of machine. The Japanese emotional robots are 
less geared towards understanding human emotions, than they are towards 
creating  emotions in humans; it is considerate and friendly, rather than 
wanting to conquer the world; and, it is a friend, not a servant whose sole 
purpose is to make our life easier. By extending the blurring the 
differences between life and nonlife the robot becomes part of us, rather 
than one of them.

[1] Rosalind W. Picard. (1997). Affective computing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
[2] António R. Damasio. (1994). Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason and the 
Human Brain. New York: G. P. Putnam.
[3] Francisco J. Varela. (1999). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and 
Cognition. Writing Science Series. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
[4] <>
[5] Japan Information Network. (2001, February 1). Robot Pals: Once an SF 
Dream, Now a Reality. <>
[6] David Pogue. (2001, January 25). Looking at Aibo, the Robot Dog. The 
New York Times. <>
[7] This automata was created by one of Japan's most famous artisans, 
Tanaka Hisashige (1799-1881)

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