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Growing pAIns: the robot that can empathise with human suffering

Posted by Samantha Browning on 3rd March 2020

Last week at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, a team of Japanese scientists unveiled a robot that can ‘feel’ pain. Before you check your calendars, it’s not 1st April – this is a genuine invention.  

In something that seems straight out of a Black Mirror episode, the robot (which for some reason resembles a human child’s head on a stick) ‘winces’ when an electric charge is applied to its ‘skin’, just like a human would. 

The lifelike robot, which has affectionately been named ‘Affetto’, can also express other emotions by smiling or frowning. If you’re curious, or maybe just a bit of a sadist, you can watch the video here.

But what, exactly, is the point of this robot? Perhaps more importantly, can the creation of a robot that can experience pain be described as ethical? 

The why

Reportedly, the reasoning behind coding pain sensors into machines is to help them to better recognise and understand pain in humans. As such, these androids will be able to better develop and understanding and empathy towards human suffering. After all, how can you understand something you’ve never yourself experienced?  

The scientists behind the Affetto project hope that this will essentially lead to robots eventually being programmed with the ability to become more compassionate companions to us humans. 

The end goal is that, over time, androids will develop empathy and even an understanding of human morality, so they can help us through painful or negative emotions and experiences.  

The pros

In Japan, where the robot was ‘born’, there is a very large ageing society, with many older people living alone. This raises concerns about both loneliness and, perhaps more importantly, who will care for the elderly population once they cannot look after themselves. 

It is hoped that robots of this kind could provide a type of physical and emotional assistance for the elderly in the future. Making them human-like, with expressive and sensitive bodies, is apparently a way of ensuring better social bonding with humans. 

Rather than a cold, metallic body, it is assumed that a more comforting and reassuring ‘human’ appearance will ensure robots are accepted more readily. Giving them the ability to ‘feel’ just adds an additional layer to their lifelikeness and ability to relate.   

Additionally, according to the team behind the robot, having a robot that is capable of feeling pain in the same way a human does and that can sympathise with a human’s pain would fit into the idea of a symbiotic society. 

Dr Hisashi Ishihara, who helped design the robot, has been quoted as saying that both empathy and human characteristics are crucial if robots and humans were to end up living side by side, which, he assures us, is inevitable. 

The cons

Professor Minoru Asada, who is also President of the Robotics Society of Japan, has defended the Affetto creation, claiming that it could open the door for androids to have “deeper interactions with humans”. 

However, there has been a mixed response from elsewhere to the announcement, with many claiming the robot is creepy, unethical and even reminiscent of the 1984 sci-fi film Blade Runner. 

But what makes it unethical? Well, the argument goes that if a robot can feel pain and express emotion to the extent where it ultimately ends up thinking that it is human, is it right to allow scientists to test its response to pain? Would we allow actual humans or even animals to be given electric shocks? 

I suppose it depends on whether you consider the robot to be in the same category as us…which opens up a whole new debate about what it means to be human.

Would these robots have the same rights as us? Would they integrate into our society well enough? And, just because a robot thinks it is ‘alive’ does it mean that it should be treated like a live being and protected like one? 

These are big questions. 

Personally, I have to question the morality of a future in which we can inflict pain upon something that looks, feels and experiences sensations and emotions (both good and bad) like a human does. 

Samantha Browning

With two and a half years of experience in technology PR gained at a London-based agency, Sammy joined Wildfire in November 2016 and brings with her invaluable knowledge of the consumer and B2B tech landscape and the wider media industry. Whilst gaining her degree from The University of Kent in English & American Literature and French, Sammy spent a year abroad living and studying in France. She continues her love of writing, books and the French language in both her professional and personal life. Sammy is a big fan of food, films, travelling and dogs. She loves planning holidays and would be very happy to hear of any recommendations!