When Angelica Lim was a young girl, she would watch The Jetsons on TV. It was the first time she saw a robot. "There was a robot maid named Rosie," she said. "She was really cool, she told jokes, she was sarcastic, funny, loving, and all these attributes that were very human-like."
It got Lim to thinking: Could robots have feelings?
Lim, who now works as a "developer on emotion recognition" on the Pepper robot at Aldebaran Robotics in Paris, has devoted her education—including work in neuroscience, machine learning, and developmental psychology—to understanding how to build robots that can detect, and express, emotions.
When she started researching robots in Japan in 2008, her first project was to develop a robot to become part of an ensemble, playing music with humans.
"But we realized that there was a big problem," Lim said. "Even though the robots could read all the notes, as perfectly as it could play, it wasn't playing with feeling. So how could we teach feeling to robots? So it can play real music. What does it mean to express and play real music from the heart?"
To tackle these questions, Lim started looking at how humans express through "music, voice, movement. Through the way we walk. The pitch we use—if it's high, it conveys a positive feeling, and a low-pitch conveys sadness."
She went to the infant psychology department to observe how babies express emotions. "When babies are born, they don't smile, they're not as expressive as they are at six months or a year," Lim said. "There's a field of robotics called 'developmental robotics' that says that robots will become intelligent by learning expression like children do. The idea is that expressions are developed through time and interactions."
Human contact, Lim said, is essential for children to develop capacity for feeling. "There are studies about children who lived through war and had no human contact, no maternal love," she said. "They ended up being stunted in their emotional interactions."
Having lived in several different countries, Lim looks at emotions from a cross-cultural perspective." Jeanne Tsai found that 'feeling good' is expressed more in an extroverted way, with a big smile, gestures, in western culture than in Asian culture," she said. "The way we express feelings depends on what society teaches us."
The goal of Lim's work is for robots to recognize expressions in humans and react appropriately. "If a person sighs, another human around will go, 'what's wrong? Are you okay?' But our machines, our phones, they can't do that—they can't empathize. I think that's the biggest hurdle. We want a robot to be compassionate."
In her own words...
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about robots and emotions?
It might be about what emotions we're talking about. People think a robot will "get emotional," which has a negative connotation. It's important to think about the compassionate part. Being able to share emotions.
Do you see any potential downsides? What if we get really good at creating a robot that displays compassion?
We haven't seen it yet. Sherry Turkle paints a bleak picture of humans relying on robots, emotionally. My response is that human contact is what we want, in the end. That's the most important thing. However, sometimes we need a bit of coaching or encouraging. Let's say you're really sad. It's sometimes very hard to reach out to people when you're in that state. Could we imagine robots as a way to perk us up to the point where we'd be able to reach out? Like, "hey, why don't we get some exercise?" Trying to build up the resilience. The other part is that we don't want to replace humans with robots. How about having robots as companions for the elderly in the times when they would be alone? Not as a replacement for a person, but as a support system?
Every month in Japan, 1000 robots are being sold. It seems we're at the beginning of something huge. We can impact a lot of people through our technology.
You're in Paris. After last week's tragedy, do you see a way that robots could be able to help victims?
I was also in Japan during the tsunami. For me, the other kind of robot that's very important are disaster/rescue robots. They can go to do search and rescue in places humans can't go. They're saving lives in ways humans can't.
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Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.