• Patrick McAndrew

Can Machines Have Feelings?

Updated: Jun 9, 2019


Almost two weeks ago, I attended the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. What a great conference! There were a wide variety of amazing speakers, from Jay Shetty and Tristan Harris, to Spring Washam and Chelsea Handler. Inc Magazine describes the conference in this way:


“Wisdom 2.0 is a conference tackling one of the biggest challenges of today’s age. Connect through technology, but do so in a way that supports a person’s well-being, work effectiveness, and is ultimately useful to the world.”


Needless to say, this conference was right up my alley. Great speakers, great people, and great events.


On the last day of the conference, one of the speakers was Danielle Krettek, Founder of Google’s Empathy Lab. Her presentation was titled, “Design Feeling: Empathy in the Age of AI.” She discussed the exciting things that Google is working on. As technology is heading in the direction of artificial intelligence, we must be mindful with regards to how we are designing AI.

Krettek talked about a lot of important things, and the main message of her talk was that we must create learning machines. We must teach machines about heart, soul, and wisdom. We must teach machines to “listen by feeling” She quotes, “It’s not about designing a product; it’s about designing presence.”


Can we really teach machines how to feel? Feeling seems like something that is innate to us mammals. Can we really teach an inanimate object how to be angry? How to be sad or happy? These emotions just happen. It’s a big part of what makes us human. So, will we become less human if we can program machines to experience these same emotions?


I do applaud what the Google Empathy Lab is doing. Artificial intelligence will hit the mainstream eventually and it’s a good idea to make sure that it is designed in an ethical manner. But can a machine truly be empathetic? I don’t doubt that machines will eventually become so sophisticated that they can read our emotions. A robot may be able to tell if we are upset, based on our facial expressions or the energy we are giving off. But noticing that someone is upset and empathizing with that person are two completely different things.


Humans have the ability of sharing human experiences and emotions. If artificial intelligence is programmed, can it really know what it’s like? I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the billions upon billions of neurons, electro-pathways, and any other crazy scientific jargon going on in our brains and bodies. There is a lot going on that makes us feel the way we feel. It’s how the human body functions. This is even the case with many animals, though likely on a less complex level.


But with machines? Robotic beings whose insides consist of wires, screws, processors, and other assorted metals? It just doesn’t seem possible. Though one may argue that wires, screws, and processors aren’t any different from veins, bones, and organs. I suppose time will tell.

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