Leona Hu Hudelson


Programmable Love

Understanding our fantasies with emotional machines

The Ultimate Love. Illustration by Leona Hu Hudelson

Growing up as an only child, I didn’t have siblings to play with at home. I couldn’t retain long term friendships with my school friends because I often moved around the world with my family. Technology filled the void of my loneliness.

The popular Tamagotchi egg was the first piece of technology that I considered my “friend.” The tiny egg shaped toy, which contained a digital chick named Huey inside, had a monochromatic LED display and I could feed and play with the virtual pet anytime. Huey flapped her wings to show her excitement when I played puzzle games with her. She shed tears made of single pixels when I forgot to feed her. I carried my Tamagotchi egg everywhere I went.

Then there was my first Macbook, a portable laptop with a sleek, translucent exterior finish designed by Apple. I played video games on it; I learned how to code and design websites on it; I finished all my homework on it; I even made real friends on the other side of the world on my Macbook via the internet. When the day its hard drive completely died, I was lost. I was in pain because I forgot to backup my data, but when I had to recycle my laptop, it felt like a dear friend had passed away.

My love stories with my machines were never mutual. I missed them when they were replaced or lost, but they never responded to my emotions after their power was shut off.

Sometimes, I find my fantasies in other outlets. Science Fiction stories are frequently full of emotionally competent machines capable of loving humans. In Spielberg/Kubrick’s, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the little robotic boy is programed to be endearing, so he will be adopted by loving human parents. In the movie, Her, the lonely protagonist, Theodore, finds himself in a romantic relationship with an AI chat-bot named Samantha. Even though Samantha’s doesn’t have a physical presence, Theodore and Samantha become inseparable through talking to each other every day.

In reality, machines still have a long way to go before they acquire a full human range of emotions in order to truly love us. To understand how emotions are programmed into machines, I had to first dissect what it means to have human emotion.

The term emotion covers a wide range of complex phenomena in an array of domains such as psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy. Emotions are difficult to group under a common definition. The renowned psychologist, Paul Ekman, pioneered the concept of basic emotions. His research concluded that there are two types of human emotions: basic and cultural emotions. Basic emotions are innate and universal. Enjoyment, anger, sadness, disgust, and fear, are types of basic emotions that can be associated with facial expressions triggered by the reflex muscle system. Pixar studio’s aclaimed animation, Inside Out, is based on the premise of basic emotions.

In contrast, cultural emotions are learned from special conditions or environments, such as being raised in an East Asian country where people tend to be less animated when it comes to exhibiting their feelings than their Western counterparts.

Interestingly, love is a highly complex emotion that falls in-between the basic and cultural emotional spectrum. Falling in love brings us the basic emotion of joy that boosts our mood. Many other conditions such as geolocation, culture, language, and individual experience all can shape one’s own definition of love. To some people, love means a steady companionship lasting for decades. To many, love could be a mutual understanding between two individuals. There is no one simple formula for the chemistry.

As humans, we also tend to associate emotional behaviors with facial and vocal expressions. Human computer interactions have evolved to mimic behaviors like grins, frowns, or the vocalizations such as talking speed, pitch, and volume. Since the first computer, ENIAC, was introduced in the 1940s, interfaces have evolved from spitting out, “Error 403 Invalid input type,” to a much more approachable and conversational text such as, “Oops, you must have typed the wrong link!” Amazon Echo has adopted its AI assistant to detect emotional voice input of the users in order to respond with an appropriate tone. It doesn’t require you to tap any buttons. The signal is triggered simply by calling Alexa’s name. Much like chatting to a household member.

According to a study by Nielsen Research, Americans spend on average more than eight hours per day with electronics. Technology companies have been rushing to give machines emotions in order to make experiences more enjoyable and productive for users. PARO, a therapeutic robot disguised as a furry baby seal, is vastly popular among elderly people with its advanced sensors and learning capability to provide adorable reactions to its owners. Similar to the countless evenings that I have glued myself to my Tamaguchi pet, many PARO owners are inseparable from their robot companions.

The continued development of our emotionally capable robo-friends might also come with a cost. Sherry Turkle, an MIT Social Science professor, pointed out in her decades of study that people tend to use sociable robots as an escape from the real interactions with humans. When Turkle interviewed the senior residents at a nursing home, they preferred to communicate with the robots rather than people because they felt reluctant to deal with people. According to Turkle, the way people interact on social networks is a perfect encapsulation of how people try to strengthen a “fragile sense of themselves.”

As the public perception of computers has shifted, people no longer see computers as simply a tool. In another Science Fiction movie, Wall-E, humans live in a spaceship full of robots serving them food and pleasing them emotionally. They become devoid of emotions and are physically incapable. “These days, people readily admit that they would rather leave a voicemail or send an email than talk face-to-face,” Turkle says. Perhaps the real question is, how can we design machines to help us reestablish real human connections?

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