Can robots feel pain?

If we see a robot in pain, does it need circuitgery?
07 December 2021





Is it possible for robots to feel pain?


Julia Ravey asked researcher Beth Singler, who studies how we interact with machines, what pain is and whether robots can detect it.

Beth - Like the question about creativity, it's a question that relies on our understanding and our definition of what pain is and our human understanding of that versus what might operate and work in something that's more mechanical. Pain could be described as a response to toxic or harmful stimuli. In that sense, you can see how robots already do that. If there's something hazardous and they've been programmed to react to hazards, then they can react to it. If you're going to think of that as the same thing as pain, that's quite a mechanistic interpretation. I think there's aspects of pain that are more complex, especially chronic pain in humans that shapes our lived experience. It shapes our emotions and our interactions with other human beings. Again, it goes down to whether you've got a more broad interpretation of what pain is or quite a reductionist mechanistic interpretation that it's something about responding to something that's gone wrong.

Julia - Trish asked, 'Will we understand human consciousness or develop artificial consciousness first?' Which one will happen first?

Beth - This was the topic of our fourth film and I like to joke we dealt with the whole subject of consciousness in 15 minutes. This is something that we really didn't. We touched the surface of thousands of hundreds of years of human conversation around what it is to be conscious, what it is to be self-aware overlapping with all these different conceptions of what it means to be human. I think what's really interesting in the debate about conscious robots is that there are distinct groups where some people are pushing towards this as a way of learning more about human consciousness. If we could replicate something like human consciousness in AI and robots, then that would teach us something about how it works in humans. Other people are very adamant that this is not a path we should go down, that this is not something that actually AI or robots would require or need to be useful to us as human beings. Then you get into the whole muddle ground of, 'we don't really know what it is.' It could turn up through the natural evolution of AI and robots in their iterative versions. In some ways replicating how we evolved over millions of years, evolving over a much shorter space of time, and then that emergent property of consciousness that we don't really understand comes about and we don't necessarily know if will recognize it. It's quite a complex question and there's no simple answer, but if you want to hear a lot of people talk about it, in my fourth film, we tackled this one.


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