The New Emotions of the New Machine Age
Will AI and robots change how and what we can feel?
Apollo and Daphne by Bernini (Villa Borghese, Rome); Source: Andrea Jemolo/Scala / Art Resource, NY
By Tim Leberecht
At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Alibaba co-founder and chairman Jack Ma made the case for investing in our emotional capacities and even proposed a “love quotient.” Management thinkers believe that socio-emotional skills are going to be a key asset in tomorrow’s marketplace, simply because tasks requiring operational excellence and efficiency are likely to be performed much more effectively by AI and robots. Emotions, however, remain a human bastion. Our very weakness is our strength.
In a 2016 survey, the World Economic Forum ranked socio-emotional skills as increasingly critical for future career success. Business schools are adjusting their curricula to include them, and private educational institutions such as The School of Life have made it their mission to teach them.
And yet, despite our most ambitious efforts to demystify them, emotions remain utterly mysterious and elusive. They are better felt than explained, better portrayed — often through works of arts — than analyzed. We don’t understand them unless we feel them, and feeling them of course is the very blind spot that may prevent us from ever ‘objectively’ understanding them.
Schadenfreude: One of the 27 emotions?
There even appears to be some confusion as to what counts as human emotion and what does not, and which of our emotions are distinctive. For a considerable period of time, common wisdom held that there are a base set of six “classic” emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But in 2014, a study claimed there are only four basic emotions — happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Ah, wouldn’t life be easy and yet oh-so-boring if that were the case!?
However, in 2017, a new study suggested that there are as many as 27 different categories of emotions, and that they in fact occur along a gradient and are not sharply distinguishable or mutually exclusive. This new set of emotions ranges from admiration, adoration, awe, and surprising outliers such as “aesthetic appreciation” to envy, excitement, horror, and “empathetic pain” to equally unexpected contenders such as nostalgia, romance, or triumph.
Some emotions may not have been listed because they are culturally unique, e.g. Schadenfreude, the very German joy over another person’s mishap or misfortune. Or these Bantu, Taglog, and Dutch terms: mbuki-mvuki — the irresistible urge to “shuck off your clothes as you dance” — kilig — the fluttering feeling as you talk to someone to whom you are attracted — or uitwaaien — the refreshing effects of taking a walk in the wind.
Empathy: Machines, we feel for you
How will digital technology, specifically AI and robotics, affect our emotions?
Researchers have long studied our emotional relationship to machines. Studies have proven that we quickly form emotional attachments to robots. So-called Artificial Emotional Intelligence (AEI), advanced by firms such as Affectiva, Emotient (now part of Apple), and Emotion Research Lab, now seeks to analyze our emotions by scanning our facial expressions and body language. From studying Mark Zuckerberg’s behavior during the congressional hearings to the use for candidate assessments in job interviews (HireVue), AEI, like any technology, can be used for benevolent and malicious purposes, from boosting our emotional intelligence to manipulating and emotion-engineering us as citizens and consumers, from helping autistic children recognize their emotions (see, for example, the Kaspar project) to penalizing us at the workplace for not being happy.Empathetic robots occur at the timely convergence of two trends: empathy and AI. As we fear the loss of civility and with xenophobia, racism, and nationalism on the rise in many liberal societies, empathy has become a hot topic, and initiatives to muster it range from podcasts with those who are not like us or even bully us (e.g. Conversations with People Who Hate Me) to MIT’s Deep Empathy initiative or Google’s Empathy Lab, to using VR and other immersive technologies as the great “empathy machines.”
At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, several robots were exhibited that can apply empathy and emotional intelligence toward their human user, e.g. the social robot Buddy; the table-tennis playing Forpheus that can read its opponents’ body language to anticipate their moves; or Pepper. In Japan, a society with an aging population, empathetic robots like Paro, applied in elderly care, are becoming a mainstream phenomenon.
Analyst firm Gartner recently predicted that by 2022 smart machines will understand our emotions better than our close friends and relatives, which of course is an outrageous claim, as the ethnographer Jonathan Cook has pointed out: “The more certain research firms claim to be in their ability to measure emotion with quantitative precision, the more incompetent they are likely to actually be at accomplishing the task — because they have lost touch with what emotion actually is,” he writes.
Envy, FOMO, Boredom: Conscious emotions are a late achievement of evolution
And yet, the question remains: Could technological advances in AI and robotics lead to the emergence of new emotions that were not only previously unquantified, unnamed, and unidentified, but also un-felt?
You could argue that all possible human emotions have always been present, and that we just lacked the words to describe them and only over time simply refined our understanding of them. But there are good arguments for accepting the notion of a history of emotions, the belief that emotions, like our bodies and cognitive abilities, have evolved over time as well, in response to everchanging environments and social stimuli.
Piotr Winkielman and Kent Berridge, psychologists at the UC San Diego and the University of Michigan, conducted an experiment in 2014 in which they showed participants sad and happy faces in such fast order that these had no conscious awareness of seeing any faces at all. When participants were asked afterwards to drink a new lemon-lime beverage, those who had subliminally been exposed to the happy faces rated the drink better and also drank more of it than the others. The researchers took this as evidence to suggest the existence of “unconscious emotions”: feelings we have without actually feeling them. “Evolutionarily speaking, the ability to have conscious feelings is probably a late achievement,” they concluded.
Aside from our consciousness of emotions, evolution may have caused new emotions to form. Take envy, and specifically “status envy,” as a more recent phenomenon, as a product of the industrial revolution and growing consumerism in developed countries. Envy, if you will, is the refined, commoditized version of jealousy. It describes the disappointment and humiliated self that doesn’t possess or receive what another one does, a self that finds itself excluded from the marketplace and not able to participate in the transaction.
The natural companion to envy in today’s experience economy is FOMO — the Fear-Of- Missing-Out. This fear is about missing out on an experience: it is a preemptive fear of loss as much as it is envy for another’s, possibly more rewarding experience. Ultimately, FOMO is arguably a fear of dying — dying without having lived, dying because of not having lived the richest, maximum experience with which life could have provided us.
While FOMO is its perverse version, boredom is the real horror vacui. At first glance, it seems like an increasingly precious good. In fact, boredom might become extinct because of the proliferation of smart phones and other devices that deprive us of any vacant moment in time. However, due to automation and the loss of traditional employment, many of us will face more unstructured time in the future and will need help to combat the numbness of boredom as it engulfs our lives.
Awe: Mixed emotions are the future
At the TED conference this year, science writer Jessa Gamble held a fascinating workshop on awe, an emotion triggered, by say, entering the St. Peter’s Basilica or experiencing the vastness of a desert.
Gamble referenced Stanford researcher Melanie Rudd who studied the effects of awe on consumer behavior and claims that after feeling awe we tend to choose experiential goods like a movie over material goods like clothes. She further concludes that awe also makes us more willing to volunteer in our communities. It is important though to note that awe empowers and disempowers at once. It makes us bigger — and smaller. Gamble pointed out that the “smaller self” was both a prerequisite and consequence of awe: awe overpowers the self. That is both inspiring and humbling.
This very sentiment pinpoints our relationship to AI and robots: we are in awe of them, which means, we are enamored and terrified at the same time. The “uncanny valley” — a term used to describe the creepiness of an AI that is nearly fully artificial nor fully flesh, that is arrested at the blurry border between robotic and human, just humanoid enough to trigger our perception of human derangement — will be our constant state for the foreseeable future.
It is this tension, this kind of contradictory feeling, that might serve as a blueprint for the future of emotions. The range of what we feel may increase, but it will be less and less binary.
Mindfulness, ikigai, purpose: As emotions go extreme, we want to feel more balance
On the one hand, we are witnessing a radicalization of our emotions, as they are fleeing to the extreme edges (most of us will nod their heads in response to a book title like Pankaj Mishra’s “The Age of Anger”); on the other hand our emotions are becoming more mixed, more conflicted, with different kinds of emotions overlaying each other.
At the same time, the volatility and complexity of our digital times is popularizing emotional states that are simple and balanced, such as mindfulness or the Japanese concept of ikigai that is attracting more and more followers in the Western world. Ikigai is similar to the Western concept of purpose that has emerged as the holy grail of organizational and personal transformation. All of these techniques help us restore balance as our emotions become more extreme and help us refine how we manage them.
Intimacy and romance: Does it matter if our emotions are real as long as we’re feeling them?
Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who builds humanoid robots and was recently portrayed in this riveting Wired story, is convinced that human emotions are nothing more than responses to external stimuli. David Levy, in his seminal 2007 book, Love and Sex With Robots, subscribes to this point of view: “If a robot behaves as though it has feelings, can we reasonably argue that it does not?” He argues that human emotions are no less programmed than those of an AI: “We have hormones, we have neurons, and we are ‘wired’ in a way that creates our emotions.” Levy projects that roughly by the year 2050 humans will want robots as friends, sexual partners, and even spouses.
This raises some big questions: Will it matter if our human emotions are increasingly manipulated by smart algorithms or even un-real, or does it suffice that we feel them? Have emotions ever been pure — and can they? Arguably, we’ve never had much control over them. Emotions are never fully ours — rather, despite our insisting on their private nature, they’re part of the public commons and some sort of open-sourced software. And yet, so much of what we feel we are incapable of sharing. We seem to lack the full code for unlocking it, which causes great frustration — and a great desire to overcome it.
What makes us human is our proclivity to fall for the other: somebody who is not us, something beyond our control, greater than ourselves. We can’t help but be drawn to persons, objects, or experiences that promise us new emotions, new sensations, new highs and lows, new joy and happiness, but also new heartbreak and suffering.
Although we are calling them by our name (Alexa, Buddy, Sophia, Kaspar, Samantha, Erica….), as a mirror of ourselves, the AI bots remain elusive. They are the enigmatic other, the greatest desire of all, the ultimate romance. If they can help us feel more and feel new emotions, and if we refine these emotions through more advanced emotional intelligence, with the arts and humanities as our interpreters, then the very machines that are growing adept at analyzing and manipulating how we feel will ensure that we stay a step ahead of them.