Should Robots Have Emotions?


My thinking on this issue was sparked by Emotional Design by Donald Norman (recommended). DN talks more generally about the role of emotion in designing technology and concludes that we should try to program robots to have emotion for at least two reasons:

Emotions are helpful to the robot. Imagine you have three robots in your house: a general household robot (Tony), a coffee-making robot (Manu) and a dishwashing robot (Tim). First thing in the morning Tony’s highest-priority job is to get you coffee, so he goes to Manu to pick up some coffee. Manu in turn requests a clean cup from Tim. But Tim is waiting for Tony to collect dirty cups from all over the house. So if these robots are playing “by the book”, they will get stuck and you will never get coffee. And you will never be able to program all of them for all possible situations like this one. On the other hand, if you program Tony with a feature that looks like frustration, he’ll eventually move on to his other tasks, pick up the coffee cups, and then come back and get you coffee.

Emotion–or even the appearance of emotion–is helpful for the humans using the robots. This is much simpler: we are intuitive and emotional beings and on some level we interact with everything–trees, programming interfaces, multinational institutions–as though they were also emotional people. Designers will be more successful when they plan for this tendency and design machines that cater to it. Machines that use or show emotion are richer and more engaging to interact with. Similarly, as machines become more important in my life, the emotions I feel when I deal with machines become more important: my life will be improved if I can avoid just being angry at stupid machines. Boring example: If the cable box is displaying regular definition instead of HD, my first inclination is that the machine is stupid or stubborn–and I feel angry. But it would not be hard to make me to think instead that the machine is confused but trying to solve it–and I might sympathize with it, which would be better for me.

This is a limited summary of a small part of the book, and I’d recommend that you buy the book (or at least borrow my copy). Future posts are likely to link back to this, so get excited.