Can artificial intelligence feel empathy?

For centuries, humans have given a lot of thought to what separates them from the animals. Though there are a lot of differences between us and animals, many argue that it is our superior reasoning abilities that truly sets us apart. In more recent years, we’ve turned our attention to what distinguishes humans from machines. In a short amount of time, artificial intelligence science has advanced so quickly that computers now seem more human than ever. The greatest obstacle in creating artificial intelligence is not creating something intelligent. The challenge is creating something that seems human. Throughout the short history of artificial intelligence science, a number of tests have been proposed that will differentiate between true artificial intelligence and a wannabe.

The Turing Test

Alan Turing, a British code breaker who inspired the movie The Imitation Game, was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence science. He proposed a test he called the imitation game, later renamed the Turing Test, that would distinguish whether a machine could be said to be artificially intelligent. The test is simple in concept but extremely difficult to actually pass. The test works by having a machine carry on a conversation with a human acting as judge. If the human cannot distinguish a machine from a human through conversation alone (the human doesn’t get to see the machine so it doesn’t have to look human) then it is said to have passed the Turing Test.

Tricking the Turing Test

What Alan Turing couldn’t have predicted is the devious nature of computer programmers who would set out to devise a machine that could trick his test rather than embody true artificial intelligence. Only in the last couple of years have machines been able to trick human judges into believing they’re carrying on a conversation with another human. The problem with these machines is they can do one thing, and one thing only.

The Lovelace Test

Now that the Turing Test has been bested, a test proposed in 2001 by Selmer Bringsjord, Paul Bello, and David Ferrucci called the Lovelace Test is being used to distinguish man from machine. For the Lovelace Test, a human judge asks an artificially intelligence machine to create some piece of art, either a poem, story, or picture. Next the human judge gives a criterion, for example, write a poem about a cat. If a machine can follow this direction, it’s said to be sufficiently human.

What about empathy?

Recently, there has been some thought about what society really wants out of an artificially intelligent machine. It’s great if they can carry on a conversation or produce art, but what about those human emotions that set us apart from machines. In a recent panel discussion at Robotronica 2015, panelists discussed what human emotions it would be important for artificial intelligence to obtain. Empathy was first on the list. If a machine could feel empathy, humans won’t need to fear artificial intelligence as we tend to do.


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