MA: Companionship in human-robot interaction


Written for Aesthetic, MA year 1, Intermedia; Tutor Michal Ostrowicki


The idea of human creation coming to life and having a will of its own has accompanied man for a long time. In myths and tales, from Pygmalion, Pinocchio to frightful visions of Frankenstein and Metropolis. Now what was once a fiction, a fantasy of man that wanted to create a creature of his own, is now becoming an idea that realization is within our grasp. These man made beings, made using the newest technology, force us to reconsider and rename what we call or more appropriate want to call ‘authentic living’ in our modern world.

In post Tsunami Japan, 85 years old Satsuko Yatsuzaka hugs a white, robotic baby seal – Paro.
“If I hold onto this (Paro), it doesn’t matter if there’s a typhoon outside, I still feel like I’m safe.” (NTDTV)
She says to the camera. Paro was given to their residential home in Fukushima to help the elderly with trauma after the Tsunami of 2012?.

We view robots as capable of mechanic, repetitive work, but can robots really accompany us in our lives and what moral dilemmas do we face if we relate to our own creations?

Emotions in the digital mind

The main moral concern of HRI revolves around the supposedly deceiving factor in robots that display emotions. Humans project onto them their own understanding of purposes and intentions of behaviors.

„(…) Newer technology has created computational creatures that evoke the sense of mutual relating.” (Turkle, page 2)

Paro’s „state of mind’’, like for all social robots, is dependent on the cues from the environment.
Its manufacturer states: „Paro is an autonomous robot, so it can express its feelings, such as surprise and happiness, voluntarily by blinking its eyes and moving its head and legs. This behavior can be perceived as if Paro has feelings.” (

„The simulated thinking may be thinking; simulated feeling is never feeling. Simulated love is never love.” (Turkle, page 2)

Social robots display feelings and act as if they were aware of their surroundings. They are made to evoke feelings, programmed for desired interaction with a man. Machines are programmable, they are efficient at their tasks, they mind is produced in a stream of numbers and functions. This makes them unfit to deal with concepts as abstract and biological as emotions. Emotions are the domain of humans.

The long standing opposition between rationality and emotionality is a cliche, common like not many others. It is an origin the popular culture’s image of emotionless, efficient androids, like the Terminator. Contrary to this popular beliefs emotions are not irrational, studies on people that lost them show that they are crucial and indispensable mechanisms. One of the best documented cases is that of Phineas Gage, whose brain has been damaged in an accident. The brain area which was damaged was located in the left frontal lobe, one of its main functions is processing emotional states. After his miraculous recovery, Gage did not become extraordinary efficient worker, nor did he become inhuman. The damage to his brain affected his possibility of decision making, he could pursue goals he set himself and define the hierarchy of importance of his actions.

Studies of such accidents allow us to see the real point of emotions. They are not the remnants of our distant, animal past nor are they sole feature making us human. Their main function is to structure our life, to let us set and pursue goals.

„Without emotions to drive us, we would do nothing at all” (Bloom, 11. Evolution, Emotion, and Reason: Emotions)

From simple survival instincts to elaborate human interactions, emotions are a practical evolutionary development. We see emotions as mystical part of our minds because our view of the world is based on their chemical and electrical properties. They have shaped our outlook from the beginnings of evolution, where they were employed mostly by the olfactory sense, the limbic system and hippocampus. The last one is playing key role in motivation and memory. That is assigning values to our actions and stimulus we receive from our surroundings. Today they are as indispensable to humans as they were thousands of years ago.

Looking from a scientific perspective on emotions it can be vital to see possibility and authenticity of robot emotions. It is obvious that autonomic machines will require ways to structure their aims and needs. A system that efficiently does that will in many ways be analogous to emotional hierarchies of animals. It is not only probable but imminent for such machines to develop emotional (understood as based on internal drives) responses.

„Paro feels happy when you stroke and hold it softly. Paro feels angry when you hit it. When Paro’s whiskers are touched, it will be very shy and cry or turn its head because it does not like to be touched. You will be happy and relieved through interacting with Paro.” (

Paro, a therapeutic robot, was made and tailored to be a human companion. As such it should inspire people to interact, to look after and bond with him. As Turkel points out in her studies on HRI „with nurturance comes the fantasy of reciprocation. (…) (People) wanted the creatures to care about them in return” (Turkle, page 2). In the statement and latter claims, Turkel denies the possibility that a robot could facilitate a need to interact with humans. The statement is true for pre-programmed robots, but it is hard to determine its viability when an artificial intelligence is involved.

Origins of social behaviors in robots

Even the uncomplicated AIs of today, such as used in robot Paro, allow programs to evolve, adapt and learn from experience. Artificial Neural Networks (one main study topics in AI) adapt to their environment. Social robots exist not only in physical but also social sphere. It is not farfetched to think that such programs will aim to adapt this part of their world by exhibiting social behavior. An emotionless robot would not function well in a human society, its automatic behavior would seem almost irrational without signs about its ‘state of mind’.

„(…)We tend to adopt an intentional stance and assume that the systems’ actions result from its beliefs and desires.
In robots for robot to interact socially, therefore, it needs to provide evidence that is intentional (even if it is not intrinsic).’’
(Fong Terrence, Nourbakhsh Illah, Dautenhahn Kerstin ,page 158)
Artificial emotions have multiple use for robots. Emotions are a significant part of human behavior and including them in a robot’s architecture allows for easier communication between the two. Numerous approaches are incorporated in the making of social robots that exhibit feelings. From simple pre-programmed responses to architectures that closely follow studies about human emotional development.

„Some researchers design socially interactive robots simply to study embodied models of social behavior. For this use, the challenge is to build robot that have an intrinsic notion of sociality, that develop social skills and bond with people, and that can show empathy and true understanding.” (Fong Terrence, Nourbakhsh Illah, Dautenhahn Kerstin, page 146)

Some social skills cannot be pre-programmed, but can be acquired by learning and experience. It is not hard to imagine that development of some will be facilitated in human-robot interactions. One of the main ideas is the use of imitation in learning social cues, alike to that of a child, in AI programs. The process of learning through interaction will undoubtedly make humans care and bond with the robot. If the same skills are acquired by the same means can there be a difference in their authenticity?

Authenticity in the world of man

What compels humans to interact with artificial beings? Do we seek to form relationships with them as a stand in for the ones we have with fellow men? Are we manipulated by their programmed responses and clever design?

„If our experience with relational artifacts is based on a fundamentally deceitful interchange” as Turkel states „(artifacts ability to persuade us that they know and care about our existence) can it be good for us?” (Turkle, page 3)

Validity of such questions is dependent on ascribing the value of biological design over artificial one, moreover claiming that there is unbridgeable barrier between those two. Sophisticated and ‘authentic’ living (before also denied to animals and plants, is in the light of that opinion) biological domain.

Dividing our world into contrasting categories of living and non-living is only possible if man can without a doubt distinguish these two from a perspective in more objective way then his own.

„There is a strong conviction in humans that flies are like machines. Those, and other insects, may experience faint feeling, qualias (…). How many neurons does a brain actually need to produce a consciousness? Ten-thousand, a million or a billion? We do not know this at the moment.” (Koch, page 201, translation by the author)

Humans display an autonoetic consciousness, which allows them to build an image of themselves, as well as form a link between their past and future actions. Would this be the only way of authentic existence, then the requirements would deny consciousness to those among men who suffer from Korsacov syndrome, sever amnesia and dementia. From the accounts of those who work with people that suffer from such malfunctions of the brain we know that they are still able to experience, to perceive qualias.

Consciousness, as all evolutionary adaptations, must come in a variety tailored to the one mind it is an effect of. Denying or granting possibility of consciousness to other forms that exhibit life-like responses is done from the perspective of the man. Maybe but highly doubtful, autonoetic consciousness will remain the sphere solely possible to the man. What we cannot question is artificial intelligence developing a kind of consciousness inherent to themselves.

The morality of biological and non-biological relationships

An emotional relationship between a man and a robot may present a moral dilemma. Such struggle lies, not only in the issue of authenticity of the later emotions, but also in the evolutionary history of our species. From the perspective of our biological programmed responses, man seeks for relations with his own kind as a means of survival of the species. As such the idea of forming relationships, as strong as those with humans, with other creatures is bound to feel unnatural.

There is no question that robots will become sentient beings. But can we believe in the age old myth of living man-made creation becoming a reality?
That is for each individual man to decide.




Koch Christof, Neurobiologia na tropie świadomości, Wydanie 1, Warszawa, Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2008, ISBN 978-83-235-0331-6
Draaisma Douve, Rostrojone umysły, Warszawa, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 2009, ISBN 978-83-06-03116-4
Sacks Oliver, Mężczyzna który pomylił swoją żonę z kapeluszem, Poznań, Zysk i S-ka Wydawnictwo, 2008, ISBN 978-83-7506-271-7


Turkle Sherry, A Nascent Robotics Culture: New Complicities for Companionship, Massachusetts, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Fong Terrence, Nourbakhsh Illah, Dautenhahn Kerstin, A survey of socially interactive robots, Pittsburgh, Robotics and Autonomous Systems,2003
Michael Goodrich, Alan Schultz, Human–Robot Interaction: A Survey, Foundations and Trends in Human–Computer Interaction, 2007

Online (visited from 15.05.2013 to 17.05.2013)


Bloom Paul, Introduction to Psychology (PSYC 110); 11. Evolution, Emotion, and Reason: Emotions, Part I, Yale, 2007
Bloom Paul, Introduction to Psychology (PSYC 110); 12. Evolution, Emotion, and Reason: Emotions, Part II, Yale, 2007
Bloom Paul, Introduction to Psychology (PSYC 110); 14. What Motivates Us: Sex, Yale, 2007
Robotic Seals Help Heal Japan’s Elderly Tsunami Victims, NTDTV,

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