Emotions have always been a defining feature of human existence. They separate us from other living organisms and help us relate to one another unlike any other human trait. The problem arises when we attempt to exactly define what an emotion is or what it feels like to experience one. This is further complicated when we question who or what is capable of experiencing emotions. Is it possible for complex machines (modern robots) to truly “feel” an emotion?

Before we ask ourselves this question we have to define what exactly an emotion is. From a biological standpoint it is simply a specific way in which our body interprets an “emotion-evoking event.” (Sincero) Many define this as a key argument as to why robots cannot experience feelings, however there still might be some ground to the opposition. Take for example the possibility that the newly designed self-driving cars can feel fear. When one of these vehicles is on a collision course with another object that may result in its own damage or destruction, sensors in the onboard CPU (central processing unit) make the car steer away from the hazard in an act of self-preservation. Fear, as defined by dictionary.com, is “the anticipation of the possibility that something unpleasant will occur.” In this example the car is anticipating the collision with another object in the future and takes action to avoid this outcome. Can it be said then, that on an extremely primitive level the machine “felt” fear?

robot (Murphey’s qz.com page)

Fairly recently a robotics company began the sale of a robot named Pepper that can supposedly feel a variety of emotions, as well as detect them in humans. Pepper is said to be able to react accordingly when faced with different emotional scenarios. But this still poses the question of whether it is actually feeling something as humans do.

My opinion on this topic is somewhat in the middle of both extremes. I believe that robots have the potential to, in a very basic sense of the word, feel an emotion. This emotion is however, simply a reproduction of the machine’s own creator. In the car example when engineers design the machine, they foresee and fear its destruction or the destruction of objects around it. For this reason they program the computer to respond in a manner that a fearful person might in the same situation. By doing so the engineers have programed their feelings of fear into the machine itself, without allowing it to actually “feel” on its own. Mike Murphey of qz.com eloquently sums up the problem by stating, “there’s also the issue of whether this robot has what would truly be considered emotions, or is just mimicking what humans would likely do in a given set of situations.”

For this reason it is not necessarily that a machine is “feeling” anything, rather it is that it is reacting through a programmed response in a manner similar to how a human with emotions would react. It can be said then, that with today’s current technology the idea of a machine possessing the ability to experience feelings is not quite yet a possibility.


Here is a link to a youtube video on Murphey’s qz.com page which talks about Pepper https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqlyxg1-gE0


Sarah Mae Sincero (May 27, 2012). Biology of Emotion. Retrieved Feb 16, 2016 from Explorable.com: https://explorable.com/biology-of-emotion

Mike Murphey Robots in Japan now have Emotions. Retrieved Feb 17, 2016 from Qz.com: http://qz.com/433877/robots-in-japan-now-have-emotions/