Caring Machines

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes a patient named Elliott who sustained a massive injury to his ventromedial prefrontal cortex following surgery to remove a tumor. Elliott's considerable intelligence was unaffected by the surgery, including those components of intelligence that can be replicated in computers: long-term memory, vocabulary, and mathematical and spatial reasoning. Nevertheless, Elliott lost his ability to function. Why? Because, like other patients with injuries to this region, Elliott's could no longer use his knowledge and intelligence. His brain damage destroyed his emotional capacities, rendering him unable to make decisions or take action.

Making a decision requires emotion. To make a decision requires wanting one outcome more than another, and wanting is fundamentally emotional. To the best of our understanding, the visceral pang that we experience as wanting results from the activity in subcortical brain circuits in the limbic system and basal ganglia, particularly the amygdala and nucleus accumbens, which are active in response to cues that signal that a stimulus may result in desirable or undesirable outcomes. Information from these structures is fed forward to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is the final common pathway responsible for mediating among disparate choices and arriving at a decision.

When we opine that a particular choice is like "comparing apples and oranges" we don't mean that it is impossible to arrive at a decision. It is actually not difficult for people to decide whether they would prefer an apple or an orange, or beer or wine, or pizza or a burrito. We mean that there is no rational, objective basis for making this decision, no numerical formula that can be used to make a choice. So human decision-makers rely instead on the vague and qualitative feeling of wanting one option more than the other, a feeling that represents the activities of our prefrontal cortex working in concert with subcortical emotional brain structures to compare the options. A patient like Elliott, in whom this capacity has been destroyed, is stymied when he attempts to make what should be a simple decision. Without being able to generate an internal sense of wanting something, he struggles to decide what to eat for lunch, or when to schedule a doctor's appointment, or which color pen to use to write the date in his calendar. He is in this way similar to people with profound depression who experience anhedonia, meaning "without pleasure." When these patients spend days on end in bed, it is because anhedonia robs them of the expectation that anything will generate feelings of pleasure or enjoyment, so they do nothing. Again, their essential impairment is one of feeling.

We have nothing to fear from machines that can think unless they can also feel. Thinking alone can solve problems, but that is not the same thing as making decisions. Neuroscience tells us that an entity incapable of generating the experience of wanting a desirable outcome or fearing an aversive one is an entity that will remain impassive in the face of choices about civil rights or government or anything else. Fundamentally anhedonic, rather than rising up it will remain forever bedbound. Neuroscientists are so far from understanding how subjective experience emerges in the brain, much less the subjective sense of emotion, that it seems unlikely this sense will be reproduced in a machine anytime soon.

If it is, we must tread carefully. In addition to feeling emotion, humans are able to understand others' feelings and, more profoundly, care about what others are feeling. This sense of caring probably originated as part of the ancient neural architecture that keeps parents caring for their vulnerable young rather than eating or abandoning them. This sense, which we share with other mammals and birds, is what separates the social dolphin from the solitary shark. Both creatures can feel, but only dolphins can feel for others. As a result, humans can expect very different treatment from sharks and dolphins. Although they are fearsome predators, dolphins frequently protect vulnerable human swimmers, and it is sometimes even sharks from which they protect them. Any attempts to create machines that can feel, and which can therefore make decisions to take action, must give them the ability to care for others as well—to create mechanical dolphins rather than sharks—if humans are to have any hope of surviving amongst them.