Robots can feel pain

I figured it would be best to get that fact out right away. Robots can feel pain. Pleasure I’m not sure, but pain, yes. I learned this a long time ago during my first real job and have continually seen it throughout my career as a futurist and roboticist. Let me explain…

My Career

I’m a futurist. It’s my job to look 10 to 15 years in the future and model what it will feel like to be a human. I work with organisations that need to make decisions and investments today that might not pay off for some time.

My first real job

The first job that I landed just out of college was working in a computer lab for the United States Military. This was back in the early 1990s at the beginning of the PC revolutions. The organisation I was working for was trying to take these brand new things called personal computers and hook them together into this crazy thing called a network.

Now this might sound a little simplistic but you have to remember that way back then before the proliferation of the commercial internet the computer and computer networks were things that were reserved for larger corporations and massive research universities. It was a crazy idea to think that you could bring together these junky low power personal computers into anything as powerful as network that could do real work-let alone real work for the United States Military.

But it was true. We were trying to do it and for the most part we were succeeding. Except for one big, big problem.

The problem of time

One afternoon my lab director called me into his office and closed the door. He didn’t look happy. To tell you the truth he looked a little freaked out.

‘Brian,’ he said. ‘The computers aren’t keeping time.’ His voice was so grave and confused that I really wasn’t sure what he was talking about.

‘Excuse me?’ I asked.

‘The computers in the network…they aren’t keeping the correct time. Each machine is drifting,’ he explained. ‘We synchronize the clocks at night but when we come in in the morning they have all drifted. They are all at different times. Some are ahead. Some are behind but none of them…none of them is the same.’

‘That is strange,’ I added.

‘It’s not only strange,’ he replied, more serious than I had ever seen him. ‘It’s dangerous. In the United States military…time…the correct time is very important.’

So they sent me off to figure out why our newly minted network wasn’t keeping real time. It took a while and I won’t bore you with the details (and there are a lot of details) but I figured it out. I figured out why the computers weren’t keeping correct time.

They were confused. They were busy and distracted. In short, they were in pain.

Ok – now we do have to get a little nerdy and I have to take you back into the details of the early days of computers. Back then we designed computers with two clocks. There was the clock they showed humans and there was the clock that they used for themselves. Think of it as the clock on your screen and the clock that the computer used to get its business done.

What I learned was that these clocks were not synchronized. They weren’t locked to each other. Up until that point there was no reason to do it. A clock was a clock was a clock. It kept time…that’s what a clock did.

And that was true until we started pushing the little personal computers to do things that they had never done before – namely making a network, working together on problems that were bigger than a single PC could do on its own. We were pushing them to work harder then they were ever designed to work. And that’s where we get into trouble…

Computers can feel pain

You see when the computers got busy at night chunking away on big math problems they would get stressed, working super hard together on big jobs. And when the computers got stressed they stopped keeping time. They deprioritized the clock that they showed to us humans.

Every millisecond or so when they were supposed to move the clock forward one millisecond they wouldn’t do it if they were busy. What’s a little millisecond here or there? Up until that point no one had ever noticed.

But then the computers got stressed and the milliseconds added up. The clocks weren’t in sync and time drifted. Time drifted a lot and freaked out the United States military.

But we fixed it. We recognized that the PCs were working harder than we ever designed them to and we synced the clocks. We made sure that there was true time. The time inside the computer and the time that the computer showed us was the same.

Problem solved. Flash forward 10 years…

Strange little robots that do strange little things. For the last decade I’ve been working on the 21st Century Robot Project. I’m collaborating with engineers, artists, science fiction authors, ethicists and wide array of others to imagine, design and build the future of robots.

It all started with the questions: what will it feel like to live with robots in the future? What will happen when robots are as common a smart phones or TVs today? What will it feel like to act and interact with robots in our daily life? What will your robots do when you are not home?

The project started in science fiction and then came to reality. Over 10 years ago the technology had not progressed to the point that we could build my robots but we could build them conceptually. We could use science fiction as a tool to prototype the human impact of these robots even before they were put together. We designed robots with personalities, robots that did strange little things. We understood that for people to have meaningful relationship with robots or even just for the robots to be interesting they needed to do things that we didn’t always understand.

We built neurotic robots, worrisome robots, and brave robots that were frail and a little crazy. As we started to act and interact with these robots we found out that they could experience pain and discomfort and confusion like those PCs that couldn’t keep time.

But what we also learned was that robots get tired. Their servos get hot from use and after using them for a few hours, the robots need to take a break

Robots need naps

The best example was a simple thing—the tiny engines that drive robots are called servos. To make a robot you chain together a bunch of servos so that the robot can walk and move. These motors can do more than just move. They can also report out their position (via an accelerometer) as well as their temperature.

These smart servos are connected together into a sub-controller board that regulates them all at once. This means that the robot can self-balance. It’s beautiful! When you nudge the little robot it will balance and stand on two feet.

But what we also learned was that robots get tired. Their servos get hot from use and after using them for a few hours the robots need to take a break. They need to take a little nap to let their joints cool off so that they can function properly.

We usually put a sign on our sleeping robots telling people that the robots are taking a nap. People never believe us until we explain about the heat and the servos and how robots are just like humans in that way. They get tired. Their joints hurt. They need to rest.

This has changed us roboticists. Now we like to be nice to our robots. We don’t push them too hard. Plus, if you do push them too hard they will break and you don’t want that. Robots are very expensive.

Nervous robots

Our robots are designed to live in people’s homes but often we have to take them out on the road to exhibitions and conventions. Their sensors aren’t really designed to function in a room full of 100,000 people. Imagine if you were designed to see and hear in a family of 4 or 5 and then one day you were dropped into a world of tens of thousands of people.

You’d be overwhelmed. You’d shut down. This is exactly what the robots do. It becomes too much for them and they simply stop.

The robot in the baby sling

Over the last decade I’ve learned that robots are vulnerable. They can feel pain. They get tired. They suffer from many of the same ailments and problems as us humans. Every time we get a new person on the team it typically takes just a few weeks to change their opinion of robots. These little guys are not the machines we think they are. Real robots are fragile and need about as much care and attention as a small child.

When you start thinking about robots this way you act and interact with them differently. You don’t see them as a human race destroying terminators but more as a small little guys that don’t like crowds and get tired easily.

As a roboticist I spend most of my time taking care of my robots so that they will be able to look their best when the time comes.

Robots can feel pain. They get tired. They get confused. I believe we need to imagine a radically different future with robots where they are just as flawed and vulnerable as humans…perhaps even more.

Oh yeah and we also carry our robots around in baby slings. It’s easier and it seems much more appropriate.