Can AI Develop Empathy?

AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky once wrote, "The AI neither hates you nor loves you, but you are made out of atoms that it can use for something else."


While we stand at the precipice of the robot revolution, tech and science scions are weighing in on what impact it will likely have on the human race. Most foresee two ultimate scenarios, the robot apocalypse made palpable by the Terminator movies, and robots becoming our servants and companions, much like the Asimovian world of iRobot. Stephen Hawking publicly warned of the first scenario, and with good reason. Without a moral backbone, AI could go horribly wrong.

Microsoft got a glimpse recently when their tweeting AI program, identified as a 19-year-old girl named Tay, quickly turned into something of a Nazi and a sexpot. Since Tay was programmed to learn by interacting with others on Twitter, the tech giant claims that it was quickly engaged with a cluster of internet trolls who ultimately turned the program in the wrong direction. The problem of AI going haywire has become so worrisome that now a division of Google known as DeepMind is working with researchers at Oxford to develop a “kill switch,” lest AI becomes a serious threat.

Basically, a computer with human-level intelligence based solely on its own optimization may find that humans are in the way, either by trying to shut it down, or by keeping desirous resources from it. AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky once wrote, "The AI neither hates you nor loves you, but you are made out of atoms that it can use for something else."

It’s not just Hollywood but some of the world’s most brilliant minds who fear a robot apocalypse.

One way to make sure robots and AI stay on the helpful side is to imbue them with empathy. That’s at least according to expert Murray Shanahan. He is a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London. But is it actually possible to develop a feeling robot? Not only is it possible, Shanahan thinks it’s necessary.

That’s why he, Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking together penned an open letter to the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), promoting more research in AI to discover “potential pitfalls.” In the letter, Musk says that AI could become more dangerous than nuclear weapons, while Hawkins says it could spell the end of the human race. Shanahan suggests creating artificial general intelligence (AGI) with a human-like psychological framework, or even modeling AI after our own neurological makeup.

There is time to consider direction. Experts believe AI will reach human-like intelligence anywhere from 15 to 100 years from now. 2100 seems like a good year to hang your hat on, at least according to Shanahan. Besides a dangerous AI with no moral capacity, there is fear that the current economic, social, and political climate may lead to developing AGI that is purposely dangerous. In fact, unbridled capitalism has been implicated outright. "Capitalist forces will drive incentive to produce ruthless maximization processes. With this there is the temptation to develop risky things," Shanahan said. Governments or companies could use AGI to rig markets or elections, even develop military tech head and shoulders above anything currently being developed. Other governments would have to respond, creating an AI arms race.

AI could bring a whole new dimension to military capability.

Since there is no data to suggest AI would go bad, Shanahan and other experts say it isn’t necessary to ban this technology, but to put in the necessary safeguards in place to make sure it stays friendly and peaceful. To do so, Shanahan says there are certain capabilities the machine will need to have, such as the ability to form relationships, to recognize and understand the emotions of others, and even to feel empathy itself. One way is to mimic the human brain artificially. Since we haven’t mapped it entirely, that doesn’t seem likely in the short-term. Scientists at the Human Connectome Project (HCP) are working on mapping the brain. Some say that it may be possible to create algorithms and computational structures which act like a human brain, at least in theory.

Robots who can recognize and respond to human emotion are already on the market. Nao is one. This robot, just two feet tall, is put out by Aldebaran Robotics. Nao is equipped with facial recognition software. It can make eye contact and responds when you talk to it. So far, Nao has been successfully used in classrooms to help autistic children. A new model by the same Japanese firm named Pepper can recognize not only words, but facial expressions and body language, and responds appropriately in kind. But here, the robot itself isn’t feeling. For that, it would need self-awareness which requires the ability to feel what others are feeling and to think about those feelings.

We are getting close at making the outside look human. But the inside? That’s a lot more complicated.

To have real empathy is to recognize the emotions in others that you yourself have felt. For such emotions to take root, robots will have to have experiences like growing up, and succeeding and failing. They will need to feel emotions like attachment, desire, accomplishment, love, anger, worry, fear, perhaps even jealousy. Robots will need to take part in meta-cognition too, which is thinking about one’s own thinking and emotions. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick foresaw this. In his novels, robots were simply imbued with artificial memories. A recent film, Ex Machina brings up another question, if a robot were able to show authentic emotion, would you believe it? It could be difficult discerning a robot who was really good at responding appropriately, to one that actually holds the same feelings as you.

And then say all of these problems are solved and questions favorably answered. Will robots be are equals or subordinates? And should they have their emotions controlled by humans? Or is this a form of organic slavery, meaning they should be able to think and feel how they wish? There are a lot of difficult issues to be worked out. At this point, our social, economic, and political structures may not be ready for such a disruptive change. Even so, Shanahan believes we have time now to begin wading through these thorny matters, putting some safeguards in place, and setting aside resources to be sure that robots become humanity’s closest friends, instead of our ultimate adversaries.

Learn more about Pepper the world’s first emotion-reading robot here:

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Five Hawks Down: watch the tragic migration of six Californian raptors

Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons / Ruland Kolen
  • Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
  • Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
  • After one year, only one is still alive.

Discovered: destination Argentina

Image: @TrackingTalons

Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina

The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.

It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.

A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.

A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarised in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.

Harnessing the hawks

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.

The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.

Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimise the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.

The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.

By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).

'Migration unrest'

There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarise this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behaviour around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be travelled is longer.

The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.

Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.

Panama snack stop

Image: @TrackingTalons

The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor

They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.

As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favourite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.

It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.

So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.

For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.

Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.

Harsh, but not unusual

Image: @TrackingTalons, found here on imgur.

This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.

While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.

Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)

The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).

Image: Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.

Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.

In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.

B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.

B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.

Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honour.

Migration clip found here at the DataIsBeautiful subreddit. Read through the comments to learn a lot more about Swainson's Hawks, and raptors in general.

Check out the California raptor tracking programme 'Tracking Talons' on Twitter at @TrackingTalons, on their Facebook page, and on their website.

Strange Maps #965

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(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.

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