How Long Until a Robot Cries?

When Angelica Lim bakes macaroons, she has her own kitchen helper, Naoki. Her assistant is only good at the repetitive tasks, like sifting flour, but he makes the job more fun. Naoki is very cute, just under two feet tall. He’s white, mostly, with blue highlights, and has speakers where his ears should be. The little round circle of a mouth that gives him a surprised expression is actually a camera, and his eyes are infrared receivers and transmitters. 

“I just love robots,” said Lim in 2013, at the time a Ph.D. student in the Department of Intelligent Science and Technology at Kyoto University in Japan. She uses the robot from Aldebaran Robotics in Paris to explore how robots might express emotions and interact with people. When Lim plays the flute, Naoki (the Japanese characters of his name translate roughly to “more than a machine”) accompanies her on the theremin or the egg shaker. She believes it won’t be too many years before robotic companions share our homes and our lives.

Of course Naoki doesn’t get the jokes, or enjoy the music, or feel his mouth watering over the cookies. Though we might refer to a person-shaped robot as “him,” we know it’s just a collection of metal parts and circuit boards. When we yell at Siri or swear at our desktop, we don’t really believe they’re being deliberately obtuse. And they’re certainly not going to react to our frustration; machines don’t understand what we feel.

At least that’s what we’d like to believe. Having feelings, we usually assume, and the ability to read emotions in others, are human traits. We don’t, and desperate Sarah Connor triumphs over the ultimate killing machine in . From Dr. McCoy condemning the unemotional Spock as a “green-blooded inhuman” in to moral reasoning that revolves around the unemotionality of criminals, we hold our emotions at the core of our identity.

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