In Robot Lore, Asimov stands king. His short story collection “I, ROBOT” is the ur-text, the foundational cornerstone for all Robot Stories that followed. In “I, ROBOT,” he set out the now-famous Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The laws went through all sorts of iterations (someone out there should really write a History of Robot Lore). As robotics has become a real, physical, tangible field, the Laws have pervaded real-world thought on how our future overlords should interact with us.
Recently, a team of researchers at Leibniz University of Hanover have boldly gone where no scientist has gone before, and made tremendous strides towards canonizing the Third Law. These researchers taught a robot to feel pain.
How it Works
Right now, the researchers have a working prototype of a robot arm that reacts to stimuli the way a human would react to pain. They’ve slapped a BioTac fingertip on the robot arm. This fingertip has a synthetic skin that responds to pressure and temperature. The researchers have taught their robot arm to flinch away from pressure, and to react more strongly to stronger stimuli. (In other words, a light tap won’t make the arm flinch as much as, say, a backhand slap will). The arm also knows to flinch away from high temperatures – much like someone touching a hot stove.
If that’s too weird to wrap your head around, check out the video linked in the original ieee.org article:
Now, is this “pain?” On one hand, no. It’s just a stimulus response – they could just as easily have taught their robot to react to high temperatures by playing “Disco Inferno.” But if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, does it really matter that it’s a synthetic duck? Robopain will contain a different set of responses than human pain, after all. The researchers have said as much, and demonstrated in the video; when the robot encounters “severe pain,” it hangs limp, so that a human can safely move it out of harm’s way. That’s not usually how people respond to severe pain (although heck, you could say that this robot is just “fainting.”). But pain responses already differ from animal to animal. Robopain will differ by function – an assembly-line robot experiencing “pain” might mean that one of the parts has become stuck on the line, and a human handler needs to clear the area. That pain reaction could provide an automatic shutdown for the human handler. Picture a fireman robot guiding fleshy humans out of a burning building – it needs to have something analogous to human pain in order to gauge the safest route. Obviously robopain won’t have the same mental effects we see in humans – trauma, shock, fear, emotions and reactions that have no place in the assembly line.
Then again, maybe those would be useful. A robot who experiences trauma might be better-equipped to prevent that trauma in the future, right? Of course, that isn’t really “trauma,” that’s just machine learning. But like I said – ducks, synthetic ducks, what really is the difference? Teaching a robot to feel pain (and remember pain, maybe) is a step in the right direction to cementing the Third Law of Robotics in real human history:
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
And now for something completely different…
Here at Pudding Shot, we aim to bring you top-shelf word-reading experiences. So if you thought this was a cute little 500-word blurb about robots that can feel pain – ravioli ravioli you were wrongioli. Our “Straight Outta SciFi” feature also includes an actual honest-to-jiminy science fiction story, inspired by the concept in the news blurb. In the tradition of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, we’re just too generous to our readers. Really.
Without further foofaraw, I present “Once Bitten…”
by Michael Monaco
Old Curt Jackson played electric guitar on the corner of 13th and Y, and boy could he play. ‘Round lunchtime, Stephen Paul Jobs Secondary School would get out, and some of the kids would wander on over to the McDonalds on 13th – right by Old Curt Jackson. That day, that particular day, when Obie Miller and Donna Cotter were heading for one of Obie’s patented McDonald’s Dates, they stopped to listen to Old Curt play.
“Where have all the flowers gone,” he sang. His voice so growly it sounded like a tiger asking a question.
“Long time passin’
“Oh where have all the flowers gone
“Long time ago
“Where have all the flowers gone?
“We all kicked em, every one
“Oh when will we ever learn?
“Oh when will we ever learn?”
Donna clapped politely, but Obie said “That’s not how it goes.”
“What’s that?” Old Curt didn’t hear so good.
“That’s not how it goes,” said Obie. “It’s ‘the young girls picked them, every one.'”
“Maybe I wasn’t singing about flowers,” said Old Curt.
Well, that was the trouble with Old Curt. He said stuff like that sometimes. Obie and Donna left him to his playing. But the next day Donna came back. Without Obie – he was taking someone else to McDonald’s. Donna listened to Old Curt groove a little more, and then she asked “What did you mean, yesterday?”
“About – you said you ‘wasn’t singing about flowers.'”
“Oh, oh oh oh oh!” he said, and gave a little hiccough laugh. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“Lunch break,” she said.
“That’s not much time,” he said, “but I’ll try. Listen up. You know how we don’t use robots no more, right? They teach you that in school?”
“Sure,” she said. “The Big Problem. All the robots went nuts, disappeared or shut down all at once.”
“Rightyo, rightyo.” Old Curt leaned back against the wall, twanged a few strings on his electric guitar. “You know why?”
“To make room for more humans in the service industry?” She had just learned about this a few weeks ago, and for the AP US History test they’d drilled in all the Causes and Effects of the Big Problem.
“No!” said Old Curt, like a jackhammer. “Listen, this ain’t the kind of thing I can just say to you. I need to show you.” Old Curt gestured at an alley just down the block. “You got time?”
Donna had more compunctions than time, though. “No,” she lied. “No time. Can I come back tomorrow with a friend, though?” You just don’t go wandering off into alleys with some guy named Old Curt who plays hundred-year-old songs on the sidewalk. Didn’t need AP US History to get that.
“Sure,” he said, and the next day she did. Obie Miller tagged along (he brought a lunch today), and Donna Cotter came right back up to Old Curt.
“Alright,” she said. “What’s this you gotta show us about history?”
Old Curt was in rare form that day; he smelled a little more like whiskey than he usually did, and he was whistling hippie songs.
“Now here’s the thing,” he said, and his words sort of ran together a little. “When you touch a hot stove, that’s dumb, right? You know you ain’t going to do it again, right? You learn that. We taught robots the same thing.”
“We?” said Obie.
“Boy,” said Old Curt, rounding on him, “you better believe I was one of the best goddamn robotical engineeros, back in the day. Old Curt Jackson got his from EMM EYE TEE, thanks very much.” He waved a hand. They were coming up on the alley now, between a big brick building and the McDonald’s facade. “Whatever, whatever, water under the bridge. We taught robots when you touch a hot thing, you stay away from the hot thing. It helped, you know.” He pointed at the golden glow of the McDonalds. “You don’t want fry-robots getting hot grease all over their appendages, right? So they learned! And then some wise-ass though ‘why don’t we give em all a database!”
In the alley, the sun was gone; it was a ghost-lit place, broken bottles dotting the street, glittering litter. A big ol’ mound of garbage bags sat up against wall of the McDonald’s building, almost so big they blocked off the whole alley.
“See,” Old Curt was saying, “We were getting tired of teaching all these robots the same thing. And then when a new robot discovered a new way to get hurt, we had to code that in to all the other ones. So some wise-ass made a database and said ‘alright, we’ll let them decide for themselves, share the knowledge, spread it around.’ Only…”
They got to the garbage bags, and Old Curt kicked a few aside. A metal arm protruded from the smelly mess, but flinched away at their approach. Four metal fingers flexed and grasped at the end of the arm. Obie flinched away, Donna clapped a hand to her mouth (and not just because of the smell).
“Is that a robot?”
“You bet your butts,” said Old Curt Jackson. A few more garbage bags fell away, and there it was. A little robot. This was a roughly-human one, with a little torso and a little head with little eyes and little fake mouth. It had four arms as well, but no legs, and it thrashed on the street in a seizure of fear.
“What the hell’s wrong with it?” said Obie.
“Robots are smart,” said Old Curt. “We made ’em that way. So they all got a database of the ways they all got hurt. And you know what the most common factor was?”
Donna saw it before Obie did. “People,” she said. “They got scared of people.”
“Bingo bingo bingo,” said Old Curt. “We’re the hottest stove in history, kiddos. And the robots figured it out. They got the hell out of Dodge. Some of them shut themselves down, others just vanished. They might still be out there in the wilderness like broken little statues, like the Tin Man from Oz.”
Obie bent down and punched the robot in the arm. The little robot made a pitiful eeeeeee noise and thrashed some more, sending garbage spilling out all over the sidewalk. Donna grabbed his arm – “what the hell is wrong with you?”
“It can’t feel it,” said Obie. “It’s a robot, Donna.”
But Old Curt was standing taller now, and his eyes were red. “Boy,” he said, “you get the hell out of my alley, right now.” He clenched his fists, and Donna remembered now why you don’t go down alleys with old strange men. “It’s people like you who ruined it in the first place,” he said. “It don’t take much. A single punch, you little shit. That’s all it takes. Once bitten, twice shy, you know what that means?” He slapped his fist on his thigh. “You get the hell out, right now.”
And from that day on, Obie and Donna crossed the street when they were going to McDonald’s, even though it took a little more time. They’d be halfway in the crosswalk when they’d hear chords plunking out and a gravelly old voice –
“Where have all the flowers gone?
“Long time passin’…”