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Can Robots Be Engineered To Actually Feel Pain?

The descriptions of recent robotics successes slide effortlessly from “can experience” the sense of touch down to “simulate” sensations of pain

Recently, an article in Neuroscience News made some confusing claims, especially the claim that robots can have experiences in the same sense as living entities can. Let’s look at some of them:

In an article from HSE University in Russia about about developing robotic intelligence based on the human brain, we read:

Today, neuroscience and robotics are developing hand in hand. Mikhail Lebedev, Academic Supervisor at HSE University’s Centre for Bioelectric Interfaces, spoke about how studying the brain inspires the development of robots.

HSE University, “How Modern Robots Are Developed” at Neuroscience News February 3, 2021
The face of a child robot.

One identified goal is to merge “biological organisms with machines, to create cybernetic organisms (cyborgs).” Given that the human brain does not really behave like a computer and that many functions of human thought are non-computational, there may be limits to how far that can go. But we shall see.

We then read,

In addition, a robot can experience the sense of touch just like a human – a robot can have skin, it can feel touched. And then it doesn’t just move randomly in space: if it touches an obstacle, it senses it and reacts to it just like a human does. It can also use this artificial tactile information to grip objects.

Robots can even simulate sensations of pain: some forms of physical contact feel normal and some cause pain, which drastically changes the robot’s behaviour. It starts to avoid pain and develop new behaviour patterns, i.e. it learns – like a child who has been burned by something hot for the first time.

HSE University, “How Modern Robots Are Developed” at Neuroscience News February 3, 2021

Note how the text slides effortlessly from “can experience” the sense of touch down to “simulate” sensations of pain.

Let’s be clear about this: The robot feels no actual pain. A dog feels pain if you inadvertently step on his tail. That is because he is a living creature and pain is something his “self” experiences.

Granted, his is a minimal self, in the sense that he lacks reason and moral choice. But it is a self. He experiences life as a dog and he has feelings and opinions generated by that experience. A robot is not alive and does not have a self of any kind. There is no known way to cause a robot to have a subjective consciousness, which the dog naturally does. So roboticists resort to fudging between simulations of feeling and actual feeling.

Further from the same article:

In addition, robots can learn from humans. A robot can perform actions in an infinite number of ways, but if it wants to mimic a human, it must observe the human and try to repeat their movements. When it makes mistakes, it compares itself with how a human performs the same action.

HSE University, “How Modern Robots Are Developed” at Neuroscience News February 3, 2021
Silhouette of a female as training her dog - website banner

Yes, provided that that is what the robot was programmed to do. There is no “self” in there. Not in the sense that, when a puppy is trained to heel or fetch, or avoid jumping up on guests, we are communicating with his “self,” to instill proper social behavior. We don’t program the puppy. We teach him, the way his mother would — except that we teach him different things.

A robot can interact with the nervous system through a bi-directional interface: the nervous system can send a command signal to the robot, and the robot from its sensors can return sensory information to the human, causing real sensations by stimulating nerves, nerve endings in the skin, or the sensory cortex itself. Such feedback mechanisms make it possible to restore the sensation of a limb if it has been lost. They are also necessary for more precise movements of the robotic limb, since it is on the basis of sensory information received from the arms and legs that we correct our movements.

HSE University, “How Modern Robots Are Developed” at Neuroscience News February 3, 2021

Absolutely, and the discover that the human brain can manipulate electronic signals quite efficiently — if the interface is delicate enough — is the most promising development in prosthetics in many decades. But, to be clear, it is the human who is experiencing the sensation; the robotics is merely obeying commands from the central nervous system.

The paper requires a subscription.

Recently, a Japanese research team created a “child” robot called Affetto, for which claims are made that it can “feel” pain. The theory is that it could “help robots understand and empathize with their human companions”:

Scientists from Osaka University have developed a synthetic skin that contains sensors to subtly detect changes in pressure, whether it’s a light touch or a hard punch. This artificial “pain nervous system” was then hooked up to a life-like android robot child that was able to react to the sensations using a variety of facial expressions.

Technology, “Japanese Scientists Create A Child Robot That Can “Feel” Pain” at IFLS

At least the report put “feel” in quotation marks.

At Science News, we learn more: “If robots can experience pain themselves, they might understand human pain better, too”:

Sensors embedded in soft, artificial skin that can detect both a gentle touch and a painful thump have been hooked up to a robot that can then signal emotions, Minoru Asada reported February 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This artificial “pain nervous system,” as Asada calls it, may be a small building block for a machine that could ultimately experience pain (in a robotic sort of way). Such a feeling might also allow a robot to “empathize” with a human companion’s suffering.

Laura Sanders, “Linking sense of touch to facial movement inches robots toward ‘feeling’ pain” at ScienceNews

Agan, “empathize” is in quotation marks. Because, the reality, unwilling as the roboticists are to admit it, is that only life forms can empathize — because only life forms can actually suffer. A robot can be programmed cleverly to appear to empathize or suffer. But there is nothing in there but programming.

The most recent project with Affetto is a “body,” “complete with artificial skin covered-skeleton covered in the new tactile sensor.”

Why do this?

Japan has already rolled out robots in nursing homes, offices, and schools as a way to deal with its aging population and shrinking workforce … The theory goes that these robots will able to communicate with humans more authentically and effectively if they give the impression they are capable of feeling like us.

Technology, “Japanese Scientists Create A Child Robot That Can “Feel” Pain” at IFLS

Life forms — human, animal, plant, fungus — communicate in various ways, usually with others of their kind. They are alive and they have needs. The robots will not communicate at all. They only carry out their programming. It’s unfortunate if seniors living in institutions are stuck with robots for company but let’s not delude ourselves about what is happening.

One person who senses this is prominent University of Southern California neuroscientist Antonio Damasio:

A robot with tactile sensors that can detect touch and pain is “along the lines of having a robot, for example, that smiles when you talk to it,” Damasio says. “It’s a device for communication of the machine to a human.” While that’s an interesting development, “it’s not the same thing” as a robot designed to compute some sort of internal experience, he says.

Laura Sanders, “Linking sense of touch to facial movement inches robots toward ‘feeling’ pain” at ScienceNews

Damasio believes that it might be possible to program a robot to actually have feelings, through homeostasis. But there is no known way to give something that isn’t alive the actual experiences of “liveness”, only ever more clever simulations.

Expect, however, to see a good deal of carefully articulated confusion on that point.

You may also enjoy: How far have we come in giving robots feelings? Pretty far — in our own imagination.


Consumers were not buying robots as friends this year. (2018) But robotic pets are helpful for patients with dementia in long-term care. A live animal might not be safe or well-looked after in that situation.

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Can Robots Be Engineered To Actually Feel Pain?