Monday, December 10, 2007

DO COMPUTERS FEEL? (1500words)

To Dr. David B. Williams
ORAT-Illinois State University

Does computer feel? Does computer have emotions? Does computer feel joy, love, anger, fear, and others? Is the effect of the feelings of computer on its behaviour “pleasent or unpleasent, mild or intense, transient or long-lasting, and as interfering with or enhancing” [1] ? Do computers ‘experience emotions’? Do they react toward things in the environment that have such emotional qualities as frightening, cheering and saddening?

Schachter states “an emotional state may be considered a function of a state of physiological arousal and of a cognition appropriate to this state of arousal. The cognition, in a sense, exerts a steering function. Cognitions arising from the immediate situation as interpreted by past experience provide the framework within which one understands and labels his feelings. It is the cognition which determines whether the state of physiological arousal will be labelled as “anger”, “joy”, “fear”, or whatever. [4] ” Many more definitions of emotions have been made through the history beginning with 2nd cty BC, Aristotle. Descartes, Hume[3] , James, Cannon, Dewey[2], Freud, and many others.

Do computers have an ‘inner’ sentimental world? Too difficult to answer quickly… May be we should change the question a bit… Does any being except the human have feelings? Maybe the better: Do animals have feelings? Darwin writes about “most of the expressions and gestures involuntarily used by man and lower animals, under the influence of various emotions and sensations. [5]”

None of the animals can say “I feel sad.” Nevertheless, when a cat approaches a person sitting at a garden caffee, it bends its head to the ground and imitates as if it eats something. A careful observer may understand the animal needs food. Animals can communicate their needs. The problem is, most of us do not percieve the messages they are able to give. We should not judge neither animals nor computers as insensitive because they can not express themselves with the same emotional vocabulary as us the human-beings

Does this situation provide enough validity to the claim that ‘Computers do not feel’? Is there something wrong here ethically? Do we loss anything because of this silent assumption in our relations with computers? Are the Human Computer Interaction classes in many universities well equipped or even down-played as not technical enough? Why do many engineers and large system operators suffer from long duration high concentration jobs in front of their computers?

Indeed, computer does not have a face. A face like a human or even a mammal. It does not have eyes, ears, a skin, a head or a body… Wait a minute… Are you sure that computers can not see, hear or touch? What about scanner, microphone, keyboard? Computers do have many interaction functionalities similar to those that basic human senses provide.

The crux of the issue of ‘Do computers feel?’ is: Is it possible to think without feeling? Can cognition exist without emotions? Can you think even mathematics without feelings? Even if we assume that you really did not feel anything while solving a problem, you would still need to discharge the unused mental energy in some way. You might experience pride or humility depending on your success.

Even if you have the professional power to control everything, you must experience feelings when you are working in a cognitive job, like programming or air traffic control (ATC)… You can not avoid the pleasure from simple matching [6] . Otherwise, you may be working against the nature of thinking and you may hurt yourself mentally. In fact Winkielman [8] states “affective responses may also result from the dynamics of information processing itself.” ,[7], “ High fluency elicits positive affective reaction. [9] ”

The mechanics of the thinking process is affected by our emotions. Switching from one context to another, the rate of changing subjects, the amount of concentration, the depth of thinking through different abstraction levels, getting obsessed to solve the problem, thinking speed are dramatically affected by the affective situation we are in while thinking… “The various glands of the endocrine system release hormones into the bloodstream that have effects on specific sites in the brain, including those involved in emotion” says Cornelius [5] . There are different speed modes of thinking in our brains. Our brains work in a slow mode when we are doing something related with safety (not emergency) where as our ideas fly when we are doing something sentimental or dreaming… Thinking speed helps us to switch from one processor to another in our multiprocessor brain. Feelings and selecting the right mood help us to choose the right processor combination to do the ‘thinking’.

Freud states “ideas are cathexes-basically of memory traces- whilst affects and emotions correspond to processes of discharge, the final manifestations of which are percieved as feelings. [11] “ Hinde asks “Is it an intervening variable or a hypothetical construct? [12] ” and argues that “emotion is best defined in terms of chains or loops with emotion and cognition closely linked. [12] ” I believe, to reach a a conclusion on the question of “Do computers feel?” we shall have a look at the LINUX operating system books…

“An interrupt [13] is usually defined as an event that alters the sequence of instructions executed by a processor. Such events correspond to electrical signals generated by hardware circuits both inside and outside of the CPU chip.” “interrupt signals provide a way to divert the processor to code outside the normal flow of control. When an interrupt signal arrives, the CPU must stop what it's currently doing and switch to a new activity;”

If we make an analogy between Dewey’s emotion definition and work on the example of a touch to the keyboard; (1) the “feel“’s name is keyboard interrupt (2)purposeful behaviour is the interrupt handler program of Operating System (3) an object that has an emotional quality is the person who touches, namely the user. Dewey’s “Calm and Violent emotions” is analoguous to soft and hardware interrupts… The basis of the similarity between the human emotional system and the computer interrupt system arises from the very nature of cognition. Cognition can not exist without some sort of interaction with living matter.

Interrupt subsytem of computers is similar to the human physiology: “Both the hippocampus and amygdala are complexly interconnected with inputs from both the sensory organs and the viscera. … They, and perhaps other structures of the lymbic system, appear to integrate sensory information with information from the various organs of the viscera as well as feedback from the ANS to control the “output” of emotional expression in the ANS and other parts of the nervous system (LeDoux, 1986 Neurobiology of Emotion). [14]”

The nature of interaction requires the existence of a mechanism which processes “the inputs from the sensory organs [14]” When you touch the keyboard or click the mouse, press the Esc button, put a CD in the driver etc. the hardware connections, Interrupt Request Lines that carry this “sensory signal” instinctively work and trigger the interrupt controller, analogous to the amygdala…
The interrupt controller trigs the operating system very similar to the senses trigging emotions. The normal cognitive processing comes to a halt and the operating system runs the related interrupt service routine, which has a label analogous to Weyle’s “feel”… When the interrupt service routine does the task, for example writing to the disk, then returns back information about its success…
By the way, when the computer writes to the disk some trembling and noise indicate a similar situation to human “arousal”…

Aesop’s fable says; the fox tries to reach the grapes on the wine, but it can not. He says “They are sour anyway.” Sartre suggests “in emotion it is the body which, directed by consciousness, changes its relations with the world in order that the world may change its qualities. [15] ” When the computer meets a situation that it can not healthily handle, for example a division by 0, it issues a division exception and diverts the program execution to the related interrupt handler rather than abnormally ending…

Our initial question was “Do computers feel?” My answer is ‘no’ because they can not express their feelings with the same “feels” as humans, such as anger, fear. On the other hand, computers do have an embedded interrupt and exception system in soft and harware which is analogous to the human emotional system…

Then if my answer is ‘no’, why did I write this article with such an ambition? Because, the question “Do computers feel?” is wrong … A not so bad question chould be “Why don’t computers have emotions like us?” After all, it is us who have created computers with the knowledge and wisdom passed down from the distant past… Many man-years have been spent to create operating systems but relatively less on the effects of it on its users.

Large and complex systems such as ATC systems demand long duration high concentration working from engineers and controllers. I wish “Computers could feel” so that their users do not lose their feelings working with them…


Ali Rıza SARAL is an Electronics Engineer(ITU), composer(ISU) and a former civil servant of EUROCONTROL (European Agency for the Safety of Air Navigation) Software Team Karlsruhe. He has cured 24 documented Operational Deficiencies of the German KUIR airspace which includes Frankfurt.

[1] Strongman, The Psychology of Emotion, p. 1.
[2] Calhoun, Solomon, What is an Emotion, p.152, Dewey, The Theory of Emotion.
[3] Calhoun, Solomon, What is an Emotion, p.97, Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature.
[4] Calhoun, Solomon, What is an Emotion, p.174, Schachter and Singer, Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinans of Emotional State.
[5] Cornelius, ‘The Science of Emotion’, p. 23.
[6] Brian Bayly, The Brain’s Internal Reward from Matching, p. 1.
[7] Pronin, Wegner, Manic Thinking, Independent Effects of Thought Speed and Thought Content on Mood.
[8] Winkielman et al., The Hedonic Marking of Processing Fluency: Implications for Evaluative Judgment, p. 191.
[9] Winkielman et al., Affect and Processing Dynamics, Emotional Cognition, from Brain to Behaviour, p. 120.
[10] Cornelius, ‘The Science of Emotion’, p. 224.
[11] Calhoun, Solomon, What is an Emotion, p. 192, Freud, The Unconscious.
[12] Strongman, The Psychology of Emotion, p. 3.
[13] Daniel P. Bovet, Marco Cesati, Understanding the Linux Kernel, Interrupts and Exceptions, p. 96.
[14] Cornelius, ‘The Science of Emotion’, p. 226.
[15] Calhoun, Solomon, What is an Emotion, p.247, Sartre, The Emotions: A Sketch of a Theory.

Kind regards.


My Address:
Ali Riza SARAL
Barbaros Mah. Sedef Sk. 13/13
Uskudar / ISTANBUL
Tel: 0090 (216) 474-8818
e-mail: arsaral(at)