Monday, December 10, 2007

DO COMPUTERS FEEL? (3000 words)

To Dr. David Williams of ORAT-ISU

Does computer feel? Does computer have emotions? Does computer feel joy, love, anger, fear, happiness, guilt, sadness, embarressment, hope and many other emotions? 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?

Dewey [2] defines emotion as a composition of (1) a “feel“ (the feeling of fear, pride, humility, etc.), (2)purposeful behaviour (3) an object that has an emotional quality. He describes the so-called
expressions of emotions as ‘the reduction of movements and stimulations originally useful into attitudes”. These reductions are grouped as “servicable associated habits”, “analogous stimuli”, “antithesis”, and “direct nervous discharge”.

Hume [3] states “pride and humility, tho’ directly contrary, have yet the same object. This object is self, or that succession of related ideas and impressions, of which we have an intimate memory and consciousness”. “the passions either take place alternately; or if they encounter, the one annihilates the other, as far as its strength goes, and the remainder only of that, which is superior, continues to operate upon the mind”. “we find, that a beatiful house, belonging to ourselves, produces pride.” “a quality I discover in these passions is their sensations, or the peculiar emotions they excite in the soul, and which constitute their very being and essence. Thus pride is a pleasent sensation, and humility a painful; and upon the removal of the pleasure and pain, there is in reality no pride nor humility.”

Schachter [4] 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.”

Many more definitions of emotions have been made through the history beginning with 2nd century BC, Aristotle. Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Darwin, James, Cannon, Dewey, Schachter, Singer, Freud, Brentano, Scheler, Heidegger, Sarte and many others… Hoping to have enticed you to a wonderful journey in these precious people’s works I would like to repeat my initial question once more...

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? In his ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals,’ Darwin writes “most of the expressions and gestures involuntarily used by man and lower animals, under the influence of various emotions and sensations.” You can find “Some of Darwin’s illustrations of familiar emotional expressions in animals [5] ” in Cornelius’s book ‘The Science of Emotions’.

None of the animals can speak like us. Neither can they say “I feel sad.” Nevertheless, when a cat or a bird 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 or a tender person with compassion understands or feels that 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 do not get nervous in front of a loud speaker playing music but many get afraid when a dog says simply a’hello’ just using his very limited vocabulary and powerful vocal tract.

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. In order to percieve whether computer has feelings or not its emotions have to be easily percievable by us, namely we should share more or less the same ‘feels’ with computers as in animals. We can not percieve the emotional expressions of computers easily.

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? Are you sure that computers can not see, hear or touch? What about scanners, microphones, keyboard, power-on button? Don’t they provide the similar functionality as eyes, ears, skin… Computers do have many functionalities that basic human senses provide.

Computer has a head, that you can look into its face, namely the monitor, or a body that supports its being, namely the case or box that contains the mainboard. The problem is that they do not appear to our eyes as we are conditioned to see as a head or a body… Microsoft has invented a solution to this problem… They have a sweet doggy appearing at the side of the directory search. The doggy itches the ground or searches something in a book… It can express curiosity because it has a face… Microsoft uses the dog image to express the emotions of the computer during directory search. It has a healing effect on the user… It makes the user smile and lose concentration for a short while…

* * *

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

Even if you have become a great ‘professional’ who has the power to control everything, you must experience feelings when you are working in a cognitive job, like programming or air traffic control… [6] “ A spasm of pleasure can arise without any external stimulus, purely by operations within one’s own brain. For example, a person who has just woken from sleep may have an insight and experience a spasm of pleasure arising from it. The insight is cognitive, with neural correlates largely in the cortex, whereas the spasm of pleasure, physiologically quite separate, is largely subcortical.” As a finite human being 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, even the thinking process itself creates emotions without any external inputs and it does so independent from the things you think [7] . Winkielman [8] et al. states “affective responses may also result from the dynamics of information processing itself.” “Fluency with which one can extract information from the presented stimulus is hedenocially marked. High fluency elicits positive affective reaction.” “ease of processing is consistently associated with more positive evaluations. [9] ”

Our feelings about our thinking process helps us to complete missing data or speed up our thinking process. “the fluency signal may be connected to affect by indicating the state of the ongoing processing operations. Thus, high fluency may indicate progress toward successful recognition and trigger positive affect due to the reinforcing value of maintaininfg the current, successful cognitive strategy and the ability to free resources for other tasks. [9] ” The link between the metacognitive system and the affect system is further supported by neuroimaging and elektropysiological data [9] .
It has been proved that brain’s parts related to metacognitive regulation and emotion processes or emotional control are the same [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] . A careful observer can notice that there are different working speeds of thinking in our brains. Our brains work in a slow mode when we are doing something related with safety or security(but not related to 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 (or combination of processors) to do the ‘thinking’.

Let’s ask another question from the other side… Are feelings only a by-product of the thinking process, cognition? No. If you please read Schachter’s definition at the beginning of this article once more, you will notice that ‘physiological arousal’, trembling, increase in the blood temperature, heart rate etc. are also part of emotions. Also the instincts play a vital role besides the cognition element.
By observing human behaviour we can only notice that there is an intimate relation between emotion and cognition. We can go further by enhancing our sometimes ampirical experiments with today’s advanced neurological imaging techniques…

* * *

The main problem is to define ‘What is cognition?’ and ‘What is emotion?’ inorder to understand the character of the relation between them… 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] ” He also adds “Even within the limits of normal life we can recognize that a constant struggle for primacy over affectivity goes on between the two systems Conscious and Unconscious, that certain spheres of influence are marked of from one another and that intermixtures between the operative forces occur. [11 ”

Hinde asks “the common view of emotion as a state has many attendant problems. Is it a motive or a trait? 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] ”
Strongman states “Emotions has sometimes been analysed as an intervening variable, anchored to observable stimuli and responses.”

I believe, any person who has studied data structures and computer architecture, can come to a similar conclusion after reading this article upto this point and maybe reading the references the better… Namely, a conclusion on the question of “Do computers feel?” Let’s 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.” “As the name suggests, 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;” “Each hardware device controller capable of issuing interrupt requests has an output line designated as an IRQ (Interrupt ReQuest). All existing IRQ lines are connected to the input pins of a hardware circuit called the Interrupt Controller, ”
“The Intel 80x86 microprocessors issue roughly 20 different exceptions. The kernel must provide a dedicated exception handler for each exception type. For some exceptions, the CPU control unit also generates a hardware error code and pushes it in the Kernel Mode stack before starting the exception handler.”

If we make an analogy between Dewey’s definition of emotion and work on the example of a touch to the keyboard; (1) the “feel“ (the feeling of fear, pride, humility)’s name is keyboard interrupt
(2)purposeful behaviour is the interrupt handler program of the LINUX Operating System (3) an object that has an emotional quality is the person who touches, namely the user. Freud states “certain spheres of influence are marked of from one another” in my above quotation from his article ‘Unconscious’. Which is analogous to “As the name suggests, interrupt signals provide a way to divert the processor to code outside the normal flow of control.” in my quotations from LINUX manuals. Dewey’s classifications of emotions have many similarities to interrupts and exceptions which also have different types. Dewey’s “Calm and Violent emotions” vs. soft and hardware interrupts… It is impossible to tell all the similarities between the interrupt processing subsystem of the computer operating system including the hardware architecture and the human emotion processing.

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. The ideas in this article can not exist without being written on some sort of interaction media, may be a newspaper the better. By that, the journey of emotions begin, the reader holds the newspaper, maybe smells it, reads it and likes or even loves an article and binds to the newspaper with devotion…

Cornelius [14] outlines the results of recent neurophysiology research in his book “The Science of Emotion” in 10 pages. His book could outline the rest of all the past studies in 210 pages…
So if you want to have the answer of our question with his style in terms of physiology: “Both the hippocampus and amygdala are complexly interconnected with inputs from both the sensory organs and the viscera. They also serve as the origin of projections that connect them with Autonomic Nerve System as well as higher cortical areas. 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).”

The nature of interaction requires the existence of a mechanism which processes “the inputs from both 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 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 had told once upon a time a fable about the fox and the grapes; the fox tries to reach the grapes on the wine, but it can not. He says “They are sour anyway.” Sartre suggests “In short, 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] ” Isn’t it the same with computers? When the computer meets a situation that it can not healthily handle, for example a division by 0, it issues an exception of Divide error and diverts the program execution to the related interrupt handler rather than abruptly stopping…

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 joy, love, anger, fear, happiness, guilt, sadness, embarressment, hope usw. On the other hand, computers do have an embedded interrupt and exception system in both soft and harware which is analogous to the human limbic system…

Then if my answer is no, why did I write this article with such an ambition? Because, “Do computers feel?” is a wrong question… The right question should be “Why don’t computers have emotions like us?” It is us who have created computers together with the knowledge and wisdom passed to us from the distant past… We are the human-being who spend many man-years to create the operating systems but think very little on the effects of it on its users.

Large and complex systems, air traffic control systems and similar jobs demand long duration high concentration working from today’s engineers and system operators. Not to mention, the new growing engineers, toddlers who spend many hours on their computer games everyday… Have you noticed every soldier killed on the computer game, has to die convincingly, thus takes some time so that the kid’s concentration relaxes a bit in the mean time…

On the Christmas of 2008, I wish “Computers could feel” so that their users do not lose their feelings working with high concentration for long hours…


Ali Rıza SARAL is an Electronics Engineer(ITU) and a former civil servant of EUROCONTROL Software Team Karlsruhe. He has cured 24 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.