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Artificial Companions: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations



Under what conditions can robots become companions and what are the ethical issues that might arise in human-robot companionship relations? I argue that the possibility and future of robots as companions depends (among other things) on the robot’s capacity to be a recipient of human empathy, and that one necessary condition for this to happen is that the robot mirrors human vulnerabilities. For the purpose of these arguments, I make a distinction between empathy-as-cognition and empathy-as-feeling, connecting the latter to the moral sentiment tradition and its concept of “fellow feeling.” Furthermore, I sympathise with the intuition that vulnerability mirroring raises the ethical issue of deception. However, given the importance of appearance in social relations, problems with the concept of deception, and contemporary technologies that question the artificial-natural distinction, we cannot easily justify the underlying assumptions of the deception objection. If we want to hold on to them, we need convincing answers to these problems
Volume 4, Issue 3 2010 Article 2
Studies in Ethics, Law, and
Artificial Companions: Empathy and
Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot
Mark Coeckelbergh, University of Twente
Recommended Citation:
Coeckelbergh, Mark (2010) "Artificial Companions: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in
Human-Robot Relations," Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology: Vol. 4 : Iss. 3, Article 2.
Available at:
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
©2011 Berkeley Electronic Press. All rights reserved.
Artificial Companions: Empathy and
Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot
Mark Coeckelbergh
Under what conditions can robots become companions and what are the ethical issues that
might arise in human-robot companionship relations? I argue that the possibility and future of
robots as companions depends (among other things) on the robot’s capacity to be a recipient of
human empathy, and that one necessary condition for this to happen is that the robot mirrors
human vulnerabilities. For the purpose of these arguments, I make a distinction between empathy-
as-cognition and empathy-as-feeling, connecting the latter to the moral sentiment tradition and its
concept of “fellow feeling.” Furthermore, I sympathise with the intuition that vulnerability
mirroring raises the ethical issue of deception. However, given the importance of appearance in
social relations, problems with the concept of deception, and contemporary technologies that
question the artificial-natural distinction, we cannot easily justify the underlying assumptions of
the deception objection. If we want to hold on to them, we need convincing answers to these
KEYWORDS: robots, artificial companions, ethics, empathy, vulnerability
Author Notes: I would like to thank the organisers and participants of the 2009 “ICT That Makes
The Difference” conference in Brussels, the anonymous reviewers, John Stewart (Compiègne
University of Technology), and the people who commented on a previous version of this paper
presented at the January 2010 COGS seminar at Sussex University (Steve Torrance, Tom Froese,
Blay Whitby, Margeret Boden, and others) for their advice and suggestions for improvement. My
visit to Sussex was kindly sponsored by the EUCogII network.
Suppose that we started to see some robots not as mere objects, artificial slaves, or
instruments for human purposes, but that instead they appeared as more-than-
things, as companions or perhaps as friends or even partners. Imagine,
furthermore, that we also treated them as such, that is, in a very similar way as we
now treat our pets, friends or partners. We would talk with robots, worry about
them, be angry at them, play with them, live with them. Even sex and love would
be possible.
This scenario raises many questions. For example, the idea of sex with
robots can be seen as morally repugnant
, and offensive even to think or write
about it. And, what does ‘love’ mean when someone talks about love with robots?
Surely this is not real love, which can only exist between humans? In this paper, I
limit my discussion to the issue of artificial companionship. Are these robots real
companions? What kind of companionship is going on here? It seems that those
who were to live with these robots would be deceived: they would believe that
they interact with a real pet or maybe a real human. Is this deception, and if so, is
this kind of deception (or self-deception) ethically acceptable?
Whatever we think of it, the idea of humans engaging in companionship
relations with robots is not science-fiction. Robots play a role in many domains
(Veruggio, 2006), including personal and social contexts and practices such as
entertainment, sex, nursing, and education. Whereas companionship with highly
human-like humanoid robots may be mere speculation or at least something that
belongs to the distant future (the development of highly human-like humanoid
robots is still in its infancy), it is likely that some of us will live with robot pets
and other robotic ‘companions’ in the near future – at least, if current trends and
technological developments continue. They may not look exactly like humans and
may lack many human capacities, but they are meant to function as companions.
Before I question and discuss the use of this term as applied to robots, let me say
more on the state-of-the-art in the field of ‘companion robotics’.
Robotic companions
People already ‘keep’ commercially available robots in their homes (e.g. the robot
Pleo: a robot dinosaur with the behaviour of a week-old baby). There have been
experiments with robots in care for the elderly (see Wada et al, 2006 on the
therapeutic baby seal robot Paro; see also Bickmore et al, 2005), and they have
been used in autism therapy (Robins et al, 2006). Also, given the history of using
artificial devices and information technology for sexual purposes, there is a future
Consider the controversy stirred up by Levy’s book on sex with robots (Levy, 2007).
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
for interactive sex robots (Levy, 2007). More generally, use of robot companions
can be expected to increase in the near future, if robot companions will be more
(artificially) intelligent and capable of interacting with humans in a more
meaningful way. Progress has been made in creating embodied ‘relational agents’
that use face-to-face conversation (Bickmore et al, 2005) and ‘sociable’ robots
have been designed that appear to have emotions, such as the robot Kismet, with
its facial expressions (Breazeal, 2003), and the successors Leonardo and
Huggable developed by Breazeal and others at MIT. For example, Huggable is
designed to be capable of ‘active relational and affective touch-based interaction
with a person’ (Stiehl et al, 2006). Some of these robots can learn by interacting
with humans. Often learning robots are child-like humanoid robots, such as
KASPAR (designed by Dautenhahn and others at the University of
Hertfordshire), CB2 (a child robot that develops its social skills by interacting
with humans, designed at Osaka University in Japan), and iCub (a robot with the
size of a 3.5 year old child that is inspired by theory of embodied cognition and
developed by a European consortium). Moreover, such ‘social robots’ may not
only act as artificial pets or even ‘partners’ (Breazeal, 2003), but also contribute
to information services, home security, medicine and health care, elderly care
and household tasks (Floridi, 2008; Dautenhahn et al, 2005). For instance, they
could guard the house when the owner is on holiday, assist nurses in hospitals,
monitor people with a precarious medical condition, and help elderly people,
allowing them to live ‘independently’ in their own environment.
Concrete steps are being taken to develop robots for these purposes. Apart
from the ongoing development of commercial sex robots (for example the
recently presented sex robot Roxxxy, which, according to inventor Douglas
Hines, is also able to talk about football), the areas of health care and elderly care
receive much attention from research and funding institutions. I already
mentioned the Huggable developed at MIT, which can be used for therapeutic
purposes. In the EU there has been the Cogniron project (Cognitive Robot
Companion, 6
Framework Programme) and more recently the Companionable
project (Integrated Cognitive Assistive & Domotic Companion Robotic Systems
for Ability & Security), funded by the EU 7th Framework Programme. Aiming to
enhance the quality of life of elderly and disabled persons, and help them to live
independently in their own home, the robotic system would monitor, recognise
emotional states of persons, distinguish between normal and exceptional
behaviour, remind persons to take their medication, and so on.
In response to these technological developments and future scenarios,
multi-disciplinary work on human-robot relations and social robotics has grown
significantly (e.g. Dautenhahn, 2005, 2007; Breazeal, 2003, Duffy, 2003). This
The use of robots in elderly care has been proposed as one response to population ageing
in Western countries and Japan.
Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Vol. 4, Iss. 3 [2010], Art. 2
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
paper contributes to work in that area by providing a conceptual analysis of
companionship and by discussing the ethical problem of deception in relation to
this issue. Let me first elucidate my research question.
In my introduction, I suggested some questions concerning artificial
companionship. Is it appropriate to say that a robot is a ‘companion’? Can it be a
companion at all? On what does the possibility of artificial companionship
depend? We can think of many conditions, such as the capacity for a certain level
of interaction and communication or human-friendly and safe behaviour. The
robot would also need to have the opportunity to exercise these capacities in daily
human, social environments (as opposed to laboratories or computer simulations).
In this paper, I explore my intuition that one of the necessary (but not sufficient)
conditions for companionship concerns empathy.
More precisely, my questions are: Can robots become companions, and if
so, on what conditions and which are the ethical issues that might arise in human-
robot companionship relations? I will argue that the future of robots as
companions depends (among other things) on the robot’s capacity to be a
recipient of human empathy and that one necessary condition for this to happen is
that the robots mirrors our own, human vulnerabilities. Moreover, I will show that
we might have the intuition that this raises the ethical issue of deception. But,
given the importance of appearance in social relations, problems with the concept
of deception, and contemporary technologies that question the artificial-natural
distinction, we cannot easily justify the underlying assumptions of the deception
Note that I limit the scope of my argument to one condition for
companionship and one condition for empathy. Human beings, companionship,
and empathy are much more complex than that, but here I will pursue one
dimension of companionship specifically; there may be many more criteria for
companionship, as there are more aspects to empathy.
Empathy in human-robot relations
Can robots have the capacity for empathy? If I suggest that empathy may be a
condition for companionship, I need to answer at least two questions: (1) who (or
what) exercises empathy towards whom (or what) and (2) what do I mean by the
term ‘empathy’?
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
Robot empathy and human empathy
Who or what has a capacity for empathy? In human relations, empathy can go two
ways: person A can exercise empathy towards person B and vice versa. But what
about robots? Some might say that in the future humanoid robots will be capable
of empathy. I doubt it. But whether or not it is possible or will happen, as it stands
there are good reasons why robot empathy should not be taken as a condition for
companionship. First, to require that robots have the capacity for empathy would
be an ‘unfair’ requirement since we do not require it from all human companions.
Very young children and some adults with a mental disorder lack empathy but we
still treat them as companions, not as ‘mere things’ or instruments for our
purposes. Secondly, although pets like dogs or cats might be capable of some
empathy, we do not demand it as a condition for companionship: it suffices that
we humans exercise our empathy towards them. Companionship relations, in
contrast perhaps to friendship and love relations, need not be entirely symmetrical
in this sense: one-way empathy is enough as one necessary condition to sustain
the companionship relation. Therefore, I propose that we agree on the minimal
requirement that robots can be recipients of human empathy as a necessary
condition for human-robot companionship.
Understood in this way, it seems that the empathy condition is already
met. People who interact with the robots mentioned in the introduction already
‘put themselves in the robot’s shoes’. Very much like pet owners, they take into
consideration what the robot ‘thinks’, ‘feels’, or ‘wants’. But what does this
mean? If people empathise with robots, what kind of empathy is this? Is this ‘real’
empathy? What is empathy?
Empathy as cognition v. empathy as feeling
Inspired by the discussion on the nature of emotions
, let me distinguish between
two approaches to, and definitions of empathy. The first approach views empathy
as a cognitive matter. The question is: What is in the mind of the other? We want
to achieve knowledge about the (content of) the mind of the other. This kind of
empathy is less applicable to relations with robots, since (1) generally we do not
suppose that they have a ‘mind’ and (2) if they had one, then how could we know
it? How could we know – to employ Nagel’s phrase – what it is like to be a robot
and what it is like to be that particular robot? There are limits to our (cognitive)
In theory of emotions there are (among other tensions) two opposing strands. According
to cognitivists, emotions are cognitive: they are attitudes, beliefs or judgements (de Sousa, 1987;
Solomon, 1980; Nussbaum, 2001; Goldie, 2000), whereas feeling theories understand emotions as
awareness of bodily changes (James, 1884; Prinz, 2004).
Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Vol. 4, Iss. 3 [2010], Art. 2
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
Note that the sceptic’s objection also casts doubt on the possibility for this kind of
empathy to emerge in human-human and human-animal relations: how can we
know what it is to like a particular animal or a particular other person? Consider
the famous philosophical problem of ‘other minds’. Can we be so sure that others
have a mind very much like ourselves? Can we have access to the experience and
consciousness of others? Do they have an inner life?
Thus, if we defined empathy in a way that renders it a cognitive,
epistemological, or mind problem and if we had no solution to the
epistemological problem, robots would not be able to be recipients of human
However, another way of defining empathy: as an imaginative-emotional
function. We can always try to imagine the mind of other humans or of robots and
this empathy is not so much a matter of (certain) belief or knowledge concerning
mental states but of feeling: we imagine how the other (human or robot) feels. The
‘content’ that counts here is not what is ‘in the mind’ of the robot, but what
humans feel when they interact with the robot. Here there are no large
epistemological problems. Our emotional experience understood in terms of
feeling is – by definition – accessible to ourselves. If it was inaccessible, we
would not feel it. Therefore, if we define empathy in terms of empathy-as-feeling
instead of empathy-as-cognition, it becomes possible that robots function as
recipients of our empathy.
But what kind of feeling is it? It is felt that the robot is ‘one of us’. Human
‘fellow feeling’ imagines robots, animals, and humans as ‘fellows’ rather than as
alien minds that need to be known. The ‘other’ becomes less ‘other’; in the centre
of this mental operation is what is shared rather than what is different. Moreover,
not the individual mind but the social aspect is stressed. There may not be a large
similarity in terms of particular properties (for example, the robot has an artificial
‘body’ and we have a biological body), but the robot is seen as a social fellow, an
entity that belongs to our social world. It appears as one of us.
I borrow the term ‘fellow feeling’ from the ‘moral sentiment’ tradition,
which stresses how feelings shape the social and moral life. Hume (2000
[1739/40]) and Smith (1976 [1790]) argued that rather than rational choice, our
conduct towards others is a matter of feelings for others. The emphasis in this
tradition is on the problem of how the social life emerges from what Hume called
‘sympathy’. Sympathy for others – which we can ‘translate’ in terms of empathy-
as-feeling – renders it possible that we can live together. This approach can
inspire to a more social understanding of ethical problems in human-robot
relations: we should be less concerned about what the robot is (rational arguments
assessing the moral status of ‘the robot’) and more about how we want to live
together, given that we already engage in particular social relations with them in
particular contexts. Instead of regarding the robot from a point of ‘Nowhere’ (as
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
Nagel put it, see Nagel, 1986), we can try to understand what goes on starting
from the feelings of humans who interact with robots and build up social relations
with them. From this perspective, one important and necessary condition for robot
companionship has to do with whether or not humans meaningfully regard the
robot as a ‘fellow’, whether or not they feel that the robot is a member of their
social world. This approach takes seriously human experience in and of human-
robot relations. It does not a priori dismiss such relations as being a matter of
deception (see my argument below).
Note that perhaps there is no hard distinction between empathy-as-
cognition and empathy-as-feeling. In contemporary cognitive science and theory
of emotions, efforts are made to combine both approaches: if cognition is
embodied and to feel cannot do without the awareness and evaluation of the
feelings felt (or if emotions have a cognitive and feeling component), then the
distinction I started from may well turn out to be too strict. More work is needed
to spell out the relations between cognition, emotions, and feeling. It might be
helpful to distinguish between different ‘levels’ of empathy. For example,
Wallach and Allen suggest that empathy involves ‘lower level’ mirroring skills,
emotions, and ‘higher-level’ imagination (Wallach and Allen, 2008: 164). I also
acknowledge that it might be interesting to integrate more insights from cognitive
science (embodied approaches) and theory of emotions into these arguments. I
shall explore this further elsewhere. However, even if we could fashion a more
adequate conception of empathy in terms of the relation between cognition and
feeling, such a conception would not be incompatible with an account of empathy
as fellow feeling. Whatever the exact nature of the relation between feeling and
the rest of our mind-body make-up, an emphasis on fellow feeling allows us to
move away from a philosophy of robot mind (consider also the ugly phrase
‘Theory of Mind’ used in that kind of discussions rather than empathy) towards a
more social theory of human-robot relations that pays more attention to feeling –
whatever its relation to cognition may be.
Vulnerability mirroring
Let me say more about empathy as ‘fellow feeling’ from a hermeneutic-
phenomenological perspective rather than from a (cognitive) science perspective
angle. When do we regard someone or something as a ‘fellow’? What creates this
fellow feeling? On what does it depend? I suggest that a necessary condition for
this to happen is the requirement that the robot (or, for that matter, the animal or
the human) mirrors our own, human vulnerability. Let me explain what I mean.
Our embodied existence renders us vulnerable beings. Human empathy is
partly based on the salient mutual recognition of that vulnerability: this is what we
(among other things) share as humans; this is what makes you ‘like me’ or ‘one of
Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Vol. 4, Iss. 3 [2010], Art. 2
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
us’. In this sense, we are each other’s ‘vulnerability mirrors’. We can feel
empathic towards the other because we know that we are similar as vulnerable
beings. If we met an invulnerable god or machine that was entirely alien to us, we
could not put ourselves in its shoes by any stretch of our imagination and feeling
(see also below).
Note that this ‘vulnerability mirroring’ can also happen in relations with a
fictional character. Nussbaum has suggested in Poetic Justice (1995) that by
reading literature we come to understand similarities between ourselves and the
other and realise that we share vulnerability. More generally, empathy has to do
with recognising all kinds of similarities, not just shared vulnerability or related
existential features such as mortality. Nussbaum has argued that empathy allows
us ‘to comprehend the motives and choices of people different from ourselves,
seeing them not as forbiddingly alien and other, but as sharing many problems
and possibilities with us’ (Nussbaum, 1997: 85). Thus, vulnerability mirroring is
part of a more general mirroring process which establishes an empathic
connection between humans, and which is also further stimulating that empathic
process. The result is that we come to see the other as a fellow, as ‘one of us’
rather than an alien other. Consider also the fact that we feel most empathic
towards those who are ‘nearest’ to us – not so much geographically but in terms
of them having similar kinds of lives, problems, and aspirations.
However, vulnerability mirroring is not strictly limited to human-human
relations. Our social world, in so far as it is constructed by empathy as fellow
feeling, does not coincide with an all-human sphere. It helps vulnerability
mirroring if there is already a relation, perhaps based on shared properties. As
Hume wrote about what he calls ‘sympathy’ in A Treatise of Human Nature: ‘The
stronger the relation is betwixt ourselves and any object, the more easily does the
Imagination make the transition […]’ (Hume 2000 [1739/40], Book II, Section
However, we should not conceive of similarities in terms of properties
alone but also consider the active, practical side. The etymology of ‘companion’
links the word to ‘eating the same bread’: it refers to shared needs in addition to
shared practices of fulfilling these needs. Some pet animals such as dogs and cats
also mirror our vulnerability: they have their weaknesses, their problems, their
characters, their little sufferings, their needs, etcetera. This is a necessary
condition for us to accept them as companions. They are the mirror in which we
understand that we (humans) are vulnerable and it is because we see their
(animal) vulnerability as related to our own that we come to see them as fellows.
To the extent that robots can function as ‘vulnerability mirrors’, they fulfil
at least one of the necessary conditions for companionship. If they meet this
criterion, they can be considered as ‘fellows’ rather than ‘mere things’. Of course
many current robots do not meet this criterion because the differences between the
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
robot’s vulnerability and the vulnerability of the human are too large. For
example, we may feel that we have little in common with a vacuum cleaner robot
(e.g. the Roomba). But many pet robots that are used today meet the empathy as
vulnerability mirroring criterion: they are regarded by the humans who interact
with them as fellows and receive human empathy, and this is partly and
necessarily due to the ‘vulnerability mirror’ operation of empathy-as-feeling:
humans do not so much know but feel a shared vulnerability. Provided that robots
fulfil other necessary conditions (such as human-friendly behaviour) they will be
regarded as companions.
Note that empathy is not only about suffering; we can also empathise with
joyful others, winning others (consider people empathising with their winning
football team), and so on. However, this is only possible if our friends or heroes
are still vulnerable like us to a sufficiently high degree. Humans (including
football players and other celebrities) meet this criterion effortlessly. And we can
sympathise with a human-like suffering god, but not with a perfect ‘philosopher’s
god’ who would be incapable of (human-like) suffering or joy. Robotic
vulnerability mirroring, then, can only be ‘successful’ in terms of establishing
artificial companionship if it strikes that particularly human balance. Not only
would these robots have to be qualitatively vulnerable in a way that resembles
human vulnerability (for example have a ‘body’ that is vulnerable in a similar
way biological bodies are), the designers would also have to get the degree of
vulnerability right. If robots are too vulnerable and (as arguably most current
robots are, dependent as they are on human control and energy supply), empathy
cannot find its object since there is too much dissimilarity; but if they are not
vulnerable enough, they cannot receive our empathy either. If robots were titans
of steel and silicon or entirely virtual robots that enjoy immortality in a sphere of
invulnerability, they would be far too invulnerable and -non-tragic to deserve our
human empathy. Whatever else they may be or do (they might be benevolent or of
the ‘Terminator’ type and they may be useful to us or not), we would not call
them companions.
To conclude, I have suggested that the emergence of companionship
relations between humans and robots depends on empathy. Exploring this
intuition, I have argued that this empathy must be understood in terms of fellow
feeling (experienced by the human) based on what I call ‘vulnerability mirroring’.
In practice and given current levels of technological development, this implies
that robotic companions would need to be designed to mimic biological entities
like small children or pets, which we see happening right now. In the future,
vulnerability mirroring might be achieved with more intelligent and more human-
like artificial entities.
Note that so far I did not make a normative, programmatic claim. The
development of robotic companions may well be unacceptable for various
Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Vol. 4, Iss. 3 [2010], Art. 2
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
reasons. My intention was only to outline and discuss one condition for robotic
companionship. However, now I will discuss an ethical objection-deception.
The deception objection
We might object that there is an ethical problem with this kind of empathic
relation: since robot pets imitate their biological cousins, they seem to deceive
humans. They make us believe that they deserve our empathy, but they are ‘mere
machines’. The human vulnerability might be real, but they do not really mirror
that vulnerability since they are not living beings. The mirror deceives and
deception is morally unacceptable.
Before I continue to discuss this objection, let me note that of course there
are other moral problems with human-robot relations and robot companionship,
and there are good reasons to question the development of intelligent autonomous
robot companions.
But here, I will focus on the problem of deception.
This particular objection against vulnerability mirroring must be related to
more general concerns about deception by robot companions. Consider Sparrow
and Sparrow’s objections against using robots as companions in elderly care: they
argue that when elderly people mistakenly believe that the robot really cares about
them, is pleased to see them, and so on, this delusion is morally problematic: it is
‘deception’ and this deception is morally ‘bad’ for mainly the following reason:
What most of us want out of life is to be loved and cared for, and to
have friends and companions, not merely to believe that we are loved
and cared for, and to believe that we have friends and companions,
when in fact these beliefs are false. (Sparrow and Sparrow, 2006:
In other words, robots may provide elderly care services but they don’t care: they
don’t really care about the person they ‘service’. I agree that this is the case (the
robots are not conscious, how could they have genuine concern for anything at
all?) and I share the intuition of the authors concerning deception and its morally
problematic character. However, if the objection were to be held against my
vulnerability argument, there are some major problems once we try to justify the
objection. Let me offer several possible responses to the deception objection as
related to the vulnerability argument. (And as a by-product, these responses are
also relevant to the general deception objection.) They concern (1) the importance
of appearance for social life, (2) conceptual difficulties with the term deception,
Consider for instance the problem of responsibility given that many of these companion
robots are or will be autonomous systems that are to a large extent not under direct human control.
(Compare with similar responsibility problems in military robotics).
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
and (3) problems with the distinction between, and evaluation of, artificial and
biological vulnerability.
Appearance and the social life
First, it is controversial to claim that lying is always morally unacceptable. Many
of us would agree that it is permitted to lie in the well-known inquiring murderer
or in cases that involve serious threats to the life of (at least) one’s partner,
children, friends, or oneself. It is also highly doubtful that making-believe is
always morally problematic. In fact, we humans do it a lot. We do it not only in
some particular practices such as poker or other games; to some extent
‘deception’ is present in all social interactions when we take on social roles
which, by definition, involve role playing. In those interactions the difference
between ‘reality’ and ‘appearance’ or between ‘inauthentic’ and ‘authentic’ is not
so clear. Appearance is the glue of social life and involves learned, often
, salient ‘deception’. There is no perfect and unproblematic match
between the social roles we play and the person we ‘really’ are. One may regret
this and conclude from society’s ‘corruption’ that we should retreat from society
but this can hardly be a solution for all of us – nor for the robot, which is
supposed to participate in social life. Moreover, part of social learning is imitation
and it is not obvious why imitation of social behaviour by a robot is more
problematic than (learning by) imitation by humans, for instance by children. And
if there is ‘deception’ on the part of the human, then what exactly is the moral
difference between giving illusions to a young child (for instance by means of
stories about imaginary beings or by means of giving them stuffed animals) and
giving social-robotic illusions to an elderly person with mental capacities that
reach a similar level as the young child’s? Does it matter for deception if the robot
looks human or not?
Does the problem change if it is a virtual robot or a real
robot? I do not know the precise answers to these questions but at least those who
use the deception objection should provide them and make finer distinctions
Someone knocks at your door and asks where the person is he wants to kill. You know
where the person is and you know that the man intends to kill that person and will probably
succeed in doing so. Do you tell the truth about where the person is? The case is often used to
discuss Kant’s view that lying is never permissible.
It is a fact of social life that we neither fully control our appearance nor the social
consequences of that appearance.
Sometimes this view is attributed to Rousseau, but his view is more complex: society
corrupts us in various ways but civil society (the political life as citizens) can liberate us.
Some worries may be avoided by building robots that look like pets rather than humans.
The ‘uncanny valley’ hypothesis (Mori, 1970) suggests that we fear robots that look nearly human
more than dolls or humans (or robots that would not allow us to differentiate between them and
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between different kinds of robots and practices. I feel that it would be unfair to
demand of (all) companion robots that they are more ‘authentic’ than humans –
adults and children – in particular situations, contexts, and stages of life. In the
case of relations between robots and elderly people with cognitive limitations, for
instance, we need to think harder about the moral quality of relations between
that-kind-of-objects (appearing as more than things) and that-kind-of-subjects
(appearing as not enjoying full subjectivity).
Secondly, it is not obvious that there is ‘deception’ in the case of vulnerability
mirroring and the emergence of fellow feeling. Deception hides truths, and truth is
a criterion for knowledge. But the kind of empathy at work here is a matter of
feeling and it is not obvious that feelings can be ‘true’ or not. One would need to
specify a criterion outside the empathic process that would allow us to evaluate
the ‘truth’ of the feeling. One criterion could be ‘the truth about the robot’. People
who entertain the objection mean that the robot is ‘just a machine’. But precisely
this ‘observation’ can be questioned given people’s experience of some robots as
being more-than-machines. ‘The truth about the robot’ is not something that exists
entirely independent of human subjective experience and cannot be limited to the
scientific view but must include user experience. Another external criterion might
be the requirement that the feeling originates from a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ self. But
what is this authentic self? This has been a long-standing philosophical-
psychological issue; the meaning of the term cannot be taken for granted.
should be reminded that (human) others are not always transparent to us and
neither are we always transparent to ourselves. Moreover, it is questionable if the
self can be defined absolutely independently from the social world – which in this
case might include a robot.
One might further object that here persons are not deceived by the robot
but by themselves and that this is the morally problematic point. However, the
notion of self-deception is notoriously controversial, since it seems to imply that
at a given time it is true that a person P knows the truth (about the properties of
the robot) and does not know the truth (believes that the robot really cares etc.).
But even if this is psychologically possible (as opposed to logically), then surely
this defuses the objection since it implies that the person has the possibility to
gain access to the truth if (s)he really wanted to. In that case, it seems, there is no
hard moral problem concerning the human-robot relation.
The literature on authenticity and self is vast, including work by Rousseau, Kierkegaard,
Marx, Heidegger, Sartre, Fromm, and numerous contemporary discussions (for example Trilling,
1972; Taylor, 1992; Anton, 2001).
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
In fact, in human-robot relations where the humans are adults with no mental
disabilities, these humans know that the robot is a machine, a non-human and at
the same time they feel that the robot is more than that – and know that they feel
in this way – and they do not have any psychological or moral problem with this.
Being highly social animals, we are used to live by appearance and we can cope
with different levels of experience.
In this respect, it is telling that when research shows that socially
communicative robots are more likely to be accepted as companions, it is their
perceived sociability that makes users accept them (Heerink et al, 2006). Reeves
and Nass (1996) showed us that users even treat ordinary computers in a social
way, like real people, but depending on appearance. The social importance of
appearance is also confirmed by experiments by Robins, Dautenhahn and others
in which autistic children prefer not to interact with a robot that appears human
(Robins et al, 2006). They prefer ‘mechanical’ non-social interaction. So, it seems
that if we do not relate to robots on the basis of the appearance of sociality, we
have a (social) problem. But robots are also studied as interactive ‘new media’
(see for example Shinozawa et al, 2003) which has foregrounded cultural
differences in how people respond to robot appearances.
I concede that in the case of humans with significant mental disabilities
(elderly or not) – i.e. people with very limited cognitive capacities – there may be
a moral problem. However, as I said above, I do not have a straightforward
answer to the question why giving robotic companions or other ‘more-than-
objects’ (e.g. dolls) to these impaired humans is more morally problematic than
giving the same robots or dolls to young children with similar mental abilities,
provided, of course, that their emotional and other well-being is served and
enhanced and that these robotic companions do not replace human contact and
(Compare with our treatment of young children: when we give them dolls,
the dolls are not meant to replace human contact and care).
Thus, if one wishes to defend the value of truth – and perhaps
philosophers have a moral duty to do so – then at least one has to take into
account how truth is treated by humans in existing social, technological, care
practices. Otherwise, philosophy risks to be irrelevant to concrete moral
experience and practice.
On this point concerning replacement I agree with Sparrow and Sparrow (2006).
Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Vol. 4, Iss. 3 [2010], Art. 2
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
Biological and artificial vulnerability
Thirdly, the deception objection to the vulnerability mirroring argument involves
at least the following problematic assumptions:
1. only biological vulnerability is real
2. biological vulnerability is more real than artificial vulnerability
3. biological entities are more vulnerable than artificial ones
4. biological life is more valuable than artificial ‘life’
Can these assumptions be justified?
Firstly, there is no doubt that machines are also vulnerable. Whereas
cyberspace and information technologies may well aim at invulnerability (and
perhaps immortality, as in transhumanist versions of techno-utopian worlds), they
depend on software and hardware that are very vulnerable indeed. Hardware can
easily be destroyed and computer programmes can ‘crash’ or get damaged in
various ways. And cyberspace, which might seem almost invulnerable considered
as an immaterial sphere disconnected from earth, is very dependent on hardware
and software all over the world – and on the humans who use, design, maintain
and monitor the supporting systems. Robots are as vulnerable as their hardware
and software is (if this distinction is still meaningful at all)
. Moreover, there are
at least metaphorical parallels to biological vulnerability. Software risks can be
described in epidemiological terms (viruses that spread etc.) and hardware is as
material as the human body. Why do we hold on to the intuition that biological
‘hardware’ is more valuable and that its vulnerability is more ‘real’? If these
technological vulnerabilities are so significant for the way we work and the way
we live, how ‘unreal’ or unimportant are they? In any case those who make these
assumptions must provide an answer to these questions.
Secondly, the very border between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’ is
continuously called into question by technological developments in medicine,
biology, and converging fields: intelligent prosthetic devices, synthetic biology,
nano-pills, or brain-computer interfaces make us into ‘cyborgs’ to some extent:
mixtures of biological and technological substances. Thus, in the future our
intuitions concerning the border between natural life and artificial ‘life’, , and the
importance of that distinction might change. Those who argue against robot
companionship by relying on current values should at least take into account the
very possibility of moral-technological change: technology is not neutral towards
morality but often changes our morality. Consider what the contraceptive pill has
done for our evaluation of sex before marriage or what social network sites do to
Recent developments in robotics (e.g. when ‘bio’ and ‘techno’ merges) and cognitive
science (embodied cognition) call into question the software/hardware distinction.
Coeckelbergh: Empathy and Vulnerability Mirroring in Human-Robot Relations
Published by Berkeley Electronic Press, 2010
the value of privacy. While it is difficult to predict how future robots will change
our lives and our values, one should not assume a static view of morality.
I conclude that the future of companion robots depends – among other criteria –
on the robot’s ability to invite the development and exercise of human empathy
towards the robot, in particular on empathy-as-feeling which is conditional upon
vulnerability mirroring.
Most current robots do not meet this criterion and still appear to us as
‘mere machines’, but this is changing. Some ‘owners’ of robots come to see
themselves increasingly as ‘keepers’ of the robot, as its ‘friend’, or even as its
‘partner’. People involved in human-robot relations increasingly replace the
neuter pronoun ‘it’ by the personal pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’. (In the English
language a similar change has happened with regard to babies: today most people
prefer to use personal gendered pronouns). Part of what goes on here is the
development of (one way) empathy: the robot is considered as an other, it is felt
that the robot is part of our social world, and this invites humans to put
themselves in the robot’s shoes and evaluate and adapt their behaviour
accordingly. “What would the robot think if I did this?” “The robot would feel
unhappy if I didn’t do this.” “I feel guilty neglecting my robot’s wishes.” Are
these changes to be welcomed?
I sympathise with the response that there is something morally
problematic going on here. It seems that people who interact with the robot
mistake it for a human person and at first sight it seems that this mistake is a
moral problem. However, I have shown that while the deception objection to this
kind of empathy is intuitively appealing, it is hard to justify given how we treat
appearance and truth in our social practices, given conceptual problems related to
deception, and given contemporary developments in information technologies that
show how real technological vulnerabilities can be (and how important they are
for our lives), and suggest that our natural/artificial distinction might be more
‘artificial’ than we think it is. Therefore, if we want to hold on to our intuitions
about truth and deception with regard to robotic companions, we need a better
justification that answers these objections.
If we still feel that deception is bad and that companion robots deceive
humans, we should show how and why this is the case. We should argue which
robots in which human-robot relations in which practices and contexts are doing
something that counts as deception, then compare what happens in other relations
and contexts, and provide a better justification of why (that kind of) deception is
bad. These arguments should be informed by a sound understanding of existing
social-emotional practices and the role of appearances and ‘more-than-objects’ in
Studies in Ethics, Law, and Technology, Vol. 4, Iss. 3 [2010], Art. 2
DOI: 10.2202/1941-6008.1126
these practices. In the meantime, some of us will treat their pet robots as
companions and grant them their empathy – without worrying about the truth of
their (human) feelings or the artificial nature of their favourite vulnerability
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In the last few years there has been a lively debate on humanoid robots interacting with humans in fields where human appearance and likeness may be essential. The debate has been bolstered by advancing AI technologies as well as increasing economic interest and public attention. The feasibility, inevitability, or ethical opportunity of companionship, love, and sex robots has been discussed. I propose a philosophical and cultural approach, applying the strategies of aesthetics and literary theory to the field of artificial beings, in order to understand reasons, use, limits, and possibilities expressed by the technology applied to companionship, love, and sex robots in the contemporary cultural and social context. In dealing with aesthetics, I will state how cognitive, biological, and ethical aspects are involved, how beauty is relatable to a robot’s physical appearance, and how the aesthetics of artificial beings may offer new existential experiences.
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Although the possibility of virtue friendship (friendship according to the Aristotelian ideal) has been studied both in online friendship and in friendship with artificial companions (ACs), there is one essential aspect that has been neglected or overlooked: the change in the subject with whom one becomes a friend. Is friendship changing in our society? Are the new ways of communication and the incipient presence of artificial companions (robots or software aimed at triggering emotional bonding experiences in the user) making any significant change in friendship? The question of the subject is the common problem of the two ways of friendship under study. From the point of view of the subject, these two ways present significant changes compared to traditional in-person friendship. In the case of online friendship, the change is the means of communication. Though this is not a fundamental change, it impacts and constraints the relational modes in such a way that the other becomes a “diminished other”. On the other hand, friendship with ACs means that the “friend” is an AI system designed to establish a relationship with the user that seamlessly emulates human friendship. Here the change is the subject itself. And here comes the question: Are there any essential conditions for the subject friend as a subject? Is it enough that a relationship produces a satisfying feeling of engagement for an individual? Is the ontological status of the other with whom the friendship is established decisive, or can the analyses be focused only on the experience the relationship produces in the individual? The article provides key concepts to undertake an ontological evaluation of these questions. Essential Aristotelian concepts that have not been considered sufficiently when discussing this topic are also presented: friendship “for the friend’s sake”, equality and interiority.
In this article I argue that the best way to understand the information turn is in terms of a fourth revolution in the long process of reassessing humanity's fundamental nature and role in the universe. We are not immobile, at the centre of the universe (Copernicus); we are not unnaturally distinct and different from the rest of the animal world (Darwin); and we are far from being entirely transparent to ourselves (Freud). We are now slowly accepting the idea that we might be informational organisms among many agents (Turing), inforgs not so dramatically different from clever, engineered artefacts, but sharing with them a global environment that is ultimately made of information, the infosphere.