Film Q&A with John Sullins: Should we build a love machine? "Her" raises compelling issues about our relationships with personal technology

sullinswired.jpegSSU philosophy professor John Sullins remembers the time in Japan when he found himself at a robotics conference interacting with a robot designed to provide companionship to the elderly.

The therapeutic robot named Parro is shaped like a baby seal with soft white fur. Its Japanese designer was explaining to him all the strategies in its design to make it worthy of human attention.

"Even though I knew all the ways it was made to appeal to humans - fur, musculature that felt real, big blinking eyes that find you as you move around the room - I still found myself subconsciously relating to it not as a machine but absentmindedly petting it as if it was a real animal that needed reassurance," he said.

"We are creating machines that are not really feeling emotions themselves but are very good at pretending they are," says Sullins as he discusses the theme of Spike Jonze's movie Her and its link to his long time work in robotic ethics.

Sullins spends his time exploring the emerging issues involving our relationship to the personal technology we use and the ethical issues implicit in their design.
The recent film "Her" addresses the idea that, fifty years from now, an operating system could be designed to fulfill our every emotional and psychological need.

The author of "Should we build a love machine?" Sullins says we are already becoming acculturated to building a relationship with our smartphones. "Ethical issues should be considered during the design of these machines so that we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable to abuse and misuse later," he says.

We asked him about some of the issues raised by the film.

Q. What were some of the most important concepts you saw in the film in relation to the research you have been doing in robotics and ethics?

The most important was their look into the development of "affective computing" - this is the idea that you could program a machine that might be useful beyond simple tasks like finding the nearest coffee shop.

When the main character, Theodore, buys the new operating system named Samantha, which is programmed to find out what he wants and to be charming in the process. It is also designed to become interested in his projects, so much so that they fall in love with one another.

This reminds me of David Levy's book Love + Sex With Robots in which he says that designers of technologies like Samantha would want this to happen so the user would be deeply interested in interacting with their machine. Imagine if breaking your cell phone contract was as emotionally charged as a divorce or maybe as sad as euthanizing a beloved pet, you would be less likely to do it.

telerobot.jpgQ. Doesn't it already exists today in some nascent form?

The field of affective computing is not too old, ten years, and it focuses on setting up algorithms that can pay attention to your voice, try to gauge whether you are getting anxious or happy as you are using the machine. It picks up on cues - maybe how hard you are typing on the keyboard, or the erratic movements of your mouse or other pointing device- so, for instance, when you get frustrated it can try to calm you.

We already have the beginnings of this kind of relationship as machines are consciously being built to do that. Apple works to get users of their products intimately tied to their technology.

The device that Theodore interacts with Samantha through in the film even looks like an Apple product and the movie is filmed in a way that is reminiscent of the commercials Apple uses to sell its products, with the jerky camera movements, point of view camera angles, all used to suggest the technology is in your life experiencing it with you.

This was not your typical film about computers trying to destroy the world. But they do fill every space in the main character's world very quickly. They are not malevolent, but I do think there is something sad about their dealings with the humans in the movie.

Parents today are worried about their kids texting to each other and not being present. Soon people won't even be talking to another person on the end of the phone; they will just talk with the phone itself.

Q. You saw a lot of that in the movie. There is a great sensitivity to tone of voice and breathing

The way the computer picks up on his verbal and non-verbal affectations helps to make the relationship work a bit better. It happens quickly in the film so a bond is formed between the OS named Samantha and Theodore, the human. Within 30 seconds of turning it on, his interest is already piqued.

Human couples will do that too and there is also research that shows that visitors to a foreign country will begin to pick up some kind of local accent to fit in better with the world they are visiting. Even today, you could program a computer to do that and do it well.

"If we get the ethical design right now at the early stages of the development of these technologies, then we might build a very interesting world where humans and their artificial agents develop a synergistic relationship."

- John Sullins

Q. How does it work so well?

In Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, those interested in this kind of robotic application try to give it a physical presence because humans are hard wired to interact with living things and engineers know this is necessary in order to succeed. Even a cartoony face, or funny eyebrows and a mouth, helps with communication. They know we haven't evolved to be hardwired to interact with something disembodied.

From an ethical standpoint, I have been worried about this increasing move towards utilizing evolved psychological tendencies that we have in ways that we might not be aware of.

Engineers are trying to figure out how computers can hijack our evolved affective and attentional tendencies. Ask any Candy Crush addict how much money they spend on an app that gives them almost nothing in return and you will see how effective programmers already are in hacking our psychology.

South Korea's is worried about versions of this kind of future. They are already thinking about how you fit an operating system into the living world without creating the kind of problems we see in this movie.

Korean computer professionals have begun developing a professional code of ethics that would allow for affective computers that would be useful to work with but not ones that might destroy families or other kinds of personal relationships. They have even suggested that it be illegal to build machines that try to simulate personal loving relationships with human users.

mannequincreephththt.pngQ. It all sounds very diabolical.

What I am worried about in this early stages of this technology is how much more data you would share if you were intimately bonded with your technologies and shared every intimate detail of your life with them.

My question I think every future user should ask is: Do you really want to date Apple, Microsoft, or Google?

They are the real owners of the data you share with these apps.

Q it seems a certain percentage of the population, or people going through something which makes them vulnerable, would use it as a surrogate.

I could really see how some people would really want technologies like this which would act like the perfect friend. A machine that is always interested in everything you say always fascinated by your actions no matter how banal. We would all be instant suckers for this if it could be developed.

On the other hand, if you used a technology like Samantha as a coach to help you learn to relate with others and used that new ability to form lasting human relations, then that would be a useful technology to add to one's life.

I would still worry about the privacy issues. But you could see a piece of software that would analyze your interactions, give you some pointers in what opportunities you missed - a kind of life coach that could help you live a more happy and healthy life.

If we get the ethical design right now at the early stages of the development of these technologies, then we might build a very interesting world where humans and their artificial agents develop a synergistic relationship.

-Jean Wasp

Middle: Hiroshi Ishiguro's Android is designed to "transmit the presence" of people to a distant place. For more information, visit

Bottom: Hiroshi Ishiguro's eerily lifelike interactive robot was used to lure shoppers to the Japanese department store Takashimiya for its Valentine's window display. More details at

Professor John Sullins is also a master fencer and his fight choreography is featured in the production of "She Kills Monsters" being staged through March. See the Q&A with him on that subject at

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