Understanding A.I. — Can and Should we Empathize with Robots?


Expanding the debate about empathy with human beings, animals, or fictional characters to include human-robot relationships, this paper proposes two different perspectives from which to assess the scope and limits of empathy with robots: the first is epistemological, while the second is normative. The epistemological approach helps us to clarify whether we can empathize with artificial intelligence or, more precisely, with social robots. The main puzzle here concerns, among other things, exactly what it is that we empathize with if robots do not have emotions or beliefs, since they do not have a consciousness in an elaborate sense. However, by comparing robots with fictional characters, the paper shows that we can still empathize with robots and that many of the existing accounts of empathy and mindreading are compatible with such a view. By so doing, the paper focuses on the significance of perspective-taking and claims that we also ascribe to robots something like a perspectival experience. The normative approach examines the moral impact of empathizing with robots. In this regard, the paper critically discusses three possible responses: strategic, anti-barbarizational, and pragmatist. The latter position is defended by stressing that we are increasingly compelled to interact with robots in a shared world and that to take robots into our moral consideration should be seen as an integral part of our self- and other-understanding.

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  1. 1.

    A group at the MIT Media Lab and the IEEE standards association argues for the concept of “extended” intelligence instead of “artificial”. By means of such a new narrative of “extended”, they want to guarantee that robots do not substitute but rather support human beings and cooperate with them. Together they established the Council on Extended Intelligence CXI, see https://globalcxi.org (last accessed 12.12.2019).

  2. 2.

    An ERC-funded project located at the University of Glasgow and headed by Emily Cross examines particularly the socializing of human beings with artificial intelligence and the importance of interaction and relationships with robots for social cognition. One focus lies on the ability of robots to be companions, http://www.so-bots.com (last access 20.12.2019).

  3. 3.

    Concerning the phenomenon of the “uncanny valley” see below.

  4. 4.

    At least when we follow an anti-physicalist position.

  5. 5.

    The paper concentrates mainly on humanoid robots. One reason for this is that it helps to constrain the scope of the paper; another reason is the assumption that humanlike features indeed facilitate our social interaction with artificial intelligence and make it more plausible that we treat robots as social partners. However, we can also empathize with more abstract forms of A.I. by ascribing to them emotional states and motives (see Isik, Koldeewyn, Beeler and Kanwisher 2017). I am very thankful to one reviewer for this remark.

  6. 6.

    It is very controversial whether empathy presupposes or implies affective mirroring, theoretical mindreading, simulative perspective-taking, emotional understanding and/or experiential comprehension, and there is currently no end to this debate in sight (see e.g. Zahavi 2018). Many philosophers stress that mindreading is something distinct from empathy, and that empathy is “something extra”. Here, however, I have tried to apply all the different approaches. My own position is a phenomenological one, though.

  7. 7.

    One problem of the whole debate is, though, that there is no conceptual consensus what empathy is and implies. The ERC-funded project on social robots, for instance, defines empathy as involving both emotional matching and prosocial behavior. In philosophy, though, empathy is usually not seen as a moral emotion or attitude (see Cross et al. 2018; Zahavi 2018).

  8. 8.

    For instance, by referring to the classical positions of Stein or Dilthey and combining direct perception with imaginative re-presentation (“Vergegenwärtigung”) (see also Gallagher 2019).

  9. 9.

    Kanske (2018) distinguishes between affective empathy proper and cognitive theory of mind. Whereas the first capacity would enable us to feel what others feel, the other would help us to understand what others think or believe. Although I recognize the differences, I will not distinguish mentalizing from empathizing here, but will examine different forms of understanding other minds under the umbrella term of empathy since this is the central term in the current philosophical debate.

  10. 10.

    The paper focuses on the epistemological question. It will not answer the metaphysical question whether robots or A.I. have a consciousness.

  11. 11.

    Concerning the deployment of Deep Learning Systems in medicine, among other features, it is necessary to trust the intelligent machine and to understand what it is going to do, for instance in a medical robot-patient interaction.

  12. 12.

    However, empirically it remains uncertain whether robots indeed must be humanlike in HRI (Brinck and Balkenius 2018).

  13. 13.

    One problem, of course, is how we understand the term “understanding”. Monika Dullstein (2012) has shown that Theory of Mind accounts use quite a different notion from phenomenological accounts.

  14. 14.

    It is difficult to give an exact translation of Stein’s concept of “Vergegenwärtigung”. The English translation (Stein 1989) uses “representation” or “representational act” (Stein 1989: 8) as a non-primordial represented “givenness” of others’ or indirect experiences (analogous to memory, expectation, and fantasy) (ibid.). In the debate it is often overlooked that Stein proposes a step model of empathy, according to which the first level is direct perception of the other’s experience, with the second level being a kind of reflection and perspective-taking (Stein 1989: 10).

  15. 15.

    Gallagher recently defined empathy as follows: “Empathy might […] not only [count] as something that happens, but as a method; and that […] involves putting oneself into the other’s perspective or situation” (2018). In so doing, Gallagher expanded his narrative approach into a perspectival approach (combining the narrative with the subjective perspective).

  16. 16.

    The narrativistic version of phenomenological approaches, though, implies an imaginative component which enables us to comprehend the intentional structure by narrative imagination, e.g. if an intersubjective interaction is not given (Gallagher and Gallagher 2019).

  17. 17.

    It is a similar question to that in the so-called “zombie thought experiment”, which discusses whether we can assume or ascribe a consciousness in the case of zombies – which are like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences in a rich sense (Chalmers 1996; Dennett 1991).

  18. 18.

    Empathy as perspective-taking is indeed a capacity which enables viewers to comprehend the characters’ narratives and perspectives. However, as a form of sensitive understanding as to why the character is feeling, thinking, and acting as she does, it is also an outcome. Thus, that empathy is both a process and an outcome has been argued by Coplan (2011) and Goldie (2000).

  19. 19.

    Misselhorn made a similar argument by noting that “in seeing the T-ing of an inanimate object we imagine perceiving a human T-ing” (2009: 353).

  20. 20.

    Again, similar arguments could be put forward for other A.I. forms of non-human agents, e.g. abstract virtual shapes. The focus of this paper is on humanoid robots with which human beings cooperate and collaborate. For this to be successful, human beings might ascribe to A.I. not only basic mental states, but also a perspective and a narrative. This might be important for collective intentionality and collective attention.

  21. 21.

    Kant writes: “If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men” (Kant 1997: 212).

  22. 22.

    The phenomenon that empathizers can become even more cruel the more humanlike robots are is called the “uncanny valley” (see Misselhorn 2009; Mori 2005).

  23. 23.

    Or as Susan Schneider calls them: “future minds” (in press).

  24. 24.

    Coeckelbergh proposes a similar approach to mine but takes inspiration from Wittgenstein’s concepts of a form of life and language-games. Yet, his paper lacks a clear definition of what he thinks empathy implies (e.g. whether empathy indeed involves caring for the other’s well-being, as his paper seems to suggest).


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Schmetkamp, S. Understanding A.I. — Can and Should we Empathize with Robots?. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 881–897 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-020-00473-x

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  • Empathy
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Humanoid robots
  • Interaction
  • Perspective-taking
  • Fictional characters
  • Ethics