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Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

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Pain in the machine

12 minutes

Pain leads to empathy and self-preservation: should we make robots ‘feel’ it?

Evolutionarily, pain exists to warn of potentially harmful and dangerous things in the environment, allowing us and other creatures to learn, respond and ultimately survive. Pain also triggers an emotional response in humans, which links the physical and the emotional experience in ways that are difficult to tease apart, though it does seem that empathy is one result of the emotional component of pain. For decades, scientists and researchers have constructed computers to mimic human neural networks. Recently, some advanced robots have been designed with self-preservation mechanisms that vaguely replicate a pain response. So to what extent should robots share in human pain? Combining interviews with experts from the University of Cambridge and elsewhere, together with clips from amusingly relevant science-fiction films and TV shows, Pain in the Machine explores whether there is a sense in which robots could come to experience pain, and probes the practical and ethical implications of equipping the next generation of robots with such a capacity.

Directors: Colin Ramsay, James Uren

Researchers: Beth Singler, Ewan St John Smith

Website: Little Dragon Films

Support Aeon

Ideas can change the world

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.

But we can’t do it without you.

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.

No ads, no paywall, no clickbait – just thought-provoking ideas from the world’s leading thinkers, free to all. But we can’t do it without you.

Become a Friend for $5 a month or Make a one-off donation

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