The pain we experience as humans has physical and emotional components. Could we develop a machine that feels pain a similar way – and would we want to? The first of four Cambridge Shorts looks at the possibilities and challenges.

Pain is vital: it is the mechanism that protects us from harming ourselves. If you put your finger into a flame, a signal travels up your nervous system to your brain which tells you to snatch your finger away. This response isn’t as simple as it sounds: the nervous system is complex and involves many areas of the brain.

We’re developing increasingly sophisticated machines to work for us. In the future, robots might live alongside us as companions or carers. If pain is an important part of being human, and often keeps us safe, could we create a robot that feels pain?  These ideas are explored by Cambridge researchers Dr Ewan St John Smith and Dr Beth Singler in their 12-minute film Pain in the Machine.

Already we have technologies that respond to distances and touch. A car, for example, can detect and avoid an object; lift doors won’t shut on your fingers. But although this could be seen as a step towards a mechanical nervous system, it isn’t the same as pain. Pain involves emotion. Could we make machines which feel and show emotion – and would we want to?

Unpleasant though it is, pain has sometimes been described as the pinnacle of human consciousness. The human capacity for empathy is so great that when a robotics company showed film clips of robots being pushed over and kicked, views responded as if the robots were being bullied and abused. Pain is both felt and perceived.

Movies have imagined robots with their own personalities – sometimes cute but often evil. Perhaps the future will bring robots capable of a full range of emotions. These machines might share not only our capacity for pain but also for joy and excitement.

But what about the ethical implications? A new generation of emotionally-literate robots will, surely, have rights of their own

Pain in the Machine is one of four films made by Cambridge researchers for the 2016 Cambridge Shorts series, funded by Wellcome Trust ISSF. The scheme supports early career researchers to make professional quality short films with local artists and filmmakers. Researchers Beth Singler (Faculty of Divinity) and Ewan St John Smith (Department of Pharmacology) collaborated with Colin Ramsay and James Uren of Little Dragon Films.

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